Under President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Turkey has shifted in the direction of a more Islamist state. This past week, a senior education official announced that high schools in Turkey will no longer teach evolution. The move will likely anger the country’s secular opposition.
“We believe that these subjects are beyond their [students’] comprehension,” Alpaslan Durmuş, chairman of the board of education, said in a video (as translated by Britain’s The Guardian newspaper). Durmuş characterized evolution as debatable, controversial, and too complicated for high school students.
The education chairman announced that a chapter on evolution will be removed from ninth grade biology textbooks and the subject postponed to college. Another proposed change to the curriculum would reduce the amount of time students spend studying the legacy of secularism.
The modern state of Turkey was founded by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, an army officer who instituted the new government as secular rather than Islamic. He set up a constitution that calls for a military coup if the government became too religious.
Erdoğan has systematically undermined this constitution, and this move on education represents his most recent attack on Atatürk’s legacy. In April, he declared victory in a referendum that greatly expanded his powers.
Particularly notable on the faith front was Erdoğan’s seizure of the Hagia Sophia, an ancient Greek Orthodox church-turned Mosque-turned museum. The Muslim call to prayer, an iconic part of Islamic worship, was again sung from the church-mosque-museum last October, marking Turkey’s symbolic move from a secular to an Islamist state.
Opposition to evolution oddly unites many Islamist Muslims with evangelical Christians in America. The theory of evolution has been hotly debated by both Christians and Muslims, with members of both faiths arguing that evolution is not incompatible with their religion.
Muslims “take the story of Adam and Eve at face value,” explained Yasir Qadhi, dean of academic affairs at the AlMaghrib Institute, at a 2014 event at Pennsylvania State University. Nevertheless, he argued that it is possible to reconcile evolution with Islam.
“The theory of evolution is good science. The only people who deny evolution completely are religious fundamentalists,” Qadhi said. “This includes small groups from Christianity, small groups from Judaism and lo and behold, large parts of the Muslim community. We must acknowledge this to be a problem and begin a dialogue to see what solutions we can reach.”
Nevertheless, even this scholar admitted that there must be a “red line” between the theory of evolution and the Quranic doctrine that God made human beings. “But to be faithful to the book, we have to make one exception, and that is for Homo Sapiens. The creation of Homo Sapiens is an act of God, a supernatural act, and by definition cannot be proved.”
This view is extremely different from that offered by Turkish Deputy Prime Minister Numan Kurtulmuş, who declared evolution to be an “archaic and decayed” theory. “Scientifically, the theory of evolution is already an archaic and disproven theory. There is no such rule that this theory must be taught,” Kurtulmuş told CNN Türk in January.
“The opinion that those who believe in and know about the theory of evolution are modern and progressive people, while those who oppose it are reactionary and outdated, is actually an outdated opinion itself,” Kurtulmuş argued. “The theory of evolution is one of the opinions that was also discussed through the ancient history, so I do not find discussions about it right.”
Christian scholars have also debated the issue of evolution, with some arguing that the Genesis account of creation was not meant to teach scientific truths but emphasize God’s creation of the universe out of nothing. Indeed, Islam arguably has a bigger problem with the theory of evolution, if only because Quranic passages suggest that Allah put Adam and Eve in heaven originally, exiling them down to Earth after the fall (2:36, 7:24).
It is ironic to hear Turkey, a secular state becoming an Islamist state, refusing to teach high schoolers about evolution while in America, a Judeo-Christian state becoming a secular state, religious advocates push for the teaching of other theories in addition to evolution.
Meanwhile, last November, the British Royal Society met to discuss flaws in the current reigning evolutionary paradigm, which has been challenged by discoveries in the realm of genetics. Expect evolution to remain a critical — and global — issue in times to come.