Turkish Televangelist Goes to War with Erdogan’s Religious Directorate

The Turkish government has a thin skin at the best of times, and it has been especially quick to silence critics since its invasion of Kurdish territory in Syria began, but a flamboyant televangelist named Adnan Oktar apparently feels comfortable waging a vigorous war of words with the Directorate of Religious Affairs, otherwise known as the Diyanet.

Oktar accuses the Diyanet of corruption, while the Diyanet accuses him of being a lunatic.

Oktar, also known as “Harun Yahya” by his fans, is technically an Islamic televangelist with an offbeat style. He professes strong support for Turkey’s Islamist leader, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who dreams of making his country a leading authority in the Islamic world and is pouring money into a growing network of religious schools to incubate a “pious generation” of Muslims.

And yet, Oktar’s show is filled with scantily clad, surgically enhanced women he refers to as “kittens.” Oktar himself swans about onstage in Armani suits and requires his female assistants to refer to him as “master” or “sultan.” He has a sideline in writing huge crackpot books on conspiracy theories and the evils of evolutionary science. His group, which critics describe as a cult, claims one of his books singlehandedly reduced the number of Europeans who believe in Darwinian evolution from 90 percent to 10 percent.

In January, a Turkish court issued a restraining order against Oktar after the parents of two teenage girls claimed they had been brainwashed into his cult and added to his onstage harem of “kittens.”

Oktar has reinvented himself a few times over the years as he created a multimedia empire large enough to have global reach. He was even able to dabble in U.S. politics a little around the middle of the decade, when he managed to present his media group as a strong voice of modern, moderate Islam to Americans – a few Republican congressmen, the HuffPo, even some Jewish organizations – who desperately wanted to promote such organizations.

Oktar’s interpretation of Muslim theology, described by one observer as a “sexed-up Disney version of Islam,” would seem very different from Erdogan’s, and one would think Erdogan might have grown wary of joining forces with charismatic Islamic cult leaders. Nevertheless, Oktar seemed to get along well enough with the government despite a steady stream of complaints from the public about his television show until recently, when the head of Turkey’s official religious agency said Oktar has “likely lost his mental balance,” and Oktar responded by describing the agency as a den of iniquity.

“There are certain religious references and he makes belly dancers dance. Is such a thing possible? He has most likely lost his mental balance,” Director of Religious Affairs Dr. Ali Erbas said on Thursday after a meeting with media representatives in Ankara to discuss the restraining order filed against the televangelist.

“It is hair-raising to watch. It is not right to watch a channel like that,” fumed Erbas.

“He now says he is a freemason. But he was punished previously for his remarks about Freemasonry. He was also jailed for insulting Atatürk in the 1980s and 1990s. But now he speaks of himself as the greatest Kemalist. He’s a corrupted person,” the director said. Given that Oktar has also been charged with cocaine possession and using his “kittens” as bait in a major blackmail operation, it seems churlish for Erbas to get hung up on his murky adventures in Freemasonry.

Erbas conceded the Diyanet does not have the authority to ban the television station Oktar owns but said, “The authorized people should ban it, as Allah wills.”

Oktar returned fire by charging that Diyanet employees “earn their salaries from income and taxes coming from casinos and beverage factories,” by which he meant alcoholic beverages.

“Have you ever made a statement about these issues? Have you ever raised your voice about this? You have kept silent,” he railed at the religious directorate.

Not much about the Oktar cult makes sense, but a review of a scholarly dissertation on the group posted by Hurriyet Daily News in 2014 said that is just par for the course in Turkey.

“Like much else in the country, the Adnan Oktar/Harun Yahya enterprise combines the outrageous with the deeply disturbing,” said the Hurriyet piece. “It can perhaps be seen as a kind of warped lab experiment emerging from the intersection between religion, popular culture, consumer capitalism and marketing technologies in post-1980 Turkey – an eloquent testimony to a place where a surreal turn of events is never far away.”


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