Adnan Oktar: The rise and fall of a Turkish sex cult leader
In the end, it was not the British deep state, Darwinists, Jews, Freemasons or any of the sinister cabals that Adnan Oktar long railed against that defeated him. It was the Turkish judiciary.
On Monday, the notorious 64-year-old preacher, often referred to in salacious headlines as a "sex cult leader," was sentenced to 1,075 years in jail for crimes including sexual assault, sexual abuse of minors, fraud, and attempted political and military espionage.
It marks the end of a long and bizarre career for the preacher, television host, author and filmmaker.
Beginning his career in the 80s as a firebrand orator, railing against Jews, Freemasons and Charles Darwin, he later became (in)famous for his shows on Turkish TV, in which he would discuss Islamic principles while scantily clad women with bleached blonde hair danced around him to popular music. These women Oktar referred to as his "kittens".
He perhaps gained the most fame worldwide for his numerous texts denouncing evolution and for being one of the first Muslim thinkers to import Christian evangelical Creationism into Islamic circles. Under the pen name Harun Yahya, his book Atlas of Creation, an 800-page tome that purports to debunk evolution, has been sent out unsolicited around the world, and managed to have some success in spreading Creationist ideas beyond a purely Christian fundamentalist audience.
But behind the oft-mocked public face of Oktar's organisation was a sinister world of sexual abuse and cult-like coercion. Speaking in his defence in court, Oktar claimed to have "close to 1,000 girlfriends". He denied abusing them, instead describing himself as having an "overflowing of love for women".
By contrast, one of the women speaking (anonymously) at his trial said Oktar had sexually assaulted her and other women, often forcing them to take contraceptive pills. Around 69,000 contraceptive pills were found in his home, which he claimed in court were used to treat skin disorders and menstrual problems.
His behaviour has landed him in jail on numerous occasions, but now sentenced to more than a millennium in jail, it seems like the page might finally be closing on Adnan Oktar's story.
Edip Yuksel, a religious scholar and activist who was a colleague of Oktar's in the 80s, said his imprisonment was well deserved after decades of crimes in his "crazy cult".
"He's an evil person who destroyed many lives of very bright young men with great potential," he told Middle East Eye.
'If you shot it as a movie, they would say it's too exaggerated'
On Wednesday, Ebru Simsek, a former member of Oktar's organisation who claimed she was subjected to abuse, told Turkish media that she was happy that justice had been done.
She recalled Oktar first coming across her after seeing her in a beauty contest on TV in 1994.
"Adnan Oktar saw me on the screen and went crazy! He even said, 'I saw you in the newspaper, on TV, I liked it very much, take your pajamas and live with me in my wonderful mansion'," she told Posta.
"'Come here, I will offer you the best conditions, you will wear the best brands, your life will be luxurious'. I felt that they had nothing to do with religion."
After leaving his group, she later found herself subjected to more than 300 defamation lawsuits from Oktar, who she said was "obsessed" with her. The pressure applied on Simsek eventually became so much, disrupting both her work and social life, that she left for the United States to escape his harassment.
"If you shot it as a movie, they would say it's too exaggerated, they wouldn't watch it," she said of the whole ordeal.
According to The Mahdi Wears Armani, so far perhaps the only major academic work focusing on Oktar and his movement, he grew up in a relatively affluent secular family in the 70s, only really becoming involved in religious activism after moving to Istanbul to study at what was then the Academy of Fine Arts in 1979.
Over the 80s he would build a circle of devotees known as Adnancilar (Adnanists), who were followers of the influential Kurdish Muslim scholar Said Nursi. Nursi advocated the marrying of traditional Islamic beliefs with scientific ideas and would eventually be one of the leading figures in the Republic of Turkey's Islamic revival movement.
'It was a complete cult, all the criteria of a cult as you would define it today, it was there: isolation, entire control of the lives of the cult members'
- Edip Yuksel, former associate
By far the most influential follower of Nursi was cleric Fethullah Gulen, whose own "modernist" Islamic movement would become one of the world's largest, before being utterly crushed after falling out with the Turkish government in 2013 and then later being blamed for a 2016 coup attempt. Among the charges levelled at Oktar at his trial was that he had links to Gulen's movement, something that he has denied.
