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October 26, 2015 No.
1197

Debate In Saudi Arabia Following Saudi Clerics' Call For Jihad Against Russian Forces In Syria

By: N. Mozes*

Introduction

Russia's increasing military involvement in Syria, which constitutes another lifeline for the Bashar Al-Assad regime, is of great concern to Saudi Arabia, which together with Turkey and Qatar is leading the battle against this regime. However, Saudi Arabia is taking a cautious approach on this matter, due to its desire to preserve its relations with Russia, which have warmed over the past year. While the Saudi ambassador to the UN condemned the Russian airstrikes in Syria and called for them to be stopped,[1] in an interview with the London-based Saudi daily Al-Hayat on October 1, 2015, Saudi Foreign Minister 'Adel Al-Jubeir said that despite its disagreements with Russia on Syria and Iran, the kingdom was aiming for closer political and economic ties with it.[2]

In contrast, 55 Saudi clerics, many of them known to be Muslim Brotherhood (MB) supporters, had a much harsher response to the Russian military intervention in Syria. On October 2, several days after Russia began conducting the airstrikes against targets in Syria, the clerics issued a communique[3]calling the Russian offensive a "war crime." They called on "able men" in Syria to "join the ranks of jihad," and warned that this was a "true war against [all] Sunnis" being waged by a "Crusader Shi'ite alliance" and a "Western-Russian coalition with the Safavids [i.e., Iranians] and 'Alawites." According to the communique, the Syrian jihadis defend all Muslims, and therefore Arab and Muslim countries should assist them morally, materially, militarily, and politically.

The following day, the Syrian MB also issued a communique titled "The Syrian People Will Repel the Russian Occupation with Jihad," declaring that defensive jihad was an individual duty for anyone able to bear arms, and announcing that it was making the organization's resources available for this purpose. Similar statements were also made by the Syrian Islamic Council, a body established in April 2014 in Istanbul that comprises 128 Syrian clerics, many of them MB members, as well as by Sheikh Muhammad Kurayyim Rajih, the most senior Syrian Koran reciter and a member of the Syrian Islamic Council.[4] All these statements were made by individuals who are members of or support the MB.

To date, Saudi authorities have issued no official response to the clerics' communique. The sole exception to this was one report in the London-based Qatari daily Al-Arabi Al-Jadidstating that the Saudi Interior Ministry intended to investigate and prosecute the clerics on charges of violating the 2014 anti-terror law that bans Saudis from fighting outside the country andfrom encouragingfellow Saudi citizens to do so.

However, the communique did spark anuproar in the Saudi press and on social media. Several Saudi articles attacked it, terming it a call for Saudis to go and fight in Syria, which constitutes incitement and defiance of the ruler, who has the sole authority to declare jihad. They warned of the serious implications that this would have for national security and for Saudi Arabia's image and relationship with Russia. The conflict in Syria, they noted, is political and not religious, and therefore does not necessitate a jihad war. An especially harsh critique by Mansour Al-Nogaidan called toarrest the clerics and force themto apologize to Russia.

The harsh criticism of the communique may stem from the fact that many of its signatories are supporters of the MB, which is outlawed in Saudi Arabia.

Conversely, others defended the communique, stating that the call for jihad was aimed solely at the Syrians themselves. They also attacked those who opposed the communique. At the same time, it should be mentioned that these calls came primarily from outside Saudi Arabia and on Qatari media; the latter is known for its pro-MB approach.

This report will review the calls for jihad against Russian forces in Syria and the Saudi responses to the clerics' communique.

