WASHINGTON - Turkey has always prided itself on being a secular state.
The nation enshrined the separation of church and state in its constitution by constitutional amendment in 1928. But that was nearly a century ago, and about 99 percent of the nation’s citizens are now identified as Muslim.
Watch: Evolution vs. Erdogan: Turkey Struggles with Basic Science
The current government of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has received some criticism for eroding the country’s historic commitment to secularism and moving the nation in a more fundamentalist direction.
Recently, in a decision that many saw as moving Turkey away from secularism and toward Islam, the government banned the teaching of evolution in high school.
That means Turkish students entering high school will no longer learn naturalist Charles Darwin’s theory that all living things share a common ancestor. It is a simple idea that is the foundation of the study of life on Earth and beyond.
In explaining its decision, the government said it is not about Islam. Instead, officials said that students, “Don’t have the necessary scientific background and information-based context needed to comprehend” the theory.
Alpaslan Durmus, head of the education ministry’s curriculum board, said members thought the theory should be taught to higher-level students.
“We tried to leave out some of the controversial issues from our students’ agenda,” Durmus added.
Unable to compete on world stage
Whatever their reason, critics say the practical outcome is that Turkish children will not get the education they need to compete on the world stage.
“The Turkish education system is very weak concerning the fundamental sciences,” secular scholar Alaattin Dincer told VOA. “Both in domestic and international exams; be it in math, physics, chemistry and biology, our students have very low passing grade percentages. It is actually terribly low.
“If you don’t tell our children, the next generation, about science and evolution and Darwin; if you raise them without them learning those subjects, how can you argue that we are a scientifically enlightened country that can producer the scientists of the future? How can you tell them this?” Dincer asked.
Other critics say it is part of a plan by President Erdogan to embed an official Islamic identity into Turkish society. But like Catholic scholars, many Islamic theologians say evolution and Islam can co-exist quite easily.
“If something has scientific truth, then you cannot stand against it,” Ihsan Eliacik, a Muslim theologian, told VOA. “If evolution is scientific truth that exists in nature, nobody can stand against it. Because it is true. Fiction cannot cover a lie. A religious faith cannot destroy truth. Besides, by my religious faith, scientific truth means religious truth. The two are not contradictory.”
VOA Turkish Service’s Tan Cetin contributed to this story.