Friday, June 8, 2007

ISTANBUL — An Islamic version of “scientific creationism” has found fertile soil in Turkey, where three in four residents reject Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution.

Its leading exponent is Tarkan Yavas, who sports shoulder-length hair and expensive suits and says his aim in life is “to cleanse Turkey of the atheist materialism and the immorality Darwin opened the door to.”

Mr. Yavas is the public face of the Science Research Foundation (BAV), a group set up in 1990.

Headed by Adnan Oktar, a university dropout turned charismatic preacher, BAV’s latest publication is “Atlas of Creation,” a 770-page, 13-pound tome the group sent to scientists, journalists and schools in Britain, France, Scandinavia and Turkey in February.

Much of the book resembles Western creationists’ work, which appears to have been brought to Turkey by Western fundamentalist Christian groups in the mid-1980s.

Though details vary, the account of creation in both the Bible and the Koran says God created everything in six days.

In the atlas, page after page juxtaposes photographs of fossils and living species, arguing that the similarities disprove assertions that species adapt over time.

The political message is different, with evolution blamed for communism, Nazism and — under a photograph of the Twin Towers in flames — September 11.

“Darwinism is the only philosophy which values conflict,” the text explains. “We’re fighting a cultural war on scientific lines,” Mr. Yavas said.

He and others like him have found fertile soil in Turkey. A survey last year showed that only 25 percent of Turks accepted evolution. Even science teachers are affected, with a 2005 poll showing almost 50 percent questioning or rejecting the theory.

“Turkey has become the headquarters of creationism in the Middle East,” said Haluk Ertan, a geneticist at Istanbul University.

“Not just the Middle East, the world,” Mr. Yavas said. “Darwinism is dying in Turkey.”

That may be premature. BAV has been taken to court repeatedly in the past decade.

Last month, Turkey’s supreme court opened the way for a new trial when it ruled that 2005 criminal charges brought against the group should not have been dropped because of time constraints.

With Turkish secularism as sensitive as it has ever been, the ruling marks the latest stage of a growing war between evolutionists and creationists for control of the country’s classrooms and laboratories.

The battle began in earnest last spring, when 700 academics took the Ministry of Education to court calling for the removal of references to creationism, present in school science syllabuses since 1985.

“There are compulsory religious classes in Turkish schools as it is,” said biologist Ozgur Genc, who began organizing the legal case after five teachers in southern Turkey were transferred to another school in 2005 for teaching evolution.

The court has not issued a ruling.

The BAV has organized hundreds of conferences on creationism in the past decade as well as a recent flurry of American-style “creation museums.”

Yesterday, Mr. Oktar held a press conference aboard a luxury yacht off Istanbul’s northern Bosporus shores near the mouth of the Black Sea and said the evils of the world were a direct result of Darwinism.

“Communism, fascism, and Freemasons stand on the tenets of Darwinism, and the world power of capitalism stands on the same. … Hitler and Mao were both Darwinists,” Reuters news agency quoted him as saying.

“We will not deceive ourselves that scientists have a monopoly on truth,” he said.

Mr. Oktar, speaking in Turkish, said a million of his books and movies were being downloaded from Internet sites every month.

Copies of his books and movies had been distributed in 170 countries, he added.

Scores of books in different languages, purportedly written by Mr. Oktar under the pen name Harun Yahya, were on display aboard the yacht bearing titles such as “The Dark Spell of Darwinism,” “A Historical Lie: The Stone Age” and “God’s Gentle Artistry.”

Opponents of creationism, meanwhile, also are increasingly taking their arguments to the Turkish public.

A series of scientific conferences have been held in central Anatolian towns during the past few months. One popular science magazine has devoted its past two issues to answering the claims in “Atlas of Creation.”

“When the creationist movement began to surface in the early 1990s, many scientists just laughed at it,” said Nazli Somel, a former teacher now writing a doctoral paper on Turkish creationism. “It’s good to see they’re taking it seriously now.”

She is confident the scientists will win the battle.

Although most public figures avoid associating themselves with Mr. Oktar’s group, more upscale versions of creationism have powerful supporters in Turkey.

“Intelligent design,” based on the belief that some cellular structures are too complex to have evolved naturally, is a case in point.

Education Minister Huseyin Celik publicly supports the theory.

“Evolutionary theory overlaps with atheism, intelligent design with belief,” Mr. Celik told Turkish television in November.

Given that polls show only 1 percent of Turks are atheists, not allowing intelligent design into science textbooks would be tantamount to censorship, he said.

Author Mustafa Akyol, who organized two recent Istanbul municipality-backed conferences on intelligent design, argues that the theory can act as a bridge between science and religion in Turkey, an overwhelmingly Muslim nation.

“For Turkey’s secularist modernizers, science replaced religion as the new faith,” he said. “Religious-minded Turks need to be convinced that science isn’t a threat.”

These are not new arguments. A century ago, Said Nursi, arguably modern Turkey’s most influential religious thinker, saw the reconciliation of faith and science as a means of avoiding the twin evils of unbelief and fanaticism. His followers have been at the forefront of Turkish creationism ever since.

Mr. Ertan, the geneticist, finds all the talk of reconciliation unconvincing.

“These people say science cannot answer all the questions. Fair enough, perhaps, but a science stripped of its basic principles is not science anymore. And without science, modern civilization is impossible.”

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