Nadia Yassine is a Muslim intellectual/activist from Morocco. She doesn’t embody the sort of “above the fray” intellectual, detached from untidy personal connections and political motives. Instead, her combination of roles reflects a recent trend in Islamic thought aiming to rehabilitate a religious tradition through local and international activism. In the US we’re more likely to hear about “radical” Muslims who might train with al-Qaeda than about people like Yassine. Such folks make for better newscopy than intellectuals, after all. But she offers much food for thought in her book Full Sails Ahead by taking aim at the West, and critiquing elements of Islamic culture, modernization, and globalization. In a disenchanted modern/post-modern world she hopes Islam can provide a moral compass to guide humanity’s great ship, the sail of which is represented by hijab, or the veil worn by many Muslim women. She’s an eminently snappy author, and while the book is a translation from her French original, I don’t believe much of her sarcasm, wit, puns, or jokes were lost in translation. Is this a common French intellectual style? It felt very Nietzschean to me. Fun, thought-provoking, and aggravating by turns.
What I find particularly interesting for discussion here is the similar way she shifts discussion of Darwin away from scientific claims toward cultural assertions–a move also made by certain Young Earth Creationist Christians in the US. Mormons aren’t the only ones who’ve sadly outsourced views on evolution to fundamentalist Christians.
One of Yassine’s epigraphs suggests her certain for an ethic of dialog: ‘“To comprehend the Other you must not commandeer him but rather become his guest” –Louise Massignon’ (91, page numbers in parenthesis are from Nadia Yassine, Full Sails Ahead [Iowa City: Justice and Spirituality Publishing, 2006]). Such an approach seems to concern her most when the subject being studied is Islam, as elsewhere she says “Finicky academism is sent to the devil when Islam is the subject of study” (130). It’s also sent to the devil when she discusses evolution, which she calls “modern man’s new religion” (35). In chapter 1.3, “The Soul’s Ruin,” she presents Darwin as “inventing the myth of the Superfish.”
Rather than taking things seriously from the outset she insults Darwin by complimenting his ability to convince people that the fables he created were true and scientific (35). She includes a silly poem about “Mr. Fish with legs, tired of his pond” (it must be better in the original French) and calls Darwinism a “poisonous philosophy”; a “pseudoscience founded on a bestial premise,” and says only “modern idiocy” could swallow such a “bitter harvest” (36-7). It makes for fun reading, but as the old saying goes, it tends to generate much more heat than light. We still don’t really know, based on the opening sections, what evolution actually is.
“Every God-given day,” Yassine asserts, “honest men of science disprove the deception and revile the fraud of Darwinian verbiage[?] –in vain!” Such confidence. Moreover, “others not short of competence and valid arguments” have refuted Darwin (37). She doesn’t bother to cite a single one of these “honest men” who daily disprove the “grinning-monkey theory”. In fact, Yassine decides to forgo getting bogged down in the murky swamp (soup?) of scientific research and studies. Instead, “We will content ourselves here with observing Darwinism from the cultural angle—the only one of interest to us, anyway, since even the exact sciences are culturally based” (37). This is an intriguing rhetorical move, especially considering how it parallels religious responses to Darwinism by certain fundamentalist Christians in the West.
Young Earth Creationism developed in the early decades of the 1900s as a counter to Darwinism. Figures like hydraulics engineer Henry Morris tried to prove the viability of a literal global flood.1 Various attempts to initiate actual academic research institutions failed as scientists nearly universally grew to believe the initial creationist research was entirely flawed. But anti-evolutionism did not go away; it became more widespread particularly among evangelical fundamentalists even as it became academically disrespectable.2 As two evangelical Christian scholars explain:
Creationism’s popular appeal derived largely from a powerful social argument, namely, that America’s worrisome slide into immorality, liberalism, and unbelief was caused by the widespread acceptance of evolution and its pernicious influence in areas like education, law, sexual mores, politics, and so on.3
Everything from hippies to drug use to rock music and disobedience to parents could be chalked up to the natural outcome of teaching children they came from apes. The spread of simplistic notions of “survival of the fittest,” a social Darwinism not crafted by Darwin himself and largely abandoned in the academy today, would explain evil in the world for fundamentalists looking for a false gospel to blame.
