On August 8, 2023, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan convened a meeting with a group of Muslim scholars, which included 'Ali Al-Qaradaghi, the secretary-general of the Qatar-funded-and-operated International Union of Muslim Scholars (IUMS), along with several members of the IUMS board of trustees. Notable attendees included Yemeni sheikh Abd Al-Majid Al-Zindani, who was designated as a Specially Designated Global Terrorist by the U.S. Department of the Treasury in 2004, Sudanese radical cleric Dr. Abd Al-Hay Yousif, Egyptian cleric Omar Abdelkafi, director of the Istanbul-based Palestine Scholars Association (PSA), Libyan Salafi cleric Ali Al-Salabi, former Sudanese Minister of Religious Affairs Dr. Issam Ahmad al-Bashir, among others. The gathering was attended by Dr. Mehmet Görmez and Dr. Ali Erbaş, the former and current heads of Turkey's Ministry of Religious Affairs, respectively. This report will review the issues discussed during the meeting and commentators' reactions across the Arab and Muslim world.
According to a report published by the press office of the IUMS, the meeting took place at the presidential palace in Ankara and lasted more than 90 minutes. During this gathering, attendees congratulated Erdoğan on his reelection as president. They also discussed the challenges facing the Islamic ummah and the hindrances to its progress across various domains, including creed, Islamic sanctities, family, and ethics.
In his address, the report emphasized that Erdoğan affirmed his commitment to perpetually serving the interests of his nation and its people. He highlighted the significance of providing support and care for migrants while ensuring a secure environment for them. Additionally, he strongly reiterated his rejection of any mistreatment toward Islamic sanctities and referenced the Turkish government's involvement in efforts to issue an international decision prohibiting provocations and insults against sacred books, a response to recent incidents in Europe involving the burning of the Qur'an.
The speech of the IUMS delegation was delivered by IUMS Vice President Dr. Issam Ahmad Al-Bashir, who highlighted issues related to sanctities and developments concerning Jerusalem. He also emphasized the importance of supporting and caring for migrants, along with the significance of establishing a global Islamic university. Al-Bashir is a former Minister Of Religious Affairs And Awqaf under the regime of Islamist Sudanese dictator Omar Al-Bashir and was briefly detained in December 2019 on corruption charges.
Likewise, during his speech, Al-Qaradaghi presented several proposals. These included developing a comprehensive strategic plan for internal reform aimed at enhancing unity and cooperation among individuals within the Islamic nation. He also highlighted the goal of achieving comprehensive reconciliation, which aims to foster productive collaboration and unity among the components of the Islamic nation. Al-Qaradaghi emphasized the necessity of establishing a global university in Istanbul, similar to Al-Azhar, to serve as a center for Islamic scholarship, research, and thought. The main aim of this university would be to enhance education and knowledge of the principles of religion and Islamic culture.
Among the attendees was Dr. Mehmet Görmez, the former head of the Ministry of Religious Affairs of Turkey, to whom Prof. Dr. Ali Erbaş, the ministry's current head, referred as the lead organizer of the meeting. However, Dr. Görmez clarified in an interview broadcast on Al-Jazeera Mubasher on August 9, 2023, that he would not claim to have initiated the meeting. He stated that the meeting's attendees were invited by the scholars of Turkey and the Muslim world with the intention of meeting the president after the recent elections, which had significant meaning and implications. He highlighted that the meeting evolved into a historic event at a pivotal juncture, during which two crucial speeches were delivered. The first speech was given by Professor Issam Ahmad Al-Bashir, and the second speech was delivered by Sheikh Al-Qaradaghi, representing all scholars. President Erdoğan reportedly listened attentively to each scholar individually.
Dr. Görmez then highlighted that the issue of refugees was the main agenda item discussed in the meeting, in response to the recent increase in discrimination incidents reported on social media. When asked about the possibility of regular meetings, he responded: "I believe that this initiative serves as the beginning of scholarly meetings with His Excellency the President."
In the same interview, Mauritanian professor Muhammad Al-Mokhtar Al-Shinqiti, who is based in Qatar and participated in the meeting, discussed the meeting's focus on addressing Quran-burning incidents. He stated: "The scholars emphasized the necessity for President Erdoğan and Turkey to adopt a firm stance regarding the violation of Islamic sanctities, particularly in light of incidents such as the desecration of the Holy Quran in certain European countries. They also highlighted the issue of Al-Aqsa Mosque and the violations occurring there in recent days. President Erdoğan was forthright, especially concerning the desecration of the Quran. He mentioned that Turkey played a significant role in a crucial initiative within the United Nations to criminalize the desecration of sacred books. This achievement holds considerable legal weight that can be utilized in the future."
