July 23, 2020 Special Dispatch No. 8859

Jihadis Divided Over Hagia Sophia Reconversion To A Mosque: Victory For Islam Against Secularism, Or Political Trick To Divert Attention From Erdoğan's Apostasy? (UPDATED)

July 23, 2020
Turkey | Special Dispatch No. 8859

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

On July 10, 2020, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan issued a directive to open Istanbul's Hagia Sophia for Islamic prayers, overturning the 1934 decree designating the former Byzantine cathedral as a museum, after it had served as a mosque from the time of the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople in 1453. In addition to the furor the decision caused in the international community, jihadi fighters and clerics were also split in their reactions, with some lauding the decision as a new victory for Islam and a harbinger of the restoration of the Al-Aqsa Mosque to Islamic sovereignty, and others criticizing the Turkish government for what they see as its violations of Islam and accusing Erdoğan of cynically reconverting Hagia Sophia into a mosque for personal political gain. The status of Erdoğan and the Turkish government is a divisive issue among jihadis. While numerous jihadi fighters and clerics share the view held by many Islamists that Erdoğan is a defender of Islam and is leading his country away from the secularism promoted by the country's previous leaders, other jihadi groups and clerics point out Turkey's many violations of Salafi-jihadi principles, such as embracing democracy, revering the secular legacy of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, participating in NATO, and fighting against jihadi groups.[1]

ISIS minimized the importance of Hagia Sophia's reconversion in an editorial in its weekly, Al-Naba', while Pakistan-based Al-Qaeda affiliate Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) celebrated the reconversion effusively. Al-Qaeda's Central Command and other Al-Qaeda affiliates have yet to issue statements regarding Hagia Sophia.

Most of the unqualified praise for Hagia Sophia's restoration as a mosque comes from Syrian jihadis, including those affiliated with Hay'at Tahrir Al-Sham (HTS), while jihadis and clerics affiliated with Al-Qaeda and ISIS wrote mostly negative comments. This may be linked to Syrian rebels' dependence on Turkey, which has led many jihadis in the country to view Turkey as a defender of Muslims.

Hagia Sophia

TTP, Abu Qatadah Al-Filastini, Syrian Jihadis Praise Reconversion of Hagia Sophia as a Victory for Islam against Secularism

Pakistan-based Al-Qaeda affiliate TTP issued a statement dated July 17, 2020 in Urdu, Arabic, and English congratulating "the great Muslim nation of Turkey and the Muslim ummah" for restoring the "Islamic status of this house of Allah". The statement praises the Ottoman Empire as having accomplished much for Islam until it was toppled by "anti-Islamic forces", leading to such setbacks as the fragmentation of the Islamic ummah, the loss of Palestine to the Jews, and the secularization of Turkey. However, TTP writes, the past few decades have seen efforts to restore Turkey to its "Islamic and religious status", culminating in the "mujahid Ottomans" restoring Hagia Sophia as a mosque.[2]

One of the most prominent jihadi clerics to celebrate Hagia Sophia's reconversion is Jordan-based ideologue Abu Qatadah Al-Filastini, who is linked to Al-Qaeda but enjoys strong support among HTS supporters. On July 10, 2020, Abu Qatadah wrote on Telegram that the return of Islamic prayers to Hagia Sophia is an act of "Godly mercy, Divine support, and a providential omen," crediting preachers and mujahideen, many of whom sacrificed their lives, for struggling to "restore the concept of pride in Muslim identity," leading to Hagia Sophia's reconversion to a mosque. In a later post, Abu Qatadah clarifies his position, writing that in previous decades there was a "secularist attack" on Islam, leading many young Muslims to embrace communism and nationalism, until several clerics in various Muslim countries combatted the tide toward secularism which led to Islamic countries' return to Islamic values and ways of life.[3]

HTS religious official Abu Mariyah Al-Qahtani similarly credits Turkish Islamic preachers for making possible the reopening of Hagia Sophia as a mosque. Al-Qahtani writes that "every Muslim who loves Islam and its adherents" rejoiced over the news that Hagia Sophia would again become a mosque, adding that the move was made possible by "all those who resisted the secularists who fight against mosques and hijab," including former Turkish politicians Necmettin Erbakan and Adnan Menderes. The HTS cleric asks Allah to grant success to the "Muslim Turkish people" and to Erdoğan's Justice and Development Party.[4] Another HTS religious official, Dr. Muzhir Al-Ways, similarly congratulates the "Muslim people in Turkey," writing that it is fitting for Muslim prayers to again be offered in Hagia Sophia following "the sacrifices of the grandfathers of this nation, who conquered Constantinople and raised the banners of the Caliphate for long centuries."[5]

