In mid-June, the Turkish state body responsible for promoting science and scientific research, TÜBİTAK, told a group of top scientists that it would not be providing financial support for a postgraduate summer school they were organizing.
Fair enough, you might think: money is tight, even in booming Turkey. But there was something odd about the justifications TÜBİTAK gave for its decision. It said the topics the organizers planned to address were “globally controversial,” and that the summer school offered no new thinking and looked likely to be more “political [and] cultural” than “scientific.” Furthermore, in the eyes of the research council, the organizers were not “representative of the country.”
The theme of the summer camp, in case you have not guessed it already, is evolutionary biology. The Scientific and Technological Research Council of Turkey, to give its full name, has shown an increasing antipathy to evolution in the decade since the Justice and Development Party (AKP) came to power.
The first major TÜBİTAK scandal came in March 2009, when the council sacked the editor of its monthly science magazine for trying to run a cover story on Charles Darwin to celebrate the 200th anniversary of his birth. When the magazine finally arrived on newsstands, a week late, the cover story was about global warming.
“There is no question of censorship,” TÜBİTAK said in a statement, blaming the scandal on the editor’s last-minute decision to replace the global warming dossier with Darwin.
But the rumors of censorship continued to grow. According to its charter, one of the council’s chief aims is to “promote the development of a scientific . . . culture in our country . . . by publishing Turkish- and foreign-language books and magazines.” For many years, it was Turkey’s most respected publisher of popular scientific writing. From mid-2009 onwards, however, it began reducing the number of books it published. All areas of scientific knowledge were affected, but it was evolutionary biology that took the biggest hit. Out went books by Steven J. Gould, Richard Dawkins and Nobel Prize-winner James Watson. Only one book covering evolution, a children’s book, was spared.
Publisher Zeynep Ünalan blamed the shrinking stock on disagreements with English-language publishers over copyright. Then she said: “These books are old books that have seen their day.” By early 2013, as the controversy crept into the international limelight, a handful of the de-listed books mysteriously reappeared on the council’s webpage.
The Taksim Square protests opened the world’s eyes to the sycophancy of the media in the Brave New Turkey of the AKP. What the TÜBİTAK story shows is something more difficult to pin down: the way all organs of state, no matter how much they trumpet their autonomy, have bent before the prevailing wind of social conservatism.
And on the issue of evolution, senior AKP members have made their position clear. In 2006, the then-minister of education told Turkish television that “evolutionary theory overlaps with atheism, [creationism] with religious belief.” Given that polls show only one percent of Turks are atheists, he said, not teaching creationist claims in biology classes would be tantamount to censorship.
Fethullah Gülen, leader of a powerful religious brotherhood lauded in the West for melding Islam and modern scientific thought, has been similarly blunt. “Scientific facts are true as long as they are in agreement with the Qur’an and the hadith [the traditions of the Prophet],” he wrote. Elsewhere, he wrote: “So many deaf, blind, ignorant, unconscious causes and laws cannot come together by themselves into the subtle and complex arrangement we recognize as a living organism.”
Sound familiar? It should. One of the bitterest ironies about Turkish creationism is that its rhetoric has been imported wholesale from America by people who claim to be the representatives of a Turkish–Islamic view unadulterated by the West. No one fits that bill better than Gülen. He has lived in the US for the past ten years, and his network of schools is nowhere stronger than in the Bible Belt states of the US south.
The current head of TÜBİTAK has lived in the States, too. A successful engineer, he helped found a Gülen school in Atlanta. Asked by a journalist for his views on evolution after he took over the council chairmanship late in 2012, he said nothing that would have disappointed the man alleged to be his spiritual guide: “Turkey needs unity. We say planes and rockets, that is what we are concentrating on. Some people believe in evolution and some people don’t. We need unity more.”
With polls suggesting barely a quarter of Turks accept evolutionary theories, it would be wrong to blame the AKP and Gülen for everything amiss today. As Taner Edis, author of An Illusion of Harmony: Science and Religion in Islam, points out, creationism has been taught as part of Turkey’s school biology syllabus since the 1980s, when religious conservatives, backed by an outgoing military junta anxious to foster an atmosphere of national unity, took control of the Ministry of Education.
Even before that, evolutionary theory was a hot potato in a country whose founding fathers were heavily influenced by the anti-religious materialism of nineteenth-century Europe.
In the past, though, the TÜBİTAK chief’s talk of taking the West’s technology but not its morals was just one rhetorical position among many. Today, with a Turkish prime minister claiming to speak for the nation and state bodies packed with men who owe their rise to his patronage, it reigns increasingly supreme.