Islamic creationist group launches glitzy, global blitz
A household name in Turkey, the 'Foundation for Scientific Research' is now distributing its books – published in 59 languages including Chinese and Swahili – to 80 countries.
ISTANBUL, TURKEY — On a recent afternoon inside Istanbul's busiest subway station, a young man beckoned commuters into a subterranean "fossil exhibit" full of skulls and insects dating back millions of years.
But this was no mainstream scientific display. One colorful poster advertised the "myth" of the evolution of the horse. Another, displaying a flying pterodactyl, denounced the evolution of birds as "fake."
The display is one of many traveling shows put on by the Foundation for Scientific Research, an Islamic creationist group that has become a household name in Turkey. Now, the groups says it is distributing its books – published in 59 languages including Arabic, Chinese, Swahili, and Polish – to 80 countries.
"Turkey is now the headquarters of creationism in the Islamic World. This is no longer only Turkey's problem, it is now the problem of the whole civilized world," says Haluk Ertan, a professor of molecular biology at Istanbul University. He's one of a handful of Turkish scientists who have been working to counter creationism's spread in the country.
Emboldened by its success at home over the past decade, the foundation, known by its Turkish acronym BAV (for Bilim Arastirma Vakfi), is now aggressively trying to export its unique brand of Islamic creationism well beyond the borders of Turkey to the Middle East, Europe, and even the United States.
In the past year, BAV has blanketed several European countries and the US with its glossy "Atlas of Creation," a lavish 768-page tome weighing more than 13 pounds, sending it to scientists, professors, journalists, and schoolteachers.
One member of the organization estimates that it distributed well over 20,000 copies of the "Atlas," which, like all of the group's books, is written under the name of Harun Yahya. Amazon.com hosts a virtual bookstore that sells "Atlas" ($99) and other Yahya books, and booksellers across Europe have it on their shelves.
"Every Islamic bookshop I know of stocks Harun Yahya's material. It is so glossily produced. It is very attractive and very colorful and outclasses everything else," says Inayat Bunglawala, assistant secretary-general of the Muslim British Council, speaking by phone from London.
"It is having an effect. Even among Muslim medical students there are a number now who are speaking out against Darwin."
In France, the Harun Yahya book offensive led the government to issue a warning for schools to be on the look out for the "Atlas" before it makes it into their classrooms. Meanwhile, the increasing European activity of the BAV, as well as of Christian creationist groups, recently prompted a committee of the Council of Europe – a 47-nation group that acts as a kind of continental watchdog – to issue a report strongly warning about its dangers to education.
"Today, creationists of all faiths are trying to get their ideas accepted in Europe. As a result, we have seen several initiatives from these various movements on the Eurasian continent in the last few years, with schools apparently the main target," the report, released in June, said.
Blames Darwinism for terrorism
In real life, Harun Yahya is a 51-year-old former interior-design student named Adnan Oktar. Since founding the BAV in 1990, Mr. Oktar has been responsible for ushering more than 250 books into print, though many observers agree he serves more as the chief overseer of a group of writers rather than as a solo author. The series includes titles such as "The Dark Spell of Darwinism" and "Why Darwinism is Incompatible with the Koran."
Oktar's brand of creationism is not only religious, but also political and even messianic, seeing most of the world's ills – terrorism and fascism among them – as stemming from Darwin's theory of evolution.
"Hitler, Mao, and Lenin were Darwinists. At the root of wild capitalism is also Darwinism. I think if we no longer believe in Darwinism, people will no longer be conditioned to believe in those things," the normally reclusive Oktar said during a recent press conference, held aboard a hired yacht cruising Istanbul's Bosphorus strait.
"Folks, there is no such thing as what you call evolution. If there was, it would be in the Holy Bible or the Koran," added Oktar, dressed in an ivory-white raw silk suit and wearing gold cufflinks and a matching gold belt buckle with Arabic inscriptions on them.
"The sweet dream of the Darwinists and the world is to ban my books," Oktar said, sipping glass after glass of sour cherry juice. "What I'm saying is true. They cannot disprove it."
Unlike fundamentalist Christian creationists, Oktar does not claim the earth was created only a few thousand years ago. Instead, he argues that fossils show that creatures from millions of years ago looked just like the creatures of today, thus disproving evolution.
Harmonizing modernity, Islam
While giving creationism a scientific veneer, "Scientifically speaking, the whole Harun Yahya corpus is a bunch of nonsense, but it is unfortunately very popular," says Taner Edis, a Turkish physicist who teaches at Truman State University in Missouri.
Professor Edis says the success of the Harun Yahya books, at least in the Islamic world, can be attributed to a need for harmonizing modern life with traditional Islamic beliefs.
"Something has to reconcile these two things and it becomes very attractive when someone comes out with a well-packaged message, that they can have both – be fully modern and at the same have science … affirm most of their very deeply held religious and ethical perceptions," says Edis, whose "An Illusion of Harmony: Science and Religion in Islam" was published by Prometheus Books this spring.
"That's a pretty attractive package and that's mostly what the Harun Yahya material provides," he says.
In Turkey, Oktar and his books certainly appear to be having an impact. When Science magazine conducted a survey of 34 countries last August, Turkey had the second-lowest acceptance rate of the theory of evolution (the United States had the lowest).
Creationist curriculum since '85
Creationism has actually been a part of the Turkish science curriculum since 1985, when it was added by government order, and many scientists now fear that it will soon be too hard to uproot.
"The general state of science education is very bad in the sense that evolution and creationism are taught together, and they can't be taught together. If they are, no scientific thinking can be established in these students," says Aykut Kence, a professor of biology at Ankara's Middle East Technical University.
"We are going to fall behind the modern countries in terms of development, economy, culture. Everything."