The new Turkish curriculum: more Qur’an and jihad, less evolution and Ataturk

Over the past year I’ve written repeatedly about the terrible things happening in Turkey since Recep Erdoğan took over as the country’s President in 2014.  Once a vibrant and largely secular nation thanks to the vision of Kemal Atatürk, Turkey is being ground down by the heel of its new pro-Islamic government, which clearly intends to take the country back to a more religious, pre-Atatürk era. Government opponents are being arrested, what wall did exist between Islam and the state is being knocked down and—especially galling to me—the teaching of evolution is being eliminated or downgraded in secondary schools. Here, according to the BBC, is what is going to happen in Turkey’s secondary schools this coming academic year. (Indented quotes are from the BBC piece.)

More Quran.

From September Turkey will have a new education curriculum and this 38-year-old mother is among many parents who are worried. The changes affect first, fifth- and ninth-grade students, and the main controversy surrounds the exclusion of the theory of evolution from secondary education.

“In classes, nine- and 10-year-old students have been memorising prayers from the Koran. I believe religious education should be given at home, not in schools,” said the woman, who did not want to be named, due to security concerns.

More jihad.  Turkey is taking the Linda Sarsour interpretation of “jihad” as a striving for personal and societal harmony rather than as a religious war, even when everyone assumes the latter meaning.

He [Orhan Yildirim, head of a big teachers union in Turkey] also criticised the introduction of the concept of jihad in secondary school education.

“Ask anyone coming out of a mosque today what he understands by the word jihad – 99% would say that they see jihad as the main reason for war in the Middle East. We will not let the government put a spin on the word and normalise the concept of jihad,” he said.

According to the dictionary of the Institute of Turkish Language, jihad is an Arabic word meaning “a religious war”.

Education Minister Ismet Yilmaz argued that the word was misinterpreted and what it actually meant was to serve the community, to increase welfare, to secure peace and understanding of one another.

Regardless, why are they even introducing the concept of “jihad” in secondary school? If they want to increase the well-being of society, there are other words to use! Minister Yilmaz is simply dissimulating, and I fear his reasons are dark ones.

Less Atatürk.  Erdogan wants to erode the legacy of Atatürk for two reasons: because Atatürk was an ardent secularist, who founded the secular Turkish state and removed many of the traces of religion in public life, and because Atatürk is largely seen—especially by educated Turks—as a hero, and his adulation makes Erdoğan look less wonderful. Here’s the scoop:

Other controversial changes include shortening the time allocated to studying the life of Turkey’s secularist founder Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, an introduction to the concept of jihad and more classes on religion.

. . . The coup attempt that took place last year also features prominently in the proposed curriculum.

The secular opposition in Turkey says President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and the governing AK party are trying to move the country away from its founding values, and make society more Islamic and conservative. Mr Erdogan has repeatedly expressed his ambition to raise pious generations.

Finally, much less evolution. 

[Education minister] Yilmaz denied that evolution theory was being completely omitted from secondary education.

“We are not against evolution. If science says something, it is impossible to resist it. Also, the subjects on inheritance, mutation, modification and adaptation are still present in the curriculum. These are all within the theory of evolution,” Mr Yilmaz argued.

“We only say this: Let’s not teach this subject at this level, but delay it to undergraduate study,” he added.

More dissimulation: you can teach genetics, mutation, and even “modification and adaptation” without teaching real evolution. All you have to do is say that there is microevolution but no evidence for macroevolution—something Intelligent Design advocates have been doing for years. As for “let’s not teach this subject at this level,” well, we’re talking about teenagers here, and they’re surely mentally equipped to handle evolution. Further, not every Turkish secondary-school student goes on to college, and not all colleges teach evolution as a requirement. Making it mandatory in secondary school is the way to go.

In fact, the Islamic view of creation seems to be on tap, as the Qur’an explicitly says that humans were created from mud:

Verily We created man from a product of wet earth; then placed him as a drop (of seed) in a safe lodging; then We fashioned the drop into a clot, then We fashioned the clot into a little lump, then We fashioned the little lump into bones, then clothed the bones with flesh, and then produced it another creation. So blessed be Allah, the Best of Creators!” [23:12-14]

And so in Turkey, as in John Scopes’s Tennessee, it may be acceptable to teach that other creatures evolved, but not humans (that prohibition of teaching human evolution was the stipulation of Tennessee’s Butler Act that Scopes was tried for violating.)

. . .critics have argued that the initial chapter on the origins of man has been excluded from the curriculum. Excluding that, but retaining further concepts from the evolution theory, is unhelpful, they say.

