In the August/September issue of Free Inquiry, Leading Questions featured a discussion between science journalist Chris Mooney and Johan Braeckman, professor of philosophy of science at Ghent University in Belgium, on growing belief in Islamic creationism in Europe. Below, Braeckman talks about attitudes toward evolution popular among Muslims today that have been strongly shaped by the prolific and possibly pseudonymous anti-evolution author Harun Yahya.
To hear the entire interview, which first appeared on the Center for Inquiry’s radio show and podcast Point of Inquiry, please visit www.pointofinquiry.net. —Eds.
Johan Braeckman: The prolific Muslim creationist author Harun Yahya has argued that the events of September 11, 2001, were not caused by Muslim fundamentalists but—and I quote literally now—“by Darwinists.” Harun Yahya is against al-Qaeda and terrorism, to be sure, but his reasoning is that the hijackers must have been touched by Darwinist literature or Darwinist argumentation, and that’s what made them believe that people are nothing more than animals. If you’re an animal you don’t have morality, ethics, or respect for other people’s lives. You don’t even respect your own life, so you can do anything you want to do. You can hijack a plane and crash it into a building because you’re a Darwinist.
With Islam there is no kind of top-down argumentation. They don’t have someone like the pope to settle theological disputes. So some imams or Muslim scholars can give their personal interpretations, and others can contradict them. One imam can be fundamentally against evolutionary theory, and another imam can say “well, no, if you look in the Qur’an there might be something to it,” and so forth. But as far as I can tell, the majority of Muslim people worldwide are now really in line with creationism. Some surveys confirm this: in Saudi Arabia, for instance, over 90 percent are creationists. In Turkey, which is a secular country with great universities, it is over 60 percent. Creationism is also influential in migrant communities coming from northern Africa and Turkey and living in Europe.
In several Muslim countries, Islamic scholars look with some disdain on Harun Yahya. Most Muslim people in Indonesia are creationists, but they’re not going to refer to Harun Yahya.
This does not mean that Muslim people are against science. In several Muslim countries, Iran for instance, science is big. Biology, reproductive biology, stem-cell therapy—all these kinds of really top-notch science—they enjoy wide favor, and countless Muslims are engaging in them. They have excellent scholars. So it’s evolutionary theory on which they focus their criticisms. I think there’s a similarity in the United States. Fundamentalist Protestants are not necessarily against science; they’re against evolutionary theory. The really interesting question to me is: Why do people pick on evolutionary theory? They accept all other kinds of biology when it fits them or suits them, but it’s really evolutionary theory that seems to be—well, the nut that they can’t crack, so to speak. It has to do with the fact that evolutionary theory says something about ourselves. It says something about our history, about where we come from, and also something about our identity. That made it difficult already in the nineteenth century.
Chris Mooney: In the United States we have what I’ve somewhat popularly/somewhat unpopularly called “smart idiots.” You have people who have a lot of college education, but they are quite ideological. They come up with all these brilliant reasons for, say, rejecting global warming, or evolution. Do you see that kind of thing in the Islamic world?
Braeckman: I’m not aware of any Muslim with a PhD who is big in defending creationism. Imams have an extremely important function in their community for funerals, births, marriages, and so on. But they also give scientific guidance, and they teach Islamic religion classes in public schools in Belgium and in other European countries. This is a problem. Scholars from other religious backgrounds—for instance, teachers of the Catholic religion—no longer say anything negative about evolutionary theory. They’re way beyond that. That fight has been fought, and they’re okay with the outcome. For Islamic teachers, it’s different. They teach Islam, then add that it’s just not a good idea to accept evolutionary theory. They don’t mark the difference between religion and science. There’s another important problem. In high school, in one hour you hear from your imam that evolutionary theory is racist, you just shouldn’t accept it, it goes against Islam, and so forth. And in the next class you have your biology teacher explaining all about evolutionary theory. It’s very confusing and conflicting. And so most of the students don’t go with the science, they go with their group.
Mooney: What do you do when this is part of cultural identity?
Braeckman: What we need are people who call themselves Muslim—they might not even be truly religious people anymore, but they still must be identified as being Muslim—who have the right credentials so to speak, and they must set the example. They must say to their community that it’s just not the smart thing to deny science. We have to figure out a way to be Muslim and accept basic scientific insights. For Muslims, I think, this is extremely important because they are already in a vulnerable place in Europe. They’re a minority; there’s racism; they’re not accepted for jobs although they’re qualified for them. Those are huge problems in their own right, but they only make it more difficult for themselves if they reject basic scientific insights.
Mooney: Are there any significant Muslim leaders who do stand up and say this?
Braeckman: There are a few examples of Muslim people who have spoken up for evolution, but it hasn’t worked out well for them. For instance, one London-based imam said he accepted evolutionary theory, and he got death threats. So it’s tough, and there’s not going to be a solution within one generation.