55 Saudi Clerics: All Able Syrians Should Join The Ranks Of Jihad

The 55 Saudi clerics, many of them known to be MB supporters -including 'Abdallah bin Muhammad Al-Ghunaiman, Nasser bin Suleiman Al-'Umar, 'Ali bin Sa'id Al-Ghamdi - stressed in their communique that this was a war launched by "the Orthodox crusader Russia" against the Muslim Syria. They said Muslims would redeem their faith by sacrificing their lives, and called on Syrian fighters to join the ranks of jihad. They stated: "After nearly five years of unrelenting political and military support for the 'Alawite regime, Russia is now throwing its full weight behind [it] and is intervening directly and militarily to protect the Bashar Al-Assad regime from falling. In light of this most terrible calamity and war crime on the part of an influential country that presumes to be responsible for world justice and peace, we hereby declare the following:

"O Russians, the most extreme among Christians - [there is] nothing new under the sun! 36 years ago the communist Soviet Union invaded the Muslim Afghanistan to support the Communist Party and protect it from falling. And now, its successor, the Orthodox crusader Russia, is invading the Muslim Syria to support the 'Alawite regime and protect it from falling; it must learn a lesson from the fate of its predecessor. The heads of your Orthodox Church have declared [the Russian intervention of Syria] a crusader holy war, just as [George] Bush Jr. did in the past [regarding the American invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq]. Know that Muslims will redeem their faith by sacrificing their lives, souls, and all they hold dear, and just as they expelled you from Afghanistan, they will bring about you humiliating defeat in Syria, Allah willing.

"O, our men in Syria - the calamity afflicting you is severely worsening and your test has lasted a long time... You must fear Allah, repent, and trust in Allah... Know that Russia only intervened to save the regime from certain defeat. Through you, Allah defeated the security [mechanisms] of the regime and its shabiha [militias], followed by its army, and later the Shi'ite Safavid groups from Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere. Through you, He defeated the Party of Satan [i.e. Hizbullah] and He can defeat the Russians [as well]. Therefore, persevere and endure and remain stationed and fear Allah, that you may be successful' (Koran 3:200)... We call on you to hold on, and we urge the men [of the various groups], [all] able and skilled people in all fields, to stay and not leave Syria, and to take part in building and liberating [it]. We call on the able among you to join the ranks of jihad, for this is your hour... Swiftly join the jihad against the enemy of God and your enemy, and Allah will be with you, and the Muslims will stand behind you as much as they can.The dawn of victory is at hand...

"To Arab and Muslim countries we say: The Western-Russian coalition with the Safavids and 'Alawites is a true war against [all] Sunnis, their lands, and their identities, with no exception. The jihad fighters in Syria are currently defending the entire ummah. Trust in them and give them moral, military, and political support, for if they are defeated... it will be the turn of the remaining Sunni countries, one after the other... O clerics and thinkers - this is a war on Islam... Stress in your words, writings, sermons, and lessons that we must abandon all sources of schism, and warn against them. Unite the ranks and tell people the truth behind the crusader Shi'ite alliances so they can beware it... Encourage people to devote all their efforts and give as much as they can, and to provide material aid, since Syrians are fighting our enemy and defending us against him...

"Allah, please hasten the victory of the people of Syria... and defeat the armies that have conspired against us..."[5]

Other MB Elements: Embarking On Defensive Jihad Is An Individual Duty

The same day (October 2, 2015), the Syrian Islamic Council, a body established in April 2014 in Istanbul that includes 128 Syrian clerics, many of them MB members, also issued a statement, warning that Russia's decision to intervene militarily in Syria "endangers its interests in the region and the entire Muslim world." The council called on the Syrian factions to combat the Russian presence, saying: "The Syrian Islamic Council sees the Russian presence as an occupying force that attacks and kills in order to aid a criminal tyrant against an oppressed people. Therefore, all factions must fight it and expel it from Syria in defeat, with all possible means. Fighting it is the most exalted form of jihad..."[6]

The following day, the Syrian MB also issued a communique titled "The Syrian People will Eradicate the Russian Occupation with Jihad", which stated: "...The Russian military intervention in our Syrian homeland is not another rash action or immature political adventure, for it was officially and unanimously approved by the Kremlin, and was blessed as a holy war by the Orthodox Church, thus turning it into a foreign invasion and the planned occupation of one country by another country that is a permanent member of the [UN] Security Council...

