Imam gets death threats over pro-evolution (and anti-hijab) comments

BCSE reports, via the Independent:

A prominent British imam has been forced to retract his claims that Islam is compatible with Darwin's theory of evolution after receiving death threats from fundamentalists.

Dr Usama Hasan, a physics lecturer at Middlesex University and a fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society, was intending yesterday to return to Masjid al-Tawhid, a mosque in Leyton, East London, for the first time since he delivered a lecture there entitled "Islam and the theory of evolution".

But according to his sister, police advised him not to attend after becoming concerned for his safety. â¦

The campaign is part of a growing movement by a small but vocal group of largely Saudi-influenced orthodox Muslims who use evolution as a way of discrediting imams whom they deem to be overly progressive or "western orientated".

â¦In January, Dr Hasan delivered a lecture [at a major East London mosque] detailing why he felt the theory of evolution and Islam were compatible â a position that is not unusual among many Islamic scholars with scientific backgrounds. But the lecture was interrupted by men he described as "fanatics" who distributed leaflets claiming that "Darwin is blasphemy".â¦

Most Islamic scholars have little problem with evolution as long as Muslims accept the supremacy of God in the process. But in recent years a small number of orthodox scholars, mainly from Saudi Arabia â where many clerics still preach that the Sun revolves around the Earth â have ruled against evolution, declaring that belief in the concept goes against the Koran's statement that Adam and Eve were the first humans.

Salman Hameed, a scholar who focuses on the relationship between Islam and science (especially evolution), notes that the press coverage of this incident is missing some key nuance:

We have to be very careful here. Such headlines can provide fodder both to Islamophobic elements in Europe and to the conservative and fundamentalist elements of the Muslim society.

The reality - both on the issue of evolution and also on the specific case of Usama Hasan - is more complex and is unlikely to be captured by the headlines. For example, there is no "official" position of Islam on evolution. There are many who reject evolution and there are many who accept it. In addition, there are many who identify the word "evolution" or "Darwin" simply with atheism - and have not really thought about biological evolution nor are they aware of even the basics of the scientific idea.

We might also note that there are many who are not aware of even the basics of Islam, or of the philosophical, historical, and sociological studies of the interface between religions and science. And that ignorance can be counterproductive, and even dangerous, in these circumstances. We should also note that the same pattern of equating evolution with atheism is a common barrier to evolution-acceptance for Christians in the US. The dynamic Hameed describes is hardly unique to Islamic anti-evolutionism.

Hameed continues:

the campaign against Usama Hasan has lot of other elements. For example, there has been an insidious campaign against him (personally) for a while, and some have objected to his statements about hijab. Therefore, to reduce the whole episode to his views on evolution is misleading and too simplistic (but as Nidhal [Guessoum, a physics professor from a university in the United Arab Emirates who guest-blogs at Salman's] pointed out, even if evolution was the only issue, he should still have the right to state his ideas and freedom to say things that others may or may not agree with).

However, such a controversy allows the extreme elements from both sides (those who portray Muslims as a threat to Europe, and those who claim that rejection of evolution is the only Muslim position) to stake out a representational position on the issue.

Lets hope we all root for nuance over a black and white interpretation.

Even the acceptance/rejection of evolution is a complex topic. For example, it will be a mistake to take what is going on amongst Muslim immigrant population in Europe and generalize it to the larger Muslim community. The acceptance or rejection is deeply dependent on the local cultural and political contexts - and rarely do we see a nuanced discussion of religious and philosophical ideas. Europe is currently a battleground for the formation of Muslim identity for the immigrant population (Please note that even within Europe, Muslim immigrant issues are different for different countries - from Turkish immigrants to Germany, Pakistani immigrants to UK, and North-African immigrants to France). Such identity formation battles often take place in public schools and issues such as hijab and evolution then take a center stage and serve as identity markers for the immigrant community. It is easy to see how evolution can get associated with the values of the dominant culture - and thus, its rejection becomes the norm for the smaller, immigrant population. I should add that the immigrant experience of Muslims in the US is different (both economically and in terms of education level) - and so far - we do not see evolution playing the same role here.

I'll just emphasize a few points Salman makes. This conflict is surely not about evolution in the sense that scientists think of the term. This conflict, as with creationist conflicts in the US, is about cultural identity (what does it mean to be Muslim? What does it mean to believe in the Quran?). It is not about the fossils or homology. It is not about the science, and engaging only on the basis of science is no better than ignoring the issue altogether.

