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Evolution at center of Turkish culture wars

Erdogan has solidified his powers

Istanbul, Turkey CNN  — 

Turkish high school students will no longer be taught the theory of evolution.

The subject has been cut from the curriculum under changes made to eliminate “controversial” topics, the head of the national board of education, Alpaslan Durmus, announced in a video address.

“If our students don’t have the background, the scientific knowledge, or information to comprehend the debate around controversial issues, we have left them out,” Durmus said.

The new curriculum will go into effect for the 2017- 2018 school year.

It was crafted to emphasize national values and highlight contributions made by Turkish and Muslim scholars, Durmus said.

History classes will look beyond “Eurocentrism” and music classes will focus on “all colors of Turkish music,” he said.

Magazine issue recalled

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan survived a coup attempt last year and solidified his power in April in a referendum that handed him sweeping powers.

Critics view the changes in the education system as another step in the ruling Justice and Development Party’s ambitions to make Turkey more conservative. Erdogan has been vocal about wanting to raise “a pious generation.”

The argument that evolution is too difficult for ninth-graders to comprehend is not a reasonable explanation for removing the unit from high schools, according to Ebru Yigit, a board member of the secular education union Egitim-Sen.

Erdogan moving country away from secular path

“The curriculum change in its entirety is taking the education system away from scientific reasoning and changing it into a dogmatic religious system,” Yigit said in a phone interview with CNN. “The elimination of the evolution unit from classes is the most concrete example of this.”

Darwin’s theory of evolution has been at the center of the Turkish culture wars over the last decade.

The government-run Scientific and Technological Research Council of Turkey, or TUBITAK, enflamed the debate in 2009 after recalling a magazine issue featuring a spread on evolution proponent Charles Darwin.

A worrying trend, critics say

The controversy is based in a conservative and hard-line approach to the scientific theory that equates evolution with atheism, according to Mustafa Akyol a fellow at the Freedom Project at Wellesley College in Massachusetts.

But the theory in its most basic form doesn’t have to pose a problem for Muslims, he said.

“There are various progressive theologians in Turkey who argue that evolution is the way God created life via natural means,” Akyol said.

The decision to eliminate evolution from the curriculum “implies that more conservative, parochial and anti-intellectual Islamic views are more ascendant,” he said.

Eliminating evolution from high schools takes information away from students and reveals a worrying trend of getting rid of anything that challenges tradition, he said.

“They could have been still conservative, but also wise,” Akyol said. “The students could have been informed, rather than uninformed.”