Johan Braeckman – The Rise of Islamic Creationism

May 21, 2012

Over the weekend, I was fortunate enough to attend the 2012 World Skeptics Conference in Berlin.

It’s important to keep tabs on our skeptical and freethinking colleagues around the world, and the challenges they’re facing. And in this case, perhaps the most disturbing story out of the conference involved the spread of a new form of creationism—namely, Islamic creationism—in Europe.

It’s a topic I’ve wanted to explore on the show for some time. So in Berlin, I stopped to speak with Johan Braeckman, who has been tracking the subject closely.

Johan Braeckman is a professor of philosophy of science at Ghent University in Belgium, and his research focuses on philosophical issues in the life sciences, particularly evolution and neuroscience. He’s the author of a number of books and papers, including, most recently, Doubting Thomas Has a Point: A Guide to Critical Thinking, coauthored with Maarten Boudry.

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Welcome to Point of Inquiry. I’m Chris Mooney. Point of inquiry is the radio show and the podcast of the Center for Inquiry, a think tank advancing reason, science and secular values in public affairs and the grassroots. At the outset of our show, I want to remind you that this episode of Point of Inquiry is sponsored by Audible Audible’s, the Web’s leading provider of spoken audio, entertainment, information and educational programing. It offers thousands of books for download to your computer, your iPod or a C.D.. And today it’s willing to give you one for free to participate. Just go to the following Web site. Audible podcasts, dot com slash point. Once again, that’s audible podcast, dot com slash point. And since we just had Naomi Oreskes on the show, let me note that her latest book, Merchants of Doubt How a handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on issues from tobacco smoke to global warming is available through Audible. You can download it now for free. Over the weekend, I was fortunate enough to attend the 2012 World Skeptic’s Congress in Berlin. It’s important to keep up on what kinds of nonsense are skeptical and freethinking colleagues around the world are combating. And in this case, the most disturbing story out of the conference, at least for me, involved the spread of a new form of creationism, namely Islamic creationism in Europe. It’s a topic I’ve actually wanted to explore on the show for some time. So in Berlin, I stopped to speak with Johan Brockmann, who’s been tracking this issue closely. Johan Brockmann is a professor of philosophy of science at Ghent University in Belgium, and his research focuses on philosophical issues in the life sciences, particularly evolution and neuroscience. He’s the author of a number of books and papers, including, most recently Doubting Thomas Has A Point, A Guide to Critical Thinking, coauthored with Martin Boucherie. Johan Brockmann, welcome to Point of Inquiry. 

Thank you. Hi. How are you? It’s it’s good to have you on. I’ve wanted to do a show for some time talking about creationism outside of the United States and in particular Islamic creationism. This is something that you’ve studied a lot. What is what is the state of affairs? What do you say that it’s it’s growing in Europe in particular? 

What we don’t have an exact data yet, although research is going on right now. So we, again, give it an indication and it’s it’s fair to say that it’s definitely growing. So more and more people, especially young people. Fifteen, sixteen, 17 year old people with a Muslim background. This is turtle, even fourth generation already. But they still identify themselves, of course, with the Muslim community and an Islam creationism. Their particular form of creationism is very popular among these young people that that’s for sure. Why? Why is it appealing to them in particular? Well, that’s that’s indeed the tough question. 

But in my interpretation, I’ve been studying this for five years now, talked with them also discuss this with imams. And they they listen to their imams very much in my interpretation. It’s more like it’s not about the signs. I mean, they are aware of creationist debates or creationist arguments, just like you have in the United States, you know, second law of thermodynamics and all that. But in my interpretation, for them, the really important thing is it’s it’s giving them something like a group identity. So it’s like, if I may make a comparison here, it’s like you’re supporting for a soccer team or baseball team or whatever. 