It's worth noting that a quick search of records from NCSE's 30 years of anti-evolution flareups reveals no reports of anti-evolution pressure from Muslims on the American educational system. Of the thousands of reports, almost all deal with Christians, with a scattered few involving Orthodox Jews. This makes sense demographically, but given the intense scrutiny American Muslims face, it's noteworthy that â barring an Islamic ID creationist brought to Kansas by Christian ID promoters â no one is reporting Muslims in the US taking part in that particular culture war. (This is not to say it never happens; NCSE's records have a bias inherent to any dataset that relies on community members to come forward when creationism emerges as an issue.)
i-f43d97fef41bc5a9092b7db7e0a03e6d-evoaccept.jpgPartly this reflects the different national origins and economic background of immigrants to the US. American Muslims tend to be from more religiously moderate, more educated, and wealthier backgrounds than the general populations of their ancestral countries. Turkish immigrants to Europe tend to be come from lower socioeconomic status, as do some immigrants from former colonies. Level of education and socioeconomic status are linked, and both tend to correlate very nicely with acceptance of evolution. As, of course, does religiosity and especially adherence to conservative forms of religion.

As the figure shows (based on a 2009 survey by Pew), born-again Protestants are the major drag on US acceptance of evolution. Muslims are below average in acceptance of evolution, but there were 8 people among the 2000 sampled, making that result highly sensitive to even small variations. Switching one anti-evolution Muslim to pro-evolution would put that group above the national average, in the realm of Hindus (n=11) and Catholics (n=477). Excluding self-identified born-again, even Protestants are above the national average acceptance of evolution, on par with Catholics. Identifying as "born again" is a common way to identify evangelical Christians, and there is a growing pro-evolution movement within even evangelical Christianity. The major stronghold of anti-evolutionism in the US is not born again Christians, but fundamentalists â a much harder group to tease out in national surveys.
I point this out only to emphasize that, just as fundamentalists or even evangelicals do not represent all of American Christianity, the few voices forcing Hasan to back down from his pro-evolution commentary do not represent all of Islam. There are other voices within Islam, and the key to promoting evolution in Muslim communities is elevating those calmer voices against the authoritarians seeking to enforce their fundamentalist ideology on Muslim communities in the West.

I'm told that a volume on Islam and evolution will come out soon, including an article I wrote, and another by Hameed, and a more personal essay by biologist Ehab Abouheif in which the Muslim evolutionary biologist will describe how he sees his faith and his science interacting. I saw him speak on the topic two years ago at a symposium and I'm told he's deepened and refined his analysis since then. It promises to be an important contribution to a conversation the Islamic world is just beginning. If the example of Christian interactions with evolution is any guide, the debate in the Islamic world won't end quickly, but it can only begin when people of good faith stand up for the ability of all involved to speak freely and without threats of violence.


More like this

Josh, can you clarify on what you describe as "anti-hijab" comments by the threatened physicist. In all the other reports on this story nobody has described it that way. Are you saying that suggesting that muslem women can choose to go out in public with their hair uncovered equates to "anti-hijab" views?

Right, this is getting out of hand. Time we invented our own fairy to 'receive', direct ORDERS to crush them. Two can play at being blind, arrogant, idiot, thoughtless robots.

By Concerned (not verified) on 07 Mar 2011 #permalink

We should also note that the same pattern of equating evolution with atheism is a common barrier to evolution-acceptance for Christians in the US.

For the Saudi-influenced religionists trying to unseat Hasan evolution entails atheism. It's a judgement they've made, not one they've picked up from elsewhere. "The call to evolution," they insist, "Is a call for kufr."

You're right, however, that this case is part of their cultural struggles. They're fantastically concerned with "modernists". (In fact, their worry is one of the best causes for optimism I've seen.) That's why it's of a piece with their outrage at Hasan's view that the hijab should be optional. (Which isn't "anti-hijab", as your headline misleadingly declares. No more than I'm a anti-religion for saying that faith should be choice.)

Many thanks for this post (for a couple of reasons). The iman in question is victim of intra-mosque factional infighting; and yes, we (as Western agnostics, atheists, liberals etc.) have every moral duty to support moderate Muslims, and to help explain to the West what Islam is and isn't, rather than simply demonizing it.

We're going to need badly such differentiated and nuanced explanation when it comes to dealing with such complex issues as Pakistan/India, Afghanistan and the like.

I'll be blogging soonish on the history of science with regard to the classical Muslim world.

Sigmund, BenSix: I take your point that freedom to choose whether to wear hijab is not "anti-hijab," but a more nuanced explanation wouldn't fit in a headline.

