Written for Darwin in the Muslim World taught by Salman Hameed at Hampshire College, April 9, 2019
NEW-MEDIA AND POLITICAL ENTANGLEMENTS IN THE EVOLUTIONARY DEBATE IN TURKEY: FETHULLAH GÜLEN AND HARUN YAHYA
Late modernity has brought in a slew of new media used for the promotion and dissemination of various ideologies. Television, radio talk shows, and, even more contemporarily, internet blogs and social media. These mediums are incredibly effective at garnering wide-spread, global interest in whatever they may be about. Televangelism is just one flavor of this cultural phenomena.
But not everyone is so bold as to appear on television preaching controversial ideas about creationism. Some prefer more subtle- traditional, perhaps- methods of influence, like education or civic involvement. These methods and practices still occupy a very important role in how people come to believe different ideologies, and contribute significantly to social discourse broadly.
When examining the Darwinian theory of evolution in the Muslim world, paying special attention to Turkey, two figures of influence stand out to me in particular: Adnan Oktar and Fethullah Gülen, the former more commonly referred to under his pen name, Harun Yahya. Both utilize very different methods to publicize their message, though both are united in a skepticism of Darwinian evolution, in favor of creationism. Gülen, I argue, utilizes the more subtle tactics mentioned prior, preferring to encourage his followers to exert influence in realms like education and civic engagement. Yahya, rather, uses a more spectacular form of dissemination, including television, though he also participates in educational means of dissemination.
In this paper I will compare and contrast these methods of promotion of anti-evolutionism in the context of Turkey, arguing that upon closer examination of these methods, and the public reaction to these forms of media, it’s clear that the anti-evolution debate is more than just a binary debate between science and religion. It is in fact heavily politicized and exists in a complex relationship with new media technologies.
I will begin with some context of the religious and scientific atmosphere in Turkey, followed by background information on Gülen and Yahya. Since its foundation as a state in 1923 Turkey has been officially secular, though the vast majority of the population practices Islam, typically following the Sunni tradition (though some follow the Alevi). Secularism began to be seriously disputed by the Welfare Party lead by Necmettin Erbakan in the late 1980s. The Welfare Party was succeeded by the Justice and Development Party in 2002 and has continued to gain momentum for political Islam.(1)
The Gülenist movement emerged in Turkey in the late 1960s, but today is present in approximately 120 countries. While its official theological alignment is that of devout Hanefi Sunni Islam, which is the majority in Turkey, faith is not the focus of its public activities. Fethullah Gülen, the backbone behind this amorphous organization has lived in the US since 1999. The Gülen movement runs a network of secular science schools, in addition to business, media, private healthcare, and charity enterprises. Its global assets are estimated to be in the tens of billions of US dollars.(2) Gülen utilizes the idea of müspet hareket (positive action), promoted by the Ottoman thinker Said Nursi.(3) This refers to non-political and non-violent methods of reintegrating Islam into everyday life. The understood goal is to attain leverage in areas of civil society like the police and justice systems, media, and economic sector, in order to indirectly influence politics.
Gülen is certainly fascinated by the relationship between religion and science. He wishes his followers to compete on equal terms with non-Muslim counterparts in the arena of science, while still retaining their Islamic faith.(4) He argues for a compatibility with science and religion, as opposed to what he sees as the separation of the two spheres forced by the Christian Church.(5) In Gülenist schools, education is focused on science and technology, both seen as important facets of modern life. Despite this rigorous scientific study, the schools do not teach evolution as a legitimate scientific framework, but rather just as an underdeveloped theory.(6)
Harun Yahya, the pen name under which Adnan Oktar writes many of his books, is an ambiguously structured organization comprised of both Oktar and his followers. Oktar founded the scientific research foundation Bilim Araştırma Vakfı (BAV), which distributes anti-evolutionary materials alongside Harun Yahya. Most famously, Yahya published The Atlas of Creation, and distributed it for free to schools worldwide. This book aimed to refute evolution by examining fossil records.(7) Oktar also appears on his television show, A9 TV, with several guests, who are more often than not followers, usually preaching creationism interspersed with fun pop songs.
