personal essay

When I Met the Now-Arrested Leader of a 'Feminist' Cult and His 'Kittens'

After the recent news of Turkish televangelist Adnan Oktar's arrest for fraud, sexual assault, and espionage, I look back on what it was like to meet him and the women of his "Islamic Creationist" cult, known as his "kittens."

Meher Ahmad

Meher Ahmad

Photos via VICE. 

My first brush with Adnan Oktar and his followers was via a Facebook message I sent to one of Oktar's main “kittens,” the name given to his inner circle of hyper-femme presenting supporters. I was trying to find a way to film with her cohort, a notorious Turkish religious group with its own cable network purporting themselves to be “Islamic creationists,” and sometimes labeled by media as a “feminist” cult. They rose to infamy first in their native Turkey, then internationally as their leader, Oktar, launched a cable channel and wrote dozens of books advocating his brand of creationism. I introduced myself to Ebru, the kitten in question, as a documentary producer interested in the group’s approach to feminism and Islam.

All I knew of Ebru before I spoke to her was that she had bleached blonde hair, plumped lips, and a penchant for posting highly edited photos. When she agreed to a Skype call with me about the intersection of feminism and Islam, I was expecting a conversation as carefully manicured and edited as her Facebook photos, but instead the conversation was open and philosophical. She told me about how she believes Islam doesn’t require a veil, that looking beautiful and believing in the word of Allah aren’t mutually exclusive. She told me about how Darwinism is the root of society’s all evils, and that she self-identifies as a feminist because Quranic texts elevate a woman’s status at times above a man’s. Her voice, soft and distant over the crackly Skype connection, was even-paced and thoughtful.

Ebru and I chatted a few times over the course of the year. I wished her happy birthday, she wished me happy Ramadan, etc. Telling people about my conversations with her and explaining the concept of Adnan Oktar and his kittens never ceased to be a fun party trick.

Eventually, I began floating the idea of filming with Ebru, not just on the show, but in an in-depth conversation with the women by themselves. She told me plenty of media had come to visit Oktar before. She sent me links to videos of Rabbis from Israel, Christian Evangelicals from the US, Freemasons, and a strange collection of D-list celebrities from countries across the Middle East and Central Asia.

The more I saw, the less it made sense. While articles and academic research I read online claimed the group was a cult built on blackmailed funds Oktar collected from women sometimes tricked into joining his cult, the women constantly appeared on Oktar’s TV show, greeting seemingly reputable guests. A few of the women spoke often on the shows, others merely clapped and giggled in their seats.

Finally, Ebru agreed to connect me with the group’s PR manager when I drummed up enough excitement at work for my managers to send me to Turkey. Immediately, their PR team began making strange requests: They didn’t like outside men mingling with the kittens, they told me, so we could only film if we brought female camera operators. He seemed to think that would be an insurmountable problem and lobbed other obstacles our way when I quickly assured him female camera operators wouldn’t be a problem. We could only film on a certain date; we could only film the women with supervision. We acquiesced to every request, but even as I was on the flight to Istanbul, I felt uncertain we would get any access at all.

Once we finally met with the Oktar’s followers, introduced to us as members of his TV channel “A9,” my fears were realized. It didn’t matter that we had female camera operators, we couldn’t use our cameras. It didn’t matter if we used their cameras, the women don’t do interviews separate from Oktar. The goal post kept moving further and further away. I asked if I could just meet with Ebru, my online chat buddy, but the A9 staffers who were clearly sent to be our handlers kept making vague excuses about why she wasn’t available.

When we finally turned the cameras on (their cameras, several notches worse in quality than ours), I was in full panic mode. The handlers gave us a tour of two of Oktar’s properties, including a small petting zoo and chicken coop. I was fake-laughing at their incomprehensible jokes and faux-hospitality for what felt like hours, scrambling to figure out how I could speak to any one of the women on camera, even for a few minutes. More Versace-clad, spray-tanned men kept showing up, offering us sodas in wine glasses, making endless small talk, and nervously checking to see where we were pointing the cameras. At one point, we were told to delete footage of a puppy attacking a chicken at their petting zoo. We obliged.

Finally, we were told we would not be able to film with the harem of kittens on their own, and that the only time I could speak with them at all was on air during Oktar’s nightly show.

Exhausted from and endless stream of fake smiles and fossil displays, by the time I sat in the hot seat on Oktar’s show, I was delirious. When I was finally allowed to ask the women questions directly, one chirped up with resolute explanations for why Oktar’s group was the best place for women on the entire planet. We broke for one of the show’s notoriously ill-timed dance breaks, and the whole thing was over before I could properly meet any one of the women.

The experience left a bitter taste, not least because of the constantly changing expectations of our frighteningly friendly hosts. I was angry at not being able to speak with Ebru, my pen pal of nearly a year. I tried to make eye contact with her while we were on air and thanked her profusely in front of Oktar, who himself seemed amiable, if not a bit geriatric. She seemed distant and shy—not at all like she'd been on our Skype calls.

As quickly as the cameras stopped rolling, Ebru and the other women were corralled and ushered outside of the studio altogether. I was left with a face full of hideous makeup and a 20-pound book with Photoshopped pictures of fossils. I went hoping to speak with the women directly, giving women like Ebru the chance to say what she told me on Skype: They really believed in something that seemed far more logical than the song and dance cable TV show they were subjected to.

Our short documentary ended with that same confused melancholy. I left it at that and never reached out to Ebru again. I still followed some of the kittens on Twitter and, if I happened to be in the right time zone, I’d catch their live tweets along with one of Oktar’s nightly orations.

It was from one of the kittens’ former accounts that I realized Oktar had been arrested earlier today on a litany of charges, including fraud, sexual assault, and espionage. Turkey’s financial crimes police arrested Oktar, apparently tipping off Turkish media who were present for his arrest. Details of his charges have yet to emerge but rumors of Oktar’s group’s activities have been percolating for years. According to the BBC, 166 of his followers have been arrested but several dozens, including most of his prized “kittens,” are at large.

Shocked but bemused, I scrolled through her account for more. The sharp, resolute woman that spoke the most on the show has since defected. She’s gloating at her former leader’s demise. She isn’t just gloating, she’s warning the public that the kittens are often armed, an aspect of their lives she’s learned from being one of them for so long.

So much of what the public knows about Oktar is based on speculation and accusations from outsiders, but with his arrest and the curious inability to find the women that defined his following, a lot of those beliefs appear founded in some truth.

Oktar, the man always surrounded by fake boobs and Versace pillows, looks tiny in handcuffs, smaller than I remember him (he was always kept on a higher stage than the audience for his shows). In a news video of Oktar’s arrest, people shout “WHERE ARE THE KITTENS” as he frantically makes his way into a police car. The harem, it seems, has been whisked away to avoid arrest.

In filming with Oktar’s followers, we realized control was a commodity. Politely, we were told we had none. Everything seemed to run on queues—we were shuffled to one room while the women were shuffled to another, kept somewhere we could never quite place despite touring their properties for hours. So much of what the public knows about Oktar is based on speculation and accusations from outsiders, but with his arrest and the curious inability to find the women that defined his following, a lot of those beliefs appear founded in some truth.

I looked for mine and Ebru’s Facebook conversations—she’s since deleted her old Facebook and started a fan-page. She has the same expressionless stare in all of her photos on her new profile. Apparently, she’s among the group of kittens that remains at large.