Followers of Harun Yahya wear drag make-up and practice a “sexed-up, Disney version of Islam” that helps promote conservative Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s vision of a modern, Muslim Turkey. Step inside this surreal world where religious piety meets psychedelic softcore porn, led by the world’s foremost Islamic creationist.
Harun Yahya is said to be the messianic leader of an apocalyptic Islamic sex cult. He’s also the owner of a Turkish television station called A9, and the host of his own religious talk show, which just might make your eyeballs pop out of your skull. The entire set and everyone on it glow like irradiated ultraviolet rays. Five amazing looking women usually co-host the show, wearing things like false rainbow eyelashes, wigs, and diamond-studded Versace bondage gear. The backdrop is a blinding fake lavender cityscape. Conversations often focus on how materialism and Darwinism are dead, how to recognize the face of a real Muslim, and how Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan — with whom the host is rumored to enjoy friendly relations — is “one of the important figures for the End Times”.
Harun Yahya wears Armani, and is only addressed as “my master” or “sultan”. His real name isn’t even Harun Yahya, though that’s how he’s known to audiences outside of Turkey. In reality, he’s Adnan Oktar, and right now, he’s the global icon of Islamic creationism. He’s also been named one of the world’s 50 most influential Muslims, The Complete Idiots Guide to Understanding Islam describes Oktar as a “top” Muslim scientist, and he even writes articles for the Huffington Post. More traditional clerics are beginning to express their concern about his growing influence in the Muslim world.
Like most creationists, Oktar and his followers believe Darwinism is evil. And like many American evangelicals, they are skilled in the art of televangelism and the mass marketing of religious materials. The sect has produced more than 300 books to date, including the 800-page pinnacle of anti-evolutionary scholarship, the Atlas of Creation. A promotional video for the masterwork alleges that the book’s release had “the impact of an atom bomb”: According to a “scientific” study, before the atlas was published, a full “90 percent of Europeans believed in evolution”. Since the Atlas of Creation has been made available in nine different languages, “only 10 percent of Europeans still believe in Darwinism”. Real facts. Watch the entire promo video below.
Though the volume weighs about 12 lbs. (5.4 kg), Harun Yahya and associates decided to ship it, completely unsolicited, to the United Nations, the US Congress, and numerous biology departments at universities around the world, including the Imperial College London, Utrecht University, the University of Chicago, the University of Barcelona, UC Berkeley, Brown, and the medical school at Columbia University.
Kevin Padian, a Professor of Integrative Biology at UC Berkeley, was one of the lucky recipients who came to work one day and found a copy of the hefty book waiting for him. “In our country we are used to nonsense like this,” Dr. Padian said of the United States. Several of his colleagues also received the Atlas of Creation, and were all “astonished at what a load of crap it is.”
“If he sees a picture of an old fossil crab or something, he says, ‘See, it looks just like a regular crab, there’s no evolution,’” he said. “Extinction does not seem to bother him.”
The gifted atlases brought the world’s attention to the existence of this new trend in creationism, which the Council of Europe apparently found so disturbing it immediately passed a resolution urging all of its members to “defend and promote scientific knowledge”.
In addition, the tome so shook the European establishment that it also inspired a 12,150-word Council of Europe report by the Committee on Culture, Education, and Education titled “The Dangers of Creationism in Education”. The committee wrote that the lavishly illustrated book attempts to prove “the secret links between Darwinism and the ideologies ‘with blood on their hands’, such as fascism and communism”. Ministers of Education in Belgium and France denounced the text, while Hervé Le Guyader, Professor of Evolutionary Biology at the University of Paris VI, was asked to produce a detailed analysis of the atlas by the French National Education Inspectorate. Dr. Le Guyader warned that the book’s sophisticated and attractive design “could prove highly effective” at influencing the public. That said, the professor echoed his American colleague at UC Berkeley. “The scientific content of this book is pathetically inadequate,” he concluded.