"Our Syrian people! In light of this brazen occupation of our land by the forces of evil, we at the MB stress that embarking on defensive jihad is now an individual duty [fard 'ain] for anyone who can bear arms, and we are therefore making all our organization's resources available for this purpose. We call on all members of the Syrian people and all its tribes, brigades, families, and religions, to act as one, topple the tyrant, and defeat the occupier. The homeland comes first and there is no place for narrow interests. O Muslims throughout the world, you must respond to the [Russian] aggression and defend the oppressed and abused [Syrian people]."[7]

Muhammad Kurayyim Rajih, the most senior Syrian Koran reciter and a member of the Syrian Islamic Council, also called for jihad against Russia, but unlike the statements issued by the Saudi clerics, the Syrian MB, and the Syrian Islamic Council itself, he claimed that the duty of jihad fell on all of the world's Muslims, not just Syrians. He wrote on his Facebook page: "Come to jihad... O Muslims everywhere... The Russians are entering Syria with their destruction, and their jets kill and destroy... This is a war against Islam and Muslim, their countries and property, merely for being Muslim. Jihad is now an individual duty for all Muslims... I hereby declare jihad on all levels to be an individual duty for every Muslim, and call on Muslim clerics to rule that jihad for the sake of Allah is mandatory and to operate in all countries of the world..."[8]

Saudi Columnists Condemn Saudi Clerics' Communique

As mentioned, the Saudi establishment did not issue an official response to the communique published by the 55 Saudi clerics.The London-based Qatari daily Al-Arabi Al-Jadid cited a source in the Saudi interior ministry as saying that authorities intended to investigate and prosecute the clerics for violating the anti-terror law,[9]but  this report did not appear in any Saudi media outlets.

The communique did, however, spark widespread criticism in Saudi Arabia, mainly on the part of journalists and liberals. Critics argued that,while the explicit call to jihad was specifically addressed to Syrians, the clerics' true intention was to encourage Saudis to go and fight in Syria, which constitutes a violation of the 2014 anti-terror law that bans Saudis from fighting outside Saudi Arabia or encouraging other Saudis to do so without the authorization of the ruler.[10] The critics argue that in effect, the signatories defied the ruler, who has the sole authority to declare jihad.

Saudi Journalist: The Real Purpose Of The Communique Is To Recruit Saudi Youths For Syrian Jihad

Saudi journalist 'Abdo Khal, a columnist for the Saudi daily 'Okaz, claimed that the real purpose of the communique was to recruit Saudi youths for the Syrian jihad, but in order to avoid investigations and charges, the signatories addressed their call to Syrians. Khal called on the signatory clerics to prove their sincerity by joining the Syrian jihad themselves instead of dispatching others. He wrote: "... Since the exposure [of the plot that led our sons] to the so-called jihad in Afghanistan, the inciters have specialized in the 'seduction game' and beatify the departure of our youths to warzones by stirring up their religious emotions [with claims] that Islam is in peril. The most recent call meant to stir our youths is the communique issued by the clerics and preachers regarding the Russian aggression in Syria. The communique was phrased in such a way that the signatories cannot be charged or investigated, since it [only] calls on Syrians [and not on Saudis] to mobilize against Russia.

"[However], a close examination of the communique reveals... the intentions of these inciters. It contains several points that show that it is [actually] a call for general Muslim mobilization, and the first to heed such calls are our [own] youths. A large percentage of those who answer such calls are our youths, and previous wars are the best evidence of this, as is the current reality. Since the signatories of the communique wished to avoid a legal inquiry, they stressed that [their call] was addressed [to Muslims] outside Saudi Arabia. In fact, the [specific] address to a particular group confirms that the call to mobilize is intended especially for Saudi youths, and that the signatories wished to avoid [being charged with violating] the 2014 decision [meaning the anti-terror law]...

"Is this [really] jihad and are these really clerics? The basic condition for a declaration of jihad is that it beissued by the lawful ruler. Has there been an official declaration of jihad?... Is this jihad for the sake of Islam? Will the signatories of the communique go to fight in Syria themselves, or are they playing the same old game of pushing [other] people to die in political wars while they belch and rub their hands over their bloated bellies? I challenge them - let one of the signatories go and fight in Syria...

