Thursday, December 04, 2014

A new paper on Islamophobia and Islamic Creationism in Europe

by Salman Hameed

I have a new paper out in Public Understanding of Science that looks at the context for Islamic creationism in Europe. In particular, the focus is on the way evolution-rejection may be becoming a marker of identity amongst Muslim minorities in Europe and how media coverage is further polarizing the narrative, particularly in the UK. This is all the more relevant as a new study has shown that in the UK, Muslim men were "up to 76 per cent less likely to have a job of any kind compared to white, male British Christians of the same age and with the same qualifications. And Muslim women were up to 65 per cent less likely to be employed than white Christian counterparts".

Here is the abstract of my paper from Public Understanding of Science (you can get a pdf here):
Islamic creationism has been noted as a serious concern in Europe. There have been reports of boycotts of university evolution lectures and, in one extreme case, even a threat of violence. While religious objections are indeed at play in some cases, our understanding of the rise of Islamic creationism should also take into account socioeconomic disparities and its impact on education for Muslim minorities in Europe. Furthermore, the broader narrative of rejection of evolution in Europe, for some Muslims, may be bound up in reactions to the secular culture and in the formation of their own minority religious identity. On the other hand, the stories of Muslim rejection of evolution in media end up reinforcing the stereotype of Muslims as “outsiders” and a threat to the European education system. A nuanced understanding of this dynamic may benefit those who support both the propagation of good science and favor cultural pluralism.
I will highlight the last section of the paper that talks about perceptions of the controversy over Islamic creationism in Europe. But if you want to look at broader scio-economic context, then read the full paper. The last section here uses the example widely disseminated newspaper coverage about apparent Muslim student walkouts from evolution classes and what that tells us about identity politics and media in the UK:

4. Perceptions of the controversy over Islamic creationism in Europe 
The controversy over evolution feeds into a broader European narrative. On the one hand, many Europeans see Muslim practices as a direct challenge to their traditional values, while at the same time, many Muslims in Europe feel that they are being forced to assimilate at the cost of their religious beliefs[1]. This makes the challenge of addressing Islamic creationism in Europe perhaps one of the most complex issues related to science education. 
 In order to address Islamic creationism in Europe, we have to start by asking what do “evolution” or “Darwin” means for various Muslim minorities in Europe? What is it that is being rejected? As laid out above, for a number of Muslims, “evolution” or “Darwin” may simply stand for secularism, which they may perceive as an attack on their Islamic identity. For some, it may stand for racism as they conflate evolution with ideas of social Darwinism. From the limited studies that are available, we also know that some European Muslims accept microevolution but reject macroevolution, some accept animal evolution but reject human evolution, and some accept all of evolution (Koning 2006; Clement 2013; Elsdon-Baker 2014). These responses may be correlated with different education backgrounds and social classes, and education strategies must take this diversity into account.  
Unfortunately, the media coverage of evolution controversy involving Muslim minorities only reinforces the stereotypes. In UK, for example, a Daily Mail headline declared “Atheist Richard Dawkins blames Muslims for ‘importing creationism’ into classrooms” (Macrae 2008). Similarly, a headline in The Guardian referred to the former director of education at the Royal Society and Anglican priest, Michael Reiss, when stating that “Migration is spreading creationism across Europe, claims academic” – a not so subtle reference to the Muslim minorities (Butt 2009). The article goes on to quote Reiss, “What the Turks believe today is what the Germans and British believe tomorrow. It is because of the mass movement of people between countries.” 
Such stories not only treat Muslims as a monolithic entity and outsiders, but also create a narrative that the default Muslim position is a rejection of evolution. The framing of these stories portray Muslim immigrants as a threat to the European education system. This leads to the further marginalization of the Muslim minority which sees this as a threat to assimilate. Furthermore, it is only considered news when Muslim students reject evolution. Once a stereotype of a Muslim position on evolution has been created, it is easy to report stories with the same framing.  
Perhaps the most egregious example of this comes from November 2011. In an interview with The Times, the British evolutionary biologist Steve Jones mentioned that he used to get mostly Christian creationists, but now some Muslim students were boycotting his evolution classes: “It is a minority of students ... but [the problem] is definitely there and it is definitely growing” (Grimston 2011). The popularity of this article in mass media is instructive. The headline of the Times article itself was “Muslim Students Boycott Lectures on Evolution”. The Global Mail reported on it with the headline “Muslim Medical Students Boycotting Lectures on Evolution…because ‘it clashes with the Koran’.” It was picked up and reported by the BBC and Al Jazeera, by numerous international newspapers, and was the topic on various blogs on the internet with the same headline.  
Note that this was an anecdote from Steve Jones and he mentioned a “minority” of Muslim students. In fact, in a follow up article for The Telegraph, Steve Jones explicitly stated that at “University College London we have numbers of Islamic students, almost all dedicated, hard-working and able. Some, unfortunately, refuse to accept Darwin’s theory on faith grounds, as do some of their Christian fellows” (Jones 2011). But the headlines give the impression that Muslim medical students are en masse walking out of classes. This is perhaps what comedian Stephen Colbert calls Truthiness: “it doesn’t have to be true, but it just has to feel true.”  
These stereotypes also play into the hands of the extremes. The Steve Jones story was highlighted by several right-wing anti-Muslim websites, such as Jihad Watch, Atlas Shrugs, and Islam versus Europe: Where Islam spreads, freedom dies, as an example of the threat of Muslim presence in the West (Figure 2) [Please note that this figure was replaced by its text in the published paper].