Anne Ross Solberg, a scholar of religion who has written the only doctoral dissertation on the group to date, says that Oktar’s sect is estimated to have just 30 core followers, with an “additional 200 to 300 more or less involved in the group’s activities”. But Adnan Oktar has many, many more adherents around the world — all thanks to the internet. His group operates “hundreds of websites”, and several YouTube channels — the English language version has almost 12,000 subscribers, while the Turkish channel has well over 100,000. He also has about 38,200 followers on Twitter, and the peroxide blondes who appear on his show in drag make-up have tens of thousands of devotees as well. The group of the most faithful 30 followers live with Oktar in luxurious compound in Istanbul, where he has personally selected each item in the house, down to the $1200 Fendi throw pillows embedded with 2,000 Swarovski crystals.
The group’s theology has been described as a “sexed-up Disney version of Islam” by anthropologist Daniel Martin Varisco, and the show can even get a little homoerotic. A pair of hunky twins named Onder and Ender make the occasional appearance, usually wearing matching muscle t-shirts and excessive bronzer. The camera ogles the two decorative sphinxes while Oktar praises them for their muscular beauty. The women — referred to as Oktar’s “kittens” or “harem” — pose for promo photos together in overtly sexual positions, often coupled with slogans like “I read the Qu’ran” printed across the pictures like postcards.
It all looks cartoonish, but the show has still managed to draw numerous noteworthy professors, politicians, and other prominent people who should probably know better. Since Oktar embraces his own form of neo-Ottomanism, and sees himself as something of a Sultan, many of his interviewees have been from the Balkan region. Not all of them travelled to the Istanbul studio to witness the weird sex cult atmosphere, but each of the following people will remain on one or more of Harun Yahya’s “hundreds of websites” forever: former Serbian Prime Minister Mirko Cvetkovic, Serbia’s Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs Sladjana Prica, and University of Prizren Rector Mazllum Baraliu. Besides the Balkan figures, he’s also met with Madonna, and claims his Atlas of Creation made rapper Busta Rhymes convert to Islam.
One of Adnan Oktar’s plans is to preside over the creation of something he calls the “Turkish-Islamic Union”, which preliminary maps indicate would only cover about half of the Eastern hemisphere. Like members of Turkey’s current conservative government (especially Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu) and the international religious community known as the Gulen movement with whom the the Turkish leadership is engaged in a very public power struggle, Oktar believes Turkey should be at the center of a new global Islam, and often indulges expansionist fantasies about the resurrection of the Ottoman Empire. Bulent Aras, Professor of International Relations at Isik University, described their aim to “Islamize Turkish nationalism and to Turkify Islam”. The Armani-clad Adnan Oktar shares other values with the current Turkish leadership: relentless consumerism, evidenced in Prime Minister Erdogan’s obsession with bulldozing parks and public spaces to build shopping malls, coupled with a renewed embrace of religion.
But there are rumors of an even deeper connection between Oktar and Erdogan. In 1994, the Islamist Welfare party, the precursor to today’s ruling Justice and Development party (AKP), scored several significant victories in the local elections, including in Istanbul and the capital of Ankara. The conservative Erdogan started his political career when he became the mayor of Istanbul 20 years ago. Fatih Altayli, a prominent Turkish journalist and editor, noted that the Islamist party was unprepared for power, lacking both the experts and sufficiently Islamic business connections to govern effectively. It was at this time that Altayli has alleged that Erdogan and his party established a lucrative and mutually beneficial relationship with Oktar and members of his sect.
“In 1995 and ’96, companies from Oktar’s sphere of influence made big business deals with municipalities under the control of the Welfare party, especially in Istanbul and Ankara,” Altayli wrote. “During a raid at a meeting of [Oktar's] group, for instance, the police arrested Oguzhan Asilturk, an acting minister in the Welfare government, and one of the leading ideologues of political Islam in Turkey. It was really during these years, that [Oktar's adherents] gained a lot of economic clout. Followers even established companies in Dubai.” Others say that members of the group established businesses in Central Asia with the help of leading Turkish investors and the money they’d stolen from their rich parents. Of course, any profits were funneled into the Harun Yahya enterprise.
