ISTAMBUL - The battle between science and its enemies is heating up in Turkey as the fight over the teaching of evolution at Turkish universities increases. Academics are voicing alarm that creationist ideas are replacing those of evolution.
Hundreds of academics and students protest outside Istanbul's Marmara University recently at what was described by its organizers as the first scientific symposium on creationist ideas.
Retired Professor Alaeddin Senel addressed protestors, condemning the meeting.
"Bringing the scientific theory of evolution together with creationism undermines the foundations of science," Senel said. "Creationism is not supported by scientific data and doesn't have any place in education at any level."
The two-day symposium brought together more than a dozen academics to attack one of the fundamental tenants of evolution: the theory of natural selection, which explains how apes developed into humans.
One of the key note speakers was genetics Professor Ibrahim Pirim of Izmir's Katip Celebi University. He claims deficiencies in the evolution theory leaves the door open for religious beliefs in science.
"The molecules and everything, cannot randomly come together - let's call it evolution - this theory makes me so disturbed," said Pirim. "These are not random things, a creator had to put all these things [in order]."
The meeting was organized by a student club, but its organizers claim it was supported by both Marmara University and Turkey's higher education ruling authority.
Critics accuse the ruling Islamist AK party of organizing the meeting. Earlier this year, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan declared "all children will be brought up as good Muslims," defending new education legislation that included classes on the Islamic prophet Mohammed.
Creationism was first introduced into school text books during military rule of the 1980's as part of a policy to encourage Islamic beliefs and counter left wing ideas that were prominent in Turkey at the time.
But academics claim prominence to creationist ideas in school textbooks has increased under the ruling AK party.
Assistant Professor Kerem Cankocak of Istanbul's Technical University explains its roots with Turkey's military rulers.
"It has been pushed for 32 years after the coup d'etat it started in 1980," said Cankocak. "The military supported these Islamic people and this is the result. My students did not learn evolution in high schools, so, therefore, in my university 90 out of 100 [students] don't believe or don't know about evolution. You cannot teach genetics; you cannot teach biology without evolution because there are no other laws."
Officially, teachers are supposed to teach both ideas. But they are given great latitude in their classes. Teachers' Union Egitim Sen claims this has led to its members facing pressure from a combination of religious parents, school administrators as well as the education ministry not to teach evolution.
The Education ministry disputes such claims, saying all ideas are explored at schools.
Many of the students attending the two-day symposium echoed the view of academic freedom.
STUDENT 1: "We will be doctors. We should be open to all opinions. We should research them. We can't just not accept evolution opinions just because it's our lecturers' political views."
STUDENT 2: "Our lecturers say everything starts with evolution. But there are many things you can't prove with evolution theory. This symposium helps us to talk about it and open us to other ideas."
But assistant professor Cankocak believes rather than being a question of academic freedom, it is more of a case of taking the country back centuries.
"It's the same problem if we teach that the world is not turning, but the sun is turning around the earth. You cannot run a country without science. This is the Middle Ages, and it's getting worse and worse," said Cankocak.
The debate is expected to intensify with Turkey's higher education authority planning a major overhaul of the running of the universities. Critics fear that will open the door to creationist ideas permeating the curriculum at Turkey's universities.