Turkey’s Bosphorus Bridge, which spans the strait dividing Europe and Asia. ©Dave Bartruff/Corbis
To find the front lines of a culture war in Turkey, walk into a kebab shop in the Uskudar district of Istanbul. Meat sizzles on metal skewers, and Persian carpets adorn the walls. Look closely and you’ll find a portrait of Charles Darwin—framed in dripping blood.
This is a “creation museum,” the brainchild of Adnan Oktar. He’s the 50-year-old founder of Bilim Araştirma Vakfi (“Scientific Research Foundation”), a creationist organization mounting one of the most potent offensives against evolution outside of the United States.
In its latest campaign, BAV has opened more than 80 “museums” in restaurants, malls, and city halls across Turkey, each stocked with fossils, posters, and eager volunteers. Oktar’s disciples use tactics cribbed from US organizations like California’s Institute for Creation Research, instructing passersby that evolution cannot explain biology’s complexity and is against the word of God.
But unlike its western counterparts, Oktar’s group claims Darwin is responsible for communism, fascism, and terrorism. Terrorists, according to Oktar, are “social Darwinists hiding under the cloak of religion,” while communists, still active in Turkey, are in “bloody alliance” with Darwinism. “Evolution is a communist and fascist belief,” offers Tarkan Yavas, BAV’s president. “The Muslim community understands that now.”
Terrorists, according to Oktar, are “social Darwinists hiding under the cloak of religion,” while communists, still active in Turkey, are in “bloody alliance” with Darwinism.
Turkey is among the most Western of Muslim nations. It teaches evolution in its schools, but, even so, appears to be losing the science education battle. In 1985 the minister of education mandated that creationism be included in science textbooks. By the late 1990s, the BAV was attacking scientists who opposed a creationist curriculum via slander and death threats. The cumulative damage to science has been significant. Ümit Sayin, a neurologist at Istanbul University and outspoken critic of Turkish creationism, estimates that the number of university-educated Turks who understand evolution has dropped to 20 percent from 40 percent over the past 15 years.
BAV, founded in 1990, grew from the Turkish fringe into a global media empire. Oktar claims to have 4.5 million followers worldwide, who read his hundreds of books and essays and have seen the dozens of television documentaries that BAV produces and provides free of charge to Turkish TV stations. BAV’s Web sites offer downloadable PowerPoint presentations and questions to challenge science teachers. The foundation organizes anti-evolution conferences and petitions and runs a telemarketing scheme to sell books by Harun Yahya (Oktar’s pen name), which are available globally in 29 languages. Only Oktar and his lieutenants seem to know where the money for all these initiatives comes from, and they’re not telling.
Critics denounce Oktar as a charlatan, citing his lack of science education and suspicious productivity. “Harun Yahya is not a person, but a brand that’s cornered the market,” says Taner Edis, a Turkish physicist at Truman State University in Kirksville, MO. Recently, Edis was asked to contribute to an Israeli professor’s compilation of essays on religion and evolution. So was Oktar.
In August, Science published an analysis of global public attitudes toward evolution showing that, out of 34 sample countries, the US and Turkey had the lowest acceptance of Darwin’s theories. While their cultures may be at war in other realms, the enemies of science in both the Middle East and Middle America are finding common ground: Last year, in a continuation of the collaboration between BAV and anti-evolutionists in the US, a BAV spokesman flew to Kansas to testify in support of intelligent design in the state’s school-board hearings.
Originally published November 3, 2006