Sunday, September 17, 2017
By Zeynep Bilginsoy
Turkey has announced an overhaul of more than 170 topics in the country's school curriculum, including removing all direct references to evolution from high school biology classes.
The upcoming changes have caused uproar, with critics calling them a reshaping of education along the conservative, Islam-oriented government's line. Opposition parties and unions have organized protests against the changes, demanding that Turkey provide a scientific, secular education for its students. Lawmakers have also opposed the new curriculum in parliament.
Education Minister Ismet Yilmaz said the new "value-based" program had simplified topics in "harmonization with students' development." He said evolutionary biology, which his ministry deemed was too advanced for high school, would still be taught in universities.
Evolution has been taught in 12th-grade biology classes in a chapter called "The Beginning of Life and Evolution." The unit will be replaced by "Living Beings and the Environment" in September 2018 where evolutionary mechanisms like adaptation, mutation and natural and artificial selection will be taught without a mention of evolution or Darwin.
Yilmaz said students would learn the nature of being, including "evolution and other ontological opinions" in 11th-grade philosophy.
Other contentious changes include teaching about jihad or holy war in religion classes as the "love of homeland," and a lessened emphasis on Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of the Turkish republic who is revered by Turkey's secularists. Ataturk instituted the separation of state and religion, but President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's party has challenged that strict split with a more religious approach.
Students will also learn about the groups that Turkey is fighting: the Kurdistan Workers' Party or PKK, the Islamic State group and the network of U.S.-based cleric Fethullah Gulen.
Turkey's education system is already reeling from the trauma of the failed July 15, 2016 coup attempt — and the new scholastic program highlights that government victory as "a legendary, heroic story."
More than 33,000 of the nation's teachers — about 4 percent — have been purged in a government crackdown after the coup, nearly 5,600 academics have been dismissed and some 880 schools shuttered for alleged links to terror groups.
Many who lost their jobs say the government is using the failed coup as a way to silence its critics.
Turkey blames Gulen for orchestrating the coup, which he denies.
The belief in creationism — that life originated and changed through divine creation — is widespread in Turkey. Many educators are worried because Turkish students are already globally ranked "below average" in science, mathematics and reading compared to their peers across the world, according the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development.
Mehmet Somel, the head of the Ecology and Evolutionary Biology Society of Turkey, says Turkish students will be unable to understand even basic science if their studies make no direct reference to evolution.
"We won't be able to produce good doctors, good scientists, when students graduate from high school with this level of ignorance," Somel said.
Studying evolution allows future doctors to see the causal link between, for example, resistant strains of microbes and excessive antibiotic use, he said.
Cagri Mert Bakirci, a biologist who founded an online learning project called the "Tree of Evolution," calls the ministry's claim that evolution is too difficult for Turkish students an "insult" to them and their teachers. His volunteer project reaches nearly 8 million people each week over Facebook with videos and articles.
"I can explain evolution in 10 seconds," he said.
The two biologists say evolution was never adequately taught in Turkish public schools in the first place. But Somel says the mention of evolution in past programs at least meant that teachers could introduce the topic.
Orkide Kuleli, a retired pharmaceutical professional, said her 15-year-old daughter will now have to learn about Darwin by herself. She was worried, however, about a more insidious change that she says is taking place in Turkey's education system.
"The goal is to transform society politically and ideologically rather than develop it through science," she said. "A generation that does not question is one that blindly obeys."
Erdogan has repeatedly voiced his desire for a "devout generation." Previous changes to the education system have included an increase in public schools providing religious studies and more elective classes on Islam.
The new curriculum will be rolled out in steps and assessed. This year, students in first, fifth and ninth grades will use the updated program. Other classes, including the changed biology program, will be fully integrated next fall.
The education minister has called the uproar on evolution "partisan," arguing that the new curriculum had been open to input. The head of Turkey's education board, Alpaslan Durmus, insisted it was "utterly ignorant" to say evolution has been scrapped when its mechanisms are still being taught.
Latif Selvi of the pro-government Educators Trade Union, which was involved in drafting the changes, also called the widespread criticism of the plan "ideologically motivated."
"My opinion, based on an evaluation with evolutionary teachers, is that this change is positive," Selvi said.
Somel, the biologist, believes that self-censorship may be at work rather than a top-down decision to toss out evolution entirely.
"There is serious fear in universities and in the ministry of education that one may be pushed out, and evolution has become one of those scary themes," he said.
He said Turkish academics now avoid using the word evolution in project proposals even while studying evolutionary topics. This spring, the Museum of Natural History in the capital of Ankara put new stickers on posters changing the word "evolution" to "development." Bakirci said hundreds of experts in Turkey would be willing to help the government improve the country's science education.
"It's not too late to take a step back from this mistake," he warned.
The campaign group Human Rights Watch on Friday condemned the arrest by Saudi authorities of some 30 clerics, intellectuals and activists this week as a “coordinated crackdown on dissent”, and Amnesty International echoed the sentiment.
