ISTANBUL — “Turkey will control the world,” said Adnan Oktar, with no hint of irony. It was one in the morning, and we were sitting in a low-ceilinged basement room on the Asian side of Istanbul, bathed in the dim green light from underneath several statues in the corner of the room. A fake cat and a parrot jostled for space next to a plaster double bass, a saxophone, and a grand piano.
Two TV screens were showing a program from A9 studios, Oktar’s evangelizing television channel, housed upstairs. A wall of blue-lit fish tanks sat next to camera equipment. Gaudy furniture clashed with the patterned carpet, beneath a ceiling covered in fake ivy on the lowest floor of an impressive three-storey compound overlooking the Bosporus. Outside was a large swimming pool and a garden featuring live rabbits and lambs that is ringed by a high wall and heavy security.
Oktar is one of many spiritual leaders in Turkey, and claims to have about 300 direct followers in his entourage as well as “millions more” elsewhere in the country and around the world.
Active in Turkey since 1980, Oktar focuses his brand of Islam on close reading of the Quran, with dramatic presentations similar to Christian televangelism. His organization has often been described as an "Islamic sex cult."
Critics have said that Oktar believes himself to be the Messiah, a claim he shrugs off in person, but happily implies when addressing his followers, saying that the Messiah “will speak Turkish.”
He has drawn attention in particular for his female followers, a cartoonish troupe of women in tight designer clothes and troweled-on makeup whom he refers to as his “kittens.”
"Kittens are very cute, they are the best looking animals,” he explained, reclining in his chair. “All women are like kittens. All the women in the entire world.” He smiled to himself briefly, and continued: “Because kittens love life and to love them is beautiful, and they’re very clean. The modern Muslim woman has to dress clean, and high quality.”
The screens of A9 before we spoke had shown the kittens listening with glassy-eyed attentiveness to Oktar’s daily three-hour broadcast, part of the channel’s 24-hour programming.
After a monologue by Oktar, the kittens swayed disconnectedly to some music while seated, as two of his male followers danced around them.
Among his causes, Oktar is an aggressive promoter of creationism, and has published hundreds of gold-embossed books through his organization, the Science Research Foundation (BAV), in his attempt to rubbish Darwinian theory, often under his pen name Harun Yahya.
In 2007, he sent hundreds of copies of his book, The Atlas of Creation, to U.S.-based politicians and scientists, and later succeeded in having Richard Dawkins’s website banned in Turkey after a spat with the prominent atheist.
Despite previous allegations of anti-Semitism following the 1996 publication of the book The Holocaust Deception, which Oktar now claims was not his work, he has amassed a wealth of international connections, and his followers regularly appear in the international media as Turkish political analysts.
Oktar later switched tone and now promotes what he calls “interfaith dialogue.” This has found welcoming ears abroad, including among the GOP and even in Israel, where Oktar counts the rightwing Israeli Member of the Knesset Yehuda Glick as a regular guest, according to Oktar’s staff.
As The Daily Beast reported earlier this year, it appears Oktar’s creationist materials have found their way event to classrooms in Ohio.
Oktar is one of many spiritual leaders in Turkey, and President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has a record of choosing either to co-opt or crush them in his bid for increased power.
Oktar wrote in 2012 that “there is no other leader after Mr. Erdogan,” and has fiercely supported the president’s ever-increasing political ambitions, described by critics as a power-grab within the Turkish state.
The trajectory of other similar spiritual leaders has shown that such figures are tolerated or used for their support as long as they don’t undermine or contradict Erdogan’s policies. Oktar is toeing that line very carefully—for now.
After Oktar’s daily broadcast ended, the screens began to show a threatening video about the militant Kurdish group the Kurdish Workers’ Party, or PKK. Oktar and his followers despise the group for its communist leanings, believing communism to be antithetical to a belief in God.
The mini-film on the evils of the PKK showed a red dot starting in the majority-Kurdish town of Diyarbakir in the southeast of Turkey, growing and spilling out to cover Turkey and northern Syria, eventually reaching as far south as Saudi Arabia.
The star on the flag of the PKK was shown next to a hammer and sickle (which it bore until 1995) and a portrait of Stalin, intercut with a montage of fearsome fighter jets and armed conflict. The war in Syria has reignited Turkey’s longstanding war with Kurdish separatists in the south of the country: more than 250 people have been killed and 350,000 displaced as a result of the fighting, according to the International Crisis Group.
Critics have argued that Erdogan has used the crackdown on the PKK to bolster his own power. Since January, Erdogan has pushed to reshape the constitution, shifting Turkey from a parliamentary to a presidential system with him at the head, bringing criticism of his ambitions for ever-more control.