From the beginning Oktar has enjoyed a sosyetik (high society) lifestyle with his followers, even when initially cultivating his religious community at Istanbul University. At this time, around the 1980s, he and his group Adnancılar were regarded as fairly mainstream Sunni Muslims, though with an image that particularly appealed to the young and wealthy.(8) It was only in the late 1980s that Oktar adopted Qur’anist views and reformist theology. This shift caused many members to join Gülen’s movement, actually.(9)
The 1990s saw the beginning of the more structured and organized side of Harun Yahya. The aforementioned BAV became the groups main platform, distributing books, organizing conferences, and funding advertising campaigns.(10) Yahya began to try to frame itself as an Atatürkist organization, distancing itself away from Islamism and towards nationalism.(11)
Following a legal scandal in late 1999 wherein Oktar and 75 other members of BAV were arrested, Harun Yahya managed to make a global comeback in the early- to mid-noughties. 2007 was when the Atlas of Creation was distributed, exploding Harun Yahya as a global enterprise.(12) Prior to 2007, Oktar had only been the source of most personal publicity through his legal controversies, but after 2007 he began to occupy a much more public role in the organization, including frequent interviews, an international conference, and appearances on Turkish television. 2011 saw the founding of the aforementioned A9 TV, the station that broadcasts documentaries as well as talk shows that Oktar hosts.(13) Today this spectacularized, public form of media dissemination is the primary way Adnan Oktar and Harun Yahya promote their message of Qur’anism, Atatürkism, and anti-Evolutionism.
The differences in methodology between Fethullah Gülen and Harun Yahya in Turkey is apparent just from this brief introduction, but I will expand on it in the following pages.
Beginning with the nature of their respective arguments, both argue that evolution is unfounded and lacking any scientific basis, and moreover a threat to Islam. As Gülen himself wrote:
"Today, those who subscribe to Darwinism are [those from] a materialist world who embrace it in order to deny him [Allah]. They are those who believe in the eternity of matter. What terrifying ignorance that, in the name of science, they have denied the author of life [and chosen] this kind of knowledge, freedom and power [over] the eternal knowledge, freedom and power which creation requires. Without even being able to describe it or understanding it [fully], they have raised matter to the level of creator - matter, which is lifeless, conscienceless, unenlightened, weak and powerless but is shaped by the hand of humankind."(14)
Gülen views Darwinism and evolution, words he often uses interchangeably, as not only an aggressive atheist agenda, but also as a theory that lacks any credibility. To him it seems improbable that matter, which, as he says, is "lifeless, conscienceless, unenlightened, weak and powerless,” would be able to evolve into conscious life without any transcendent actor.
In fact this is just the way evolution is taught in Gülenist schools. On the subject, Gülen wrote the following in the 1960s:
"How unfortunate that this unproven theory, which is in fact impossible to prove, is taught in all kinds of schools and educational institutions from middle schools and high schools as far as the final year of university courses, as though it were a proven scientific fact."(15)
While being highly modernist scientific institutions, teachers tend to teach the theory of evolution as an opinion alongside the viable alternative of Islamic creationism.
Caroline Tee highlights the similarities between the argumentative bases of Gülen and Harun Yahya. She emphasizes the complexity of the two movements relationship, but draws attention to their shared concerns with “combatting atheism and restoring religious sentiment to a place of prominence in the modern world.”(16) They adopt similar tactics in this argument, both criticizing evolution as pseudo-science and a hoax.