The arrests were made after exiled opposition figures called for demonstrations following Friday’s afternoon prayers, which did not appear to attract much support amid a heavy security deployment.
Activists this week circulated on social media lists of people detained. They included prominent Islamist preacher Salman al-Awdah, as well as some people with no clear links to Islamist activity or obvious history of opposition.
The detentions come amid widespread speculation, denied by officials, that King Salman, 81, intends to abdicate in favor of his son, Crown Prince Mohammed, who dominates economic, foreign and domestic policy.
There are also growing tensions with Qatar over its alleged support of Islamists, including the Muslim Brotherhood, which is listed by Riyadh as a terrorist organization.
“These apparently politically motivated arrests are another sign that Mohammed bin Salman has no real interest in improving his country’s record on free speech and the rule of law,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch.
The New York-based group said the arrests fitted a pattern of human rights violations against peaceful activists and dissidents, including harassment, intimidation, smear campaigns, travel bans, detention and prosecution.
Crown Prince Mohammed has rocketed to the pinnacle of power in the kingdom, pushing a reform agenda called Vision 2030 aimed at weaning the country off oil and introducing social reforms. Critics say he is not doing enough to liberalize politics in a country where the king enjoys absolute authority.
Amnesty International also denounced the crackdown, urging the authorities to reveal the whereabouts of the detainees and give them access to families and lawyers.
“In recent years we cannot recall a week in which so many prominent Saudi Arabian figures have been targeted in such a short space of time,” said Samah Hadid, the group’s director of campaigns in the Middle East.
“It is clear that the new leadership under Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman is sending a chilling message: freedom of expression will not be tolerated, we are coming after you.”
A government spokesman did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
CALL FOR PROTESTS
All public protests are banned in Saudi Arabia, as are political parties. Labor unions are illegal, the media are controlled and criticism of the royal family can lead to prison.
Riyadh says it does not have political prisoners, but senior officials have said monitoring of activists is needed to maintain social stability.
The al-Saud family has always regarded Islamist groups as the biggest internal threat to its rule over a country in which appeals to religious sentiment cannot be lightly dismissed and an al Qaeda campaign a decade ago killed hundreds.
Islamist movements such as the Muslim Brotherhood, which originated in Egypt and briefly held power there after the 2011 Arab Spring, represent an ideological threat to Saudi Arabia’s dynastic system of rule. The Brotherhood-inspired Sahwa movement agitated in the 1990s to bring democracy to Saudi Arabia and criticized the ruling family for corruption, social liberalization and working with the West, including allowing U.S. troops into the kingdom during the 1991 Iraq war.
The Sahwa were weakened by a mixture of repression and co-optation, but remain active.
Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt cut diplomatic and transport links with Qatar in June over its alleged support for Islamists including the Brotherhood -- a charge Doha denies.
At a mosque in central Riyadh that protest organizers had identified as one of several potential gathering spots, the imam warned worshippers against demonstrating.
“All the groups that exist today and call for political action or aspire to rule -- they are all misguided, deviant groups headed by the Muslim Brotherhood,” he said.
Most people seemed to heed that message, with no demonstrations reported across the kingdom.
Even as Pakistan's prime minister Nawaz Sharif faces a tough time after his involvement in the Panama Papers revelation, one Pakistani woman on Twitter made an interesting choice for his post - India's external affairs minister Sushma Swaraj.
The woman, while praising Swaraj's efforts to help a Pakistani national in need of medical treatment get an Indian visa, went on to say that she wished Sushma Swaraj was their prime minister.
@SushmaSwaraj Dear maam we've applied visa for india, the condition of patient is not good we've got invitation kindly grant us visa :'( pic.twitter.com/c8irNKy0FQ
— Syed Ali Mohd Taqvi (@Aleetaqvi) June 14, 2017
Facing a medical emergency, the request was put up by one Syed Ali Mod Taqvi who couldn't get an Indian visa after several attempts as the application lacked a recommendation letter from Sartaj Aziz, Pakistan's Foreign affairs advisor.
Sushma Swaraj, who already has a large fan following across the border, directed the Indian High Commissioner in Islamabad to take necessary steps to issue a visa to the Pakistani national for medical treatment.
'Gautam Bambawale ji - Inhein Indian visa de do,' Swaraj had tweeted asking the Indian High commissioner to Islamabad Gautam Bambawale to take necessary measures.
The Indian High Commission replied promptly saying that they are in touch with the applicant and are taking necessary steps. “Ma’am, we are in touch with the applicant. Rest assured we will follow it up,” the High Commission tweeted back.
Elated with the gesture, the Pakistani woman said she wished Swaraj was her country’s prime minister.
Lots and lost of love and respect from here. Wish you were our Prime Minister, this country would've changed!— Hijaab asif (@Hijaab_asif) July 27, 2017