One of the unifying themes of the Sunni jihadi movement as it has developed over the past half-century has been the view that Western-style democracy is an affront to Islam. Even worse, it is a religion fundamentally incompatible with the faith, a version of polytheism (shirk) in which authority is derived from the popular will as opposed to God’s will, and in which manmade laws are adopted and implemented as opposed to God’s law, the Shari‘a. Yet as the jihadi movement’s unity has frayed over the past decade with the rise of the Islamic State, so too has the united front against democracy. Last month’s elections in Turkey, which saw President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, head of the Islamist AKP, reelected to another five-year term in office, brought divisions over the matter into the sharpest relief yet, as ideologues debated the legitimacy not only of voting for the Turkish president but of advocating his reelection as well. For most jihadis, Erdoğan is an apostate unbeliever as he upholds a secular democratic system. But how to deal with this fact in the real world remains an issue of considerable contestation.
Background: jihadism confronts democracy
The Arab Spring uprisings of 2010-11, which saw autocratic regimes in Tunisia and Egypt overthrown, paving the way for temporary democratic experiments in each, posed the initial test for the jihadi movement’s approach to democracy. In a series of message over 2011-13 directed to the people of Egypt, al-Qaida leader Ayman al-Zawahiri reiterated his opposition to the electoral system, stressing that “democracy is in reality a religion that rests on the sanctification of the will of the majority” and that “we, as Muslims, must reject the political process and elections, except on a foundation of the sovereignty of the Shari‘a.” Nonetheless, he refrained from calling for jihad against Egypt’s elected Islamist president, Mohammed Morsi, stating in April 2013, “I have not called for revolution against Muhammad Morsi. Rather, I have called for the continuation of the blessed revolution that brought us Muhammad Morsi, until the desired change is achieved.” This position represented a tactical toleration of the democratic outcome in Egypt, a departure from the previous al-Qaida position of calling for the overthrow of all the region’s political leaders. A similar approach was taken by the Palestinian-Jordanian jihadi scholar Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi, who from prison in 2013 wrote that it would be “politically stupid to open up battle fronts at this stage” with the newly elected rulers.
This stance was by no means an embrace of democracy, though some in the jihadi movement effectively did end up promoting democracy as a vehicle for change. The most notable example was the Syrian scholar Abu Basir al-Tartusi, who in November 2011 endorsed the Salafi candidate Hazim Salah Abu Isma‘il for president of Egypt, earning him a sharp rebuke from a member of al-Maqdisi’s Shari‘a council.
Al-Qaida’s position on Morsi may have been merely tactical and temporary, but for the ideological purists of the Islamic State it was the sort of wishy-washiness that they were no longer willing to tolerate. As the Islamic State distanced itself from al-Qaida in 2013-14, seeking to distinguish itself as the standard-bearer of a more puritanical version of Jihadi Salafism, it highlighted the issue of democracy, and of Morsi in particular, as a key area of divergence. In one of his more noteworthy audio statements, the Islamic State’s spokesman Abu Muhammad al-‘Adnani cited al-Qaida’s soft position on Morsi and failure to urge jihad against him as evidence of the group’s deviation. Rejection of democracy tout court became a signature feature of the Islamic State’s messaging. As Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi stated in his mid-2014 sermon following the announcement of the caliphate, “The Muslims today have a loud, thundering statement, and possess heavy boots. They have a statement to make that will cause the world to hear and understand the meaning of terrorism, and boots that will trample the idol of nationalism, destroy the idol of democracy, and uncover its deviant nature.”
While the democratic winds have since subsided in the Arab world, the occasional controversy over democracy still flares with respect to Turkey, where President Erdoğan attracts a certain level of sympathy in jihadi circles. This is because Erdoğan, an Islamist, is seen as better than his political opponents in the more nationalist and secularist opposition. Most jihadis still consider him an apostate for his embrace of democracy and secularism, as well as for contributing forces to the anti-Taliban and anti-al-Shabaab missions in Afghanistan and Somalia, respectively. But they nonetheless tend to see him as preferable to the alternative.
