On May 24, 2012, Senator Jon Kyl, an Arizona Republican, gave an innocuous interview to a visiting journalist from Turkey. “There are a lot of good people who would love to see peace, if only the hatred that exists were to vanish,” he said.
What Senator Kyl could not have known is that the “journalist” with whom he was speaking was actually part of a religious organization whose leader has spent time in jail amid accusations of extortion, forced sex, and bizarre, cult-like behavior.
The apparent duping of Senator Kyl, along with several other Republican members of Congress, is but the latest the story of Harun Yahya (“Aaron John”), which refers both to the Turkish Islamist-turned-creationist Adnan Oktar, and the controversial organization which he heads. As exhaustively researched in a 2013 dissertation by the Norwegian scholar Anne Ross Solberg, The Mahdi Wears Armani (PDF), Oktar has been a master of reinvention for decades.
In the mid-1980s, in the context of widespread instability in Turkey, Oktar was the charismatic, educated leader of a small “born again”-style Muslim community, distinguished by the wealth and elite status of its members. Oktar wore traditional Islamic attire, and preached a return to Muslim values. His was one of many Islamic organizations at the time, cropping up like religious weeds in the cracks of the secular Turkish pavement.
But in 1987, according to Solberg, Oktar was arrested for “making propaganda with the aim of weakening or destroying national sentiments” by the Istanbul State Security Court. Solberg reveals that Oktar “was imprisoned for 19 months, first in a regular prison and then later transferred to the criminal ward in Bakirköy Hospital, where he was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia.”
Remarkably, this episode was only a temporary setback. Oktar called it persecution, and upon his release in 1990, he consolidated leadership of the group, centered on a nucleus of close followers he called ‘brothers’ and ‘sisters,’ now operating as the “Science Research Foundation” (Bilim Araştirma Vakfı in Turkish), which has served ever since as a primary outlet for the dissemination of Oktar’s ideas.
It is at this time that the name “Harun Yahya” begins to refer to Oktar himself, although since “Harun Yahya” is the author of over 300 books, it is unlikely to be a single man’s pseudonym. In this second period, Harun Yahya gained power and influence in Turkey. Exploiting political connections, the sect cut deals with municipalities run by the Islamic Welfare Party, a predecessor to today’s ruling Justice and Development Party (JDP)—including, apparently, Recip Erdogan’s Istanbul. (The JDP has since severed ties with Harun Yahya, some media reports notwithstanding.)
Oktar’s rhetoric in this period was extreme. Already in 1987, he had alleged—in his first book, Judaism and Freemasonry—that a Jewish-Masonic conspiracy was undermining Turkey. Now he added Holocaust denial to the mix. In 1995, Harun Yahya published The Holocaust Deception, alleging that the Holocaust was a Zionist scheme, intended to induce emigration to Palestine, and win global support for the Israeli state (PDF). When an outcry ensued, Oktar denied writing the book, and blamed it on his research assistant, according to Solberg.
Meanwhile, Oktar’s legal troubles continued. He was arrested for possession of cocaine in 1999, but acquitted. He was later arrested for blackmail, and spent nine months in jail in 1999-2000, but was never formally charged by the police.
And then there are the sexual allegations. According to one defector from Harun Yahya, Oktar had sex with all of the “sisters” in the group. And according to the 1999 indictment, female members of the group were also convinced to have sex with men in power—sex that was allegedly videotaped and then used to blackmail the men. In court documents, 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.
Yet after Oktar’s next release, in 2000, he once again reinvented himself—this time as a voice of moderate Islam and Creationism.
Post-9/11, Harun Yahya published a book called Islam Denounces Terrorism, arguing for reconciliation and piece. Oktar recanted some of his past anti-Semitism and holocaust denial—he even met with a handful of rabbis and, amazingly, Israeli politicians from the Shas and Likud parties who seemed unaware of his past statements (PDF) (which anti-Semitism watchdogs have tried to point out).
And he built a media empire, with a cable channel (A9), dozens of conferences around the world attacking the theory of evolution, and dozens of websites featuring a unique blend of Islamism, Turkish nationalism and attacks on evolution, Marxism, and secularism in general.
This third incarnation—a combination of quasi-moderation, litigiousness and nonstop media presence—has been by far Oktar’s most successful.
First, the “Islamic Creationist” fills a niche. The Discovery Institute, the leading proponent of so-called “intelligent design” theory in the U.S., used to list HarunYahya.com as an “Islamic Intelligent Design” website. In Turkey, where fewer than 25% of the population believe evolution is “true or probably true,” Harun Yahya is given credit for promoting creationism as an Islamic science.
