Iskender Erol Evrenosoğlu who passed away in the U.S., was one of the most controversial figures among the recent ‘Islamist personas’ that emerged in Turkey. Newspapers published headlines expressing surprise as almost 3,000 people attended his funeral. This confusion had to do with the fact that someone who outright declared himself a prophet, above all the other cult leaders who claim to be sheikh or saints, was able to attract so many followers.
Iskender Evrenesoğlu’s past differs from that of other cult leaders. He had worked as an economy expert at the State Planning Organization for many years. When one look at his works and the articles he published, it is difficult to understand how a person like this can come to declare himself a ‘prophet’. Born in 1933, Iskender Erol Evrenesoğlu completed his primary, middle and high school education in Iznik (Nicea). He received his university degree from the Istanbul High Economy and Commerce School in the mid-1950s. He worked for institutions like Vakıflar Bank and Government Business Enterprises (GBE). It has also been said that he was a member of the Workers’ Party of Turkey after 1965, though nothing is known about the extent of his involvement.
Declaration of prophethood and silence in Islamic community
Evrenesoğlu’s Islamist tendencies started with the Government Business Enterprises. There have been many articles published in the newspapers of the period about how the GBE became an institution with conservative and Islamist people as a majority. Starting with former president Turgut Özal, many right-wing politicians from Özal’s Motherland Party to the religious Welfare Party had a background in the GBE. Looking at the books he wrote in the field of economy from the 1970s to the 80s, it could be said that important positions at state level awaited him, although not as much as Özal. Among the books Evrenesoğlu wrote during that time were “Liquid Mechanism”, “Medium Term Credits in Turkey”, “Resource Waste in Turkey Banking System”, Turkey, Federal Germany and Labor Relations”, “Financial Problems in Turkey Industries”. It seemed like a solid foundation for a exemplar bureaucratic career in a Turkey that was heading towards neo-liberal waters.
Yet having started leaning towards Islamism, Evrenesoğlu chose to fast forward from “follower to mentor”. At first, his articles were published in Milli Gazete, a media outlet in which Islamist intellectuals were published. But shortly after that, he started saying he had ‘established direct contact with Allah’.
He also claimed Allah had then made him start writing a book called ‘Risalet Nurları/Divine Light of the Prophet’! Despite this, Islamist circles did not care much about him at first. After all, every religious leader claiming to be a “mentor” was saying similar things, though not in such an ambitious manner. At times, followers made sheikhs ‘fly’ and sheikhs chose to remain silent. They also indirectly implied such things to followers. Adnan Oktar is one of the most notable examples of this trend.
But contrary to such sheikhs, Evrenesoğlu declared his prophethood at the very beginning of his Islamist days.
While he started making this claim in 1976, he chose to ignore the ‘community’ situation he was in. Evrenesoğlu never spoke Arabic at a level good enough to read the Quran. Despite that, he still wrote a book about the meaning of the Quran. To this day, the book comes up in search engines among the top results for Islamic scholars.
Directorate of Religious Affairs claims him ‘unholy’
In the mid 1980s, Evrenesoğlu took his prophet claims even further. He claimed that the surahs (sections) in his book Risalet Nurları - a title perhaps derived from Said-i Nursi's Risale-i Nur - came down to him from Allah in sections just like the Quran. He started telling his followers the process started in 1976 and was completed in 1982. Meanwhile, he changed his name to “Iskender Ali Mihr” and founded the Mihr Foundation and magazine.
He never concealed his claims of being a prophet. But as his cult started to grow and word spread about the meetings he held at the GBE about it, prosecutors of the time caught on. In 1986, the Directorate of Religious Affairs evaluated his book and reported it to be “unholy and against Quran”.
That's when State Security Court prosecutors stepped in. Evrenesoğlu was arrested on charges of “reactionary activities”. There was little reason for the then Prime Minister Turgut Özal to protect a former colleague of his after such clear prophethood claims had been made. When people asked him for help, Özal simply retorted: “he’s crazy, not in a condition to be reactionary.”
Reappearance after February 28
But Evrenesoğlu's fame, which had been limited to Islamist circles, grew even more after he appeared on the media. Following the mid 1990s, when the religious Welfare Party (RP) won major cities and became a partner in government, the military was trying to block the Islamist opposition. Acting on behalf of the military, mainstream media published news provided by certain circles of interest. It was a time when news about Ali Kalkancı, Müslüm Gündüz and Fadime Şahin were ‘printed’ by the police and the media.
