03/21/2011 10:50 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Recanting in the Face of Religious Extremism

Recently, I related the story of how William Dembski, one of the stars in the creationist's firmament, was made to recant his views on the ages of the Earth and the universe. He had the temerity to state that our planet might not actually be 6,000 years old, a claim that young Earth fundamentalists found completely objectionable. Under threat of being fired from his position at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary for penning these words, he backpedaled and distanced himself from his own beliefs.

Unfortunately, when it comes to the evolution/creation controversy, Christian fundamentalists are not alone in issuing threats and demanding adherence to religious dogma from their academics. The BBC has just published a disconcerting article entitled "Imam who believes in evolution retracts statements."

The imam in question, Dr. Usama Hasan, a senior lecturer in physical science at England's Middlesex University and vice chair of Leyton Mosque, originally wrote an essay in the Guardian in which he argued that the teachings of Islam are not incompatible with the theory of evolution.

Muslim fundamentalists, he asserted, are not portraying science appropriately: "Snazzy websites, videos and books produced by fundamentalist Muslim 'creationists' such as those at, are obscuring clear scientific thinking."

He went on to say:

One problem is that many Muslims retain the simple picture that God created Adam from clay, much as a potter makes a statue, and then breathed into the lifeless statue and lo! it became a living human. This is a children's madrasa-level understanding and Muslims really have to move on as adults and intellectuals, especially given the very serious scientific heritage of the medieval Islamic civilisation.

He also pointed to parts of the Quraan that are fully in keeping with the basics of evolutionary theory. For expressing these opinions, Hasan has been the recipient of fatwas and death threats.

Like Dembski before him, the pressure has become too much and Hasan has recanted, enabling the fundamentalists to again silence a voice of modernity.

There are two large lessons that should not be lost in these sad actions. The first deals with the relationship between Islam and evolution and the second with the larger issue of the dangers of fundamentalism, regardless of its origin.

Like mainstream Christianity, mainstream Islam has no problems with evolutionary theory. Rather, it is the very vocal outliers of both religions who reject modern science and replace it with their simplistic interpretation of a religious text. These are the people who can't appreciate the value and power of metaphor, who opt to replace poetry with literalism.

Mike Ghouse, as president of the World Muslim Congress, speaks for many when he told me,
"I am saddened to see Dr. Usama Hasan withdraw his statements on evolution due to social pressure from a few Muslims. I hope no one jumps to conclusion that Muslims are a monolithic lot; they are not."

As amazing as it may sound, evolutionary theory has the potential to bring adherents of differing religions together. Just last month, during the celebration of the sixth annual Evolution Weekend sponsored by The Clergy Letter Project, five congregations (one Baptist, two Episcopal, one Jewish and one Muslim) in upstate New York joined forces to collectively promote their Evolution Weekend events. Each, in their own way, articulated the position that their religious beliefs are fully consistent with the science of evolution and that being devout does not mean having to turn your back on modernity.

Despite what some would have us believe, the dangers of fundamentalism cannot be limited to any one religion. In responding to a question about Rep. Peter King's (R-NY) congressional hearings focused on radicalization among American Muslims, Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, head of the Cordoba Center, also erroneously known as "the Ground Zero Mosque," made this case eloquently:

There is a very vocal and very powerful, a very influential anti-Islam group in the United States that is seeking to identify Islam as America's existential enemy. And nothing could be further from the truth, nothing could be more dangerous. We do have a common enemy and our common enemy is extremism and the radical ideologies that fuel extremism.

We need to recognize that fundamentalism -- or as Imam Rauf said, "extremism and the radical ideologies that fuel extremism" -- is our enemy. When we permit our attention to be diverted to any one particular brand of extremism, to one particular religion, we've lost the larger fight.

When Henry Drummond (Spencer Tracy in the 1960 film version) declaimed so passionately in Inherit the Wind, "fanaticism and ignorance is forever busy, and needs feeding," he was speaking a truth that we would be very well advised not to ignore today.