Jihadist ideologues argue over Turkey’s Erdogan

Sheikh Abdullah al-Muhaysini (right) published a defense of Turkey’s leader, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan (center), citing his former teacher, Sheikh Abdul-Aziz al-Tarifi (left).

Two influential jihadist ideologues are engaged in a heated war of words concerning Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. The permissibility of receiving assistance from Erdoğan’s government has long been the subject of intense debate within jihadist circles. And the latest back-and-forth reveals it is a controversy that hasn’t subsided.

The bickering began on social media when Sheikh Abdullah al-Muhaysini, a Saudi who has worked with various jihadist groups in Syria, responded to a book published in Turkey that accused him and others of agitating against Erdoğan. To rebut the charge, Muhaysini cited the opinion of one of his teachers, Sheikh Abdul-Aziz al-Tarifi, who has been imprisoned inside Saudi Arabia.

“Erdogan is a diligent Muslim, ardent in God’s religion, and who is trying to reform his country, and support the issues of the Muslims, and not all decisions are in his hands,” Muhaysini quotes Tarifi as ruling. Tarifi compared Erdoğan to previous Muslim rulers who were constrained by their present circumstances, thereby absolving Turkey’s leader for his failure to rule entirely according to the jihadists’ version of sharia, or Islamic law. According to Muhaysini, Tarifi rejected takfiri claims leveled against Erdoğan, arguing that these are an “exaggeration.” That is, for Muhaysini and Tarifi, Erdoğan is not an apostate and shouldn’t be branded as being outside the Islamic faith.

Muhaysini then added: “Throughout my presence in Syria, whenever asked of this question I forward this fatwa over to the mujahideen. So these great orders are referred to the great Ulema.” This is an indication that Turkey’s role has often been a source of controversy.

As far as Muhaysini is concerned, therefore, Erdoğan is in fact a Muslim who is taking positive steps to reform Turkey away from its secular orientation.

Muhaysini is a U.S.-designated terrorist with multiple ties to al Qaeda. His words have carried weight in jihadist circles far outside of Syria.

Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi and his followers respond

Muhaysini’s opinion drew an immediate rebuke from the followers of Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi, who resides in Jordan. Pro-al Qaeda Telegram pages shared Maqdisi’s response, as well as other critiques of Muhaysini’s opinion.

One of the responses is a single-page critique, in which Maqdisi revisits some of his longstanding criticisms of Erdoğan. Maqdisi sneers at those who think of Erdoğan as their “beloved leader.” He argues that they are trying to deny that their support for Erdoğan constitutes a “dilution of ideology,” even though they don’t deny that Turkey’s leader promotes secularism.

Maqdisi points out that the pro-Erdoğan jihadists “do not deny” that Turkey’s army is “part of NATO.” These same advocates for Erdoğan have made Turkey’s armed forces “part of the Army of the Ummah,” Maqdisi writes, even though it “restricts fighting on the borders that are imposed by the enemy in Sochi, and Astana, and Adana” — a reference to agreements and negotiations between nations that are deemed illegitimate in the view of Maqdisi and many jihadists.

Maqdisi essentially accuses Muhaysini and others of inappropriately compromising on their jihadist doctrine and leading the “youth of the Ummah” astray. In a rhetorical flourish, Maqdisi addresses the youth directly, telling them that “it is not jihad in the path of God until you lift up the word of God, which is Tawhid.” And “every fight” that does not raise up the word of God is “not jihad, but rather a scourge on the Ummah and its youth.”

Maqdisi again charges those who endorse Erdoğan with diluting Allah’s word on behalf of illegitimate actors and causes. Telling the youth to “pay attention,” the Jordanian cleric writes that “what is considered the Army of the Ummah” is actually the “Army of Secularism.” Maqdisi points to Turkey’s participation in NATO and the “invasion of Afghanistan,” as well as its support for the “apostate government in Somalia.” All of which means that Turkey operates within the bounds of the “tyrants” of this world and often against the mujahideen.

Muhaysini claims Maqdisi isn’t even a sheikh

Muhaysini did not take Maqdisi’s words lightly. Instead, he came out swinging in a twopage denunciation. “I do not consider him [Maqdisi] a sheikh,” Muhaysini writes, and “those who compliment Maqdisi and call him a sheikh are deceiving a rising generation of mujahideen and others.”

