Jihadis Divided Over Turkish Elections: Between Endorsement Of Erdoğan And Rejection Of Elections As Polytheism, 'American Game' To Westernize Muslims

May 17, 2023

The following report is now a complimentary offering from MEMRI's Jihad and Terrorism Threat Monitor (JTTM). For JTTM subscription information, click here. 

On May 14, 2023, presidential elections were held in Turkey. The incumbent president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan of the right-wing Justice and Development (Adalet ve Kalkınma – AK) Party, received 49.5% of the vote, while his main challenger, Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu of the Republican People's Party (Cumhuriyet Halk Partisi – CHP), won 44.9%. As neither candidate achieved a majority, the country's Supreme Election Council scheduled a runoff election for May 28. As Erdoğan won the 2014 and 2018 elections by a significant majority, his failure to again do so indicates a decline in his popularity in recent years.

Leading up to and following the election, reactions have been divided among Salafi-jihadis. Some expressed support for Erdoğan, widely seen as an Islamist, and even called to vote for him, while others pointed out that democratic elections are a violation of Islam and a form of polytheism according to Salafi-jihadi ideology,[1] branding Turkey a secularist state which opposes Islam and dismissing all the candidates as unbelievers.

Following is a selection of reactions by jihadis:

Supporters Of Syrian Jihadi Groups, Al-Qaeda Endorse Erdoğan, Declare Him The Best, If Flawed, Candidate

Some jihadis endorsed Erdoğan, either enthusiastically or reluctantly. A religious body affiliated with Syrian jihadis heaped praise on the Turkish president and called to vote for him, while jihadi clerics supporting Hay'at Tahrir Al-Sham (HTS) and Al-Qaeda declared him the best candidate, while also criticizing him and noting his secularism.

Syrian Islamic Council (SIC) Hints To Vote For Erdoğan

The Syrian Islamic Council (SIC), a pro-rebel body affiliated with the Turkey-backed Syrian National Army (SNA), issued a statement on May 11 urging everyone with Turkish citizenship to vote in the elections and hinting that they should choose Erdoğan.[2]

The SIC statement, issued in Arabic and Turkish versions, declared the elections of "great importance" for Turkey, as well as "for the region and the entire world." Thanking Turkey for its support of the rebels and wishing for its continued stability and progress, the SIC stated that voting in the elections is obligatory for anyone with the right to vote, while "passivity and neutrality" regarding "pivotal and crucial" issues such as this are unacceptable.

Strongly implying a preference for Erdoğan, the SIC called on all Turks, as well as Syrians and other Arabs who have acquired Turkish citizenship, to vote for "the parliament whose candidates have demonstrated over the past years their ability to preserve Turkey's stability, cohesion, and progress" and the president who is "strongest, best, and most capable, who has made Justice and Development his slogan and behavior." In more obvious references to Erdoğan, the SIC called to vote for the president who has caused Turkey's "revival," making it one of the "advanced nations" and a "major player in the global system," and who "declares loudly: The world is bigger than five."[3] The SIC further praised the incumbent president for "siding with the causes of the ummah [Islamic nation], defending the oppressed, protecting the rights of the [Syrian] refugees, and rejecting the racist statements calling to deport the refugees."

The SIC asked Allah to protect Turkey, grant its people continued "security and faith," and help it remain "a fortress in the face of the oppressors and a refuge and defender for the oppressed."

London-Based Pro-HTS Cleric: Erdoğan Is The Best Candidate, But His "Hypocrisy" And "Dictatorial" Nature Harmed His Popularity

London-based cleric Isma'il Kalam aka Abu Mahmoud Al-Filastini, an ardent supporter of Syrian jihadi group HTS, published a brief Telegram post on May 15 in which he asserted that Erdoğan is the best candidate, while at the same time blaming the Turkish president for his political troubles.[4]

Abu Mahmoud wrote: "Erdoğan is better than his opponent, and his victory would bring great good." At the same time, the London-based jihadi rejected the views of "some Erdoğanist Islamists" who blame the president's drop in popularity to "the Arabs or the Arab Islamic groups," insisting instead that Erdoğan's "crisis" is due to internal Turkish issues. Abu Mahmoud called the Turkish president "hypocritical in his principles and dictatorial in his policies with his fellow travelers," accusing him of having "exploited" Arabs and others to "use them to advance the interests of his Turkish nationalism." Those to decide the outcome of the Turkish elections are "the Turkish people, most of whom are racist nationalists," while the Arabs bear no responsibility for Erdoğan's failure to win in the first round.