And in October, when Prime Minister Erdogan visited Prizren to lend his support to his Kosovo counterpart Hashim Thaci in advance of the recent local elections, members of the sect approached the premier with a copy of the Atlas of Creation. Erdogan was photographed with the enormous book shortly after making his infamous “Kosovo is Turkey, Turkey is Kosovo” speech. Then, followers swarmed Thaci and Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama. Thaci was lucky enough to have snagged a seat tucked safely away in a corner, but Rama was left exposed to Oktar’s evangelists, who gave him several Harun Yahya publications. Rama looks to have handled the entire encounter like a gentleman, and Oktar proudly played the video footage from Prizren on his talk show two nights in a row:
Oktar’s relationship with Erdogan was described as “close” as recently as 2011, in an article in the Jerusalem Post. Some commentators say the sect’s influence is a “key part of Turkish Islamists’ propaganda machine”. The Islam presented on Oktar’s show certainly articulates Erdogan’s vision for a “modern, religious” Turkey. First, it appears inclusive — some women wear the hijab, while others wear little more than lingerie. Not only does the show market Islam to a wider audience with commercial logos and women’s insecurity, but it also embodies what the ruling party believes a free society looks like, in which no one should be forced to dress in any particular way. Gone are the rigidly secular days when men had to trim their beards or remove their red fez caps. Of course, this also means permitting women the freedom to wear the hijab. In Turkey, the ban on headscarves in public institutions was only lifted last year.
The sermons Oktar gives on his show are effusively pro-Erdogan. He suggests that anti-government protesters are actually quite happy with the premier but “just aren’t aware of it”, that Erdogan is an “immaculate Anatolian man” innocent of any of the wrongdoings suggested by the recent corruption scandal, and that he should rule Turkey right up until the imminent end of the world. As Sunday’s all-important local elections approach, praise for the premier has been even more fervent than usual.
In addition to the talk show, the television station, and the more than 55,000 pages of printed materials produced and distributed around the world, the group has also made some 175 documentaries, including “The Collapse of Darwinism in Europe” and “Crystal Skull; work of aliens?” Certainly the creation of so many videos, and the researching, writing, editing, and printing of 300 book titles in multiple languages, plus international shipping fees, must have cost millions. But where Oktar gets all the money to keep the well-oiled Harun Yahya machinery operating remains a mystery, though some still suspect that favorable business dealings with Erdogan and his inner circle have helped.
In 1979, young Adnan left his secular middle-class home in Ankara to attend art school in Istanbul. He arrived in the city during a particularly volatile period in Turkey’s history: Deadly attacks by militant right- and left-wing groups were so frequent that the violence has been described as a low-level war. By the late-1970s, the country was averaging ten assassinations per day. Only a coup, carried out in September 1980, could finally restore order.
In this atmosphere of religious fundamentalism, separatist desire, and organized revolutionary violence, Oktar grew bored with his interior design classes. Solberg notes that this is when he started holding speeches, railing against Charles Darwin and Freemasonry. Soon, a small group of students was following him around, and he had the foundation of a new cemaat or religious community.
Then these early followers decided to engage in some recruitment efforts, and targeted physically attractive members of Istanbul’s young, cosmopolitan elite. Many of them were well-heeled students at Istanbul’s prestigious Bogazici University, the highest-ranked institution in Turkey. A few were the children of celebrities. As the group grew, the media dubbed them Adnancilar — adherents of Adnan.
But a few years later, Oktar gave an interview to a conservative newspaper that alarmed the rigidly secularist authorities, and he was arrested. According to Solberg, the young religious leader was charged with “making propaganda with the aim of weakening or destroying national sentiments” by the Istanbul State Security Court, and given a 19-month prison sentence. Part of his incarceration was spent inside the locked ward of Bakirkoy Hospital — Istanbul’s largest psychiatric facility. He was diagnosed with “obsessive-compulsive personality disorder” and paranoid schizophrenia. Oktar insists these labels were only applied to him in order to discredit his work.