The Turkish presidential elections of 2018 because a source of controversy when Abu Qatada Filastini, a Palestinian-Jordanian jihadi scholar based in Jordan, expressed joy in Erdoğan’s successful election. As he wrote on his Telegram page at the time, in June 2018, “There is no doubt to one possessed of knowledge that [Erdoğan’s] victory is a mercy for the people in Turkey and that the alternatives to him are apostate unbelievers who hate the religion.” His own view, Abu Qatada clarified, was that “the man does not represent me, but I am fond of his triumph over his religion-hating enemies among the leftists, secularists, and nationalists.”
A year earlier, the Islamic State had condemned the idea that one may rejoice in victories for Erdoğan. As an editorial in the group’s weekly newsletter, al-Naba’, stated in July 2017, concerning the outcome of a pro-Erdoğan constitutional referendum, “Naïve people today are rejoicing in the victory of the idol-ruler (taghut) Erdoğan over some of his opponents.” This was a mistake, for rather than choosing one taghut over another, Muslims are required to reject and wage jihad against all of them. Another recent al-Naba’ editorial, from July 2020, reiterated the Islamic State’s opposition to Erdoğan and the folly of participating in the “polytheism of democracy.” The claim that voting for a democratic ruler might bring some benefit is invalid, it said, as the greatest benefit of all is God’s oneness (tawhid), which empowering an apostate like Erdoğan vitiates.
Al-Maqdisi’s “pure milk”
The latest Turkish elections have invited even more controversy than previously, in part because Turkey now plays a key role in sustaining the presence of Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), the former al-Qaida affiliated that rules in northwest Syria. Since late 2017, HTS has cooperated militarily with Turkey, first permitting Turkish troops to establish bases and observation posts in and around Idlib Governorate and then coordinating with them more extensively. The Turkish military presence in the northwest effectively serves to guarantee the HTS statelet’s continued existence. It is unclear whether Erdoğan’s political opponents would maintain this policy, and thus for HTS and its supporters, Erdoğan’s status as Turkey’s ruler is of paramount importance.
For its collaboration with Turkey and for many other perceived transgressions, HTS is viewed as heretical by the Islamic State. But there are also numerous jihadis not aligned with the Islamic State who view HTS unfavorably, accusing it of abandoning the jihadi methodology (manhaj) in making concession after concession to secure its rule. Most of these critical voices are aligned with al-Qaida. One of these is the jihadi scholar Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi.
In January 2022, after Erdoğan announced the upcoming elections in May, al-Maqdisi wasted no time in firing off a warning shot against participation. The next day, on January 23, he published an article on Telegram under the title “Concerning Elections: Leave the Froth and Take the Pure Milk.” The main argument was that God’s oneness (tawhid) requires the believer to disavow and reject all idols (tawaghit, sing. taghut) as God says in Q. 16:36, “Worship you God and eschew taghut.” The elected political leader today is a taghut, or idol-ruler,by virtue of the fact that he rules not by God’s law but by manmade laws and so arrogates to himself God’s divine prerogative regarding legislation. The polytheism (shirk)that he embodies is “the shirk of legislation and rule that assigns partners to God, who legislate for the people that which God did not permit.” While a taghut might exhibit some positive attributes, this does not make it permissible to vote for him. “It is only permissible, O monotheist, to call for dissociation from all forms of shirk and the rejection of all taghuts—for their rejection and not their election.”
