Youngstown, Ohio, students are learning creationism in school with materials from a Islamic, Holocaust-denying group accused of being a sex cult.
A curriculum map (PDF) recommends teachers in this public school district show a creationist video, Cambrian Fossils and the Creation of Species, as part of 10th-grade science education. The video claims that the Cambrian Explosion “totally invalidates the theory of evolution.” The Cambrian Explosion was a time period, nearly 550 million years ago, where, over the next tens of millions of years, the number of species on Earth experienced a (relatively) rapid expansion by evolutionary standards. Christian creationists regularly point to this explosion of life as evidence for creation by God and against evolution.
Blink and you’d miss the Islamic connection in the video. A black screen flashes for less than one second that says “this film is based on the works of Harun Yahya.” In the right corner, there’s a gold bubble that says, “Muhammad is the messenger of Allah” in Arabic.
Harun Yahya, whom The Daily Beast has covered before, is a pseudonym for Adnan Oktar, a creationist cult leader and Islamic televangelist who owns Turkey’s A9 TV channel. Yahya (along with his followers) is the author of hundreds books, including an 800-page Atlas of Creation, and another (PDF), which Oktar has now disavowed, titled The Holocaust Deception: The Hidden Story of Nazi-Zionist Collaboration and the Inner Story of the Hoax of “Jewish Holocaust.”
On Oktar’s A9 channel, a group of women in tight-fitting designer clothes and dyed blond hair help him promote Islam and attack evolution, all the while calling him “master.” Oktar refers to the women as his “kittens,” and as Slate reports, he “offers [his kittens’] beauty as evidence of Islamic creationism.”
Anne Ross Solberg, an expert on Yahya, explained in a paper that while Oktar uses many of the same arguments as Christian creationists, and “undoubtedly takes inspiration from American-style creationism, Yahya’s creationism is far from just an American import” (PDF). He’s trying to prove that science backs up Islam.
“The message of Yahya is thus that science does not only confirm the existence of an intelligent designer, but divine creation as revealed by Allah,” Solberg writes.
Oktar has also hinted that he’s the Mahdi, a messianic figure in Islam, whose coming will signal the end times, and that his fight against evolution is part of fighting Islam’s Antichrist, the Dajjal.
“Oktar has never openly declared that he is the Mahdi,” writes Solberg, “At the same time, however, Oktar says that he cannot deny that he shares the physical characteristics of the Mahdi.”
On top of this, Oktar has been accused of blackmail where he snared powerful people with sex.
“As the criminal indictment vividly illustrates, young girls were lured into sex parties with the promise of being admitted to the group, but ended up having to perform sexual acts with men of influence, whom the group needed for its economic and political success,” wrote the New Humanist, describing the charges against Oktar. “The encounters were filmed and used to coerce the men in question to act in the group’s interest.”
In 2008, Oktar was convicted of running an illegal organization for personal gain, but in 2010, the conviction was overturned.
“Oktar denied any of this activity was nonconsensual, and argued that because it included only oral and anal sex, it did not violate the teachings of Islam,” The Daily Beast reported.
Youngstown City Schools did not answer questions about why they are using Adnan Oktar’s materials in science class, but they probably weren’t aiming to promote Harun Yahya Islam. Most creationists in America are Christian, and the majority of the religious materials that the Youngstown district is using are Christian.
The district’s curriculum map calls for teaching “an alternative theory called Intelligent Design,” which is another name for creationism. Youngstown suggests teachers show a creationist video, Unlocking the Mystery of Life, produced by the right-wing Christian advocacy group Focus on the Family and by the Discovery Institute, a creationist think tank.
“Students are reminded how the irreducibly complex system like the flagellum of a bacterial cell could not have evolved slowly, piece by piece and serves as a counter-example to evolution,” says the curriculum, citing another disproven creationist talking point. It also recommends the video Darwin’s Dilemma, also produced by the Discovery Institute. Other materials call evolution a “theory in crisis,” and were created by the All About GOD ministries.
Teaching Islamic creationism isn’t any worse than teaching Christian creationism, but it’s unclear if creationist politicians in Ohio feel that way.
In 2014, state Rep. Andy Thompson sponsored a bill that would allow intelligent design creationism to be taught in Ohio’s public schools. Rep. Thompson refused to comment for this article, because it did not “pertain to any pending legislation.” Still, on his campaign website, Thompson makes it clear he’s most interested in promoting Christianity.
“Shortly after taking office, President Obama sought to reach out to the Muslim world by speaking in Turkey. In that speech he made the comment that America is ‘not a Christian nation,’” wrote Thompson. “I could not disagree more.”
Thompson is not the only creationist politician in Ohio. In 2009, Gov. John Kasich, who recently suspended his presidential campaign, said he wanted both evolution and creation science taught in public school science class. (Kasich’s office did not responded to repeated questions about whether he supports teaching Islamic creationism alongside Christian creationism.)
Still, like Rep. Thompson, Kasich only appears to be interested in the Christian side of things. In a November 2015 speech to the National Press Club, Kasich called for creating a “new [government] agency that has a clear mandate to promote the core, Judeo-Christian Western values that we and our friends and allies share.” Presumably, Islamic creationism isn’t included in that.
Youngstown City School District is trying to “teach the controversy,” which is an old creationist argument for sneaking religion into schools, Americans United for Separation of Church and State’s Rob Boston told The Daily Beast.
“The district is doing its students a disservice by pretending that a controversy exists when none does,” Boston said. “That the district is apparently inadvertently using material produced by an evolution-denying, anti-Semitic Islamic TV preacher who has been accused of running a sex cult only makes the situation worse.”
Part of the reason this district is able to teach creationism is, according to the Ohio Department of Education’s Brittany Halpin, “Ohio is a local-control state and districts select and implement their own curriculum to serve their community.”
That's not entirely accurate though: In 2015, the Kasich administration took over the school district, appointing a chief executive with the power to set curriculum, as The Washington Post reported. While the materials may have been originally created under local control, at this point, the responsibility for teaching Islamic creationism lies as much with the state and Kasich.
What happened in Youngstown, Ohio, is a warning for other creationist politicians and school districts: Sometimes when you use local control to teach the controversy over evolution, you’re not just opening the door for Jesus: you’re opening it for Islamic sex cults, too.
Editor's Note: This story has been updated to include that Youngstown schools are under state control.