"Oktar was influenced by the Islamic modernism of the Turkish scholar Said Nursi, and often cites Nursi in his writings, but he was never officially embraced, neither by the neo-Nurcu Gulen movement, nor the more traditional Nurcu groups in Turkey," Anne Ross Solberg, author of The Mahdi Wears Armani, told MEE.
"Oktar has always claimed to represent traditional Sunni Islam, but has never been accepted as a Muslim authority in Turkey - he is an interior designer and has no formal religious training."
In 1986, Oktar was arrested on charges of "making propaganda with the aim of weakening or destroying national sentiments," and eventually found himself in the criminal ward at Bakirkoy Hospital, where he was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia.
Yuksel first met Oktar that same year. Around that time, Yuksel said he had begun formulating many of his ideas around what is now generally referred to as Quranism - a strand of Islamic thinking that rejects both Sunni and Shia Islam, citing only the Quran itself as a source of religious doctrine.
Yuksel says he acted as a "mentor" to Oktar, whom he considered a kindred spirit.
"I was interested in some of the interviews with him, and I said to him 'I would like to meet you'. I wanted to convert him to my current position on monotheism, rejecting the Sunni and Shia religions," he said.
He said that Oktar had initially been "very receptive" to his ideas, and that after several discussions he told Yuksel that he agreed with his Quranist ideas and the rejection of the two main Islamic strains.
But after a while, Yuksel said, he began to get suspicious of Oktar's sincerity and the "cult" developing around him, to whom Oktar would often pass off many of Yuksel's ideas as his own.
Former members of Oktar's group would later come to Yuksel and talk about life in the organisation.
"They would be in touch with me and talk about the crimes he was committing, a lot of sexual crimes. Of course it was a complete cult, all the criteria of a cult as you would define it today, it was there: isolation, entire control of the lives of the cult members," he said.
Atlas of Creation
In the 90s, Oktar's group formalised their activities, founding the Science Research Foundation (BAV).
They traded overtly Islamic garments for designer clothing and proclaimed themselves supporters of the ideals of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the secularist founder of modern Turkey.
They also turned their focus onto a new foe: Charles Darwin.
In 2007, Oktar went global with the publication of Atlas of Creation, which purported to scientifically debunk the English naturalist's theory of evolution.
Oktar distributed tens of thousands of copies of the book to schools, researchers and universities across Europe and the US. The New York Times described it as causing a "stir" in France, where creationist literature had been hitherto fairly rare.
A copy of the book even made its way onto the shelf of European Central Bank president Christine Legarde:
Many have pointed out that Atlas of Creation fails to pass even the most basic scientific scrutiny.
Geneticist and writer Adam Rutherford wrote in 2009 that the book, which claims to prove that no species alive on Earth today underwent mutagenesis, was reflective of a "whole different flavour of stupid".
"Page 244 has a picture of a caddis fly, with a legend that asserts - as virtually every page does - that the beast in question has always existed in its current form as demonstrated by a vaguely similar looking fossil, therefore evolution is bunk," he wrote.
"Except it's not a caddis fly, it's a fishing lure, beautifully crafted by master tier Graham Owen, with the clearly visible hook piercing the man-made abdomen. Other exquisite examples of Owen's work also appear in the Atlas."
Oktar would later offer a 10 trillion lira ($6.6tn at the time) reward to anyone who could disprove the book's premise. So far he is yet to pay out.
In 2011, Oktar founded a TV station, A9 TV, which broadcast both over the internet and on Turkish cable networks.
The channel, apart from hosting a number of documentaries based on Oktar's works, would become his main platform for broadcasting the preacher's unique brand of televangelism.
Muslim televangelists had been around for many years and were nothing new, but Oktar's method of presentation certainly was.