"The new inciters... are firing in our direction once more. The new call for jihad is a new trap to snare the youth. Will [these inciters] escape punishment by the homeland as their predecessors did?"[11]


'Abdo Khal (Image: Twitter.com/abdukhal)

'Abd Al-Rahman Al-Rashed: The Communique Challenges Authority Of Saudi Regime

'Abd Al-Rahman Al-Rashed, former editor of the London-based Saudi daily Al-Sharq Al-Awsat and former director general of Al-Arabiya TV, said the communique constituted incitement and challenged the authority of the state. He warned of the danger of this call, and wrote: "There is no doubt that the majority in Saudi Arabia and Arab countries in general is furious at the Russian intervention in Syria, since its purpose is to support the Bashar Al-Assad regime, which has carried out the most criminal acts of slaughter in the history of the region. However, encouraging the youths here [in Saudi Arabia] to [embark on] jihad to fight the Russian invaders is a serious development and harms the state; it will cause the youths to go fight the Russians and later fight their own countries, governments, and families... The call to fight in Syria is reminiscent of the history of fighting in Afghanistan, which ideologically changed Saudi Arabia for the worse. Thousands of youths went to fight on behalf of the Americans, and that war ended with the creation of a new era of chaos with the appearance of terrorist organizations that the world suffers from to this day. In Saudi Arabia, there are still ceaseless searches for ISIS and Al-Qaeda cells born of the jihad in Afghanistan...

"Throughout the world, the state [alone] has the authority to declare war, and in Islam, too,this authority rests with the ruler. Therefore calling for war by issuing a communique challenges the legitimacy of state institutions, and constitutes incitement against Saudi Arabia and a violation of international resolutions against incitement to terrorism..."[12]

Saudi Columnist: The War In Syria Is Political, Not Religious, So There Are No Grounds For Jihad

Another argument against the communique was made by 'Okaz columnist Sa'id Al-Surayhi, who said that the war in Syria was not a religious conflict, but rather a political war of citizens against their tyrannical ruler, and therefore there was no reason to declare jihad. He wrote: "The Syrian people rose up against the Bashar Al-Assad regime because it was a tyrannical regime that usurped the people's freedom and exhausted them. The Syrians are [also] fighting against foreign intervention in their country, whether Iranian or Russian, due to its nature as a foreign intervention that damages their nation's independence and occupies their land... We cannot see the Russian intervention in Syria as a Catholic [sic.] war on Islam, but rather as an intervention stemming from international struggles and striving to establish [Russian] influence in strategic areas.

"Therefore, there is no substance to calls and incitement to jihad that have emerged, sometimes explicitly and sometimes implicitly. Just as these calls have harmed the Syrians' struggle against the oppressive regime in their country, they harm their struggle to liberate their nation of any foreign intervention, regardless of its goals or religion."[13]

Saudi Journalists On Twitter: The Communique Has The Spirit Of ISIS

Several Saudi journalists attacked the communique on Twitter. Dr. Turki Al-Hamad, a liberal Saudi journalist and writer, tweeted: "The communique by the 52 [Saudi Clerics]: ISIS in spirit, inciting in content, and sectarian in shape and form..."[14]

Another writer who compared the signatories to ISIS was Saudi journalist Muhammad Aal Al-Sheikh, who tweeted: "The implicit inciters for jihad against Russia in Syria affirm my statements: Those who pretend to be devout Muslims [on the one hand] and ISIS members [on the other] are part of the same system; the inciters are the soft arm and ISIS members are the strong arm."[15]

Saudi Liberal: 52 Saudi Fools Incite Terrorism; They Should Be Arrested

Saudi liberal journalist Mansour Al-Nogaidan, who was an extremist in his youth and even spent time in prison for involvement in terrorist activities, harshly attacked the clerics who signed the communique, calling them "fools" and "sheikhs of terrorism" who should be arrested. In statements made to the liberal Saudi website Elaph titled "52 Saudi Fools Incite Terrorism," which were also posted on Al-Nogaidan's Twitter account, he praised Russia and President Putin and called on Saudi Arabia to tighten relations with the Russians. These statements sparked harsh comments from the signatories to the communique.