And so, you know, you have to defend your team. You have to defend your colors so you can not defend the colors of the other team. And evolutionary theory belongs to the cause of the other team as they see it. So for them, their particular form of creationism will go into that is something you need to defend because it’s part of who they are. It’s part of their group identity. So that makes it very hard to to do deal with it. Gosh, you can’t explain the signs all you want. It’s not gonna work because it’s not about the science for them. It’s about who they are or the way they think they should look at themselves and at each other. So even so, this is what I’ve encountered quite a few times. So even if if, say, your young European Muslim and, you know, the signs of evolutionary theory is is good and decent and sounds, and there’s no way that creationism can be considered to be correct. Right. Even then, for as a young Muslim in Europe, it’s very hard to to tell that to your friends who are also Muslim, because it’s like cheating on your own group. So it’s like supporting for the other team. So that makes it very hard. And for me as an outsider, it’s even tougher, of course. So I’m, um, cracking my hat on this, how to how to handle with this. Cos it’s let let me just add this. It’s it’s it’s also sad, of course, to see that smart young people who might go to university or colleges to study signs or medicine and so on. Well, it’s not gonna happen because they’re turning themselves into scientific illiterates as it as it were. 

This sounds like many forms of science denial where it’s really about a belief system. But surely they must put forward, quote, scientific arguments. I mean, you have to and I know that it’s the emotions and the support for the tribe, which are the reasons that they make up the scientific arguments. But did the argument sound the same as what you hear and say, the intelligent design movement in the United States? 

Well, they they’ll pick and use whatever they think is usable to support their ideas. And but nevertheless, you might have heard of this. There’s a a brand of Muslim creationism. And in Europe, it’s coming from a man called hard on, ya know, that’s not his real name. 

And there is a man who who calls himself Carroon Yahya, but he’s actually working with a whole group of people and they’ve been pulling out this huge tomes of books and leaflets and pamphlets and DVD and everything, especially famous or infamous is the Atlas of Creationism. And that is a very huge book. It’s maybe six kilo or something, whatever. It’s full of beautiful pictures. 

And it’s the group Doha Guy Up Personal Doha Ranya Group has been spreading that book around and maybe in several hundred of thousands of. Well, maybe, maybe focusing on Europe, nobody really knows. Nobody also knows where the money came from because this must have cost a huge fortune really to to do this, to produce it, to print it, to to send it around with it at the post. And so while is the book about this is this may be important. The book contains thousands of pictures of fossils on every beach. She Yushi you’ll see a fossil. And and then another picture of us of an organism. Other contemporary species, and the argumentation is always very short and is always the same. It says, well, if you look at these two pictures of fossil and the contemporary organism, you’re gonna see no difference. Look at it. There’s no difference. So evolution just didn’t happen. And this goes on page after page after page. Now, of course, it’s it’s it’s kind of silly. That’s kind of weak. Yes. It’s full of mistakes. And, of course, there’s differences and so on. So they’re there there’s many even now famous blunders in it, like, for instance, at one time. 

Apparently they didn’t. They were unable to catch a fly or a real fly to make a point about the non evolution of flies. 

So they used a fly fishing fly thing, you know, an artificial fly with a hook on it to prove the point. But, of course, people have been noticing this. So it’s full of stupid mistakes, really. But so if you press Muslims in Europe, whether there’s some scientific background in their belief system, they’ll point to hard on yaaa. Now, of course, this is quite weak and some of them do realize this. So then they’ll skip to other arguments that, of course, you will be familiar with from the United States. They’re going to tell you that what they’re called Darwinism, which is in fact a better term. You should speak of evolutionary theory, scientific theory, because there were Darwinism means a thousand things for a thousand people. So they’re going to use the word Darwinism and they’re gonna equate it to it. Nazism, racism, all kinds of ideological bad things for them, especially for them about Nazism. And racism is bad for everyone, I think. But they also tell you that what they call Darwinism has been invented by Western Freemasons to attack Islam. I mean, that has, of course, no historical proof at all for that has nothing to do with it. But that’s what the Harlem, New York group or people are also saying. And so that makes it tricky because they believe that. And so, for instance, I’ve discussed this with imams now several of these imams on their very kind people. But they’re not very suffit sophisticated people dead on, know much about signs and so on. But they do fall for the arguments of the Hard on Yaaa books and articles that say that’s a Darwinism has been used to defend racism. Now, in a certain sense, there’s a complicated issue in a certain sense. Of course, this happens in the 20s or 30s and so on. But of course, no evolutionary biologists nowadays working at university say looks at the evolutionary theory as a theory to defend racism, that that would be ridiculous. 

