Taner Edis

Harun Yahya and Islamic Creationism

This is a draft version put up for comments and criticism. The published version may differ slightly.

Harun Yahya and Islamic Creationism

“Darwin Day” could probably only be thought of in the United States. After all, among industrialized nations, the US is the only one with a strong creationist movement, causing endless battles over school curricula. Other countries have their anti-evolutionary moments, but the American market for creationism is the largest. Ken Ham might present his “Answers in Genesis” (www.answersingenesis.org) with an Australian accent, but he found it best to move to the US.

Of course, Americans are not the only people who have a strong streak of old-time religion in their culture, and who perceive the strain modern science puts on the old verities. In this time of religious revival around the globe, the Islamic world is perhaps the most striking in its attachment to a scripturally literalist faith. However, until recently, “creation-science” was not very visible in Muslim lands. Ironically, this was mainly because Darwinian evolution rarely appeared in education or in intellectual life.

In 1873, in the days of the Ottoman Empire, Mithat Efendi mentioned Darwin’s theory in one of his writings. The religious scholars put out a fatwa declaring him an apostate. In the twentieth century, the scholars lost their traditional power in many countries, and Western ideas increased in influence. Still, Muslim thinkers took it for granted that either evolution did not occur, or that any development in life happened under direct divine guidance. The Quran, after all, declares special creation, particularly of humans. The blind naturalistic process modern science has come to accept obviously had to be wrong; the Darwinian view of nature was but another indication of Western degeneration in religion and morals. However, Muslim apologists rarely felt a need to elaborate their dismissal of Darwin.

In the US, creationism appeals to a religiously conservative population who have become upwardly mobile, joining professional classes where technical knowledge is highly valued. They are concerned both to affirm their traditional, morality-infused view of nature and at the same time, respect science and technology. Creation-science promises to accomplish this without compromise. Interestingly, a similar situation has developed in the Islamic world. Particularly in Turkey, long the most modernized among Muslim nations, the last few decades has been a time of both religious revival, and of the growing power of a religiously conservative segment of society who operates in a global capitalist economy. And so, perhaps unsurprisingly, creationism has recently erupted in Turkey, and influenced other Muslim countries. Muslim immigrant communities in the West—also caught between old-time religion and the modern world—have also been increasingly exposed to creationism, often imported from Turkey.

One name dominates Turkish creationism: Harun Yahya. Supposedly this is the pen name of Adnan Oktar, the leader of a religious order. But Yahya is credited with so many books, articles, videos, and web pages (www.hyahya.org) that it is hard to believe this is a one-man industry. Plus the intellectual prowess of leaders of religious orders are commonly exaggerated—tales of incredible intellectual productivity serve as a kind of modern miracle story, bolstering the stature of charismatic teachers. So Yahya is not really a person but the flag under which the most prominent Turkish creationist activities set sail.

What is immediately striking about Yahya’s productions is how modern and media-conscious they are. Before the Yahya era, expressions of creationist sentiment in Turkey were generally confined to religious intellectual circles; these writings rarely went beyond throwaway references to the obvious intelligent design in biology, and denunciations of evolution generally occupied a few passages in books concentrating on larger religious themes. Some religious orders striving to create an Islamic version of modernity attacked evolution in their “science magazines,” but these had limited effect—a well-heeled and media-savvy creationism, with great production values, continually harping on the evils of evolution, was unheard of. In contrast, Yahya’s material is in full color, printed on glossy paper, copiously illustrated, popular in orientation (it uses few Arabic terms, unlike much religious literature), and available in all sorts of modern media. These publications are ubiquitous, found not just in bookstores but even in supermarket chains owned by the new breed of “Islamic corporations.”

It is clear that Yahya’s project commands an immense amount of resources. It is doubtful that Yahya’s lavishly produced materials support themselves—they are priced to be affordable, and even obtaining them for free takes no great effort. The August 2002 issue of Mercek, his “monthly scientific and cultural magazine” sold for about $1.80, including two VCD’s (video CD-ROM’s), and the only ad for non-Yahya merchandise it contained was for a series of materials to learn English (important for the upwardly mobile). Yahya’s web sites make most of his books available online, in a wide variety of languages—at no charge. Turkish creationism has gone international, and Yahya’s books are as easily found and as prominently displayed in Islamic bookstores in London as in Istanbul. And the organization behind all of this, and the sources of its finances, are virtually unknown. The Turkish state, notoriously unable to bring the underground economy under control, or even collect taxes from most businesses, is also unable to enforce regulations on religious foundations.