Al-Nogaidan said: "It is the government's duty to arrest them, prosecute them for supporting terrorism, and force them to apologize to Russia. How is it that for years, they dared to publish their communiques and were not held accountable? [The answer is that] Saudi Arabia is infected with this ideology, which is deeply entrenched in its educational system, mosques, and institutions.

"Honestly, we should realize that Russia is a superpower and that is why Saudi Arabia has signed agreements with it for the coming decades, and we must tighten our relations with Russia, earn its friendship, and forge a strong alliance with Egypt, the UAE, and Russia. We should win the friendship of Russia and Putin, just as the Iranians have... I can while] I cannot trust the sheikhs of terrorism. Sunnis should beware those who toy with them and stop thinking innocently and childishly and realize the disaster that they have brought on themselves and on Syria. We have lost Assad and lost Syria. I fear we will [also] lose the friendship of a superpower like Russia. We were hostile to the Russians for many decades, and committed our gravest error by agreeing to turn our sons into fuel for a war among giants for the benefit of American interests in Afghanistan [and] for the sake of a primitive people whose members kill each other [i.e., the Afghans].Now we must not miss the chance to take part in making history. I do not fear Bashar Al-Assad remaining [in power] at all, but rather the fact that history and the region are being remade today, and we must have our piece of the pie."[16]


Al-Nogaidan's statements posted on his Twitter account (Image: Twitter.com/M_alnogaidan, October 4, 2015)

Communique Supporters: The Jihad Calls Were Addressed Only To Syrians

Conversely, some defended the communique, claiming it was addressed only to Syrians; these included Saudi columnists for newspapers in Qatar, which supports the MB. They criticized the columnists who condemned the communique such as Al-Nogaidan, arguing that they served Zionist and Iranian interests.

Saudi cleric Dr. Nasser bin Suleiman Al-'Umar, who is a signatory to the communique, tweeted: "The communique by a number of Saudi clerics and preachers regarding Russia and Iran's invasion of Syria outlines a clear religious path to deal [with this invasion] and contains no call to go there [to Syria]. Anyone trying to level false accusations [at the signatories] is failing."[17]

Saudi cleric and journalist 'Essam Ahmad Mudir also claimed that portraying the communique as inciting Saudi youths to jihad is "false and deceptive" and that it contains "no call for non-Syrians to join the jihad [in Syria]..."[18]

'Abdallah Al-Mulhim, who writes for the official Qatari daily Al-Raya, tweeted similarly: "Why spread lies[?]... The communique did not incite our boys to join [the jihad in Syria], but rather called on Syrian jihadis to unite against the invaders. Attacks on the communique serve the Safavid [Iranian] agenda."[19]

Ahmad bin Rashed bin Sa'id, a Saudi journalist and columnist for the official Qatari daily Al-Arab, harshly attacked the opponents of the communique, calling them "mercenaries" of Zionism. He wrote: "A few days ago, 52 clerics and thinkers in Saudi Arabia signed a communique condemning the criminal Russian assault on the Syrian people, which [included] a call for fighting groups in Syria to unite andfor 'able' Syrians 'to join the ranks of jihad.' The communique did not call on non-Syrians to fight... Despite this, the wolves of Israel began howling in their dens and inventing lies regarding this communique, claiming that it called on Saudi youths to pick up arms and join the ranks of ISIS... We do not face 'journalism' [here] but rather information war criminals who fulfill a defined task, [namely] serving Zionist interests and preaching Zionist discourse...