Here as elsewhere, al-Maqdisi employed his favorite anti-democracy terms, Islamocrat (islamuqrati) and Islamo-secularist (‘ilmanislami), using these to portray his ideological foes as seeking to corrupt Islam with the polytheistic taint of democracy and secularism. Much of the article is devoted to countering the anticipated arguments of those termed “the shaykhs of Islamocracy and Islamo-secularism,” also described as “the cheerleaders of the taghuts.” The principal argument that he refuted relates to the victory of Byzantium over Persia in the seventh century, which the Qur’an mentions in Surat al-Rum, stating that “on that day the believers shall rejoice.” The argument that some democracy advocates use, al-Maqdisi explained, is that if the Qur’an can celebrate the victory of Christian Byzantium over Zoroastrian Persian, the former being seen as the closer to monotheism, then surely Muslims can cast a vote for the lesser of two evils in an Islamic context. For al-Maqdisi, however, this is wrong, for there is an important distinction to be drawn between rejoicing and supporting. While it is permissible, pursuant to the Qur’anic example, to rejoice in the victory of a more tolerable taghut over a more tyrannical one, it is not permissible to support any taghut’s empowerment by voting for him. “When we warn against participation in elections,” al-Maqdisi wrote, “we are warning against all of them. We are not aligning with a harsh and dictatorial taghut against a gentle and democratic taghut, nor against an Islamocrat like Morsi or Erdoğan.” Choosing between the lesser of two taghuts is not the business of the believer. It is believer’s business to worship God alone and “dissociate from all taghuts—all of them—for shirk and the following of taghuts are not made permissible by any of a taghut’s desirable attributes.”
Al-Mahdi and al-Dhahabi weigh in
Unsurprisingly, it was the supporters of HTS in the jihadosphere who would make the case for voting for Erdoğan. The most outspoken of these was the Syrian scholar and preacher ‘Abd al-Razzaq al-Mahdi, a former member of HTS who would later resign his post, complaining about his inability to thwart HTS’s acts of “oppression.” Despite such criticism, he has remained broadly supportive of HTS and its governance project in the northwest, where he continues to reside, working as a teacher and popular writer. His fatwa channel on Telegram, where he responds to all manner of inquiries, has over 23,000 subscribers.
A recent inquiry, from late April 2023, put to al-Mahdi the following question: “What is the religious judgment (hukm) concerning participation in the elections that will take place in Turkey in the coming month? Is the one who participates in these elections charged with sin, or is there no fault in him?” Al-Mahdi’s response, or fatwa, came a week later in the form of a series of Telegram posts published between May 6 and 11. Al-Mahdi began by noting that Muslim scholars have articulated five positions on the issue of participating in elections, ranging from forbidden and excommunicable to permissible and even obligatory.
Before offering his own take on the matter, he stated that it is first necessary to establish some basic facts about Erdoğan’s challenger and what his victory would entail. Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, he said, belongs to the Alawite sect and is a staunch secularist in thrall to “Kemalist ideas.” As the head of the Republican People’s Party founded by Ataturk, Kılıçdaroğlu “always stresses that he will preserve the teachings of Ataturk and his opposition to the Islamization of the state.” As president, he would likely launch a campaign against Islam and Muslims to include banning the hijab, persecuting clerics and preachers, and expelling or imprisoning those who fled the savagery of the Arab regimes. Furthermore, a president Kılıçdaroğlu would withdraw Turkey’s forces from Syria, handing power in the “liberated areas” over to the Asad regime.
Turning to the legal status of participating in elections, al-Mahdi quoted the judgments of the two most prominent Salafi scholars in Saudi Arabia of the late twentieth century, ‘Abd al-‘Aziz bin Baz and Muhammad ibn ‘Uthaymin, who both approved of participating in elections in certain circumstances. “Most Muslim scholars,” al-Mahdi declared, have thus judged participation to be permissible, “so long as the objective is establishing the Shari‘a, even if as a distant prospect, or minimizing evils and securing benefits to Muslims in their religious or worldly affairs.” He further cited a recent statement signed by dozens of scholars worldwide supporting Erdoğan in the coming election, largely on the grounds of the “great benefit” that his presidency has brought to Muslims in Turkey, including the millions of refugees.
