Last May, science journalist Chris Mooney attended the 2012 World Skeptics Congress in Berlin, where he heard disturbing reports of a new form of creationism—namely, Islamic creationism—gaining traction in Europe. There he spoke with Johan Braeckman, who has been following this development closely. Braeckman is a professor of philosophy of science at Ghent University in Belgium, where his research focuses on philosophical issues in the life sciences, particularly evolution and neuroscience. He’s the author of a number of books and papers, including most recently, Doubting Thomas Has a Point: A Guide to Critical Thinking, coauthored with Maarten Boudry. —Eds.
Chris Mooney: Islamic creationism is something that you’ve studied a lot. What is the state of affairs? Would you say it’s growing in Europe in particular?
Johan Braeckman: We don’t have exact data yet, although research is going on right now. It’s fair to say that it’s definitely growing. More and more people—especially young people, fifteen-, sixteen-, seventeen-year-olds with a Muslim background but already third or fourth generation living in Europe—identify themselves with the Muslim community and Islam. A particular form of creationism is very popular among these young people.
For them the really important thing is that it’s giving them a group identity. You have to defend your colors, and evolutionary theory belongs to the colors of the other team. You can explain the science all you want. It’s not going to work because it’s not about the science for them; it’s about who they are or the way they think they should look at themselves and each other. This is what I’ve encountered quite a few times: say you’re a young European Muslim. You know the science of evolutionary theory is good and decent and sound, and there’s no way that creationism can be considered to be correct. But it’s very hard to tell that to your friends, who are also Muslim, because it’s like supporting the other team. So I’m cracking my head on how to handle this. It’s sad to see smart young people who might go to a university or college to study science or medicine or so on—that’s not going to happen, because they’re turning themselves into scientific illiterates.
Mooney: This sounds like many forms of science denial, where it’s really about a belief system. But surely they must put forward “scientific arguments.” Do the arguments sound the same as what you hear in, say, the intelligent design movement in the United States?
Braeckman: They’ll pick whatever they think is usable to support their ideas. Nevertheless, there is a brand of Muslim creationism, and in Europe it’s coming from a man called Harun Yahya. That’s not his real name; this man is actually working with a whole group of people who have been pouring out huge numbers of books, leaflets, pamphlets, DVDs, and other materials. Especially famous, or infamous, is The Atlas of Creationism. It is a huge book—it weighs something like six kilograms (13.2 pounds!) and is full of beautiful pictures. Distributed copies may be in the several hundreds of thousands all over the world—nobody really knows. Also, nobody knows where the money comes from. It must have cost a huge fortune to produce, print, and ship it.
The book contains thousands of pictures of fossils. On every page, you’ll see a fossil and then another picture of an organism of contemporary species. The argumentation is always very short and always the same. It says, “Well, if you look at these two pictures of the fossil and the contemporary organism, you’re going to see no difference, so evolution just didn’t happen.” It’s full of mistakes and inconsistencies. Apparently the authors weren’t able to catch a real fly to make a point about the non-evolution of flies, so they used an artificial fishing fly with a hook.
If you ask Muslims in Europe whether there’s some scientific background for their belief system, they’ll point to Harun Yahya. Now of course this is quite weak, and some of them do realize this, so then they’ll skip to other arguments that you are familiar with in the United States. They’re going to tell you that what they call “Darwinism” was invented by Western Freemasons to attack Islam.
I’ve discussed this with several imams who were very kind people but not very sophisticated. They don’t know much about science and so on. But they do fall for the arguments of the Harun Yahya books and articles that say Darwinism has been used to defend racism. Now, in a certain sense, this is complicated issue, because that did happen in the 1920s and 1930s. But of course no evolutionary biologists nowadays working at universities looks at evolutionary theory as a way to defend racism.
Mooney: Are they getting some of their ideas from the “intellectuals,” the “scientists” in the United States who make these arguments? Harun Yahya’s beliefs seem very different from what we are used to here.
Braeckman: Yes, Harun Yahya’s ideas are much less sophisticated than what you will find in, say, the writings of Michael Behe or other intelligent design authors in the United States. What Muslim creationism is all about is that there has been no such thing as evolution, period. Muslim creationists like it, of course, that there’s a Christian brand of creationism, because they feel supported by that. But they’re not really tapping into Christian creationism’s so-called scientific arguments.
Mooney: Is there a particular part of the Qur’an that they refer to? U.S. young-Earth creationism is actually based on particular ways of reading Genesis.
Braeckman: There are lines or parts in the Qur’an that make it possible for Muslims to accept that the Earth and life is really old, that Allah created life and the universe a long time ago. They don’t want to have anything to do with young-Earth creationism. But apart from that, the problem is that in their belief system, when science says something is right, it must be already in the Qur’an because the Qur’an contains all the knowledge that you can possibly have as a human being. If something in science appears that is not to be found in the Quran, then it cannot be true. So that’s why they don’t have a problem with some contemporary scientific findings, because somehow they will find a line in the Qur’an and read the science into that. You know how that works; you see meaning in random patterns. These are very old texts, of course, and you can give an interpretation to them; you can stretch it, right?
But it’s different with evolutionary theory. There are a few lines, and some people in the Muslim world argue that the idea of evolution is already in the Qur’an. But the huge majority doesn’t believe that, and they feel supported by the argument that Allah created man in the form that he is now. This is also a Christian argument; if you believe that people evolved from apelike creatures, it’s degrading to humanity—like turning humans into beasts or just animals.
To be concluded next issue. —Eds.