Dr. Bassam Sahyouni, former head of the HTS-linked General Shura Council in the Liberated North, writes in a July 10 Telegram post that the day is a "day of victory" for Muslims worldwide and gives Muslims hope that they will regain control over the Al-Aqsa Mosque, the Umayyad Mosque in Damascus, and "the rest of occupied Muslim mosques."[6]

Egyptian-born Talhah Al-Musayyar, a Syria-based jihadi cleric known as Abu Shu'ayb Al-Masri, celebrates the reconversion of Hagia Sophia while refraining from praising Erdoğan. This jihadi cleric lauds the "victory against the legacy of the accursed Atatürk" as part of a series of victories for Islam in Turkey over the past seventy years, such as the restoration of the call to prayer and legalization of the hijab, writing that Allah brings about good for Muslims "at the hands of believers, Muslims, hypocrites, and unbelievers." Abu Shu'ayb describes the restoration as part of the ongoing victories against the "pioneers of collaboration in the Islamic world – Atatürkists, Baathists, Nasserists, socialists, Masons, and others," predicting that the day may soon come when "secularism and its parties in Turkey, Syria, Egypt, Iraq, the Arab Maghreb, the Arabian Peninsula, and other regions" will be destroyed and the Islamic ummah will be "liberated from the collaborators with Western occupation."[7]

ISIS, Al-Qaeda Supporters Describe Hagia Sophia's Reconversion as a Political Ploy, Call Attention to the "Apostasy" of Erdoğan and his Regime

In contrast to the reactions of the aforementioned jihadis, which were mainly positive, the ISIS weekly Al-Naba', as well as several clerics and supporters affiliated with Al-Qaeda and ISIS, commented on the reconversion of Hagia Sophia in a mostly negative tone.

An editorial in Issue 243 of Al-Naba', which was published on July 16, 2020, downplayed the reconversion of Hagia Sophia as a decision made by the taghout[8] Erdoğan to "glorify the religion of democracy and those who believe in it and administer it in Turkey." The ISIS weekly asserts that the strategy followed by the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist groups, such as Erdoğan's Justice and Development Party, of working within the democratic system in the hope that they can "support Islam through that process, reduce the harm upon Muslims, or benefit them" is misguided, since democracy is by definition polytheism and "there is no greater interest for Muslims than the belief in the oneness of Allah, the Exalted One, and there is no harm to them greater than the belief of worshiping other gods other than Him".[9]

In a lengthy Telegram post dated July 11, 2020, Jordan-based jihadi ideologue Abu Muhammad Al-Maqdisi condemns Islamic and jihadi clerics who praise the reconversion of Hagia Sophia, in a veiled criticism of Abu Qatadah. Al-Maqdisi accuses the clerics of inflating the importance of the event to promote the image of Erdoğan and his Justice and Development Party, while ignoring the Turkish regime's reverence for the "enemy of Allah" Atatürk, who first converted the mosque into a museum. The jihadi ideologue writes that Erdoğan's restoration of Hagia Sophia as a mosque is a political ploy intended to win his party additional votes in the country's next elections, noting that prior to the last elections in which Erdoğan's party lost seats, the Turkish President had actually opposed changing Hagia Sophia's status. Al-Maqdisi objects to claims that he was saddened by the return of Islamic prayers to Hagia Sophia, writing that he cannot rejoice wholeheartedly when the decision was made by the same "polytheistic parliaments" which legislate un-Islamic laws, and that his joy will be complete only when mosques are reopened "under the banner of monotheism and jihad." Objecting to Abu Qatadah's post crediting "preachers and martyrs" with making Hagia Sophia's reconversion possible, Al-Maqdisi asserts that Turkish politicians working within the democratic framework, like Menderes, who was hanged, and Erbakan and Erdoğan, who spent time in prison, are not "martyrs." Al-Maqdisi further claims that he has communicated with some Muslims in Turkey, who told him that the Turkish man in the street would understand statements by clerics celebrating the reconversion of Hagia Sophia as an endorsement of Erdoğan and his party, and criticizes clerics who write ambiguously worded statements rather than unequivocally condemning democracy.[10]

Another pro-Al-Qaeda cleric, the Sudanese Al-Sadiq Al-Hashimi, focuses on Turkey's many policies which he considers violations of Islam. Al-Hashimi writes: "Don't tell me about Hagia Sophia, tell me about the Jewish embassy in Turkey, about [Turkey's] secularist army which protects unbelief, about the Incirlik Base, from which Muslims are killed and made homeless, and about the NATO alliance, in which Turkey is a loyal child and faithful servant. Tell me about the application of constitutional rights to the people of Lot [i.e. homosexuals], lesbians, and transgender people; about the legislation of prostitution, naked tourism, and cuckoldom; tell me about Sufism and its great polytheism; rather, tell me about all unbelief and heresy." Al-Hashimi plays down the importance of Hagia Sophia, calling it merely a "tourist museum full of tombs."[11]