Al-Mahdi concluded by urging his readers not to “hesitate in electing Erdoğan and the members of AKP,” noting that whatever faults or insufficiencies Erdoğan may have when it comes to implementing the Shari‘a, these pale in comparison to what is on offer in his opponent. Implicitly addressing al-Maqdisi, he wrote, “Whosoever deems elections to be forbidden contradicts the great scholars of the Hijaz, Egypt, al-Sham, and the lands of the Arab west and the Islamic east; and he gives no consideration to the principles acknowledged by the consensus of Muslim scholars: ‘the lesser of two evils,’ or ‘the lesser of two harms,’ or ‘the accrual and enlargement of benefits and the aversion of evils.’”
Also adding his voice to the mix at this time was the more obscure figure of Hani Dahab, an Egyptian former associate of HTS who goes by the name “al-Dhahabi” online. In several posts on Telegram, al-Dhahabi likewise advocated the permissibility of participating in the Turkish elections and of voting for Erdoğan. For al-Dhahabi, the heart of the matter was the comparison between the two potential outcomes, and to his mind a Kılıçdaroğlu victory was a far worse scenario than an Erdoğan one. “If the Ataturkists prevail,” he wrote, “then Turkey will return to the era of forbidding the hijab, not to mention the expulsion of the Syrians and every oppositionist who has found in Turkey a place to live … Whosoever deems Erdoğan’s victory as equivalent to his opponent’s knows nothing about the situation in Turkey nor the files related to it, especially that of Syria and the liberated areas.”
Like al-Mahdi, al-Dhahabi defended participating in elections, though unlike the former he appealed to the authority not of mainstream Salafi scholars but of the more fiery ‘Abd al-‘Aziz al-Tarifi, a Saudi scholar whose views are closer to Jihadi Salafism. (Al-Tarifi was arrested in 2016, shortly after criticizing the Saudi move to disempower the religious police force, and has been imprisoned ever since.) On the matter of voting in elections, al-Tarifi was supportive in the event that some benefit was to be gained. In a Telegram post, al-Dhahabi embedded a video in which al-Tarifi can be heard saying, in response to a question about participating in elections, “If a person is securing a benefit or averting a harm, then this is a permitted matter in which there is no fault.” His approval was limited, however, only to such cases and not to those where the choice is between two equally corrupt options.
Al-Maqdisi would respond to both of these critics in a series of tweets. First, he emphasized the point that the choice in Turkey was not between a candidate who would implement the Shari‘a and one who would not, but rather between one taghut and another. “As for your democratic elections,” he wrote, “they are marked by unbelief, as the choice therein is limited to rulers all of whom will refrain from applying God’s law.” “Be not deceived by the deceptions of the Islamocrats,” he added later, stating that “democracy” in the present case is “patent unbelief and flagrant polytheism.” Erdoğan, he continued, has promised to draft a new “civil constitution,” and “will not those voting for him bear responsibility for this constitution? … We are not partisans of the democratic game. Rather, we draw near to God by dissociating from it and from all those who rule by manmade laws. We are among the followers of the religion of Abraham (millat Ibrahim), which rejects shirk and its adherents and which unifies God in His worship and His sovereignty.” In another comment, al-Maqdisi described his opponents as “the Islamocrat scholars and the jihadi Murji’ites [i.e., those unduly tolerant in creedal matters],” claiming that they “wish to portray the struggle between the gentle secularist Erdoğan and his harsher secularist opponent as a struggle between Islam and unbelief, and in this they have deceived Muslims … If they had [merely] wished for Erdoğan’s victory without distorting facts and deceiving Muslims, I would not have criticized them. No one who is knowledgeable wishes for the victory of the more wicked.”
