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25/10/2014

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Muslims and creationism

Not a simple picture, says Salman Hameed

Not a simple picture, says Salman Hameed.

If one judges by the headlines, it may appear that all Muslims reject evolution.  It may also appear that Islamic creationism is rampant in Muslim communities in Europe and in the Muslim world in general. Not only is this incorrect: the reality is quite a bit more complex.

There is no single Islamic position on evolution. There are Muslims who completely reject evolution, and there are many who have no problem in accepting even human evolution. Furthermore, biological evolution is included in the high-school biology textbooks of several Muslim-majority countries, including Pakistan, Egypt, Turkey, Malaysia, Indonesia, and Iran.

Cultural identity

It is probably that rejection of evolution may be tied to the local cultural and political contexts. For example, this controversy over evolution feeds into the broader European narrative in which many Europeans see Muslims as a direct challenge to their traditional values. Many Muslims in Europe feel that they are being forced to assimilate at the cost of their religious beliefs. The same may be happening in the UK. For many British Muslims (not all), the rejection of evolution may have become part of the definition of being a Muslim. This may be one of the places where they can distinguish themselves from the dominant culture.

In order to address Islamic creationism in UK properly, we have to take into account the immigration history of Muslim populations and the resultant socio-economic conditions. The central question that we have to ask is what does ‘evolution’ or ‘Darwin’ stand for in various Muslim communities in England? When someone says that they reject evolution, what exactly is being rejected?

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 know that some European Muslims accept microevolution but reject macroevolution, some accept animal evolution but reject human evolution, and some accept all of evolution. These responses may be correlated with different education backgrounds and social class, and education strategies must take this diversity into account.

Media stereotyping

However, the media coverage of evolution controversy involving Muslim minorities has reinforced the stereotypes. In the UK, for example, a Daily Mail  headline declared ‘Atheist Richard Dawkins blames Muslims for “importing creationism” into classrooms’.1 Similarly, The Guardian referred to the Anglican priest and former director of education at the Royal Society, Michael Reiss, under the headline ‘Migration is spreading creationism across Europe, claims academic’ – a not so subtle reference to the Muslim minorities (though, fundamentalist Christians are also singled out by Reiss for their rejection of evolution). 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 portrays Muslim immigrants as a threat to the British education system, and that leads to a further marginalization of the Muslim minority. Furthermore, it is only considered news when Muslim students reject evolution, and this creates a confirmation bias. Once a stereotype of a Muslim position on evolution has been created, it is easy to report stories with the same framing.

What is needed is a nuanced approach to communicating evolution that takes into account the diverse socio-economics of Muslim communities, and that makes an effort to understand the deeper social meanings behind the rejection of evolution. 

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Dr Salman Hameed
Dr Salman Hameed is associate professor of integrated science and humanities at Hampshire College. He heads the Center for the Study of Science in Muslim Societies at the college. Find him on Twitter @salmanahameed .
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