Meet Harun Yahya
The leading creationist in the Muslim world.
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.
Steve Paulson is the executive producer of Wisconsin Public Radio's nationally syndicated program To the Best of Our Knowledge.