Canada-Based Pro-Al-Qaeda Cleric: Erdoğan Is Better Than His Rivals But Still A Secularist

Tariq Abdelhaleem, an Egyptian-born pro-Al-Qaeda cleric based in Ontario, also published several Telegram posts in which he argued that it is in Muslims' best interests for Erdoğan to remain president. At the same time, he lashed out at Islamists who exaggerate their praise of Erdoğan and turn a blind eye to his secularism.

On May 5, Abdelhaleem wrote that the difference between him and "Erdoğan's supporters and bootlickers" is that he sees the Turkish president as "the best for the Muslims, despite his secularism, which he openly professes, and his Sufi ritualistic Islam," while they insist that he is "a disguised Muslim who conceals his faith out of fear" of the West or the opposition. While acknowledging that both he and those he disagrees with view Erdoğan as the best candidate for Islam, the pro-Al-Qaeda cleric mocked their views, describing his own as "realistic based on what is apparent and what we see and hear," rather than an "emotional imaginary" view with no basis. Abdelhaleem stated that his pointing out the secularism of "Mr. Erdoğan" is not an insult, but rather based on the Turkish politician's own statements which he has made "hundreds of times since he entered politics thirty years ago as a young man." The cleric questioned how Islam benefits from those who insist on Erdoğan's secret Islamism.[5]

On May 14, Abdelhaleem addressed a Telegram post to "those who support Erdoğan unconditionally," warning them to "be careful for your religion and have pity on your souls and your country." The pro-Al-Qaeda cleric acknowledged that the Turkish president loves his country and works towards its progress, recites Quranic verses, does not fight against the hijab, and favors opening schools to memorize the Quran. However, he reminds his readers that Erdoğan also professes "soft secularism," which "separates shari'a from politics" (as opposed to "hard secularism," which separates religious rituals from politics), "has normalized with the entity [i.e. Israel] for a long time and is at peace with the Jews since the beginning of his political career," and supports a settlement to the Syrian conflict involving "the unity of Syrian land" and a return of the refugees to their homes in areas controlled by the Assad regime. Accordingly, he lashed out at those who claim that "this is the president we hope for" and "the ruler who is accepted by the shari'a," conceding only that Erdoğan may be "acceptable at this stage" and "the least bad, with better results than his opponents."[6]

In another post, Abdelhaleem explained Erdoğan's popularity, asserting that "Muslims are thirsty for any person who is strong (not like Morsi), good-looking (not like Sisi), and balanced, who begins with bismillah [in the name of Allah] and raises the Quran (even if he rules by something other than Allah's Book and declares that he does not believe its legislation is appropriate for our times)." This has led people to extremes in their love for the Turkish president, with some viewing him as "the Mujaddid [Islamic renewer] of the century and reformer of Muslims and Islam," while turning a blind eye to his faults. Abdelhaleem dismisses this view as "the religion of the masses and the ignorant folk," warning them that they will face "the consequences of their impetuosity on the day they are asked about their choices."[7]

The Canada-based cleric challenged those who praise Erdoğan to explain whether Turkey's participation in the U.S. "war on Iraq" and his opening the Incirlik Air Base to U.S. "invading forces, which destroyed Iraq and its people and delivered it to the Rafidites [a pejorative term for Shi'ites," was based on "shari'a and religion" or on "interests and subordination." He posted a link to a 2003 Al Jazeera article in which Erdoğan defended Turkey's participation in the Iraq war as mandated by the country's interests, while stressing: "We do not praise nor attack" Erdoğan, so as not to "defend falsehood or prevent interests."[8]

ISIS And Al-Qaeda Supporters Declare Erdoğan An Unbeliever, Warn That Elections Are Against Islam

In contrast to those who called to vote for Erdoğan or grudgingly declared him the best candidate, other Salafi-jihadis affiliated with Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State (ISIS) completely rejected participation in the elections and asserted that there was no difference between the candidates, as they are all unbelievers opposed to Islam.

Pro-Al-Qaeda Ideologue Al-Maqdisi: Voting For A Candidate Who Rules By Manmade Law Is An Act Of Unbelief

On May 14, the pro-Al-Qaeda An-Nusra Media Foundation posted an essay by prominent Jordan-based pro-Al-Qaeda ideologue Abu Muhammad Al-Maqdisi, titled "My Statement Regarding Participation in Elections in which the Choice is Limited to Rulers Who All Refrain from Implementing Shari'a and Rule by Other than What Allah has Revealed."[9] While the essay (whose date of publication is unclear) does not mention the Turkish elections explicitly, it is clear that its publication by An-Nusra is intended to provide guidance in the elections.

