(NOTE: This column reflects its author's views about Adnan Oktar's beliefs. Her next column will address the difference between Adnan's views and the evidence that disputes them.)
Two weeks ago, despite warnings and some outrage, I met with the man who has been called everything from “Turkey’s most notorious sex cult leader” by the Turkish Directorate for Religious Affairs to “Messiah” by his followers and, as often is the case in this part of the world, “A shill for the Zionist regime” by numerous others.
During the course of the one hour-long interview, I spoke to Adnan Oktar about Israel, Erdogan, Gaza and of course, the relationship between Jews and Muslims in the Middle East, while surrounded by a group of his devoted followers and staff.
Adnan Oktar has significant influence in the Muslim world and his signature style of religious fervor and glam engages the masses. With dozens of book-titles to his name, numerous published articles and appearances in Al-Jazeera, Press TV and large respected dailies across the region as well as over 60 websites dedicated to his teachings, Mr. Oktar is a force to be reckoned with in both politics and media.
Mr. Oktar’s people contacted me on Twitter, inviting me to join them at their Ifthar, the meal with which you break the daily fast during the month of Ramadan, along with an offer to appear on Mr. Oktar’s popular TV show to speak about my areas of expertise and his areas of interest – The Middle East, anti-Semitism and Muslim-Jewish coexistence.
Given that my motto in life has always been “Why Not?” I accept both invitations, knowing very little about Adnan Oktar beyond the fact that he is known for his “Kitten-girls”, dancing around him as he talks about Islam and that he has taken a positive stance on Israel, promoting a relationship between Judaism and Islam while simultaneously wanting to push his own religion toward what he calls a more progressive interpretation of holy texts.
I’m picked up from outside my hotel close to midnight, as the end of the daily fast determines the time of any meeting. We travel for almost an hour to the Asian side of Istanbul, and once we get there several impeccably clad men and a small security detail outside the luxurious compound greet me, before I somewhat tentative enter the studio inside.
Oktar has been a well-known television personality for decades and has written many books that focus on conspiracy theories about Islamic creationism and freemasonry and he has been on a furious mission against Darwinism and materialism – the latter is somewhat ironic, considering his own enormous wealth and taste for the luxurious.
The flamboyant televangelist is said to have had a close relationship with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan but sources have it that relationship has somewhat soured in recent times, after the country’s religious authorities have expressed outrage against the “kittens” and the occasional sensual dancing that has been a feature of the Adnan Oktar show.
Perhaps that outrage is partly the reason why there are no kittens around when I enter the studio, nor is there dancing of any kind. What I am faced with is a fascinating man with an intense gaze and sitting across from him I realize I have entered a different world entirely, one where my perceptions and ideas are of very little consequence. Oktar expresses great enthusiasm for the Jewish people and for Israel, but when I ask him about the policies and politics of the day, his answers veer toward the religious and mystic, rather than the realities of the day.
In lieu of answers, I leave the walled compound with a beautiful silk scarf, gifted to me by Mr. Oktar, along with an invitation to return as his guest, and we pose a minute for the obligatory handshake-stills before I head back home to my reality.
When I am driven back to my hotel, one of Oktar’s associates asks me if I am glad I came, and I can honestly respond in the affirmative. To meet with Adnan Oktar is to move one step closer to understanding Turkey and it reveals a great deal about the differences between Eastern and Western culture, given his sizeable influence in Turkish society.
The main questions that remained after having met Mr. Oktar was if there is a realistic way in which Islam can co-exist with the Jewish world and if Erdogan’s vitriol against what he sees as the Zionist devil really is just an expression of hyperbole and empty political propaganda, but in all fairness I never truly expected them to be.
The most enlightening part of the interview wasn’t necessarily what we said, but how we were engaged in two different conversations, and it functioned as an analogy for the larger lack of understanding that plagues the relationship between East and West. While some may dismiss Adnan Oktar as a joke or as someone without consequence to the region, there is ample proof that his ideas and voice has had a growing influence on those who are looking for redemption in a troubled region and equally troubled times.
Understanding the rise of Oktar is, in part, a way of understanding Turkey and the culture in which he operates and to dismiss one is to dismiss both, at one’s own peril.
(Annika Hernroth-Rothstein is a Swedish journalist and political advisor who has previously contributed to such outlets as The Washington Examiner, Commentary Magazine, The Jerusalem Post and National Review. Ms Rothstein traveled to Turkey to research her first book on the Jewish Diaspora and to meet with regional minorities ahead of the upcoming Turkish election.)