His shows featured a host of young women, who would discuss current affairs and religious issues with Oktar, as well as dancing to pop music in between segments. It was certainly unprecedented in the world of Islamic televangelism.
Oktar repeatedly used Islamic justifications for the unusual appearance of his co-hosts, who seemed dressed for the nightclub rather than a religious sermon. Dispensing with "modest" clothing didn't make them any less Muslim, he said.
Yuksel said this was one of the principles Oktar purloined from him in the 80s.
"At that time I said that the headscarf doesn't exist in the Quran. I made a very powerful argument based on the verses of the Quran... for Islamists in Turkey, half of their religion is about the hair of women," he explained.
"Afterwards [Oktar] used this argument, but abused it to make a sex cult. This created very bad associations for the cause of reformation."
Throughout the shows, Oktar, who was himself clad in expensive designer clothing rather than a clerical outfit, would regularly compliment the women, who he labelled his "kittens".
Journalist Meher Ahmad travelled to Oktar's headquarters in Istanbul in 2015 to make a film for Vice after spending several months talking online to one of Oktar's female supporters, Ebru Altan.
She told MEE that her initial intention had been to interview the women in Oktar's group about feminism in Islam, but when she arrived she found herself repeatedly stonewalled and treated with suspicion.
"They wouldn't let us use our cameras, they said, 'Oh that's a no go for us. You can't use your cameras, you have to use our cameras'," she said, adding that they were of a considerably lower quality than Vice's own and ended up making the film look like a "porno from the 80s".
"They kept saying to me, 'Oh you'll get to talk to the women later, you'll get to talk to the women later,' because that was what we were there for, we were less interested in the organisation than in a one-on-one interview or a group interview with the women."
Her team was then taken on a tour of a number of properties owned by Oktar's organisation. One house on the Bosphorus, she said, looked like a "reality TV set" and was adorned with Versace pillows and satin bedsheets and had bedrooms with mirrors on the ceiling.
Eventually, after a tour that involved explanations of Oktar's theories on Creationism, Ahmad was told the only opportunity they would have to speak to the women would be live on his show.
A visibly uncomfortable Ahmad can be seen sitting in a small audience as Oktar explains his views to her on the position of women in Islam.
Halfway through the broadcast, the audience, by this point primarily composed of "kittens," take a break to dance in their chairs to Sia's Chandelier.
"It was the first time I'd seen Ebru in person, but it was such a controlled environment because we were on TV, so I couldn't just turn and start asking them questions. It was very uncomfortable," said Ahmad.
After asking permission from Oktar, she was able to ask a number of questions of the women, though only Ebru responded.
"As soon as the show ended they paraded away, I didn't even get a chance to shake their hands afterwards... it was super bizarre and that was my last interaction with them," she recalled.
"We were hoodwinked in a way, we agreed to these interviews with them and they said it was OK and they knew we were bringing camera people, but when we arrived it was like this moving target of, 'Oh you'll talk to them later, oh you'll get to do this later'."
Ahmad said Oktar's organisation had attempted to portray an image of the women involved as empowered and independent, but that her experience suggested this was not the case.
"I did go into it thinking there is something untoward happening, and we kept looking for opportunities to ask people what's going on, only to be pushed further and further away from the women themselves."
From Holocaust denier to Third Temple supporter
Another area in which Oktar dabbled was the interfaith dialogue scene. From the 90s onwards, he cultivated links with Christian Creationists as part of his anti-Darwin crusade. More surprising, however, was his building of links with right-wing Israelis in the 21st century.
One of the first publications by BAV, in 1996, was The Holocaust Deception, which denied that the Nazis had a plan for the mass extermination of Jews and was largely a continuation of his antisemitic conspiracy-theorising dating back to the 1980s.
Ten years later, though, there had been a complete change of tune: in 2006 BAV published a book called The Holocaust Violence, which acknowledged the genocide. A year later, he denied even having written the original Holocaust-denying book.