Evidently, al-Maqdisi himself saw an Erdoğan victory as preferable, even if he was unwilling to say so explicitly. In a reply, al-Dhahabi sought to make al-Maqdisi’s position clearer, writing that “anyone who indicates to you his lack of interest in the Turkish elections … writing for you at length about the judgment concerning elections and God’s sovereignty, [matters] about which there is no dispute … is in reality, between himself, wishing for his victory.” For al-Dhahabi, al-Maqdisi’s position was self-contradictory. Like his opponents, al-Maqdisi was hoping for an Erdoğan victory, but he simultaneously opposed any act that might help to bring that victory about.
Abu Qatada’s intervention
Al-Maqdisi’s attacks on al-Mahdi and al-Dhahabi soon elicited a response from Abu Qatada al-Filastini, al-Maqdisi’s rival in Jordan’s jihadi milieu, in the form of a Telegraph post on May 18. In recent years, Abu Qatada has split with al-Maqdisi on a range of issues, advocating a more pan-Islamist vision of jihadism that includes support for HTS. He would continue in that spirit here, implicitly criticizing al-Maqdisi (never mentioned by name) for too severely condemning his opponents and for questioning their adherence to monotheism (tawhid). Abu Qatada’s main point was that al-Maqdisi was wrong to make the dispute over elections a creedal matter as opposed to a legal one admitting of more than one acceptable view. As he wrote, “The dispute between two Muslims over the issue of legislative and presidential elections is not a dispute over the oneness of God’s lordship (tawhid al-uluhiyya),over the fact that God is the All-Ruling who possesses the right of deeming what is permissible and what is forbidden, the right of legislation.” Anyone who rejects this, in part or in full, stated Abu Qatada, is not a Muslim. However, a Muslim jurist seeking to derive a judgment on the matter of elections should be able to do so without having his tawhid thrown into question. “This is his ijtihad, and he might judge rightly and he might err,” meaning that if he errs he will still be rewarded for his sincere effort. To make the matter about tawhid, which is a creedal issue,is to put forth “a false conception of the dispute” that will inevitably lead to pronouncements of takfir.
The next day al-Maqdisi responded on Twitter, defending himself and accusing Abu Qatada (though not by name) of “seeking to sugarcoat the wicked fatwas that permit” participation in elections. The election of a person such as Erdoğan, who “embraces secularism” and has pledged to rule in accordance with “a liberal constitution,” is undoubtedly “a matter connected to tawhid al-uluhiyya.” A person can believe that God has the sole right of legislation, but that does not absolve him of stripping God of that right by issuing a fatwa permitting a vote for him. This is a “violation of tawhid.” “Whosoever issues a fatwa on behalf of electing an unbelieving, secularist ruler who refrains from ruling by the Shari‘a, who shows loyalty to unbelieving apostates, and who gives support to them against the Muslims in Somalia and elsewhere, on the grounds that in doing so he is averting the greater evil by tolerating the lesser evil, is not in reality calling for the toleration of the lesser evil; rather, he is calling for its election … And thus the fatwa is connected to tawhid even if they deny it.”
Following the exchange, one of al-Maqdisi’s allies, the Canada-based Egyptian scholar Tariq ‘Abd al-Halim, chimed in on Telegram, ridiculing Abu Qatada for making an argument so patently at odds with the basic principle of Jihadi Salafi thought. “The matter of electing someone who will rule by other than what God has revealed,” he wrote, “is not a jurisprudential matter over which jurists debate and in which creed has no place! It is a creedal matter that the right of legislation belongs to God alone, and whosoever grants it to other than God, in part or in full, has disbelieved as a matter of consensus.” ‘Abd al-Halim followed up in another post by quoting from an old essay of Abu Qatada’s condemning democracy as polytheism, asking how the methodology (madhhab) on display there can be reconciled with what he is displaying today.
This sentiment al-Maqdisi seemed to approve of, though he would also seek to defend Abu Qatada against accusations that took the criticism too far. On June 1, a certain jihadi tweeted a montage showing Abu Qatada together with a group of “Islamocrat” scholars, to which al-Maqdisi responded by saying: “It is unjust to place Shaykh Abu Qatada together with the Islamocrats. Fear you God. However much we might disagree with people it is still obligatory to be just with them. Were you to say that Abu Qatada defends some of the Islamocrat shaykhs and excuses them,” that would be acceptable, but depicting him together with such people is “wrong and we condemn it.”