But that’s what they think is their cross pollination between are they getting some of their ideas from the, you know, quote, intellectuals, quote, scientists. They have degrees in the United States who make these arguments. Are they reading that stuff and getting influenced by it? I mean, because the arguments of our own yaha that it’s Animatrix, right. They seem not that influence. They seem very different from what we are used to. 

Yeah. They’re much less sophisticated then than what you will find in the writings of, say, Michael B. He or other intelligent design alters in United States. It’s very unsophisticated, really. So the main difference, I think, is that. 

Well, apart from that, there’s nothing about, you know, the statistical improbability of the development of the flagellum, bacterial flagellum and stuff like that assume or the blood clotting system and all that, as you will find in and be his books and all these other intelligent design. Alder’s. 

No, they don’t deal with that, but they are aware of it. But it’s just it’s it’s beyond their grasp anyway. So really, what’s it Muslim creationism is all about? Is just the basic idea that there has been no such thing as evolution periods so dead that it’s not the young earth creation is mentioned, kind of an old God, earth, creationism. Should they accept that the earth or life, the cosmos, the universe can be let on, that they’re not going to tell you, but could be billions, millions, billions years old. 

So there’s a huge difference with the young earth creationism there like it, of course, that there’s a Christian brand of creationism because in a sense, they feel supported by that. But. But they’re dead. Not they’re not really tapping into the so-called scientific arguments. It’s more the ideological aspect that that they will refer to. 

Are they getting this is there a particular part of the Koran that they go to? Because, for instance, one reason, you know, young Earth creationism that we have in the US is actually based closely on particular ways of reading Genesis. So is there something similar there? And that’s why they don’t have to be young. Earth is because the Koran doesn’t. 

Yes, well, OK. This is interesting and somehow complicated also. But the thing is, there are lines or parts in the Koran. That makes it possible for them to accept that the earth is really old and that life is really old. So Alaa or Alaa has created live in universe and everything. Probably a long time ago so that they know why they don’t want to have anything to do with young earth creationism, that that’s totally different. 

But apart from that, the problem is that in their belief system. 

When Sign says something that is right, it must be already in the Koran because the Koran really contains all the knowledge that you can possibly have as human being. So the problem is if something and signs appears that is not to be found in the Koran, then it cannot be true because it should be in the Koran. So that’s why they don’t have a problem with with several contemporary scientific findings, because somehow they will find a line, you know, and reads read the signs into that. You know how that works. You see meaning and random banter. And so these are very old texts, of course. And you can you can give an interpretation to them. You can stretch it. Right. So you can give the interpretation that for sure it’s. Here it is. It’s it’s Einstein already. We find it in the Koran and so on. But with evolutionary theory, it’s different. There are a fuel lines, fuel lines. And some people in the Muslim world argue that also the idea of evolution is already in the Koran. There are few lines that with life and wylder and it’s stretching it. But if you’re flexible enough, you can say, of course, evolution must be correct because it’s already in the ground. There’s a couple of lines there. But but the huge majority is not doesn’t believe that. So the huge majority says are things. It’s just not in the Koran. So it cannot be true. And they feel supported, of course, by the argument that Allah created man in the form that he is now. And so this is also a Christian argument. Of course, if you believe that people evolved from ape like creatures. 

It’s it’s degrading humanity. 

