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Science says the debate is over; religious zealots say otherwise

In statements ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant -- the jihadist group that controls parts of Iraq and Syria) announced that it was "reforming" education in the Iraqi city of Mosul.

I. No More Pencils, No More Books

The group's leadership released a statement proclaiming:

[We'd like to share the] good news of the establishment of the Islamic State Education Diwan by the caliph who seeks to eliminate ignorance, to spread religious sciences and fight the decayed curriculum.  [Educators must] teach and serve the Muslims in order to improve people of the Islamic state in the fields of all religious and other sciences... This announcement is binding.  Anyone who acts against it will face punishment.

What does this mean in practice?  Well, some subjects such as art (wouldn't want to risk a Mohammad cartoon) or history (kind of hard to teach it, when you're trying to rewrite it) are "permanently annulled".  So too are classes to teach Mosul's predominately Sunni Islamic population about other religions such as Christianity and Judaism.

But the self-styled "caliphate" was not stopping at the humanities.  It also sought to replace the foul Western "science" with "religious sciences".  More specifically, it banned teaching the theory of evolution.
 
Teachers have good cause to be wary of defying the prohibition.  ISIS has committed mass murder on a large scale of religious opponents, killing Shiite Muslims, Kurdish Iraqis, Christians, and basically anyone else who doesn't embrace their religious views.

II. Monkey Business

This issue should sound somewhat familiar to the U.S.

Observing adaptation in nature in the 1830s and 1840s, Charles Darwin formulated the hypothesis that adaptations were inherited via a process known as natural selection.  In 1859, Darwin published his groundbreaking work, On the Origin of Species.  In the U.S. where Darwin had no copyright, the book was nonetheless equally popular and controversial.

Charles Darwin
Charles Darwin's theory of natural selection triggered a fierce debate in the 1800s.

By the 1870s the "controversial" part had faded from the scientific community which had come to embrace expanded and refined versions of Darwin's theory in the face of overwhelming morphological and paleontological evidence.  But in the general population evolution devolved into a three-sided debate.

Members of the public with a greater background in natural sciences general adopted a secular view of evolution as simply a natural phenomena.  Another group embraced the views of Asa Gray who proposed that evolution was real, but was guided by a divine "design".  A third group flatly rejected the idea of evolution altogether.  They were led orthodox Calvinist theologian Charles Hodge whose 1871 work "What is Darwinism?" became a popular rebuttal to "Darwinism", which Hodge argued to be atheism in disguise.

By the 1920s religious views on the topic had softened across much of the country, but in some parts -- particularly southern states -- it remained a taboo topic.  Narratives published between 1910 and 1915 in Volumes 7 and 8 of the Protestant Christian essay series The Fundamentals delivered particularly fiery attacks against the theory, in spite of the fact that some of the essay series' other theologians had by then embraced the idea.  

The Fundamentals (from which the modern meaning of "fundamentalism" originated) inspired Tennessee politicians to in 1925 pass the Butler Act, a bill which narrowly mirrored the policy we see today from ISIS.  The law made it a misdemeanor to teach about evolution or deny strictly literal interpretations of Biblical creationism.

Scopes sentencing
Tennessee schoolteacher John Scopes was convicted of a crime in 1929 for teaching evolution to high school students.

In 1929, John Thomas Scopes -- a Tennessee high school teacher -- was tried under the law for teaching evolutionary theory.  The case ignited a media frenzy and became known as "the Scopes Monkey Trial".  After a fierce debate Scopes was found guilty, but was pardoned by the state Supreme Court on a technicality; the law would remain on the books until 1967 when it was struck down on free speech grounds.

III. School's Out for the Summer / School's Out Forever

Today strengthened by the knowledge of modern genetics, a greatly broadened archive of paleontolgical specimens, and even direct observations of evolution of biosynthetic pathways in the laboratory, evolution is a core part of science curriculum in America.  And yet even today, some groups are working to try to protect public school teachers who abandon state curriculum, denying evolutionary theory in favor of religious creationism.  There have also been efforts to revise the curriculum to avoid the topic of evolution.

South Park evolution
[Image Source: South Park Studios]

In other words, ISIS's ideas may seem outlandish to those with science backgrounds, but to many in America they're preaching to the choir.  Sociological studies have suggested groups like ISIS and American evangelical creationists share a common opposition to evolutionary theory due to a common root factor -- fear of the unknown.

That hypothesis would make sense somewhat; if anyone knows a thing or two about spreading fear, it's ISIS.

Neanderthal chuck norris
Neanderthal Chuck Norris is displeased with those who ignore science. [Image Source: BBC]

But fear is a relatively weak tool against the scientific truth.  Indeed, while teachers in Mosul weren't even believed to have tought evolution prior to the ISIS edict, nonetheless they have taken issue to the demands.  Classes were supposed to start on Sept. 9, but teachers simply didn't show up.

A teacher, speaking anonymously to the Associated Press, says that local educators would rather be out of a job than to teach children in ISIS-run schools.  He comments:

What’s important to us now is that the children continue receiving knowledge correctly, even if they lose a whole academic year and an official certification.  They will brainwash them and contaminate their thoughts.

Unable to receive a free education thanks to ISIS, most parents in the city have now turned to home schooling.  Mosul was home to 1.8 million people after the war, but the population may now be closer to 1.5 million, as many Iraqis fled the city when ISIS arrived.

Sources: AP, Talking Points Memo, MSNBC





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