Harun Yahya’s most famous book is the 850-page tome, published in 2007, called the “Atlas of Creation.” The “Atlas” is really just a long, long series of juxtaposed images of present-day creatures and fossils, which ostensibly proves how organisms have not evolved over time. (Embarrassingly, one of the images is actually a lure used in fly-fishing, and Harun Yahya’s views have been duly denounced by scientists.)
But Yahya has yet one more image—that of the “Moderate Muslim.” There’s a reason why Harun Yahya’s journalist gained access to Senator Jon Kyl, Congressman Trent Franks, and Congressman Bob Turner, among others. The organization presents itself as a tolerant Islamic voice—the “good Muslim,” if you will.
A9 presents itself as a television network with talk shows and other content about religious tolerance. Yet the channel’s programming often features long digressions by Oktar, polemics about the superiority of Islam, and, of course, Oktar’s followers fawning over their guru. Interviews such as those with the members of congress are then repackaged as conversations with Harun Yahya, and as support for the sect. In a sense, it’s a bait and switch.
Rep. Turner, for example began his interview on Yahya’s A9 network by riffing on the “bond between Israel and Turkey.” He added: “Natural allies in democracy and the promotion of human rights and human dignity. I hope the problems can be put behind them and these two great nations can work together in a cooperative effort for peace and goodwill, as it should be.”
The end of the interview took a slightly different tone, however. “I’d like to congratulate A9 on its anniversary. Good luck and continued success,” Turner said into the camera.
Similarly, Rep. Franks started off his A9 appearance with an ode to “human respect” and “true tolerance.” He closed by saying, “I just want to congratulate your station on your one year anniversary and I hope you continue to do good things for Turkey and the people of the world.”
Harun Yahya’s outreach isn’t constratined to Republicans. Oktar is also a Huffington Post contributor, even as the sect continues to call for a vast “Turkish-Islamic union” obliterating all borders between Morocco and Mongolia.
Remarkably, this new, moderate Harun Yahya has a number of Jewish fans as well. Oktar’s followers have been defended in the pages of The Jewish Press, an ultra-Orthodox newspaper. The former chief rabbi of Israel, Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau, appeared on the A9 talk show. And many of the ultra-Orthodox rabbis who have met with Oktar, while not familiar to outsiders, are well-known figures within the ultra-Orthodox Jewish world: Rabbis Yeshayahu Ha Kohen Hollander, Haim Druckman, Avraham Yosef, Avraham Sherman, and David Stav, who had been a relatively moderate candidate for Chief Rabbi of Israel, and remains an extremely popular figure. Not to be outdone, Rabbi Yehuda Berg, the leader of the Kabbalah Centre (the for-profit pop-Judaism outfit that counts Madonna among its devotees) called Oktar “my dear brother.”
On the surface, it’s not hard to see what ultra-Orthodox Jews like about Harun Yahya. Oktar rails against sexual immorality and perversion (in one book, Harun Yahya says that the blotches on AIDS patients were not Karposi’s Sarcoma but the Sign of the Beast). He calls for reconciliation between Jews and Muslims. And he talks about the need for religious values.
Yet beneath the surface, the Harun Yahya is still extremely unorthodox.
First, according to journalistic accounts, A9 is run just as a “new religious movement” with thirty or so close devotees, and Oktar as the leader. His disciples call him “master.” And he has made several statements indicating that he believes himself to be the mahdi, or Messiah.
Second, Harun Yahya maintains very unorthodox views about sexuality. According to Harun Yahya, “Islam is gaiety, happiness, enthusiasm, submission to Allah, love, compassion and everything that is beautiful.” This rather hedonistic view has surprising consequences. On A9, Oktar is often accompanied by “Adnan’s Angels,” spooky-looking female sidekicks whose ghostly, identical, and apparently collagen-enhanced visages adorn hundreds of YouTube clips.
Interestingly, Oktar’s career is strongly reminiscent of another controversial Turkish-born religious leader, Jacob Frank, who likewise married sexual antinomianism with economic opportunism. Frank, like Oktar, went through many evolutions in his career, and also gained a measure of respectability at the end of it, styling himself as a baron and living in a borrowed mansion. But then again, Frank lived in the 18th century—Harun Yahya has 12,000 subscribers on YouTube.
Perhaps what the sect and its leader most teach us is the way some on the American and Israeli Right are desperate for allies. Creationists need a Muslim hero, and American right-wingers need a “good” Muslim with whom to deflect accusations of Islamophobia. Who better to fulfill such wayward desires?
—with additional reporting by Olivia Nuzzi