Figure 2: A screenshot of coverage of Steve Jones story on Jihad Watch
On the flip side, the organization of Harun Yahya cited this as an example of a growing tide of students now supporting his anti-evolutionary ideas, and used it to reinforce his own narrative (Figure 3)[Please note that this figure was replaced by its text in the published paper]. 
Figure 3: A screenshot of Steve Jones story on the website of Harun Yahya
The reality, in fact, is more complex even for those students who may have sympathies with the views of Harun Yahya. I recently interviewed one of the organizers of the 2008 UCL event that hosted two speakers from Harun Yahya's organization. She is a medical student and a second-generation immigrant from Pakistan. At the time of the event she did not know much about Yahya’s organization but had the impression that they represented the Islamic view on evolution. However, she was disappointed at the unsophisticated level of talk and believed that “the organization [of Harun Yahya] was very bad at presenting the facts of evolution in a scientific manner”. In fact, she was shocked when she found out a couple of individuals from her organization liked the talk. Ultimately, however, she was disappointed for the non-Muslims that had attended the talk: 
[Be]cause of the press coverage it drew in a…big audience and the audience were very disappointed. They were like, it doesn’t make any sense…their arguments don’t make any sense, and so a lot of non-Muslims came as well, and they were disappointed. I…brought some people and friends as well and…overall everyone was quite disappointed. But there were a few people that loved it. It was very mixed but a majority of people thought the talk went badly. Badly enough that when they tried to redo a talk by the same organization, but these were people who hadn’t been there when the first talk done, we kind of pushed for it to never be done again at UCL.
Perhaps this student is not an ideal candidate for Islamic creationism. She is well educated and could easily see through the relatively crude form of creationism presented by Harun Yahya’s group. Her desire to invite Harun Yahya's group was less motivated by epistemological concerns but had more to do with the idea of defending Islam. During the interview, I also asked her about her own personal views on evolution: she accepts microbial evolution and animal evolution, but has trouble accepting human evolution. When asked if there can ever be sufficient evidence to convince her of the reality of human evolution, she left the door open by saying “I think it is important to keep an open mind, and I think it is important if there is evidence to look at it objectively because you should use your brain and your faculties to understand the evidence that is put in front of you.”           
The student above is a good example of a smart and educated person who is navigating a complex cultural landscape involving science, religion, and social identity. She was seeking a Muslim voice – not necessarily a creationist one – to speak out on evolution, and Harun Yahya was the only alternative available to her. It is quite clear then that the efforts to communicate evolution will not be successful if it is perceived as another effort by the state to “assimilate” Muslims into the European culture. 
A criticism from outside, even if there is diversity of opinion on the matter, can be seen as an attack on the whole community. Kabir (2012) noted such a reaction in response to negative comments about niqab by British politician, Jack Straw, even though only a minority of Muslim women takes the niqab. In fact, some of her interview subjects pointed out instances where Muslim women started taking the niqab in response to this particular controversy. The media and the politicians, Kabir writes, were powerful agents that reinforced a negative Muslim stereotype (p. 162).

A recent panel discussion in London featured Muslim theologians and biologists explicitly discussing the question of evolution’s place in Islam. Organized by the British-based Deen Institute, this intra-faith discussion had a provocative title, “Have Muslims Misunderstood Evolution”?  The panelists included two biologists, two theologians, and a spokesperson for Harun Yahya. Even with a steep entry charge, the hall was capacity full at 850 people, comprising mostly of a Muslim audience. The two Muslim biologists on the panel defended the science of evolution (including human evolution) and eloquently explained the way they reconciled their religious faith with biological evolution. Even amongst the two theologians, one accepted all of evolution including that of humans, and the other drew the line at human evolution (Hameed 2013). The audience, judging from the reaction to the panel discussion, was interested in the topic and seemed to represent a full spectrum of views on evolution and its place in Islam.  
An event such as this belies the common portrayal of Islamic creationism in Europe. In fact, the usual construction of evolution as a contested and antagonistic cultural marker benefits Islamic creationists as well as anti-Muslim groups in Europe. A nuanced understanding of this dynamic – one that resists this and its polarizing narrative - may benefit those who support both the propagation of good science and favor cultural pluralism.
You can find the pdf of the paper here


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