“Students need to understand the theory of evolution before they can make sense of concepts such as mutation or adaptation. If you do not teach them what evolution is, but talk to them about these subjects, they will be inclined to just memorise, without learning,” said Aysel Madra from the non-profit think tank Education Reform Initiative.

Head of Egitim-Is, one of the biggest teachers’ unions in Turkey, says the most crucial chapter in the theory of evolution has been dropped.

“They want to teach about the origins of man as it is written in religious texts, as if we all descended from Adam and Eve,” Orhan Yildirim said.

These critics are, of course, brave people, for opposing government policy in Turkey is a precarious enterprise. But kudos to them for standing up for scientific truth and resisting the incursion of religious teachings in the public schools.

I can’t do much about what’s happening in that lovely country, or the oppression of its wonderful and dynamic population, but I can do something about evolution. If anybody is reading this who is a high-school or university teacher in Turkey, I stand ready to come over and lecture about why evolution is not only true, but should be taught. There’s precious little they can do to an American who wants to say something like that. Even if there is, I don’t care.

h/t; Greg Mayer


  1. ian Clark
    Posted August 22, 2017 at 1:52 pm | Permalink

    This is the antithesis of an idealized secular education system, in which evolutionary biology would be introduced in Grade 1 with the specific purpose of countering parentally-driven religious indoctrination.

  2. Barry Lyons
    Posted August 22, 2017 at 2:09 pm | Permalink

    Well, here’s at least one lovely thing happening in Turkey:

  3. Randy schenck
    Posted August 22, 2017 at 2:14 pm | Permalink

    One thing that will happen is – if it takes a Visa to get into Turkey, you will likely not be able to get one.

    I spent some time in Izmir, Turkey long ago and it was the only time I was in Turkey. The U.S. base there was Cigil AFB. Little did I know that was the site which played a large part in the Cuban Missile Crisis just a few years earlier. In fact not many knew about this until more recent history after all the things from the Kennedy years were declassified. Nuclear missiles in Turkey, another Kennedy secret for a time.

    • infiniteimprobabilit
      Posted August 22, 2017 at 10:07 pm | Permalink

      Hmm. From Wikipedia: Visa Policy of Turkey

      Holders of passports of the following 42 countries and territories can obtain multiple-entry e-Visas online prior to arrival or for those arriving to Turkey without e-Visas will be able to obtain them via interactive kiosks placed in Turkish airports for a maximum stay of 90 days within 180 days (unless otherwise stated):
      (list includes USA)

      Doesn’t sound like they’d have much opportunity to scrutinise PCC’s application.

      Or it’s all here:

      Looks like the e-Visa includes Conference/Seminar/Meeting

      But doubtless if PCC speaks they could find some law he’s contravened.


  4. Posted August 22, 2017 at 2:31 pm | Permalink

    Prof(E)I doubt they would let you in if that was your stated aim. A charge of being an external agitator or something like that.
    To do it covertly would be dangerous and a reason to arrest and deport, or worse.
    But then again i would not know how the Turkish ruling party would see you… but a threat to their odious theocracy does come to mind.

    • Paul S
      Posted August 22, 2017 at 2:40 pm | Permalink

      Arrested for educating. I can’t express how disheartening that sounds.

      • Posted August 22, 2017 at 2:52 pm | Permalink

        yes… a frustration in a denial of truth and progression simultaneously.. what a dead end.

  5. kirbmarc
    Posted August 22, 2017 at 2:38 pm | Permalink

    I’m of Turkish ancestry, this kind of news makes my blood boil.

  6. nwalsh
    Posted August 22, 2017 at 3:10 pm | Permalink

    The Donkey made my day thanks Barry.

  7. Posted August 23, 2017 at 3:27 am | Permalink

    He made a golem!

  8. Posted August 23, 2017 at 8:48 am | Permalink

    Erdogan’s goons beat up Americans in America and got away with it. They could do anything they want to you there.

  9. Torbjörn Larsson
    Posted August 23, 2017 at 11:20 am | Permalink

    How religion destroys everything. :-/

  10. Posted August 23, 2017 at 12:11 pm | Permalink

    Your courage is heart warming, Jerry. I hope it doesn’t end badly, though.

  11. Matt Jenkins
    Posted August 28, 2017 at 12:34 pm | Permalink

    Hopefully the risk to Professor Coyne’s safety would be low… but it would raise the profile of WEIT, particularly in the Middle East, significantly. I guess.

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