"The campaign is part of a growing movement by a small but vocal group of largely Saudi-influenced orthodox Muslims "
i love how they mention that, and forget to add that................
1. bin baz ( of saudi arabia gave the first check of that mosque
2. Suhaib hasan (father of usama) was sent by saudi arabia to london in 1976, is suhaib hasan still on the saudi payroll?
3. usama hasan's grandfather abdul gaffar hassan taught in saudi arabi's madinah univeristy from 1966-1980
i love how suhaib and usama hasan blame everything on saudi arabia but never mention these saudi connections which they have? they love having it both ways.

on pg 32

suhaib hasan discusses the saudi role in masjid tawhid, and the role his family has with saudi arabia

note- i am not here to be pro or anti saudi thats a different discussion, but what i am trying to say is that the suhaib hasan usama hasan and usama's sister khola hasan are all blaming this "on saudi influenced muslims", if anything these facts actually show hasan family is biggest saudi influcenced house in UK and they are having a double standered!!

Those numbers all look way too high. As I understand the scientific theory of evolution and the surveys, most Americans do NOT understand and accept the scientific theory.

I assume "acceptance of evolution" just means accepting that evolution happened, e.g., that species came from other species, but not actually understanding and believing that it's an unguided, natural process that doesn't require supernatural intervention or teleological essences.

What would your figure look like if you exclude the people who "accept" evolution but assume it was guided by God or some other supernaturalist teleological thing?

(That's not a rhetorical question, BTW)


Do you know of any surveys that show what fraction of people (in the US, or anywhere) are vitalists?

My impression is that most Americans are vitalists to some extent---they may understand biology in partly mechanistic terms, e.g., that the heart is a pump, but still think there's a life force or vital essence in there, too, doing something essential.

If that's true, it seems to me that surveys of scientific literacy generally fail to ask the single most important question that indicates whether people actually have a scientific worldview with regard to biology and medicine.

Ah, linking to Coyne's blog with the word ignorance, without even even bothering to directly address anything Coyne has said. Keep it classy, Rosenau.

I guess Don't Be A Dick doesn't apply if you are being a dick to an outspoken atheist...

James: Nothing Coyne said deserved a lengthy reply. He offered no basis for his erroneous claims, and I didn't care to distract from a serious issue of a pro-evolution Muslim scientist and cleric getting death threats to re-engage the confrontationalist/accommodationist fight. Thus distinguishing myself from Coyne.

I didn't care to distract from a serious issue of a pro-evolution Muslim scientist and cleric getting death threats to re-engage the confrontationalist/accommodationist fight.

Wait, so you were too averse to "re-engag[ing] the confrontationalist/accommodationist fight" to address anything Jerry said (which is quite fair, I think we're all tired of this endless bullshit), but you weren't averse enough to "re-engag[ing]" to stop you from lobbing a subtle ad hominem?

I agree with Polly-O!

James: It wasn't meant as an ad hominem. I found Coyne's comments to be uninformed on this issue, hence the comments were ignorant. "That ignorance" referred back to the last sentence's description of people "who are not aware of even the basics of Islam, or of the philosophical, historical, and sociological studies of the interface between religions and science." I think that comment fairly describes Coyne's post, making it not an ad hominem, but a description.

For instance, Coyne cites a graphic from Hameed (2008). Had he read the paper itself, let alone the commentary Hameed wrote about it in The Guardian at the time, he'd know that scholars who study the matter do not think that a Coyne-ian strategy of linking evolution to atheism will be productive in the Muslim world. But rather than engaging thoughtfully with the data he had located, he reverts to trash-talk: "They worry far more about an Alabama schoolchild accepting evolution than about an Afghan girl defaced with acid for daring to attend school at all." That's bullshit, he knows it, and "ignorance" is the kindest thing I could think of to say about it.

Just yesterday I asked what Coyne would think of this letter:

Down Beckenham | Kent
May 7th 1879


Dear Sir

It seems to me absurd to doubt that a man may be an ardent Theist & an evolutionist.â You are right about Kingsley. Asa Gray, the eminent botanist, is another case in pointâ What my own views may be is a question of no consequence to any one except myself.â But as you ask, I may state that my judgment often fluctuates. Moreover whether a man deserves to be called a theist depends on the definition of the term: which is much too large a subject for a note. In my most extreme fluctuations I have never been an atheist in the sense of denying the existence of a God.â I think that generally (& more and more so as I grow older) but not always, that an agnostic would be the most correct description of my state of mind.

Dear Sir | Yours faithfully | Ch. Darwin

By Anthony McCarthy (not verified) on 09 Mar 2011 #permalink

Paul: Off hand, I don't know any polls dealing with vitalism. Sorry.

