By Prof. Erkan Saka
The ruling Turkish government rarely uses explicit Islamic reasoning to intervene in Turkey’s secular life. Instead, taxation, age restrictions, and zoning regulations have been used to support the restriction of alcoholic beverages in the country. In another instance, Istanbul’s entertainment life centre around Istiklal Street, Taksim has been gradually left breathless with continuous construction, de-greening, and the elimination of historical features such as the tram (allegedly temporary). On yet another level, you will see more and more government apologists in international conferences who use Western academic terminology to justify government policies. Many anthropologists will be particularly familiar with - and have probably already met - this approach: Orientalism and Euro-centrism are just two buzzwords government apologists frequently misuse or abuse to further their agendas. Decades of intellectual debates are transformed into a glorification of a government’s anti-secular orientation.
When I read CNN’s piece on how government officials justified their anti-evolution standing, I saw the same pattern. The head of the national board of education, Alpaslan Durmus declared that students do not have the scientific background to comprehend “controversial” topics such as evolution, so they have eliminated it from the curriculum (he also used the buzzword “Eurocentrism”). Well, who declares what is controversial is left to authorities to decide. A big minority of Alevites are subjected to Sunni theology in the educational system and this does not seem to be controversial for the ruling authorities. Besides, when the children will get a “scientific background” is not known. Turkey’s higher education is already under the heavy grip of centralized Higher Education Council (YÖK) and a purge on peace academics continues.
Before ceasing to teach evolution, the government seemed to have intervened drastically in the educational system. Imam Hatip Schools (vocational schools to train imams) are now touted as the general education schools and the number of students in those schools rose from 60 thousand to more than 1 million in 13 years. The government praises this as a rising interest in this kind of school while in practice many general high schools are turned into Imam Hatip Schools by ministry decree and parents cannot find other types of schools in their zones.
Moreover, the nationwide exam systems for secondary schools have changed 13 times in 12 years, drastically weakening Turkey’s already not too strong educational system. Public schools are no longer an option for students looking to receive a well-rounded education, and many parents are unable to afford the education available through private schools.
Anti-evolutionism was always strong in Turkey. When I was a high school student we were told that evolution is just a “theory,” not a fact, and the topic would be downplayed as much as possible. Evolution would taught in passing and one could hardly get a solid understanding of what evolution is. At the same time, some popular and eccentric Islamic cults like the one led by Adnan Oktar have been using Western based creationism literature to further their anti-evolution agendas. Cult leaders like Oktar have easy access to public spaces that include educational settings by organizing “evolution exhibitions” to deny evolution.
This explicit ban on evolution is a turning point for the Turkish government as Turkey’s policy elites are clearly growing more powerful and more confident. There is now no “secular establishment” that can challenge them and we should expect to observe increasingly explicit movements to limit academic freedom.
Assoc. Prof. Erkan Saka (PhD, Rice University, Anthropology), Istanbul Bilgi University, Department of Communication Design and Management