It is fascinating to note that Yassine’s cultural arguments don’t follow this exact path, but rather focus on perceived weaknesses of Catholicism and Christianity in general in the face of Darwinism. If anything, Christianity set the stage for the acceptance of Darwinism in Yassine’s view. An “unnatural vexation intrinsic to its precepts” gradually wore away at the faith until “Darwinism takes its place in the onslaught against a suffocating and hypocritical church” (38-9). Fundamentalists tied their faith to a Bible “fraught with nonsense,” with outdated stories of origin, global floods, and other scientific embarrassments are forced to perform “mental gymnastics” to try and salvage things (41). According to Yassine’s story, dogmatic atheistic Darwinists on one side are pitted against religious fools clinging to their silly book, soon to give way completely to an atheistic doom.
Thus, some evangelical critics thus employ Darwinism as evidence of wider cultural decadence; their Christian faith standing as the true bulwark against it. Yassine employs Darwinism as evidence of the weaknesses of Christianity and the pathetic capitulation on the part of some Christians who are compelled to act academically respectable even while clinging to an outdated and flawed Bible, or simply abandoning the Bible to its fate by making “a pact with the devil” (45). This is a stark either/or proposition, and one which she would ostensibly apply to Islam: Darwin or Allah, she might offer as the only possible choices. It is strange to see her simultaneously dismissing Fundamentalist Christians while using some of their same rhetorical techniques–dodging discussion of actual scientific claims in lieu of vague bald assertions about the cultural impact of a particular scientific enterprise.
Why attack Darwin? “My precise objective” she says, “is to destroy the barriers that stand between [a] person and his primordial right to know the secret of his existence by recognizing God” (4). She sees in Darwin an uncompromising dogmatism which eliminates God and confines the known world to the empirically observed. God created the earth and we need not know how, but evolutionists certainly do not. In the past, such views were thought to be peculiarly American. Stephen J. Gould, a controversial paleontologist, evolutionary biologist, historian of science (whom Yassine actually quotes elsewhere) reported: “as insidious as [evolution denial] is, at least it’s not a worldwide movement…I hope everyone realizes the extent to which this is a local, indigenous, American bizarrity.” But Gould was wrong, as Yassine’s work suggests.
In fact, perhaps some Muslims like Yassine aren’t incidentally paralleling arguments of Western fundamentalists. In the 1980s a Muslim minister of education in Turkey contacted a fundamentalist Christian group in the United States requesting anti-evolution literature which was subsequently translated into Turkish. An imam named Harun Yahya in Istanbul has produced nearly 200 books in languages ranging “from Arabic to Urdu” claiming that evolution denies the existence of Allah, destroys moral values, and promotes naturalism, the same claims of the Fundamentalist Christians and Yassine.4 Like these authors, Yassine produces works with the trappings of scholarship (footnotes, bibliography, citations) but presents an essentially anti-intellectual argument against evolution.
Why should this concern Mormons? Missing in Yassine’s critique are all of the Christians, Jews, and Muslims who profess faith in God as well as respect for and interest in Darwinian evolution. Missing are the ongoing discussions attempting to reconcile religious and scientific outlooks on the origin of the human species. I’ve reviewed books discussing such things here, here, and here. Belief in God and belief in evolution are not mutually exclusive options.
2. Yassine mistakenly attributes the initial “Fundamentals” publication to William Jennings Bryan’s article of 1923. The Fundamentals were actually a series of pamphlets first published in 1909 and they didn’t initially reject evolution outright, although the author felt “repugnance to the idea” of having an ape as ancestor. Still, he would “accept the humiliating fact, if proved.” See Stephens and Giberson, Ibid., 46.
3. Stephens and Giberson, Ibid., 35.
4. Ronald L. Numbers, “Myth 24: That Creationism is a Uniquely American Phenomenon,” in Numbers, ed., Galileo Goes to Jail, and Other Myths About Science and Religion (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2009), 215.