ISTANBUL – Placard-wielding students and professors gathered here at Marmara University in May to protest Turkey’s first university symposium on creationism.
Nihat Buğra Ağaoğlu, the 27-year-old doctoral student in medicine who organized the symposium, felt frustrated and a little disappointed. A Muslim who resists “Darwin’s theory,” he wants to put creationism on equal footing with evolution in Turkish schools.
“Most of the people in Turkey, like 90 percent, believe in Islam, which favors the idea of creationism,” Ağaoğlu says. He’s also president of Turkey’s government-backed Student Council, and regularly visits Turkish universities, where he says “80 percent” of students are pro-creationists. “I have had the chance to visit and talk with university students, and I get the feeling that most of the students are a bit annoyed with the imposition of evolution on them.”
From Turkey to Alabama
It felt bizarre, but listening to Ağaoğlu put me back in Birmingham, Alabama in the mid-1990s. Towards the end of my freshman year in high school, my biology class arrived at the last chapter of our textbooks: the theory of evolution.
Our teacher passed out permission slips that our parents were to consider signing. Students whose families didn’t feel comfortable with evolution were allowed to skip class that week. Nothing about evolution would be on the semester exam.
It turns out my flashback reflected reality. Turkey’s creationist roots can be traced to the American South.
“Turkey is the only secular state which officially has creationism in its biology curriculum,” says Aykut Kence, Biology Professor at the Middle East Technical University in Ankara. Kence has taught for 40 years, and says that starting in the mid-1980s paragraphs on creationism began to enter Turkish school textbooks.
Science and evolution side-by-side
In the 1980s, Turkey was still reeling from a military coup d’etat. The socially conservative government that took control after the junta relinquished power changed the science curriculum in schools, Kence says. After the 1987 U.S. Supreme Court case “Edwards v. Aguillard,” which prohibited the teaching of creationism in American public school science courses, he says creationists’ gaze moved abroad. Turkey came calling.
“In collaboration with American creationists, the Minister of Education in Turkey called the Institute for Creation Research and asked for their help,” he says. New textbooks were printed and distributed, and over time teachers began to teach creationism and evolution side by side.
A spokesperson at the Ministry of Education confirmed that government-sanctioned biology textbooks label evolution as a theory, as do scientists everywhere, but also teach creationism alongside it, as a rival theory.
Kence argues that the separate-but-equal approach doesn’t foster critical thinking, because evolution can be revised based on the scientific method, but creationism, a religious concept, cannot. “This is a systematic way of converting people,” Kence says. “[Students] are going to be people who do not ask questions and accept everything as God’s will.”
The search for Noah’s Ark
The Institute for Creation Research, founded in the 1970s and based in Texas, promotes teaching science and history through a literal interpretation of the Bible. For years, Institute researchers have been searching for archaeological evidence of Noah’s ark around Mount Ararat in Turkey, for example.
The Institute’s books are now banned in American public schools, but their literature has shown up in other public venues in the U.S. In 2003, the Institute’s “Grand Canyon: A Different View,” which alleges that the flood in Genesis formed the Grand Canyon, making it only a few thousand years old, was sold in the bookstore at the canyon. National Park Service officials pulled it a year later.
The Institute didn’t respond to questions, but their role in Turkey’s creationism circles is well-documented.
Now, as the government of Turkish Prime Minister Recep Erdogan slowly expands the role of Islam in Turkish society, pro-creationist forces have a leg up over evolutionists as the two sides jockey for influence over the country’s education system.
In January, Erdogan responded to a lawsuit from Turkey’s main opposition party regarding a new education bill, saying “we want to raise a religious youth.” The education bill, which has since passed, would allow children to change schools after fifth grade, allowing them to enter vocational school, or, as the opposition party fears, religious training.
Kence adds that he is worried that the government is not only advocating for creationists. He says schools are promoting educators who embrace creationism and disciplining those who stray from the government’s curriculum guidelines on teaching evolution. “Teachers will affect students with their views,” he says. “First change the teachers, then you get the students, and you can change the whole population this way.”
The irony, said Asli Tolun, a professor of genetics at Istanbul’s Bosporus University, is that Islam isn’t necessarily hostile to evolution.
“I think the government thinks [creationism] is part of Islam, and they are a bit confused,” Tolun says. “Islamic scientists say that it is not [problematic to teach evolution]. And we know that in Iran — it is the Islamic Republic of Iran — young students do study evolution and there is no problem. And I think Judaism has no problem. It is just Christianity, and now I think even [the Vatican] has apologized [to Darwin].”
In 2008, the Vatican said evolution is compatible with the Bible, but the church didn’t apologize posthumously to the English naturalist.
While my high school allowed students to ‘opt-out’ of learning evolution, my biology teacher, a petite blond woman with a zero-tolerance policy on girls who tried to get out of dissection lab, believed wholeheartedly in evolution. Scripture and biology were separate. In Turkey, that line is blurring.[
Correction: Due to a reporting error, the original version of this story reported that Turkish schools hire and promote educators who teach creationism and discourage those who don’t teach it from applying. In fact, teachers are hired on the basis of their performance in state exams. Later, their views on evolution often affect their chances at promotion.