I was startled by how quickly the phone call came. I’d just sent an e-mail to Istanbul to see whether Islam’s leading creationist would be available for an interview. I would soon fly to Turkey for a 10-day fact-finding trip with the International Reporting Project, and I had one free day. Would Harun Yahya, the scourge of Richard Dawkins and founder of a global media empire, be free to talk?
Actually, I wasn’t sure it was worth the trouble. Hiring a guide for a day in Istanbul would run me $300, plus more for a translator. But when Harun Yahya’s assistant called me from Istanbul—it couldn’t have been more than three minutes after my query—she offered to send a driver to pick me up at my hotel on the other side of the city. And the translator? No problem—they’d supply one.
Later, I came to realize this was all part of Harun Yahya’s new “charm offensive,” as one Istanbul journalist described it to me. Harun Yahya, the pen name for Adnan Oktar, gets some seriously bad press in the West. Newspapers across Europe and the United States have covered his ongoing legal troubles, including charges of extortion and sexual abuse, and the response from scientists has been scathing. Now Yahya is trying to position himself as the go-to critic of evolution … or at least a thorn in the side of modern science.
It may be tempting to dismiss Yahya as a crackpot, but he runs a sophisticated media operation, with perhaps several hundred members, that distributes books, articles, videos, and Web sites around the Muslim world. Two years ago he mailed, unsolicited, a visually stunning 13-pound, 800-page Atlas of Creation to at least 10,000 scientists, doctors, museums, and research centers in Europe and the United States. The cost of this publicity stunt, if that’s what it was, had to be staggering.
The great mystery is where Yahya’s Science Research Foundation gets its money. No one knows, though speculation runs from Saudi donors to wealthy Turks whose children have joined the secretive group. Whoever funds it, the organization seems to have the kind of wealth and influence that Christian creationists can only dream of. Yahya’s teachings aren’t confined to a religious subculture in Turkey. They’re part of the mainstream.
Creationist stories are now popping up in Turkish high-school science textbooks, and some government officials in the AKP, the ruling Islamic party, freely criticize evolution. In Ankara, the government’s point man on religious issues, Mehmet Gormez, told me, “All the holy texts say human beings are created by God. I think evolutionary theory is not scientific, but ideological.”
The Quran doesn’t have a detailed origins story like the six days of creation found in Genesis, but it does say Adam was created out of clay in a heavenly paradise and later banished to earth, along with Eve. Various polls show that many Muslim countries are predominantly creationist, butTurkey has recently emerged as a hub of global opposition to evolution. In 2006 Science magazine found that only 25 percent of Turks accepted the theory of natural selection—the lowest rate among any of the 34 countries surveyed. (The second-lowest was in the United States.)
Why Islamic creationism has exploded in Turkey is a complicated story that may have as much to do with politics as religion. Unlike most Muslim countries, which simply ignore the science of life’s origins, Turkey’s high schools have taught evolution for decades—the legacy of Ataturk’s campaign to secularize Turkey’s public culture. Creationism has become a way for political Islamists to attack the secular elite that governed Turkey until the recent rise of the AKP. Oktar’s own agenda isn’t confined to evolution. He’s calling for a “Turkish-Islamic Union,” a Turkish super-state that would stretch from Kazakhstan to Indonesia and western Africa—a revamped Ottoman Empire for today’s Muslims.
So how much influence does Harun Yahya actually have? I asked a number of well-connected journalists, academics, and businessmen—members of the secular elite. Some described his political impact as minimal, while others lamented his success at getting creationist materials into schools and at persuading the Turkish courts to ban Web sites that criticize him. Soli Ozel, a professor of international relations at Istanbul University and a prominent commentator on Turkish affairs, called Harun Yahya’s organization “cultish” and said that it entraps young men and women and turns them against their families. He said one of his students was a Harun Yahya acolyte who’d became a virtual prisoner; when she took her exams, two men hovered nearby so she couldn’t speak to anyone else.