It’s you turn humans into beasts or just animals. So you’re familiar with that argument? They have it to a very telling example of that, I guess. Is that how doing ya? 

The guy we talked about has argued that nine eleven. 

Was not caused by Muslim fundamentalists, but in a courtroom, literally, no. But by Darwinists? 

Well, that’s the kind of thing that gets you herded down pretty seriously. I wish we had actually had more distribution of that in the United States because that would be used as a that’s a real black mark. 

Yeah. So but you understand the logic behind his argument. If he says, well, these people saw the hijackers, so he’s against al-Qaida and the terrorism, to be sure. But his reasoning that these people must have been and touchwood Darwinists literature or Darwinist argumentation and so and that that’s what made them believe or accept that people are nothing more but animals. And if you’re an animal, you don’t have morality. You don’t have ethics. You not have respect for other people’s life. You don’t even respect your own life. So you can do anything you want to do. You can hijack a plane and crashed into a building. That’s because your dog finished. 

Well, this is this is kind of Pat Robertson stuff, as we see in you. Now, you mentioned that some some Islamic thinkers don’t feel that you have to go there and be creationists. So I’m guessing that this correlates closely with whether you’re liberal in your interpretation of Islam, whether versus whether you’re fundaments, because if you’re a liberal, you’re flexible and you can find different interpretations. So that would be a much like the relationship between religion and evolution in the US. 

I guess. I guess so. See, the thing is, with Islam, there’s no kind of Top-Down argumentation. They don’t have something like the pope, for instance. So imams or other Muslim scholars who show who studied the Koran and had and the whole tradition of Muslim theologians, they can give their personal interpretation and others. Others can contradict them. But there’s there’s not authority, say. Right. And so that that’s. That makes it very complicated because you can one Emam can be fundamentally against the evolutionary theory and another Emam can or can indeed say, well, no, but if you look in the Koran, there might be something in it and so forth. But as far as I can tell, the majority of Muslim people now all over the world really are in line with creationism. I mean, we have we do have some service. Right. So in Saudi Arabia, for instance, it’s over 90 percent. It’s over 90 percent in Turkey, which is a secular country with it, great universities. It’s over 60 percent people who are creationist. So, I mean, the huge majority, it’s it’s worse. If I may say it like that, it’s worse than in the United States. So obviously, the Islam is an important factor in creationist ideas. It’s not all coming from Haren, J.R.. To be sure, guys, in several Muslim countries, Islamic scholars look with some disdain to watch Haroen J.R.. I mean, they they they they don’t really appreciate him. But in Europe, he’s quite popular. And in Turkey. 

So he’s influential for migrant communities coming from North Africa and Turkey who live in Europe. First, second, third, fourth generation. But for a Frenchman in Indonesia, some people will know him. 

But but most most men I think most Muslim people in Indonesia will be creationist, but they’re not going to refer to Harwin Gaia. Now, as always, it’s complicated, too. I have to add something more here. This does not mean that Muslim people are against saints. Obviously, they’re nuts in several Muslim countries, say Iran, for instance, to give an important example. Science is big. They’re all in favor. Also, biology, reproductive biology, stem cell therapy, all these these kind of things are really top notch signs that they’re dead. I mean, they’re all in favor of it. They’re doing it. They have excellent scholars and so on. But it’s evolutionary theory that they’re focusing on. And I think in United States, there’s a similarity there. I mean, fundamentalist Protestants are not necessarily against science, but they’re against the evolutionary theory. So did the really interesting question to me is, why do people pick on evolutionary theory that they accept all other kinds of biology when it fits them or shoot them? But it’s really evolutionary theory that that seems to be well, that the net that there can crack, so to speak. Well, it has, of course, something to do with the fact that evolutionary theory, unlike other scientific disciplines also in biology, but especially evolutionary theory, says something about ourselves. It says something about our history, literally about where we come from. Also, something about our identity, I guess. And that made it difficult already in the 19th century. 