After his release, the group began gathering in villas and upscale cafes in Istanbul’s wealthiest suburbs, where Oktar would obsessively rehash stale Jewish-masonic conspiracies. This preoccupation became the subject of the first book published under the pen name Harun Yayha. The 500-page Judaism and Freemasonry was released in 1987 as an illustrated opus dedicated to exposing the “distorted Torah” and the Jewish-masonic machinations behind the Russian, American, and French revolutions.
But the book also contained some indirect attacks on evolutionary biology, which would be ramped up later. “The principal mission of Jews and Freemasons in Turkey,” Harun Yayha wrote, “is to erode the spiritual, religious, and moral values of the Turkish people and make them like animals.”
Behind the scenes, the internal organization of Oktar’s community was growing more cult-like by the minute. Oktar began by revising traditional Islamic practices. In the late 1980s, he decided that members should pray three times per day instead of five, and that his female followers needed to remove their veils. He also encouraged followers to sever ties with disapproving family members — but only after draining their parents’ bank accounts. With these changes came a significant loosening of sexual mores, though one defector recalled that there was a “rigid hierarchy” with regard to inter-group intimacy:
“There were bacilar (sisters), cariyeler (concubines), and kardesler (brothers),” she explained. “The brothers were allowed to marry the concubines, while the sisters were all married to Adnan Oktar.”
The group started buying up beachfront property in exclusive resort towns on the Sea of Marmara, where sex could be used as a recruitment tool. They eventually found a permanent summer villa in Silviri, a town of 44,000 famous for its sunflowers, rolling hills, and sprawling prison complex — the largest in Europe.
But Silviri is also known for its beaches. According to Halil Arda, Oktar’s adherents would comb the shoreline looking for attractive, half-naked hard bodies who looked like they might also be loaded. New recruits were also seduced by the group’s “woodland villa”. A police raid on the summer residence a few years later revealed that it was decorated “like the Dolmabahce palace” in Istanbul. (The Dolmbahce palace is fitted with a staircase built of Baccarat crystal and 150-year-old bearskin rugs selected by the Russian Tsar).
Oktar’s 13-bedroom seaside estate in Silviri was furnished to his liking — with “heavy antiques, gold leaf, and heavy wood”. It also reportedly had a zoo, “complete with camels, horses, and two artificial lakes”.
These tastes started showing in the sect’s sartorial choices beginning in the 1990s, when Oktar dictated that the group shed its more modest attire for high-end Italian brands. It was around this time that Solberg says he started wearing his signature white Armani blazers and designer T-shirts.
So the sect also set about rebranding itself again. The Turkish government grew more secular during the late-1990s, and Oktar and his adherents knew they needed to adapt. This time, they advertised themselves as pro-Ataturk nationalists. They minimized their Islamist past, and established another new organization called Milli Degerler Koruma Vakfi (MDKV), or the Foundation for the Protection of National Values.
But this supposed transformation didn’t protect Oktar from being arrested for cocaine possession in Izmir. He says state security services planted the drugs on him and put them in his food. Though he tested positive for cocaine while in custody, he was later acquitted of all charges. He still refers to the incident as “the cocaine conspiracy”. But former members of the group have said that cocaine use was common, and used to entice potential recruits.
The sect stepped up its campaign against Darwinism in the mid-1990s. They distributed fliers denouncing professors who taught evolution as “Maoists”. And they started organizing international creationism conferences, inviting Christian evangelicals from the United States. It was Oktar’s first try at “interfaith dialogue” — another idea that would become central to the group’s contemporary practices.
Then, a report detailing the group’s alleged illegal activities was submitted to the Interior Ministry in 1999. About 2,000 Turkish police officers carried out a simultaneous midnight raid in 40 districts across Istanbul, searching a staggering 38 homes said to belong to the sect in the massive operation.
In the end, Oktar and several followers were taken into custody. At the time of his arrest, Oktar had not been seen in public for six years.