Specifically, in Atlas of Creation Yahya presents his three main arguments that are familiar from creationist literature, the argument regarding the fossil record, the argument regarding transitional fossils, and the argument regarding physical anthropology. Regarding the fossil record Yahya claims that “the so-called Cambrian explosion shows that life emerged on earth suddenly and in complex forms” as opposed to being formed over long periods of time by evolution.(17) Regarding transitional fossils they claim that in order for evolutionary theory to be true, there must exist transitional forms between species, but that no such forms have ever been found.(18) Finally, regarding physical anthropology, they claim that "all hominid fossils are either fully human or fully ape” and that there are insurmountable anatomical rifts between different groups of species.(19)
Despite these similarities in line of argument, these two political actors use different methods to disseminate information. Both publish and distribute literature and other forms of media both in print and digitally, but Harun Yahya’s presence is much more public than Gülen.(20)
While Gülen does publish a good deal of books in English and other translations, there is a significant lack of English material specifically on evolution from him in circulation. Tee goes so far as to say that creationism has not occupied the prominent role in the international arena that it did in Turkey in the late 1990s.(21)
In contrast, Harun Yahya has made a very public spectacle in the evolution debate. The flamboyant talkshow hosted by Oktar, broadcasted on his own network A9 TV, discusses Darwinism, the miracle of creation, as well as other subjects. He is accompanied on the screen by female participants on the show wearing glitzy clothes and makeup, while he himself wears designer suits.(22) Clips of the show circulate on YouTube and other social media platforms, even circulating as a meme after a silly clip where he and his guests dance to Gangnam Style surfaced.(23) These clips are often available in English. Admittedly, in the course of the research for this paper, I found myself more drawn to watching the talk show than reading about it. Its editing style is practically nonsensical, and it has a certain level of surrealism amongst the late-capitalist new-mediascape that is hard to turn away from.
Barring the easily consumable nature of this media, it’s been received in many different ways across Turkey and internationally. Most seem to say that his flashy and provocative aesthetic is “inappropriate for a Muslim and unbecoming to Islam.”(24) It’s not widely taken seriously, but I’d argue that its spectacularism is enough to give it a level of power in the public sphere.
At a State level, Yahya’s movement is considered far more sinister than just “inappropriate.” The previously mentioned 1999 arrest of 76 BAV members was on the grounds of using threats for personal benefit and establishing an organization with criminal intent. In response to this, then Minister of Interior Saadettin Tantan said “Adnan Oktar is as dangerous as Apo,” Apo being the nickname for the leader of the PKK, or Kurdish workers party, Abdullah Ocalan who is currently serving a life sentence for terrorist activities.(25) This criminalization of Yahya, even if just a discursive move, is a fascinating example of state repression in the realm of science and religion.
Likewise, Gülen’s political legitimacy grew shaky after the 1997 coup against Refah Partisi (Islamist Welfare Party) prime minister Necmettin Erbakan. In the anti-Islamist period that followed this coup a warrant was issued for Gülen’s arrest on the grounds of “anti-secular activities.” In 1999 Gülen left for the USA, where he still remains despite the charges being dropped.(26) Furthering this instability, in December of 2013, many influential AK Party members were arrested by civil servants with ties to the Gülen movement.(27) Prime Minister Erdoğan labelled the operation an attempted coup with the attempt to destabilize his position as prime minister. This conflict escalated until a warrant was issued for Gülen’s arrest for “leading an armed terrorist organization.”(28)
What does this public criminalization of both Gülen and Oktar say about the power they have over the Turkish, and even international public?
My understanding of the use of the word “terrorist” to label a non-state actor rests on the claim that modern governments hold a monopoly on violence. Any non-state actors that attempt to legitimize their power using violent (or sometimes even non-violent) tactics are considered to not have a right to that tactic. The State is deemed a legitimate wielder of violence, as it’s considered to be backed up by thorough cost-benefit analysis and the best interest of citizens in mind. All those who fall outside of the state are not seen as having these same things in mind, and thus their violence is considered illegitimate, and terroristic.(29)
Gülen’s “terrorist” label is understandable from Erdoğan, a man who’s quick to label his dissenters as such. I think it’s arguable, given the breadth of Gülen’s influence in sectors like the judicial, civic, economics and media systems, that Gülen does wield some legitimate threat to Erdoğan’s power. Influence in global education as well gives him a lot of sway internationally.