Above is the first page of Al-Maqdisi's essay.

Al-Maqdisi ruled that when all candidates in an election declare their commitment to ruling by manmade law rather than shari'a, and support for democracy and secularism, a Muslim is forbidden to vote for any of them and cannot defend voting by claiming he acted out of good intentions. The jihadi ideologue compared one who votes with good intentions to someone who eats during Ramadan while asserting he did not intend to break his fast, noting that an act of unbelief makes one an apostate even if he did not intend to leave the fold of Islam. However, Al-Maqdisi stressed that while voting is an act of unbelief, a voter should not be deemed an apostate without carefully examining the circumstances.

The jihadi ideologue declared that even if it is possible to vote and remain a committed monotheist, "this is not the monotheist's battle or his choices," regardless of fatwas given by "the people with turbans and beards and the preachers at the gates of Hell." Rather, the task of a true Islamic monotheist is to "establish Allah's unity and sovereignty on Earth and to produce the ruler who establishes Allah's religion and rules by His shari'a." The only concession allowed "at this stage, in which there is no ruler who governs by shari'a" is to permit a Muslim to rejoice at the victory of a ruler who is "less harmful to Islam and the Muslims than another ruler who is more wicked and harmful," or to wish for such a candidate to win.

Addressing the "sheikhs who deceive and confuse," Al-Maqdisi stated that Muslims may only vote when the choice is between candidates who are all committed to implementing shari'a, in which case elections have precedence in Islamic tradition. However, given that none of the candidates in current elections is committed to ruling by shari'a, "all the nations of unbelief have the right to choose whichever of them they want," while Muslims may not participate in "polytheism-based democracy."

Sudanese Pro-Al-Qaeda Cleric: Voting For Erdoğan Is Not An Option; Only Choices Are To Condemn Secularism And Wage Jihad

In a May 1 Telegram post by Sudanese pro-Al-Qaeda cleric Al-Sadeq Abu 'Abdallah Al-Hashemi, which he reposted on May 14,[10] he responded to a woman who said: "There is no choice; either brutal secularism or Erdoğan's secularism." Al-Hashemi rejected this claim, urging her to "fear Allah regarding your religion and do not alter it and perish," and insisting that the only choice is between unbelief and faith; if voting for a believer is not an option, a Muslim should "dissociate from all those groups." One who wishes to remain a believer must follow the path of Ibrahim [Abraham] by believing in Allah alone and rejecting all taghouts [literally "false deities"; in Salafi-jihadi discourse this also refers to rulers who govern by manmade law]. Rather than the only choices being Erdoğan and his more secularist rivals, Al-Hashemi declared both to be "the choices of unbelief and hypocrisy."

The "shari'a-based choices" available to the believer are, according to the Sudanese cleric, are to "enlighten [people] to the true nature of secularism and combat it with knowledge, proof, and evidence"; to "condemn them and disavow what they do"; and to "work to establish jihad for the sake of Allah through da'wah [preaching] and mobilization, while explaining that this is an essential part of Allah's religion to empower it on Earth." If none of these is feasible, one must withdraw and do nothing.

In a shorter post dated May 15, Al-Hashemi answered the question "Should you vote for a secularist ruler?" with "No, no, and a thousand times no," explaining that Allah commanded Muslims to "disbelieve in all taghouts, […] make them loathsome, warn against them, fight them, and hate them," not to "defend them and vote for them." Rejecting those clerics who ruled that it is obligatory to vote for a certain taghout [i.e. Erdoğan] and that one who does not do so is a sinner, Al-Hashemi tells them: "We disbelieve in you."[11]

Pro-Al-Qaeda Telegram Channel: Elections Do Not Concern Faithful Muslims, Who Must "Remain Steadfast" And Not Vote

In a May 14 Telegram post titled "This is Our Voting Card," pro-Al-Qaeda channel Rasa'el wa-Tadhaker [Letters and Reminders] declared that the Turkish elections do not concern faithful Muslims and only serve to advance secularism, regardless of which candidate wins.[12] Featuring the hashtags #Turkey and #The_Secularist_Elections, the post bemoans that "the schools of dilution [a term jihadis use pejoratively to refer to Islamists who "water down" their ideological commitment]" have become ascendant and perverted Sunnis' beliefs, causing some to concede to them. The pro-Al-Qaeda channel exhorts his fellow jihadis to "remain steadfast and straight," insisting that "'Turkey and its elections are secularist and unbelieving, and Muslims have nothing to do with them." Warning them not to be "deceived" by the "preachers of the schools of dilution," who called to vote for Erdoğan, the channel dismisses the clerics as ignorant and their arguments as false, issued after "Satan lured them into his traps."