Muhaysini’s reply to Maqdisi isn’t an attempt to debate jurisprudence. It is a broadside in which Muhaysini even questions the Jordanian’s religious credentials.

The Saudi asks rhetorically: “Can you find anyone among the Ulema who says Maqdisi is capable of giving fatwa?” Muhaysini then answers his own question: “On the contrary, you will find seventy people among the scholars who say that he is not capable of giving fatwa.”

Muhaysini criticizes Maqdisi for being soft on Turki al-Bin’ali, a senior Islamic State ideologue who was once one of Maqdisi’s students, and for praising Liwa al-Aqsa. Muhaysini notes that Liwa al-Aqsa was an offshoot or remnant of the Islamic State. The Saudi cleric was involved in early efforts to settle the Islamic State’s differences with its jihadist rivals and reconcile with al Qaeda, but his efforts failed. Muhaysini then became one of the so-called caliphate’s most prominent critics inside Syria.

Muhaysini goes further, accusing Maqdisi of disparaging Hamas cofounder Ahmed Yassin, as well as Abdullah Azzam, the legendary godfather of modern jihadism. He accuses Maqdisi of harming the jihad in Afghanistan and Iraq. And as for Syria, Muhaysini writes, “I bear witness that this man has done a great deal of harm to the jihad in the Levant” and no mujahideen faction has been “spared from him.” Muhaysini warns that following Maqdisi’s teachings is a dead-end, like the fate met by the Islamic State in Al-Baghouz. Muhaysini quotes Atiyah Abd-al-Rahman (Attiya Allah), a Libyan who was one of Osama bin Laden’s most senior lieutenants, on Maqdisi’s extreme ways. “He [Maqdisi] is known for being harsh in his application of takfir,” Atiyah found. (In other words, Maqdisi is quick to label other Muslims as apostates.)

Muhaysini emphatically disclaims any ties to Maqdisi or his school of thought, saying that he quickly renamed one of his own religious institutes after it was initially and mistakenly named in Maqdisi’s honor.

Muhaysini warns future generations: “This man is not a sheikh. He is not a scholar.”  “On the contrary,” Muhaysini writes, Maqdisi is leading others astray.

Example of divisions within the Syrian jihad

The dispute between Muhaysini and Maqdisi is an example of the ongoing divisions within the jihadist scene in Syria. Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) is thought to be the largest jihadist group based in Idlib. HTS has cut deals with Turkey to prevent the Assad regime, Iranian-backed forces and the Russians from eliminating the insurgents’ last significant stronghold. Some of HTS’s jihadist critics, including Maqdisi, have objected to this move on the grounds that it is an unacceptable compromise. More pragmatic ideologues, like Muhaysini, see it as a legitimate and necessary policy, given that the jihad is in jeopardy and Erdoğan is more of an ally than a foe.

Although Muhaysini accuses Maqdisi of being a divisive interloper, which may very well be true, the Jordanian ideologue is not the only one who criticizes those who rely on Turkey.

For instance, Abu Ubaydah, the emir of Shabaab, has taken a hard line on Erdoğan. In a 2018 message, Abu Ubaydah warned Muslims that they should not “be deceived by the empty slogans” of President Erdoğan, describing him as the leader of a “secular regime,” which is a “member of the Crusader alliance” (meaning NATO), “friendly” with America, and “recognizes Israel.” [See FDD’s Long War Journal report, Analysis: Shabaab advertises its al Qaeda allegiance.]

Despite Muhaysini’s blistering critique, Maqdisi isn’t likely to stand down. The Jordanian cleric has stirred up discontent on this issue within the Syrian jihad for years. And Muhaysini isn’t going to back down either. The Saudi has long argued that Erdoğan’s Turkey is a valuable ally and attacking it is not in the jihadists’ interests.

Thomas Joscelyn is a Senior Fellow at Foundation for Defense of Democracy and the Senior Editor for The Long War Journal. Caleb Weiss is an intern at Foundation for Defense of Democracy and a contributor to The Long War Journal.

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