Al-Qaeda supporter Shibl Osama (Osama's Lion Cub) writes that although he is glad that Hagia Sophia has again become a mosque, Turkey remains a secularist, apostate country and it is still obligatory to fight against its government. The Al-Qaeda supporter states that the opening or building of mosques by regimes that govern by manmade law and profess "aims of unbelief" does nor stem from good intentions and should not be praised or described as Islamic. Shibl Osama asserts that the reconversion of Hagia Sophia does not compensate for the "bigger polytheism and greater unbelief" of the Turkish government, president, and army, which he accuses of such violations of Islam as legislating manmade laws and abrogating shari'a law, "advocating deviance, homosexuality, and religious freedom," and "supporting the Jews and Christians, allying with them, and participating with them in fighting the monotheists of the jihadi movements" in Somalia, Afghanistan, Mali, and Syria. The Al-Qaeda supporter states that due to these violations of Islam on Turkey's part, it remains forbidden to "support it or seek its aid, to commend it or praise it, and it is not permitted to support it or abandon hating it and fighting it."[12]

The pro-Al-Qaeda Al-Thughour Media Network similarly writes that the reconversion is "a great event and a victory for all Muslims," but it does not erase the "deeds of unbelief of Erdoğan and the members of his parliament who enact laws in place of Allah" and that "Erdoğan will remain an enemy of Allah until he repents to Allah from his unbelief."[13] A post on the pro-Al-Qaeda Telegram channel Bikull Sarahah (In All Honesty) similarly states that the reconversion of Hagia Sophia into a mosque is indeed an "accomplishment," but killing mujahideen, helping the international coalition bomb Muslims, arresting jihadi commanders and clerics, and replacing shari'a law with a manmade constitution is a greater sin than turning a mosque into a museum. The channel concludes: "If the foundations of the building are lost, then as much as we adorn its walls and windows with colors, it will collapse."[14]

Pro-ISIS Telegram channel Al-Nahrawan denigrates the reconversion of Hagia Sophia into a mosque as a political trick intended to divert attention from Erdoğan's violations of Islam. Al-Nahrawan writes that when Erdoğan became aware of the support he enjoys among the "riffraff" of the Muslim world, he decided to "impart sanctity to himself and to his most visited city, Istanbul" by reconverting the Hagia Sophia museum into a mosque, contending that Erdoğan desires Istanbul to compete with the holy Islamic cities of Mecca, Medina, and Jerusalem, whose rulers enjoy a degree of religious legitimacy due to their patronage of these holy sites. Al-Nahrawan writes mockingly that just as the Saudi king possesses the title "Guardian of the Two Sanctuaries," despite being "a traitor to them and destroyer of their first religion," the Turkish president also seeks to be known as "Ayatollah Erdoğan, conqueror of Hagia Sophia," to offset having transformed Turkey into a "hotbed of prostitution and alcohol."[15] Another ISIS supporter, Shakur, posted a map of U.S. and NATO bases in Turkey, expressing astonishment that the "riffraff" praise the reopening of Hagia Sophia as a mosque, but do not notice the more than 15 U.S. bases in Turkey.[16]

The above Telegram post from ISIS supporter Shakur displays a map showing 15 U.S. and NATO bases in Turkey.


[2], July 18, 2020. See MEMRI JTTM Report TTP Congratulates Turkey For Restoring Hagia Sophia As Mosque, July 20, 2020.

[3], July 10, 2020.

[4], July 10, 2020.

[5], July 10, 2020.

[6], July 10, 2020.

[7], July 11, 2020.

[8] The term taghout, literally "false deity", refers in Salafi-jihadi discourse to rulers and governments who usurp Allah's position as lawgiver by legislating manmade law.

[9] Rocket.Chat,, July 16, 2020. See MEMRI JTTM Report ISIS Editorial Downplays Erdoğan's Conversion Of Hagia Sophia Into Mosque, Warns Of Tyrants Embracing Polytheism Not Monotheism, July 16, 2020.

[10], July 11, 2020.

[11], July 12, 2020.

[12], July 11, 2020.

[13], July 10, 2020.

[14] Bikull Sarahah, July 11, 2020.

[15], July 11, 2020.

[16], July 11, 2020.

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