By Daniel Dombey in Istanbul and Funja Guler in Ankara
A series of books for primary schoolchildren, describing Charles Darwin as a Jew with a big nose who kept the company of monkeys and other historical figures in anti-Semitic terms, has caused outrage in Turkey amid fears of rising religious intolerance.
A teachers’ union is taking legal action over the distribution of the books last week to about 1,000 schoolchildren in the Maltepe district of Istanbul. The local education authority, which approved the books and ultimately answers to the central government, has denied knowledge of their content.
But the incident has already made waves far beyond Maltepe. It follows previous attacks in Turkey on the theory of evolution; last year, an internet filter briefly restricted access to evolutionist websites.
It also comes in the wake of wide-ranging education reforms pushed through this year by the country’s Islamist-rooted government, which have increased the number of religious schools in Turkey and introduced optional lessons on the Prophet Mohammed in ordinary state schools.
Such changes are hailed by the government as increasing freedom of choice in a country that for decades excluded the religiously conservative majority. Opponents say the secular educational system is being threatened.
“The education system is becoming reactionary; imams are now teaching religion in schools,” said Mehmet Aydogan, an official in the union asking for the books to be impounded. “These books are discrediting worldwide accepted artists and scientists and forcing students to think unscientifically.”
The European Commission and other bodies have long complained that the traditional Turkish education textbooks are deeply flawed, painting minorities as untrustworthy and treacherous.
But the books in Maltepe, intended as potted biographies, go further. A book on Albert Einstein describes the physicist as “filthy and slovenly”. Immediately after saying that he ate soap, it adds: “The sad part is during that time the Gestapo was putting Jews into ovens and making them into soap.”
The book on Darwin says the proponent of natural selection “had two problems: first he was a Jew; second, he hated his prominent forehead, big nose and misshapen teeth.” It adds that he threw nuts to monkeys at the zoo rather than go to school. Darwin was not Jewish.
Speaking to Turkey’s Radikal newspaper, Faik Kaptan, Maltepe’s director of education, said he had not read the books, adding: “It is not possible to check all the books distributed in the district.”
But Yaman Akdeniz, a professor of law at Istanbul’s Bilgi university, said that the attack on Darwin came in the context of a more general assault on evolution, which many Turks associate with atheism. Mr Akdeniz represented Richard Dawkins, the British scientist, in a case that successfully reversed a two-year ban on Mr Dawkins’ website. “Evolution is the second most sensitive issue after sexually explicit material,” he said.
Financial Times, 25.10.2012