Let’s let’s talk about Europe then, where obviously, I guess you wouldn’t say that this is a this is certainly not a majority thing yet. But what countries is it really strong in there? I mean, you know, you’ve you’ve studied this in Belgium. 

I think, you know, in Belgium, it’s it’s pretty big. But I have no reason to believe that it’s different than in Germany or France or any other European country with respect to the Muslim communities. Christian creationism is is a different story like in Belgium. That’s virtually non-existent. While in the Netherlands, which is really next doors, it’s big. So there’s important differences from country to country. But what concerning the Muslim community? I think in Europe, creationism is is is an important factor pretty much everywhere. 

And the research that we have done, we’ve found quite astonishing numbers in a way, as we’ve done and and other people have done the research in schools in high school. So it’s 16, 17 years old, young people. And we even found numbers up into the 90s or in the 90s. Percentage of Muslim off of young people with with a Muslim identity who will respond to that. They do not believe that people or human beings evolved from apelike creatures or, you know, these kinds of service. So we’ve done it preliminary and it’s up into the 90s. Wow. 

So this is part of this is also, of course, a cultural group that is not integrating in general. So, I mean, what you essentially are having is a situation where a belief system that is anti science, the leath with at least with respect to evolution, is becoming a mark of who who they are as as sort of an outside group within Europe. 

Exactly. And that is a very sad thing, of course. 

Now, they need the question of integration is also complicated. I mean, some people, of course, are very, very well integrated. Others are not at all. I mean, there’s fundamentalism is on the rise also. People or women, we are gas and they want to do it themselves. They’re not forced by their husbands and so on. So that’s also an identity thing, of course, a resistant towards all values and tendencies in the culture they live in, but they don’t want to accept that. So we we do understand this, the social psychological dynamics of that. 

And there there is resistance against the culture you live in. And then people become more true believers, so to speak, as their own great grandparents. Right. That’s that’s the logic behind that. And creationism is just one aspect of that whole dynamic. I think, of course, that doesn’t apply to all people with a Muslim background. Of course, there’s exceptions and there’s people who are who think differently and who are very well integrated. But what worries me as as somebody who’s stitching people is that now I’m speaking for Belgium, but I think it’s it’s universal in Europe, more or less with different you, of course. What worries me and what makes me sad is that young smart Muslims are not studying after high school or not getting the degrees that they should be able to get. And that’s why, of course, we need to have this group of people more integrated. Of course. But if you don’t accept basic aspects of science like evolutionary theory, you also, of course, do not accept an basic aspects of the same scientific methodology and science as a package deal. You cannot say, well, this I like and dislike, but this I don’t like. So I reject that. I mean, no, it’s all part of of signs, of course. So you have to accept everything, I guess. And if you don’t, that makes it very hard for you, of course, to to do higher studies and to obtain master’s degrees and become a doctor or a scientist and so on. 

But don’t we have I mean, in in the U.S., we have something that I’ve somewhat popular is somewhat unpopular, called smart idiots. And what I mean is that you’ll have people who have a lot of college education, but they’re quite ideological. And so they’ll actually come up with all these brilliant reasons for rejecting, say, global warming, even though they’re actually highly intelligent. Factly. The fact that they’re highly intelligent probably makes them worse. I mean, DNA in in evolution, we have this, too. We have people who have PTSD who are even better at trying to attack evolution. I mean, do you have. Do you see that kind of thing or is it really rejecting? Evolution is not correlating with advanced degrees at all. 

It’s the ladder so far. I mean, I’m not aware of any example of, say, a Muslim where the be the of course, there are Muslims with PTSD. But who’s who’s big in defending creationism. Like you have in the United States with Christian Scientists. I don’t know any example. That most of the imams say or other Muslim scholars who defend creationism. 

If you talk to them, they’re not scientists. 