As to how evolution acceptance was measured, Pew asked people: "Which comes closer to your view? Humans and other living things have evolved over time [OR] Humans and other living things have existed in their present form since the beginning of time"

They then asked those who accepted evolution whether they agreed "Humans and other living things have evolved due to natural processes such as natural selection, [OR] A supreme being guided the evolution of living things for the purpose of creating humans and other life in the form it exists today"

I'm not sure it's sensible to exclude people who chose the second option, since that gets into issues of theology and philosophy that are related to but distinct from science. I did put together the same graphic for those data, which showed the same ordering, but a shift of some big groups relative to one another. Catholics are basically at the national average for non-theistic evolution, non-born-again Protestants and unspecified Christians are above the average (and above non-born again Catholics), while including born-agains doesn't shift Catholics but does drop Protestants and Christians dramatically (about 20 points). Muslims are halfway between non-born-again Protestants and all Protestants (including born-agains).

Interestingly, the only group in the sample that was 100% supportive of non-theistic evolution was Unitarians, with atheists at 90%, agnostics at 76%, national average at 32%, and Mormons at the lowest levels with 6%. About 1/4 Muslims backed non-theistic evolution, compared to 30% of Catholics and 22% of all Protestants.

As to Coyne making headway in liberalizing presently Islamic societies by telling them they are superstitious dupes, more than a billion Muslims don't care what Coyne thinks. It's so monumentally arrogant for a white man sitting on a university in North America to be lecturing people across the world on the best strategy for gaining the rights of women. I'd think there are probably more women in the middle east who actually know the facts on the ground and who will have to survive in any attempt to get their rights who might know more than Coyne or the rest of the blog atheists whose sweet selves are in little to no danger from shooting off stink bombs.

By Anthony McCarthy (not verified) on 09 Mar 2011 #permalink

I've been noticing more focus on "vitalism" by new atheists, is the "zeitgeist" on the move and we're going to have to answer questions and charges of "vitalism" raised by them? One of the popular talking points is that "vitalism is unfalsifiable", which it might or might not be, but the idea that what is unfalsifiable is not allowed only applies to science, and it's not universally accepted or applied, even people who pull it out of their hat at the drop of one don't accept its application to their pet ideas. The list of things that we'd have to give up on the basis of their un-falsifiability include huge swaths of what isn't included within science and even the basic foundations of math and much of science.

The next time I hear one of them talk about the "zeitgeist", after Dawkins, I guess, I'm busting them on grounds of unfalisiabilty and covert occultism.

By Anthony McCarthy (not verified) on 09 Mar 2011 #permalink

I'm not sure it's sensible to exclude people who chose the second option [God-guided evolution], since that gets into issues of theology and philosophy that are related to but distinct from science.

I disagree---that's a major case where NOMA is false and the theological and philosophical issue is clearly NOT distinct from the scientific issue. The science pretty clearly shows that popular religious views---not just fundamentalist ones---are factually in error. (Maybe God exists and guided evolution, but if so, He did it in a very peculiar way that suggests a pretty weird God.)

I agree that for some purposes it's important to know how many people "accept" evolution of either the scientific (unguided) variety or the theistic (guided) version.

For other purposes, it's more interesting to know the fraction of people who accept the actual scientific theory of evolution as understood by most evolutionary scientists.

The issue of guidedness is actually quite crucial. The major scientific appeal of Darwin's theory is precisely in its unguidedness. It explains how non-teleological things like brute matter can result in interesting things, like plants and animals that grow, respond to their environments, reproduce, and think and plan.

If you resort to theistic evolution, you are giving away the single most important aspect of the theory---how interesting stuff emerges bottom-up from uninteresting stuff, rather than top-down by an intelligent agent imposing a plan on it.

Revising the theory to make it neutral about guidance is neutering the theory.

It is very much like pretending vitalism still makes sense in light of modern physiology and cellular and molecular biology. The basic explanatory paradigm is undermined, because the single most important fact we've learned in biology is that biological entities are natural machines, without an irreducible teleological essence, contradicting what almost everyone thought for tens of thousands of years.

You can leave out the unguidedness of evolution and still call it a scientific theory of evolution, I suppose, but that's like calling a steer a bull. ("He's thankful for the honor, but he'd much rather have restored what's rightfully his.")

It seems to me that were teaching "evolution" that's been not just sanitized, but sterilized.

