ISTANBUL, Turkey — Islam's answer to a TV evangelist, Adnan Oktar, is at it again.
A few years ago, the controversial sect leader mailed thousands of copies of the “Atlas of Creation” — a lavish, 800-page book that attempts to disprove evolution — to doctors and educators around the world. Now, in addition to his local-access TV talk show in Turkey, he’s launched a media blitz to counter the buzz surrounding the 150th anniversary of Charles Darwin’s “On the Origin of Species.”
Oktar in recent months has been inviting journalists to interview him in his living room-cum-television studio in a gated community in Istanbul’s northern suburbs. There the 53-year-old, who uses the pen name Harun Yahya, discusses Islamic creationism while blasting Freemasonry.
“It’s a Masonic religion,” Oktar said, referring to Darwinism during a recent interview with GlobalPost. “It goes back to the time of the Sumerians and the time of the Pharaohs and ancient Greece, this old religion that claims creation by chance. It is actually a Satanic belief.”
But while Oktar has garnered attention from media around the world, it’s unclear if he represents anyone besides himself and his small group of followers, though he reflects trends in Islam and creationism in general, experts said. Like provocative American broadcasters who seek attention, whether good or bad, to boost their notoriety, it’s hard to tell if Oktar’s message occurs in an echo chamber or if it has a real impact.
“Either way, the word gets out,” said Emre Calikoglu, an assistant who drives journalists to Oktar’s villa. “He’s sincere. You can tell.”
Oktar’s critics are less generous. “He has no grass roots appeal besides his own group of followers, which is probably 200 or 300 people,” said Mustafa Akyol, a Turkish newspaper columnist. “These are the people whom he turned into devotees when they were 15. Now they are in their mid-30s and 40s.”
Claiming he owns a construction firm — others suggest he receives backing from wealthy but secretive radical Muslims — Oktar has spent money liberally to advertise Islamic creationism, which holds that God created the Earth’s species out of whole cloth, rather than via natural selection, the theory that animals slowly mutate into new forms over millennia.
Resembling its American counterparts, Islamic creationism has become more popular in recent years as conservative Muslims have raised their voices to counter the proliferation of Western ideologies, like evolution, in the Islamic world.
Islamic creationists don’t believe the world is around 6,000 years old, based on the genealogies of the Old Testament, for example. “American creationism is actually kind of a loser thought,” Oktar said. “They lose at the very beginning because of the age of the Earth issue. It is not a scientific explanation.”
Instead, the Quran acknowledges the Earth is far older but rejects evolution, he said, meaning species were created in their present form when life first appeared on the planet. “There are 200 million-year-old fossils that falsify Darwinism,” Oktar continued, admitting he had no training in paleontology but arguing that fossils of, say, crocodiles, depicted creatures identical to those living today.
“There’s no intellectual merit,” said Jason Wiles, a biology professor at Syracuse University and associate director of the Evolution Education Research Center at McGill University in Canada. “He’s just drumming up attention. It’s a publicity stunt.”
Even Oktar admits he can be a shameless self-promoter. Atheist biologist Richard Dawkins discovered the Atlas uses a fishing lure photograph instead of a real insect, for example, in one of its glossy pages.
Oktar admitted the deception. “Dawkins was caught by this,” he said. “I did it on purpose to get attention. Dawkins made advertisements for the book all around the world.”
In Turkey, Oktar has little influence beyond his coterie, Akyol said. In 1986, he was diagnosed with schizophrenia and committed to a psychiatric hospital for 10 months.
The confinement was politically motivated, Oktar claimed. But it undermined his legitimacy.
He’s also been in and out of Turkish courts for years, fighting charges that include operating an illegal organization. Currently he’s appealing a conviction that could send him to jail for three years.
But Oktar wielded enough influence last year to convince a judge to ban Dawkins’ website in Turkey because, he argued, Dawkins was defaming his name. Oktar also tried to ban Dawkins’ book, “The God Delusion,” in Turkey, but failed.
In other parts of the Muslim world, Oktar has been more successful. Schools in Indonesia, Pakistan and elsewhere often use his materials. “People in other countries in the Muslim world don’t know about these scandals,” Akyol said. “If you are a high school kid in Malaysia, and you are Muslim, and you want to learn about God and science, these books appeal to you.”
Others questioned, however, whether teachers use Oktar’s books because they are yearning for creationist literature, or if they are simply using free materials that have been dumped on their doorsteps, with Harun Yahya’s reputation expanding in the process.
“There are a lot of media relations that go on in the Harun Yahya operation,” said Taner Edis, a Turkish-American physics professor at Truman State University in Missouri, who has written on Islamic creationism. “You really shouldn't think of Harun Yahya as a pseudonym of Adnan Oktar. You should think of it as a brand name. They treat it like a brand. It's like marketing.”