The prosecutor’s office prepared a document describing the allegations against Oktar: The complaint stated that women had been instructed to practice giving oral sex on designated men, that one former member was coerced into having sex with 16 people, and that hidden cameras were placed in each bedroom so that Oktar could film followers having sex and blackmail them with the tape if they ever tried to leave the group. There were also descriptions of sex parties in which young women would be persuaded into performing sex acts on powerful politicians and other influential men so that Oktar could film them and use the footage to manipulate the man in question “to act in the group’s interest”. Members of the sect were also compelled to perform regular sexual favors for Oktar and others.
Ebru Simsek, a model and defector, also accused Oktar of mistreatment. He responded by filing no less than 300 defamation lawsuits against her. It was just the beginning of his misuse of the Turkish court system to settle his personal disputes.
This time, Oktar spent nine months in prison without a trial. He maintained his innocence throughout. Upon his release, he claimed that he’d been subjected to torture while in custody. Several followers claimed the same thing. The case was finally decided before the European Court of Human Rights in late 2012. Though the judges determined there was no evidence of torture, the court did order the Turkish government to pay Oktar’s followers 16,250 euros each for failing to investigate the case in a timely manner.
Many members felt humiliated by the media circus surrounding the criminal sexual allegations, and left the sect around the start of the new century.
But that hardly slowed the Harun Yahya enterprise down. On the contrary, Solberg writes that Oktar’s international audience grew rapidly along with the internet. And Oktar saw another opportunity open up in the aftermath of the September 11th attacks: Muslims were being marginalized and misunderstood. More than ever, many in the West seemed convinced that all Muslims were all terrorists, hell-bent on the destruction of Israel and violent jihad.
So Oktar and his followers abruptly decided to abandon their longstanding anti-Semitism, and did everything they could to scrub all traces of it from their past. Then they approached conservative Israeli groups, presenting themselves as moderate, Western, pro-Israel Muslims. It worked. Even right-wing Israeli politicians, ambassadors, and supporters of Israel see Oktar as a “good Muslim”, and regularly make appearances on his show. During one memorable episode, he even hosted a group of Masonic Grand Masters, dressed in full costume, on his set for a televised interview.
In recent years, he’s also gone on a lawsuit binge. Before Erdogan shut down Twitter in Turkey, Oktar had WordPress blocked. He’d objected to an article someone had written about him on a blog, claimed defamation, and the Turkish government responded by completely blocking access to WordPress in Turkey. He also managed to have all Google Groups banned after he discovered comments of a potentially “libelous” nature posted on one. And he successfully had the website of famous evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins blocked.
Dawkins is perhaps most famous for his unabashed atheism, and had recently held a talk in London about Oktar’s opus, the Atlas of Creation, around the time he was sued. Its 800 slick pages are filled with high resolution photographs of fossils and their supposedly modern-day equivalents — several of which, it turns out, were stolen images from the website of a plastic swim bait manufacturer. But no one at Harun Yahya headquarters bothered to photoshop the fly fishing lures out of the ancient “fossil” pictures.
It was a far from the meticulous attention to detail with which Otkar wielded control over his adherents surgery-enhanced faces, bodies, clothing, and lives. “Everyone had to be the same,” one defector said. “The hairstyle, the shoes, the jackets. It had to be the most expensive brands, like Versace and Gucci.”
Strangely, the Atlas of Creation is supposed to leave the reader with a similar aesthetic impression: The colorful, high-gloss images are meant to be stared at, side by side. From the lavish illustrations, the viewer is supposed to conclude that the otherwordly creations haven’t changed at all with time, that they are all exactly the same, and that evolution is a lie.
For even more on Erdogan’s strange bedfellows, read Balkanist’s “Following the Turkish Corruption Trail, From Central Asia to the Balkans”.
For further reading on Adnan Oktar, check out Anne Ross Solberg’s ”The Mahdi Wears Armani: An Analysis of the Harun Yahya Enterprise” — the only doctoral dissertation ever written on the subject.