I had no idea what to expect from my meeting with Oktar, though it didn’t seem like the smartest idea to be driven halfway across Istanbul for a 10 p.m. interview. My driver, Emre, quickly put me at ease. He picked me up at the hotel dressed in jeans and sneakers, and we chatted amiably on our drive over to the Yahya compound. As we neared our destination, he pulled off the road and in hopped our translator, a dapper young man in a suit with a cultivated BBC accent. Soon they were joking about their respective English-speaking accents. Emre assured us that girls preferred his. This wasn’t exactly my image of die-hard Islamic fundamentalists.
We finally arrived at a sprawling modern house on the Asian side of Istanbul. Glass doors led out to a swimming pool, and a huge plasma TV screen hung over a low-slung couch. But the biggest surprise was to find that I’d walked onto a stage set: Bright klieg lights beamed down on our interview chairs, which were carefully arranged to show off four editions of Atlas of Creation, all in different languages. Several men were waiting to operate the three video cameras and high-tech recording gear. It turned out I wasn’t the only one taping this interview.
After 20 minutes of sound checks, Adnan Oktar made his grand entrance. He’s a burly man with slicked-back hair and a carefully trimmed beard, and he wore his trademark white suit with a black T-shirt. Oktar was gracious throughout our hourlong interview, but the weirdness of the evening quickly emerged. When I asked how so many evolutionary biologists could be wrong, he replied, “We need to talk about the Masons’ role because Masons manage the world through a scientific dictatorship.” When I suggested that scientists would be surprised to hear this, he said that’s because the Masons’ “essential characteristic is that they act secretly and they are invisible.”
I asked Oktar about his legal troubles. In 2008, he was sentenced to three years in jail for extortion and running a crime gang, a conviction he’s now appealing. Earlier he’d been charged with drug possession and sexual assault, but both cases against him fizzled. (In the 1980s, he spent 10 months locked up in a mental institution.) In response, Oktar launched into a rambling account of how he and his friends had been threatened with torture and death: “If you were given electricity or were tortured, you would sign the documents which were put in front of you. This is what we did. We would be dead otherwise.” He said he’d faced many assassination attempts and then recounted how he was once framed by a policeman who’d slipped cocaine into his kabob. Why has he been targeted? “Because I’m fighting against Darwinism, communism and other terrorist organizations.” So Darwinists are terrorists? Their work is “a Satanic plot” that nurtures terrorism around the world, “like the development of mosquitoes in mud or in ponds. So many fascist and communist leaders have stated very clearly that they have been affected by the teachings and ideals of Darwinism.” (It’s true, at least, that Oktar has both powerful enemies and powerful friends.)
By now my head was spinning—just where could I take this interview?—but I kept wondering why Oktar would bother doing interviews with Western journalists like me. Just how would he benefit from this coverage? I got the answer once I asked him to assess his own influence. With the publication of Atlas of Creation, Oktar claimed that “Darwinism had come to an impasse for the first time in history.” He then pulled out a loose-leaf notebook filled with clippings from major European newspapers and magazines and proceeded to quote from them: Liberation had referred to “the book that created a great panic”, Stern had likened his book to thunder, and La Stampa had run the headline “Farewell Darwin.” The lesson was clear, according to Oktar; most Europeans had lost their belief in Darwinism.
So this was it: Any publicity, no matter how bad, would confirm Harun Yahya’s status as a global player in the evolution wars. Taner Edis, a Turkish-American physicist who tracks Islamic creationism, told me later: “Anything you write about Harun Yahya will eventually be quoted in Harun Yahya’s own literature and his own Web site. Whether it’s distorted or not, inevitably, it will be presented as ‘hey, the Darwinists are on the run.’ “
No doubt the same will happen with this article. So would we be better off simply ignoring Harun Yahya? Probably not. Yahya has already grabbed the spotlight, not just in Turkey but in Muslim communities around the world. His organization is adept at filling the vacuum where support for evolution is weak, and many scientists in Islamic countries are now wary of defending evolution. What’s needed is more public engagement, especially from Muslim scientists and religious figures willing to confront Harun Yahya. But will a freewheeling discussion of modern science persuade people to give up creationism? That’s anybody’s guess.