Thursday, November 26, 2009

More thoughts on the Darwin conference in Alexandria

Now that some time has passed since the Darwin's Living Legacy conference in Alexandria, couple of things stand out: First, it is quite wonderful that the conference did not generate much controversy both during and after the conference. Academic presentations, whether on evolutionary biology or history of science, went smoothly and usually had a lively exchange with the audience. Yes, there were creationist comments made in a couple of sessions (for example, the BBC debate, the closing panel, and the BBC-Arabic debate), but this was more of an exception during the 3-day conference. Nevertheless, it was disconcerting to hear a few highly educated Muslims defending a very crude form of creationism and displaying fundamental misunderstanding of evolutionary ideas.

Second, Adnan Oktar (Harun Yahya) was barely mentioned at the meeting. This would come as shock to many journalists in the US and the UK who have been focusing on him as the only face that is shaping the response to evolution in the Muslim world (Faithworld has a nice collection of articles on Islamic creationism in the last couple of months and notice how many are devoted simply to Harun Yahya). Oktar loves this depiction - as he thrives on publicity. But the reality is much more complex. There are many local brands of creationism in the Muslim world and Oktar's influence may actually be quite limited (even though he may appear to be the loudest). Perhaps, part if this has to do with his narrative that is directed against Turkish secularism and may not resonate as much in other parts of the Muslim world. Plus, Oktar's obsession with the end-of-days and the return of Mahdi (he hasn't said it himself, but his own predictive signs point to himself being the Mahdi) may be a major turn-off for mainstream Muslims.

Not that other brands of Islamic creationism are any better, but it is important to note the diversity of responses. Furthermore, as was evident at the meeting, there are many Muslims who don't have any problems with evolution. They may look to history and find early Muslim scholars, such as Al-Jisr, commenting on the possibility of change of species, or they may adopt Gould's non-overlapping magestaria (NOMA) to envision science and religion in separate spheres. Whatever the mode, the Alexandria meeting showed empirically that many Muslims (not all by any means) are able to accommodate evolutionary beliefs into their worldview.

Overall, it was a fantastic idea to hold this conference about evolution and Darwin's legacy in Egypt. It brought into focus the variety of ways Muslims are thinking about the topic and it enabled a valuable exchange of ideas - which hopefully will continue. Some more pics in the next post.

See earlier posts:
Darwin conference in Alexandria - some pics
Darwin in Alexandria I
In Alexandria for Darwin's Living Legacy conference

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