But what of Oktar? He does not seem to have nearly the same level of legitimacy as Gülen, making me wonder why people even bother giving him the time of day, much less recognizing him as “as dangerous as Apo.”(30) To this I would argue that Oktar serves as an exemplary model of immorality to the Turkish state. His publicity and flamboyance do half the work already, all that’s left is to label what Turkish citizens already saw as off-putting, as dangerous. I also believe it’s naïve to downplay Oktar’s influence too heavily. Sure, he’s not a wildly popular figure, but he does create tremendous quantities of heavily accessible, and even fascinating media. The (admittedly unintentional) medium of memes is one that has been wildly successful in other forms of ideology distribution. I believe this is enough to claim that Harun Yahya may potentially threaten the stability of Erdoğan’s regime, even if not as directly as Gülen or any other political actor.
It’s worth noting that Erdoğan and his party do not accept evolution themselves, so this struggle does not come down to the simple dichotomy of “science versus religion” or even “secularism versus religion.” In fact, in this paper I’ve attempted to show that the web of power stretching across Turkey, and even internationally, around the evolutionary debate is not so clear cut at all. What’s been framed as a two-sided debate about evolution is, in reality, highly politicized and highly entangled with new media.
To summarize, Fethullah Gülen and Harun Yahya, lead by Adnan Oktar, are two anti- Evolutionary, Islamist political actors in Turkey that are seen as threats to the Turkish state’s status quo. Their arguments against evolution and for creationism are similar in their logic, but their methods of dissemination are quite different. But again they are united in their mutual criminalization by the Turkish government despite these differences. I believe this goes to show that the influences of both new media and the politics of repression are deeply entangled with the evolutionary debate. It is not fair or even safe to frame the debate as a two sided argument between science and religion. Rather it is a multiplicitous and multivalent discourse which is highly entangled in both modernity and post-modernity.
(1) Caroline Tee, The Gülen Movement in Turkey: The Politics of Islam and Modernity, (London: I.B. Tauris & Co. Ltd, 2016), 2.
(2) Ibid., 1.
(3) Ibid., 2-3.
(4) Ibid., 3.
(5) Ibid., 4.
(6) Ibid., 88.
(7) Anne Ross Solberg, The Mahdi Wears Armani: An Analysis of the Harun Yahya Enterprise, (Huddinge: Sördertörns högskola, 2013), 1.
(8) Ibid., 4.
(9) Ibid., 5.
(10) Ibid., 5.
(11) Ibid., 6.
(12) Ibid., 7.
(13) Ibid., 8.
(14) Tee, The Gülen Movement in Turkey, 83.
(15) Ibid., 95.
(16) Ibid., 93.
(17) Solberg, The Mahdi Wears Armani, 127.
(18) Ibid., 127.
(19) Ibid., 128.
(20) Tee, The Gülen Movement in Turkey, 93-94.
(21) Ibid., 97.
(22) Solberg, The Mahdi Wears Armani, 9.
(23) Ibid., 9-10.
(24) Tee, The Gülen Movement in Turkey, 94.
(25) Ibid., 6-7.
(26) Ibid., 20.
(27) Ibid., 162.
(28) Ibid., 163.
(29) “Understanding Political Violence in an Age of Terrorism,” YouTube Video, 21:58, “PasifikMediaCanada,” November 14, 2016, https://www.youtube.com/watch? v=MeYvTeyy_YY.
(30) Tee, The Gülen Movement in Turkey, 6-7.
Solberg, Anne Ross. The Mahdi Wears Armani: An Analysis of the Harun Yahya Enterprise. Huddinge: Sördertörns högskola, 2013
Tee, Caroline. The Gülen Movement in Turkey: The Politics of Islam and Modernity. London: I.B. Tauris & Co. Ltd, 2016.
“Understanding Political Violence in an Age of Terrorism.” YouTube Video. 21:58. “PasifikMediaCanada.” November 14, 2016. https://www.youtube.com/watch? v=MeYvTeyy_YY.