Rejoicing in Erdoğan’s victory
For all the contretemps between al-Maqdisi and Abu Qatada, their reactions to Erdoğan’s victory on May 28 would be quite similar. This was to express delight in Erdoğan’s triumph in light of the perceived benefits that it would bring for the Muslims of Turkey and beyond. Abu Qatada’s Twitter account reposted his reaction to Erdoğan’s win from five years earlier, in which he had written, “There is no doubt to one possessed of knowledge that [Erdoğan’s] victory is a mercy for the people in Turkey and that the alternatives to him are apostate unbelievers who hate the religion.” This included, however, the qualifying statement that “the man does not represent me.” In a similar vein, al-Maqdisi responded to the outcome by stating, “Praise be to God who averted from our brothers in Turkey the worse and more severe in enmity to Islam and Muslims.” Yet he also made sure to reiterate his negative view of Erdoğan and democracy, adding, “And we ask God to provide [the Turks] with someone who will rule by God’s law and annul secularism and positive laws. And we congratulate our brothers, the proponents of tawhid who did not participate in the 2023 Turkish elections, on their resolve in adhering to truth and not succumbing to the fatwas of the Islamocrat shaykhs.”
The response to Erdoğan’s victory from those labeled the “Islamocrats” was naturally more enthusiastic. Al-Mahdi wrote on Telegram, “We congratulate the Turkish people on the victory of President Recep Tayyib Erdoğan … And we ask God to grant success to President Erdoğan in what will bring benefit to the land and to the Muslims.” Abu Mariya al-Qahtani, one of the top leaders in HTS, likewise congratulated the Turkish people in a Tweet, imploring God to “grant President Erdoğan success and to distance him from the Alawite criminal [i.e., Bashar al-Asad] who has killed the Sunni Muslims of al-Sham.” His colleague in HTS, the cleric Mazhar al-Ways, also conveyed his congratulations to the Turkish people, as did HTS itself in a statement released by its Department of Political Affairs. Notably, these statements were not qualified by the reservations expressed by al-Maqdisi and Abu Qatada.
A range of views
What this dispute over the Turkish elections shows is that the jihadi movement today admits of a range of views on the issue of democracy in Turkey. The most extreme position is that held by the Islamic State, which considers Turkey’s democracy to be shirk, rejects the validity of any opinion permitting participation, and opposes the idea that Muslims may rejoice in Erdoğan’s victory. The next most extreme is that held by al-Maqdisi, who considers Turkey’s democracy to be shirk and rejects the validity of any opinion permitting participation but accepts that Muslims may rejoice in Erdoğan’s victory. Next down the line is the position held by Abu Qatada, who considers Turkey’s democracy to be shirk but accepts the validity an opinion permitting participation and accepts that Muslims can rejoice in Erdoğan’s victory. After this is the position of the so-called “Islamocrats,” such al-Mahdi and the followers of HTS, who consider Turkey’s democracy to be shirk (at least in theory) but who themselves permit participation and even in some cases call for it. These are four distinct, if overlapping, opinions, and one could surely identify further distinctions and nuances by looking more closely.
The ideological confusion in the jihadis’ approach to this issue is further evidence of the movement’s fractured state at the present time. While the main division in the movement runs through the Islamic State and al-Qaida, there is a broader spectrum of opinion than the two-camp picture suggests. Religious authority in the movement is increasingly diffuse. While many subscribe to the Islamic State’s every word, those in the al-Qaida camp tend to revere al-Maqdisi’s views or Abu Qatada’s or those of another scholar or leader. As time goes on, it becomes harder and harder to locate the ideological center of gravity that gives this movement coherence and a sense of common purpose and identity.