“And it is He who created the heavens and the earth in six days.” Thus read the draft version of a proposed textbook for 10th-grade geography students in Azerbaijan in a section about how the universe was formed. As homework, the book suggested that students prepare presentations on verses from the Koran, referring them to the Azerbaijani-language website quran.az.
The textbook draft was posted online at the end of March for public comment: it quickly became a hot discussion topic as Azerbaijan wrestles to determine the proper place of religion in public life. In response to the posted draft, a group of parents, scientists, and public figures used social media to organize a campaign against what they described as a government imposition of religious propaganda on their children.
“Geography is a science, and textbooks should be based on the scientific literature,” said Yalchin Islamzade, a physicist and education analyst who has been one of the leaders of the campaign. While the geography textbooks were especially “full of religious propaganda,” in Islamzade’s words, history books also have been found with references to creationism, he said.
The 10th-grade history textbook quotes the Koran in the section “Theories on the Creation of Man.” And when it discusses evolution, it does so skeptically. “No evidence is found showing that one creature is turned into another creature as a result of evolution,” it reads.
Azerbaijan is proudly and avowedly secular, a legacy of many decades of forced atheism under the Soviet Union. The country’s constitution describes Azerbaijan as a secular state and proscribes authorities from giving preference to any religion, while also prohibiting them from imposing restrictions on the religious freedom of citizens.
At the same time, Islam has been growing more popular: there were 2,166 mosques in the country in 2016, according to government statistics, up from 17 when the Soviet Union collapsed. Islamic media outlets have been launched, and private Koran courses have become popular among pious Azerbaijanis.
The new textbooks’ publisher, the Baku Publishing House, denied that the books inappropriately impose religion on students. “We live in a country where Islam is the main religion of the population and the Koran is our holy book,” a representative of the company posted in the online discussion forum. “The Koran and the Bible have descriptions about the origin of the earth; if this disturbs you, it is disrespect towards sacred religious books.”
In an interview, Zaur Isayev, the director of the publishing house, said that national textbook standards require offering alternative viewpoints, including to religious views.
“The textbooks don’t propagate religious conceptions,” Isayev said. The passage about the universe being created in six days, for example, is taken from a section called “Assumptions about the Origins of the Universe and Solar System,” he noted. “So, the lesson is based on a discussion of different approaches to the subject. We discuss [Enlightenment-era European scientists] Kant and Laplace, [Soviet physicists] Schmidt and Fesenkov, “Big Bang” theories, and at the same time, ideas from religion are represented. These are important features of modern education.”
More generally, religious ideas do have a place in schools, Isayev added. “Even though our society is secular, religious factors play an important role in our lives. The president swears on the Koran at his inauguration. We are hosting the Islamic Solidarity Games,” he said.
“Until now, history books have only presented the theory of evolution,” said Kamran Asadov, the author of the 10th-grade history textbook. “Students should make the choice for themselves about what is correct.”
Others, though, worry about the impact of religion, and especially the growing influence of creationism and other forms of pseudoscience. Azerbaijanis, curious about new ideas after the collapse of the Soviet Union, were favored targets for creationist missionaries from Turkey.
“For years, creationism promoters have been holding seminars, publishing books and magazines, and using online media in Azerbaijan,” Islamzade said. The Turkey-based religious popular science magazine, Sizinti, has become popular in Azerbaijan, as has the Turkish creationist activist, Harun Yahya, whose Bilim Araştırma Vakfı (Scientific Research Foundation) has a branch in Baku and organizes regular conferences and seminars.
The appearance of creationism in textbooks is not just about religiosity, but a growing “resistance to science” in Azerbaijan, said Ilkin Jafarov, the publisher of an online popular science journal, Yashil Elm (Green Science). “Because it is more convenient and comfortable to believe pseudoscience, no student will be interested in learning about science,” Jafarov said.
Creationist elements in the new textbooks do not necessarily represent a change in the education policy of the state, he suggested. “It is not imposed from above,” Islamzade said. “It is the activity of some group of lobbyists who want to bring religious propaganda to the education.” He added that it is not clear precisely who is behind the lobbying effort.
After the controversy erupted, the Ministry of Education decided to ask the publisher to remove some of the contentious passages, Asgar Guliyev, the ministry’s head of textbook policy, told EurasiaNet.prg in an interview. In the case of the 10th-grade geography textbook, the authors removed the homework referring to the Koran, and qualified the explanation about the six-day creation of the universe, which now reads, “Religious beliefs about the creation of the universe also are common. Religious books like the Koran, the Bible, and the Torah explained the formation of solar system and the Earth by a divine force. For example, the Koran says the universe was created in six days.”
The publisher acknowledged that public pressure forced the changes. “Even though the subject matter isn’t as problematic as it was presented in the media, we and the authors took [the protests] into account and adjusted accordingly,” Isayev said.
“They [the publishers] didn’t expect the society will react so seriously. It looks like they wanted to keep it in the books to quietly legitimize it,” said Islamzade, the education analyst. The response is heartening, he said, “With serious public scrutiny, perhaps, we will be able to preserve our secular education system.”
Durna Safarova is a freelance journalist who covers Azerbaijan.