Paul W, it's entirely possible to accept evolution in exactly the way it happened and to also believe that the way it actually happened, in world, in the billions of years it's gone on, was the way that God created and maintains life on earth. People who believe that believe in exactly the same phenomenon that people who believe in evolution as it happened but who are atheists believe in. Exactly the same thing, the thing that evolutionary science strives to elucidate and which has achieved some very preliminary glimpses into a vast and complex and largely undocumentable phenomenon. To assert that people who believe in God can't believe in the reality of evolution is untrue, most of the people who accept evolution probably believe pretty much what I just described, if you put it to them in those terms.

It's as possible for atheists who believe in evolution to believe in false mechanisms and other aspects of it, famously Trofim Lysenko. I've been studying some of the follies of materialists inserting ideological beliefs into gaps in knowledge of several aspects of evolution, some of them among the most well known atheists in the English speaking world today. I expect that much of their speculation will turn out to be horsefeathers, as have a number of people working in evolutionary biology, a number of them also atheists. Many of the most ardent partisans of evolution have believed in an inaccurate view of it, no one has anything like a complete view of it. We almost certainly never will.

By Anthony McCarthy (not verified) on 14 Mar 2011 #permalink

"There would be a lot of new species false alarms where mutants would be mistaken for new species."

Oh, I get it. The guy who wrote that is the joke.

By Riman Butterbur (not verified) on 15 May 2011 #permalink

Certain areas in that figure from the Pew survey are confusing to such a degree that it brings into question the reliability of the results overall. The lines in the figure show changes in acceptance of evolution between "born again" Catholics and "non-born again" ones - - but there's No Such Thing. You are either a baptised (ie., "born again") Catholic or not a Catholic at all. I'm pretty sure it's the same thing with Orthodox sects, and possibly for the LDS (Mormon) church as well. "Born-again" is a term used to describe certain Protestant denominations which practice adult baptism; it is not a word that describes different ideas among individuals within those denominations. So the phrase "born again" Catholic is meaninglessly redundant.

Possibly the poll designers were trying to highlight how fundamentalism influences attitudes, because many born-again Protestant denominations tend to be more fundamentalist in their approach to doctrine. There ARE Catholics and Greek Orthodox individuals who can be described as "fundamentalist." There are even organized groups of Mormons, no longer connected with the LDS church, who openly call themselves fundamentalist. But there are also Muslims, Jews, and Hindus who could be described as fundamentalist, yet the lines in those categories are horizontal, indicating that no attempt was made to gauge differences in attitudes within those groups.

The survey is important, because improving our understanding of how religion and culture influence attitudes toward science is a key part of the fight against ignorance of science. It's just a shame that the designers of the survey appear to need to do some fighting against their own *cultural* ignorance. I'm not saying that everyone should be familiar with theological categories or else be considered ignorant. But if you are designing a survey claiming to have sociological usefulness, you ought to at least understand the terms used within your own survey.

Saffi: It's true that a Catholic couldn't technically be "born again" in the way a Protestant could be, but "born-again" has a broader cultural context, and a conservative Catholic could certainly share that cultural identity, even if the theology doesn't quite match.

The distinction, then, is between designing survey questions that really capture the details of how people think about their own cultural identity, and designing questions that might accurately reflect the finer theoretical distinctions, but in ways that many respondents might not appreciate.

The Barna group has a quite sophisticated system for identifying evangelicals in their surveys, and for identifying the subset of fundamentalists with in that. If I were trying to survey fine details of evangelical culture, that's how I'd do it, but the "born again" question isn't a bad proxy for that in a space-limited survey of the broad public.

We'll have to disagree about the tag "born again" being a good proxy, because to me using it to describe Catholics, Orthodox or Mormons was a glaring mistake. Having been raised in a Catholic household I can tell you that the only cultural identity the phrase "born again" means to a Catholic is "Protestant." Calling a Catholic "born again" is like calling a Hindu a Muslim because they're both from the same general area - it isn't just incorrect, it's incorrect on multiple levels.

My complaint wasn't about fine distinctions of doctrine between the two groups, it was that the designers appeared to not understand the meaning of a key phrase used in their own results. If the phrase was meant only as a proxy label, why not pick a better phrase? Maybe one that reflected whatever criterion they used to distinguish the anti-evolution Catholics (who sure as hell didn't self-identify as "born-again"). There's plenty of room for an extra word or two on the axis labels.

Anyway, I'm not saying they were, but it just looks like the designers were so ignorant about a key aspect of religious culture that they couldn't possibly be "unbiased" (a common attack used by anti-science types).

(Also - my apologies, because I didn't realize that I had resurrected (if you'll pardon the pun) such an old thread. For some reason I pulled up a page from March when I was only trying to get to last week's posts.)