They will work in a bank or they will drive a bus or something. That’s what your average imam does, something like this. He also could be what about this cult importance? And then he doesn’t even speak the language and so on. So that makes it even tougher, of course, coming straight from Morocco, say, for instance. 

But there’s plenty of imams who are born and raised here. And these people, of course, have an extremely important function in their community for funerals and births and marriages and so on. But they also give scientific guidance. You see, and they also teach Islamic religion in public schools in Belgium and in other countries. And this is a problem cause other religious scholars say Catholics, if you teach Catholic religion, for instance, unlike I know, say, 50 years ago, these people will not say anything negative about evolutionary theory anymore. I mean, they’re way beyond that. That that that fight has been fought and and that and they’re okay with it. But for Islamic teachers, it’s different. They will teach Islam, but they will add that it’s just not a good idea to accept evolutionary theory. They don’t make the difference between religion and science. Islam is everything. You see. You cannot split that up. So there’s another important problem cause for young people and Muslim people. 

Most of them, of course, follow. 

Islamic religion in high school. 

The one hour you hear from your imam. He’s an imam. He’s also a teacher. That evolutionary theory is racist and everything. And you just shouldn’t accept it. It goes against Islam and so forth. And in the next class, you have your biology teacher explaining all about the evolutionary theory. That’s very confusing and conflicting. And so they most of them don’t go with the signs. They go it with with their group. 

Well, so I guess what this is building up to and, you know, here we can conclude by talking about this a little bit is what do you do when this is part of cultural identity in this way? I mean, it’s hard enough. Well, it’s part of cultural identity in the US, too. I mean, what do you do? That’s the hardest nut to crack? 

Yeah, that that’s what I’m wondering about every day, honestly, because I’ve given lots of talks in schools where there’s many Muslim kids and. I don’t know whether it helps or not, but I’m skeptical about my own effect. To tell you the truth. So clearly this must come from within. What we need are people who call themselves a Muslim. They might not even be really, truly religious people anymore. But still, there must be identified as being a Muslim, have the right credentials, so to speak. And they must set the example, they must say, to to their community. Look, it’s just not the smart thing to deny science. I mean, come on, we we we have to accept this because this is sounds and we have to figure out a way how to be a Muslim and accept basic scientific insights. I mean, it’s not up to me to tell them what to do. But clearly, clearly, this is the rational way for them to go. And I think for them, it’s it’s really important because they are there are already, of course, in a in a vulnerable place. In Europe, they are a minority. There is racism, of course. They are not accepted for jobs there, although they are qualified for it. I mean, there is this huge problems, of course, but there they only make it more difficult for themself. 

Of course, if they reject basic scientific insights, are there any significant Muslim leaders who do stand up and say this at this point, or are they just hard to find? 

I have to disappoint you. I guess they are not. And. Well, there are a few examples of Muslim people who did spoke up for evolution, but that didn’t work out quite well, for instance. OK. This is an extreme example. But still, you know how that works. 

There was a London based imam who who said he accepted the evolutionary theory and he got that threats. So. So it’s stuff. It’s it’s really, really tough. And so it this is not gonna be there’s not gonna be a solution within one generation. I don’t think so. 

Well, Johann Brockmann, thank you so much for giving us this rich and detailed and nuanced picture about what’s going on with Fanti Evolutionism in Europe. I really appreciate having you on point of inquiry. 

My pleasure. Thank you very much. 

Thank you for listening to this episode of Point of Inquiry to join the discussion about today’s show, you can visit point of inquiry, dawg. You can also send questions and comments to feedback at point of inquiry dot org. You can find us on Twitter at point of inquiry and on Facebook at slash point of inquiry. The views expressed on point of inquiry aren’t necessarily the views of the Center for Inquiry, nor of its affiliated organizations. 

One of inquiry is produced by Adam Isaac and Ms. New York, and our music is composed by Emmy Award winning Michael Waylan. Today’s intro featured Debbie Goddard. I’m your host Chris Mooney. 

Chris Mooney