Evolution and Islam: Turkey's hot back-to-school story and (let's work it in) the specter of jihad

Broach the question of teaching evolution versus "creationism" in U.S. public schools, and you’re probably talking about the debate fueled by biblical literalists of varying stripes. There are also debates that include a variety of scientists who embrace most elements of evolution, but deny that scientists have proven the process is random and without meaning. Remember that famous 1996 statement by Pope John Paul II?

Now, did you know that the same argument convulses Islam, including Sunni Muslim Turkey, where it's the year’s marquee back-to-school story?

Notice that in relation to Turkey I said “argument” not “debate.”

That’s because the increasingly Islamist and authoritarian government of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has settled the matter by decree. The debate, such as it was, is over. As Mel Brooks famously proclaimed, “It’s good to be the king." Or wannabe neo-Ottoman sultan, in Erdogan’s case.

In short, Turkey has eliminated the teaching of evolution from primary and high school curricula.

Need to get up to speed on this one? Then read or listen to this piece from NPR. Or you can save a few minutes and just read this excerpt from the NPR script.

At a news conference last month, Turkey's education minister announced that new textbooks will be introduced in all primary and secondary schools, starting with grades 1, 5 and 9 this fall, and the rest next year. They will stop teaching evolution in grade 9, when it's usually taught.
"Evolutionary biology is best left to be taught at the university level," Education Minister Ismet Yilmaz told reporters. "It's a theory that requires a higher philosophical understanding than schoolchildren have."
That means students who don't go on to university may never learn who Charles Darwin was.
"Among scientists, of course, we feel very sorry and very, very worried for the country," says Ali Alpar, an astrophysicist and president of Turkey's Science Academy, an independent group that opposes the new curriculum. A Turkish association of biologists and teachers' unions have also expressed concern about the new textbooks.
"It is not only evolution. Evolution is a test case. It is about rationality -- about whether the curriculum should be built on whatever the government chooses to be the proper values," Alpar says. He also objects to how the government has converted many secular public schools into religious ones -- Turkey's publicly funded Imam Hatip schools -- in recent years.

So, yeah, it's a continuation of the secular versus religious battles that have rocked Turkey under the increasingly undemocratic Erdogan, who’s core political base is Turkey’s conservative Sunni community.

Several outlets covered this story earlier when news of the curricula change first surfaced in June. One of them was The New York Times.

NPR, as best as I could tell, missed it back then, and so employed a time-honored journalistic catch-up trick. Rather than look to be late on a story by coming at it a couple of days after it's first been reported, just hold back until the timing makes you look like you're on top of a very timely story -- in this case, the back-to-school season.

I found the NPR piece to be fair and serious. By way of comparison, take a look at how the BBC -- which also apparently just got around to giving the story serious play -- turned it into another Muslim scare story.

The headline alone -- “Are Turkey’s schools dropping evolution and teaching jihad?” --  says it all.

I'm a confirmed evolutionist and I do not believe that "creationism" should be taught in any iteration in government-funded public schools. However, it's a real stretch to say that not teaching evolution, or even actively teaching creationism, is a slippery slope that ends in religion-inspired violence.

But the hyper-competitive and flawed profession of journalism -- as much as we love it -- follows its own bottom-line logic. Accordingly, drawing a direct line between eliminating evolution education and the frightening specter of jihad -- and don't be fooled by the wiggle-room question mark -- is an eyeball grabber.

Islam, an Abrahamic religion, considers the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament to be scripture, though superseded by the Qur’an. Hence, the Genesis story, for conservative, literalist Muslims is the final word. Of course more modernist, or liberal, Muslims, demure.

Here’s how a 2014 Pew Research Center study framed it:

“While the Koran teaches that Allah created human beings as they appear today, Islamic scholars and followers are divided on the theory of evolution. Theologically conservative Muslims who ascribe to literal interpretations of the Koran generally denounce the evolutionary argument for natural selection, whereas many theologically liberal Muslims believe that while man is divinely created, evolution is not necessarily incompatible with Islamic principles.”

As you would expect, less religiously restrictive -- a very relative term in this context -- Muslim nations are less adamant about keeping Darwinian evolution from students’ educational view.

Softball question time: so where do you think Saudi Arabia falls on this scale, as summed up by this academic report?

The most egregious example is perhaps Saudi Arabia, which in effect has a complete ban against the teaching of evolution. Evolution is not mentioned in K-12 education, except in the more advanced biology course in 12th grade, where in textbooks it is introduced as a fallacious and blasphemous theory, using the following introduction to the topic: “Nevertheless in the West appeared what is called ‘the theory of evolution’’ which was derived by the Englishman Charles Darwin, who denied Allah’s creation of humanity, saying that all living things and humans are from a single origin. We do not need to pursue such a theory because we have in the Book of Allah the final say regarding the origin of life, that all living things are Allah’s creation.”

Iran? The following is from the same report. Call it a curve ball.

While Saudi Arabia represents an extreme in terms of evolution teaching, another extreme in the opposite is provided, perhaps surprisingly, by Iran. In Iran, evolution is an important part of the K-12 biology curriculum…The high-school curriculum in evolution in Iran appears to be at par with the education in most countries in Europe, the Americas, and East Asia.

Evolution versus "creationism" in the Muslim world; it’s complicated.

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