"Only two years ago, it was not customary to tie this stream to Zionism. But today, more and more Saudis speak sternly and vehemently about '[the stream that is] becoming Zionist' due to its treason and hostility towards the ummah. We must naturally continue isolating this stream and exposing it, and not let it escape accountability."[20]


Ahmad bin Rashed bin Sa'id (Image: Al-Arab, Qatar)

Former Saudi Shura Council Member: The Signatories Are Moderates; Al-Nogaidan Is A Drunken Extremist

Dr.Ahmad Othman Al-Tuwaijri, a former member of the Saudi Shura Council, who attacked the Saudi regime's decision to include the MB on its list of terrorist organizations,[21]spoke harshly against those who condemned the communique, and especially Mansour Al-Nogaidan, whom he called "drunken," "an extremist," "a fake liberal," and "a former terrorist." In an article in the Saudi e-daily Kol Al-Watan, Al-Tuwaijri said that the signatories to the communique were "moderates" and "a bulwark against extremists." He wrote: "I attributed any importance to Mansour Al-Nogaidan, the former terrorist who currently dons the guise of liberalism... In a state of complete shameful nudity, this drunken fool came out a few days ago and stupidly criticized 52 clerics, preachers, and academics who are among Saudi Arabia's best, calling them 'fools' merely for issuing a communique that condemned the criminal Russian assault on the revolutionary forces in Syria, supported the fighting Syrian people, and demanded that it and the ummah stand against the 'Alawite and Russian tyrants..."


Othman Al-Tuwaijri (Image: Alkhaleejaffairs.org)

Al-Tuwaijri claimed that Al-Nogaidan "cannot distinguish between jihad, which is the pinnacle of Islam, and terrorism, and thinks that the demand to aid the legitimate jihad of the Syrian people against those who kill it and distance it from its land is a call to support terrorism." He concludedby saying: "This drunken extremist's position on the clerics, preachers, and academics whom he called fools and demanded to prosecute is not surprising in light of his many irresponsible statements, and has a simple explanation... He has hated the wasatiyya [middle path] and moderation, and anyone who represents them, since thedays he carried out terrorism and was an extremist [himself]. This is because the clerics, preachers, and academics he criticized and others like them... with their wasatiyya and moderation, were the biggest bulwark against the old Al-Nogaidan's extremism and the extremism of his extremist colleagues, and they are [also] the greatest bulwark against his current extremism and weak moral fiber..."[22]

 

*N. Mozes is a research fellow at MEMRI. 

 

 

Endnotes:

 

[1]Al-Watan (Saudi Arabia), October 2, 2015.

[2]Al-Hayat (London), October 1, 2015.

[3] While the communique has 55 signatories, some sources reported that only 52 had signed it.

[4] The International Union of Muslims Scholars (IUMS), headed by Sheikh Yousuf Al-Qaradhawi, also issued a statement condemning Russian military intervention in Syria and calling to arm the moderate Syrian opposition. The Egyptian MB issued a condemnation of the Russian military intervention as well, but these two bodies avoided calling the struggle against the Russian forces "jihad." Iumsonline.org, ikhwanonline.com, October 4, 2015.

[5] Almoslim.net, October 2, 2015.

[6] Sy-sic.com, October 2, 2015.

[7] Ikhwansyria.com, October 3, 2015.

[8] Facebook.com/KraemRajeh, October 5, 2015.

[9]Al-Arabi Al-Jadid (London), October 6, 2015.

[10] For more on this law, see MEMRI Inquiry & Analysis Series Report No. 1073, Saudi Campaign Against Young Saudis Joining The Jihad In Syria, February 21, 2014.

[11]'Okaz (Saudi Arabia), October 6, 2015.

[12]Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), October 7, 2015.

[13]'Okaz (Saudi Arabia), October 8, 2015.

[14] Twitter.com/TurkiHAlhamad1, October 4, 2015.

[15] Twitter.com/alshaikhmhmd, October 4, 2015.

[16] Elaph.com, October 4, 2015.

[17] Twitter.com/naseralomar, October 4, 2015.

[18] Twitter.com/emudeer, October 4, 2015.

[19] Twitter.com/almol7em, October 4, 2015.

[20]Al-Arab (Qatar), October 14, 2015.

[21] Alkhaleejaffairs.org, February 13, 2015.

[22] Kolalwatn.net, October 11, 2015.