Asked about this, Oktar said, “Of course normal people are concerned that this will increase [Erdogan’s] power, but that won’t be a problem.” This, he said, is because Erdogan is a “sincere” politician. Yet: “Turkey is not suitable for a presidential system—he wants a presidential system, and I am against that, because it will bring a federal system, and it will divide Turkey.”
For Oktar, this relates to the threat of the PKK. He explained that a president ruling over a federal Turkey would automatically cede some power to the PKK in the south, although there is little evidence that Erdogan would approve of such a plan himself.
While it’s sometimes difficult to view Oktar’s musings as more than spur of the moment comments, straying into the political arena like this could prove risky.
“As long as these charismatic figures and cult figures are willing to work with [Erdogan], they can enjoy a large space for action,” explains Aykan Erdemir, a former Turkish MP and now an analyst with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. “So ultimately Erdogan is less interested in imposing a singular monolithic theological framework, and more interested in consolidating power, building a centralized executive presidential system where he calls all the shots on issues of politics.”
Erdemir explains that charismatic cult-like figures such as Oktar are treated as assets, providing they show no political opposition. He points to similar figures such as conservative imam Cübbeli Ahmet Hoca, who amassed large followings and were previously critical of Erdogan, until they were jailed. On release from prison, Hoca and others’ tone changed to praise for Turkey’s leader.
Fethullah Gülen, sometimes accused of running a parallel state in Turkey through his network of schools, left Turkey for a mansion in Pennsylvania in 1999, before his own clash with Erdogan, stemming from corruption allegations in 2013. Formerly enjoying a warm relationship with Erdogan, he is now on Turkey’s “most wanted” list.
“The fact that you are a charismatic religious spiritual leader doesn’t make you immune, “ explains Erdemir, because, “Erdogan is a strong charismatic leader.”
For now, Oktar’s influence is partly about managing his growing international connections to project power at home.
He is fond of tweeting and blogging incessantly about his ideas, such as his newest theory that the British “deep state” is behind major world events, notably the recent suicide bombings at Istanbul’s Atatürk Airport, which killed 44 and injured 240 people.
On July 3, he tweeted that “the British secret state contracted the attack against the Atatürk Airport to the PKK. Everyone will see the evidences to this very soon.” When asked how he had discovered the threat of with the British “deep state,” he responded that it was a recent revelation that he could back up with evidence through “thousands of documents, photographs and pictures. Many books…the Internet.” He added that this was no judgment on the British state itself, which he views as separate.
But Oktar’s primary way of wielding direct influence within Turkey is through the courts.
He is frequently described as extremely litigious, a reputation earned by bringing court cases against anyone who criticizes him, even managing to have the blogging platform WordPress banned in Turkey for publishing “libelous material.”
His legal agitations include going after those who write critical tweets or Facebook posts, according to Omer Teker, part of an Istanbul-based law firm that has defended many of Oktar’s targets.
“Our clients are the mothers and fathers of Adnan Oktar’s followers,” said Teker’s boss, Emine Rezzan Aydinoglu. She explains that often the cases are actually brought by Oktar’s followers against their own families, claiming defamation or bribery in response to their parents’ attempts to contact them.
“These parents aren’t able to see their children. When they are, there are Oktar’s bodyguards next to them,’ Aydingolu explains. “With ten clients we have worked on nearly 1000 cases.” She adds that they have a 90 percent success rate in the courts.
Much of Oktar’s power is due to the makeup of his following. “He picks up wealthy children,” explains Aydinoglu. “Girls and boys who are well educated. They speak foreign languages and graduated from good colleges.” They are also the likely source of Oktar’s lavish wealth, according to Anne Ross Solberg in her extensive research into Oktar, playfully entitled The Mahdi Wears Armani.
Oktar has had his own frequent brushes with the law. As well as earlier convictions for “promoting a theocratic revolution” and cocaine possession, a 1999 court case against him was resurrected in 2008, convicting him and sentencing him to three years in jail for “creating an illegal organization for personal gain,” using tactics of bribery and threats.
The long-running court case cited examples of Oktar videotaping his followers having sex, or using his female followers to lure the wealthy and powerful for sex in an attempt to blackmail them. The conviction was later overturned in 2010.
Oktar turns his Rasputin-like gaze away and chuckles when this is raised, before proffering, cheekily, “All over the world everyone has sex—it’s not illegal, it’s not a crime.” He pauses before continuing: “That’s slander. That kind of statement gives me more power.”