Now, far from espousing the view that Jews had a scheme to "erode the spiritual, religious, and moral values of the Turkish people and make them like animals", he could be seen attending numerous events in Israel, being pictured with far-right Zionists like Yehuda Glick and Rabbi Meir Lau, as well as making appearances and writing columns in Israeli media outlets calling for unity.
Perhaps the main reason he was able to court these figures was his vocal support for allowing Jews to pray in the Al-Aqsa compound, the area in occupied East Jerusalem's Old City where the First and Second Jewish Temple are believed to have stood. Some far-right Israeli settlers wish to build a Third Temple on the site, replacing the Al-Aqsa Mosque and Dome of the Rock shrine.
Known to Muslims as the Haram al-Sharif and seized by Israel in 1967 war, the idea of allowing Jewish settlers to pray on one of the holiest sites in Islam is anathema to most Muslim scholars and Palestinian activists.
For Oktar, however, "the protests by some Muslims against Jews worshipping there are in no way compatible with the spirit of peace in the Quran and Islam," and the only solution to the struggle over the site was "love and reconciliation and the construction of the Third Temple on some empty land on the Temple Mount without damaging the existing Islamic sites there".
Haaretz journalist Asaf Ronel interviewed Oktar in 2018, shortly after speaking to a number of former supporters, who had described the ordeal of escaping his compound.
Much like Ahmad, Ronel was only allowed to conduct the interview with Oktar by appearing on his TV show. In the show, unlike Ahmad, he is surrounded by an audience of young men.
At one point, Ronel asked him about his relationship with Jews in Turkey, which he ignores and from which he quickly moves on, emphasising instead his Jewish friends in Israel. Later, he asks about a recent fine levied on his channel by the Turkish media regulator RTUK. Oktar blames Gulen, the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), Islamic State, al-Qaeda and the Taliban, "which are all pawns of the British deep state", for pushing smears against him.
"I knew he was crazy and that he would say the British deep state was trying to take him down, but I also realised this type of craziness doesn't really matter, it wasn't meant for me. I was only a prop in the show he was providing for the people who were following him," Ronel told MEE.
"It was meant to show that he was an important person, that a journalist from Haaretz came all the way to Istanbul... but it didn't really matter whether I believed him or not, I was only a prop in his performance."
In July 2018, Oktar was arrested on a number of charges, including forming a criminal organisation, sexual abuse of children and sexual assault.
According to the Istanbul chief prosecutor's office, he was caught while attempting to run away from the arresting officers. As he was led away, he told journalists that the charges were a conspiracy by the British deep state.
"They are thinking of covering the whole region with Christianity. They targeted me because they saw me as the effective inhibitor of this game," he would later say in court.
Though "the British deep state" has yet to officially comment on the case, many have questioned the timing of Oktar's arrest, considering accusations against him dated back decades.
'I think he was only saying what he thought would continue the beliefs of his followers and would allow him to get more followers and give him the money, and power and sex he wanted'
- Asaf Ronel, journalist
In 1999, Oktar and a number of associates were arrested and charged with using threats for personal benefit and creating an organisation with the intent to commit a crime. A Turkish prosecutor listed a number of companies tied to BAV, which was accused of using blackmail and sex traps to generate revenue. The legal process against Oktar and BAV lasted two years, during which the majority of the complainants retracted their claims.
In the case file during his most recent trial, prosecutors presented an array of photos depicting sexual acts involving members of the organisation purportedly taken secretly at Oktar-owned properties for the purpose of blackmail. It also revealed WhatsApp messages involving male and female members of the group, in which they were given instructions to get used to anal sex.
Yuksel told MEE that he was aware of a number of senior politicians who had been involved with (or had relatives involved with) Oktar and were compromised by their association with him. However, he declined to offer any names.
It's impossible to say for certain whether Oktar was simply an abusive grifter, or whether he sincerely believed in everything - or anything - he said.
"I don't think he believed in anything he was saying," said Ronel.
"I think he was only saying what he thought would continue the beliefs of his followers and would allow him to get more followers and give him the money, and power and sex he wanted."
This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition.