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.