The elections, according to Rasa'el wa-Tadhaker, lead only to legitimizing "unbelief-based secularism," implementing manmade laws instead of shari'a, and misguiding Muslims and enticing them away from their religion. The channel salutes "the steadfast patient ones who hold fast to their monotheism in a time when the jahiliyah [ignorance characteristic of pre-Islamic times] has become arrogant, concepts have been set back, and many have abandoned them."

Poster By Pro-ISIS Media Group: Elections Are Polytheism, "American Game" To Westernize Muslims; Erdoğan And His Ilk Are Un-Islamic Rulers

On May 13, the pro-ISIS Al-'Adiyat Media Foundation released a poster titled "To All Those Who Participate in the Polytheism-Based Elections." Depicting a hand inserting a ballot into a box, the poster's text warns Muslims everywhere, especially in Turkey, that democratic elections are a form of polytheism and urged them not to vote.[13]

The poster states that the "obstinacy" of many Muslims today and their insistence on visiting shrines of saints – an act which Salafi-jihadis consider a form of polytheism – demonstrates "their distance from monotheism and how easily the taghouts have managed to ride on their backs during the period of the polytheism-based elections." Participation in such elections, whose purpose is to "instate a taghout who rules by other than what Allah has revealed and governs people by manmade law" is an act of "cardinal unbelief."

Addressing "every monotheist brother in the East and West, especially in Turkey," Al-'Adiyat declares that the elections, which are grounded on "unbelief-based democracy," are "a barefaced, dirty American game" whose goal is to "domesticate the Muslims with the West's law, which considers animal rights greater than human rights." Western claims of seeking to advance human rights and bring freedom to the rest of the world are belied by "their invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan." Noting that "the taghout of Turkey [i.e. Erdoğan]" and others like him do not govern according to shari'a, the poster warns Muslims: "Do not get close to them or participate in their polytheism-based elections."

 Pro-ISIS Meme: No Difference Between Erdoğan And His Rival, Both Are Unbelievers

On May 15, Tha'aleb [Foxes] Memes, a pro-ISIS Telegram channel, published a meme showing a Slurpee machine with "Qerdogan" [a play on the Arabic word for monkey] and "Kılıçdaroğlu" among the flavors; a hand labeled "the elections" is shown pressing on both, which release liquid into a cup marked "unbelief." The caption beneath reads: "Two taghouts make associating [other deities] with Allah lawful. The best of them is an unbeliever and the worst of them is an unbeliever, so there is no difference between them."[14]

The Erdoğan government has been harshly condemned by ISIS' official media on several occasions.[15] Jihadis were sharply divided in their reaction to Erdoğan's 2020 reconversion of Hagia Sophia into a mosque, with many praising him and viewing the decision as a victory for Islam, while others pointed to the Turkish president's violations of Islam and dismissed the act as a cynical ploy to gain electoral support.[16] Similarly, some ISIS supporters rejected Erdoğan's April 30 claim of having killed ISIS caliph Abu Al-Husayn Al-Husayni Al-Qurashi in Syria as propaganda intended to increase his chances of winning the elections.[17]


[2] Sy-sic.com, May 11, 2023.

[3] "The world is bigger than five" is a slogan coined by Erdoğan in 2013 and used repeatedly since then. This slogan's intent is to challenge the veto power held by the five permanent members of the UN Security Council: China, France, Russia, the UK, and the U.S.

[4] Telegram, May 15, 2023.

[5] Telegram, May 5, 2023.

[6] Telegram, May 14, 2023.

[7] Telegram, May 14, 2023.

[8] Telegram, May 14, 2023.

[9] May 14, 2023.

[10] Telegram, May 1, 2023; Telegram, May 14, 2023.

[11] Telegram, May 15, 2023.

[12] Telegram, May 14, 2023.

[13] Telegram, May 13, 2023.

[14] Telegram, May 15, 2023.

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