Iskender Evrenesoğlu was instantly ‘discovered’ by the mainstream media during this time. They had found a cult leader who was both ‘Islamist’ and claimed to be a ‘prophet’ in the open. It was such news that made him known by Turkish Muslims who had nothing to do with political Islam and secularists.
In 1996, he appeared on a talk show hosted by Hulki Cevizoğlu with Islam scholar Yaşar Nuri Öztürk. On the show, he openly contested a fundamental doctrine of Islam, that His Holiness Muhammed would be the last prophet. Evrenesoğlu asserted there was no such statement in the Quran, and that on the contrary, it clearly was written that other prophets would follow in his wake.
Once again, he said he got his information not from Islamist literature, but from his “private contact with Allah”. Belittling the scholars educated in religious schools represented by Öztürk standing next to him, he said, “I went to the university of Allah. I thank Allah for this, for not letting me go to other schools…”
‘Allah University’ online
Evrenesoğlu had by now become an outcast from the Islam community and was treated like a lunatic. Still, his following continued to grow steadily. The self-proclaimed prophet used developing communication technologies intensively. He founded radio stations and countless websites. His most surprising initiative was "Allah University", a bogus educational program that cost 100 dollars to enroll. This "virtual school" which was launched in April 2000 required going through virtual middle and high schools diplomas prior to enrollment into the "university". Exams were conducted online. Source material were based on what the “Effendi Excellency” had written. Evrenesoğlu sometimes pretended to deny his claims of prophethood but he did not hide the fact that he was doing everything prophets did. He used to say that his own followers, if he authorized them, could also speak to Allah. When why he was chosen, he said: “Wishing to save the Muslim world and spread Islam all around the globe again, what could Allah have done? He would have put someone in charge. He had to put someone in charge to revive the forgotten duties, to teach them to all humanity once again. Allah did that. We are that person in charge.”
Exile in the U.S.
Yet rejecting the fundamental concepts of Islam so openly could have made him a target of not only prosecutors, but also of radical Islamist organizations. Perhaps due to these worries, or because of the lawsuits he faced, Evrenesoğlu moved to the U.S. From there, through the internet, and through meetings he held in Europe and Azerbaijan, he was able to resume his activities.
When a followers sought to join him, he would accept them after “talking to Allah”. He performed the rituals over the internet as well. When a follower asked on YouTube whether his authenticity had been accepted, Evrenesoğlu closed his eyes and said “I don’t know. Let me ask”. After a short while he held up his head in happiness and said “Your authenticity has been accepted my son. Start your prayers now.”
Iskender Erol Evrenesoğlu was buried with a ceremony in which the Directorate of Religious Affairs said they did not send any officials. Perhaps we should count him as the first representative of the ‘New Age’ trends that are seen in the West, even prior to Adnan Oktar. Evrenesoğlu endured the issues such movements face. Though not as much as Oktar did with his ‘kittens’, he had troubles with his female followers. Some female followers accused him of abuse. When he was still in Turkey such accusations were limited to statements to the press and complaints, which did not cause too much trouble.
‘Molestation’ arrest in the U.S.
Yet in the U.S., an 18-year old follower filed a lawsuit against him in 2009. The self-proclaimed prophet was living in the Chesapeake town of Maryland and was detained for a while. Police records showed that Evrenesoğlu had molested a Turkish young woman who had come to ask for prayers. The incident was all over the media in the country. The woman, speaking to American Channel 3 said that she had known Evrenesoğlu for 16 years and her father was a follower as well.
With his foundations, companies, sales over the internet and donations from followers, Evrenesoğlu lived a lavish life in the U.S. In another propaganda video, he was filmed using his private plane.
After his death at the age of 86 in the U.S., Iskender Erol Evrenesoğlu’s body was brought to Turkey and buried in Bursa. The crowd at the funeral was surprising for many. But had Evrenesoğlu, or “Iskender Ali Mihr” as he called himself”, been a little bit more modest and not claimed to be a prophet, there would be, undoubtedly, tens of thousands attending his funeral.