Another striking aspect of Yahya’s material is how much of it is taken, with minimal changes, from Western creationist literature such as that associated with the Institute for Creation Research (ICR). Since the Quran is not as specific as the Genesis story, Islamic creationists usually allow an old earth, so Yahya discards flood-geology and is noncommittal about the age of the earth. But the rest is there, flavored with quotations from some “Intelligent Design” figures, and all set in a matrix of traditional Islamic apologetics hammering on how obvious it is that there is a designing intelligence behind all the wonders of nature. ICR-style creationism, which we tend to think of as a sectarian, evangelical Protestant peculiarity, turns out to be pre-adapted to an Islamic environment.

Yahya also promotes other beliefs far from mainstream science and scholarship, besides creationism. These tend to be his versions of conspiratorial ideas popular in the Muslim world, such as Masonic plots and holocaust denial. But even when indulging these politically-colored fantasies, Yahya has a way of getting back to denouncing evolution. Fascism: The Bloody Ideology of Darwinism (Istanbul: Kultur, 2002) begins with a “To The Reader” section, where Yahya explains that evolution is at the root of evil today:

The reason why a special chapter is assigned to the collapse of the theory of evolution is that this theory constitutes the basis of all anti-spiritual philosophies. Since Darwinism rejects the fact of creation, and therefore the existence of God, during the last 140 years it has caused many people to abandon their faith or fall into doubt. Therefore, showing that this theory is a deception is a very important duty, which is strongly related to the religion. It is imperative that this important service be rendered to everyone. Some of our readers may find the chance to read only one of our books. Therefore, we think it appropriate to spare a chapter for a summary of this subject.

The same preface and the same anti-evolutionary chapter, “The Misconception of Evolution” (with different illustrations) appear in Islam Denounces Terrorism (3rd edition, Bristol: Amal Press, 2002). In this book, Yahya treats the reader not only to standard apologetics about Islam being a religion of peace, but in his chapter “The Real Roots of Terrorism: Darwinism and Materialism” exposes the true culprit behind events like September 11: evolution. Apparently, “the way to stop acts of terrorism is to put an end to Darwinist-materialist education, to educate young people in accord with a curricula [sic] based on true scientific findings and to instil in them the fear of God and the desire to act wisely and scrupulously.” (p. 147)

What then, of opposition to Yahya, particularly in Turkey, where his name is known best? Unfortunately, this is weak. Turkey is a “developing country,” a polite term to describe a place which is economically a colony administered by the IMF, politically unstable, and poor. The Turkish scientific community is weak, unable to find even a unified voice in fighting the creationists, let alone muster comparable resources. Occasionally, political secularists complain about Yahya, but secularists can do little else lately but wring hands and hope against hope that the European Community will let Turkey become a member, and maybe then everything will be all right. At the time of writing, Turkey was poised for elections at the end of 2002, and an Islamist party was expected to come out with the largest share of the vote.

Still, friends of Darwin can find a few reasons to be optimistic. After all, creationism is a reaction, and the very fact that a Harun Yahya exists is evidence that evolutionary ideas have penetrated far enough into Turkish culture that religious conservatives feel a need to take action. And Yahya becoming known throughout the Islamic world might mean that evolution is making inroads there as well.

On the other hand, there are even more reasons to be pessimistic. Yahya seems successful in grabbing public attention, with little opposition. As the degree of conservatism of Turkish governments fluctuates, the degree of creationism in high school biology texts also goes up and down, but evolution, if present, will inevitably be relegated to the last chapter the class will not have time to cover. And the notion that the complexities of life and the universe can only result from divine design runs very deep in Islamic apologetics. Muslims will, by and large, to continue to see Darwinian evolution as obviously false, and maybe even evil, for a long time to come. With Harun Yahya, we have a phenomenon which we in the Western world we should carefully watch and learn from as we celebrate “Darwin Day.” For here we have a creationism which threatens to be successful in its ambitions to drive evolution out of the culture.

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