Istanbul police arrested Adnan Oktar on Wednesday morning in an operation that also targeted 235 people across Turkey. Oktar, who runs a TV channel called A9, is often referred to as a “controversial televangelist” in Turkey and “sex-cult leader” abroad.
But A9’s reach and the influence of Oktar’s organization, including the hundreds of books and op-eds he has written over the years, stretch much further.
These include op-eds for numerous Israeli newspapers as well as meetings with Israeli religious figures and politicians over the years.
The current investigation in Turkey is being led partly by the Financial Crimes Department of the provincial police, but the allegations appear far larger. His arrest comes on the heels of the inauguration of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to a new term. Anadolu, a state news agency, says: “The gang has been accused of several crimes including establishing an organization with felony intent, child sexual abuse, sexual intercourse with a minor, kidnapping, retaining a minor, violating tax procedure and violating anti-terror law.”
The mention of the anti-terror law implies a much larger context to this operation. Anti-terror laws in Turkey have been used against the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) and more recently against members of the Gulen religious movement. Fethullah Gulen and his movement’s network of religious schools were once an important feature of Turkey’s growing religious movement and had influence in political circles.
However, in 2016, the movement was labeled “terrorist” and assigned the name Fetullah Terrorist Organization (FETO), which was accused of being behind the 2016 coup. Ankara stepped up efforts to extradite FETO members from abroad.
How did it all go wrong?
What was once an influential movement with access to the highest levels of power in different countries has now been accused of a litany of abuses. Photos online show that the media was prepared for the police raid that took place early Wednesday morning. The raid targeted Oktar’s compound at Cengelkoy on the Asian side of Istanbul, reports indicated.
It appears that the raids were timed to take place after the latest presidential inauguration in which the Turkish presidency has more powers than before. This points to the fact that the leadership in Ankara feels that distractions like A9 – or the controversial dancing that was done in an “Islamic” context on its programs – are no longer palatable.
The numerous allegations against the group go back years, but until early this year, few of them met with any press attention. The fact that Turkish media now openly calls the organization a “cult” or “gang” points to a feeling that media organizations will not face lawsuits or repercussions. Previously, when media wrote “Islamic sex cult,” they would put it in quotes and ascribe it to western allegations.
It seems that the overall number of complaints made until now – including from mainstream religious authorities, various police departments and political leaders who had turned on the group – provided the power to launch the widespread raids on Wednesday. These raids would have required careful planning and had to be hidden so that their preparation would not leak, allowing the targets to escape.
Just days before, supporters of Oktar were posting online, unaware of the mounting charges. “A new era with Erdogan,” one of those close to him wrote. Others posted op-eds and statements. One condemned the arrest of an Iranian woman for dancing, connecting the religious crackdown in Iran with fears that their own controversial program would be targeted at home.
Meanwhile, the police were preparing a laundry list of accusations, including “political and military espionage, fraud, abuse of religious beliefs, laundering property, opposition to the anti-terror law, bribery, misuse of personal data,” and others allegations, according to TRTHaber.com.
Creationism and outreach to Israel
Viewers abroad who saw Oktar’s program often didn’t take it seriously, particularly because it often involved dancing women and chiseled men fresh from the gym who seemed incongruent with interviews of high-level guests. “Oktar hosts talk show programs on his television channel on which he had discussed Islamic values and sometimes danced with young women he calls ‘kittens’,” notes the English-language Hurriyet Daily News
But there was more to the agenda than the public program indicated. In March 2009, an EU diplomat noted in a leaked cable that the pushing of creationism in Turkey was “evidenced by the immense and still growing popularity of Adnan Oktar, a religious-sect leader who promotes intelligent design in Turkey and worldwide, and who has filed numerous lawsuits against his opponents.” These resulted in some Youtube videos being taken down, the diplomat claimed. It also resulted in worldwide coverage. The Guardian
profiled Oktar’s challenge to Darwinists in 2008. Vice News channel called it the “weird world of an Islamic ‘feminist’ cult.”
For years, Oktar and his friends also sought to do outreach to Israel and Jewish religious leaders around the world. This was styled as part of an attempt to promote peace and serve as a kind of model of coexistence in which Turkey would be a bridge between East and West. In 2011, according to an article in The Jerusalem Post
, Oktar met with a religious delegation from Israel that included the son of Rav Ovadia Yosef. According to reports, the 2011 group of Israelis and religious leaders going to meet Oktar included Ayoob Kara and Rav Avraham Sherman among others.
In 2014, he wrote in an article on ynet about Jewish-Turkish relations that “Israel and Turkey have enjoyed mutual love and cooperation.” Jewish activists flocked to Istanbul to be guests on the program, with one describing Oktar as running a “movement bringing Islam into the 21st century.” Oktar wrote almost two dozen op-eds for the Post
between 2014 and 2018.
Oktar’s supporters also came to Israel
reported in 2013 that Oktar’s personal representative, Oktar Babuna, was in Israel for several days to “smooth feathers” between Erdogan – then-prime minister – and Israel. Reports said that the representative met with MKs and representatives from Yesh Atid, Meretz, UTJ and Yisrael Beytenu, including then-MKs Dov Lipman and Eli Yishai. Some of the relationships that were formed over the years included numerous visits to Turkey or appearances on Oktar’s programs with prominent Israelis from across the political and religious spectrum.
But things began to change early this year. The pro-government Daily Sabah
called Oktar a “cult leader” in January and a court issued a restraining order against him. The article claimed that a man “told a Turkish TV station that his two teenage daughters were brainwashed by Oktar.” The article noted that A9’s broadcasts were “bordering on obscenity, where scantily-clad dancers perform in between Oktar’s speeches peppered with religious references; his shows often receive complaints at the country’s TV watchdog.” Newsweek
also noted that “notorious sex-cult leader Adnan Oktar was slammed by the head of the country’s Directorate for Religious Affairs,” in February. Then in April, Haaretz
ran an article accusing the group of “orgies, blackmail and antisemitism.”
Nevertheless, the organization put on a positive face for their Iftar Dinner at Istanbul’s Ciragan Palace in June. The event was attended by 1,000 people, including Jewish leaders. Promoters spoke about seeking “peace and friendship, no matter the differences that might exist in faith.”
Now with the arrests in Turkey, a strange chapter in relations with a once-influential Turkish group draws to a close. It was always an aberration that Israeli politicians, religious leaders and journalists were being invited to Istanbul. Attendees felt they were helping to bridge relations between the countries and working on Jewish-Muslim relations. It appeared to be a way to reach out to a Turkish audience that watched the program.
Whether any of the coexistence concepts pushed over the years will be salvaged in the wake of the arrests and scandal is unclear.