Al-Shinqiti further elaborated that Erdoğan "underscored that Turkey will persist in its initiatives and efforts, categorically refusing to view the violation of Islamic sanctities as a matter of opinion. This is not an issue of opinion but rather one of defamation, slander, and disparagement. Such actions are not permissible according to the law, and there should be an active challenge to countries that permit such actions, accompanied by endeavors to alter these laws. Additionally, diplomatic pressure must be exerted on these countries."
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Dr. Muhammad Al-Saghir, a member of the IUMS board of trustees, whom President Erdoğan acknowledged during the meeting, posted on the social media platform X, formerly known as Twitter. In the post, he listed the main points of the meeting as follows: "The president reiterated the phrase 'And know that we will not let you down' in his speech and called for continuous efforts in articulating the greatness of Islam. Regarding the key issues reiterated by most speakers: Jerusalem and the dangers of Judaization, along with supporting the resistance of the Palestinian people. The migrant issue, with a particular emphasis on the tragedy of the Syrian people. The significance of the Islamic university in Istanbul. President Erdoğan commented on the migrant matter, indicating that he has issued directives to the Interior Minister to address these challenges. Intervention to release detainees. He underscored that Turkey's heart is open to those seeking refuge within it, and our Islamic and humanitarian brotherhood guides us in this matter. He expressed his willingness to personally intervene against any transgressions. One of his advisors proficient in Arabic was appointed to facilitate communication, and he urged scholars to maintain consistent contact with him, conveying their concerns."
Dr. Al-Saghir also authored an article on the Al-Jazeera Mubasher website on August 10, 2023, titled "Our Visit to President Erdoğan." In it, he highlighted that during his speech, he focused on "the importance of Turkey adopting the initiative to criminalize insults toward sanctities and religious symbols, addressing the phenomena of Islamophobia and Western extremism, and establishing an official body to defend these sacred values. He also emphasized the necessity of an organization dedicated to preserving the environment and cultural heritage. He further elaborated on the demands presented by His Eminence the Secretary-General of the Union concerning prisoners and detainees, delving into details."
Dr. Al-Saghir noted that he concluded by "sharing details about our visit to Afghanistan a few months ago, where we observed their interest in Turkey's elections, their prayers for the president and his party, and their appeal for support and unity. I emphasized that his success was not solely determined by the votes of the Turkish people but also by the countless supplications that reached the heavens, spanning from the deserts of Mauritania to the depths of Upper Egypt. I mentioned to him that while many less educated individuals might not be familiar with his name, they unwaveringly pray for his advocacy on behalf of the oppressed."
Arab and Turkish commentators shared their perspectives on the meeting, predominantly praising President Erdoğan for his leadership style and his attentiveness to the viewpoints of Muslim scholars.
For example, Hamza Tekin, a Turkish journalist supportive of Erdoğan and proficient in Arabic, published a post on platform X on August 8, 2023, in which he commended Erdoğan for engaging with and heeding Muslim scholars from various nationalities and backgrounds. Tekin declared that "Today, alongside President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Turkey reaffirms that it is indeed on the right path, regardless of the numerous challenges and obstacles it may encounter."
Not all reactions to the meeting are supportive of Erdoğan. Some have accused him of seeking to improve his reputation after the recent deportation campaign against Syrian refugees. Among those critics is Abdelaziz Sedahmed, a user on the platform X who identifies himself as an Al-Azhar professor, a supporter of Egypt's President Abd El-Fatah El-Sisi, and a strong opponent of the Muslim Brotherhood.
In a post published on August 9, 2023, he mockingly described Erdoğan as the Caliph, and the attendees as "Muslim Brotherhood scholars." He wrote: "Turkish Caliph Erdoğan. Sultan of the Muslims and Defender of Islam's Sanctity. Met with a delegation of Muslim Brotherhood scholars who urged him to shut down brothels there and abolish laws that contradict God's law such as banning polygamy, equating between men and women in inheritance, and allowing Muslim women to marry non-Muslims. He complied immediately to these demands."
Zahir, another user on the platform from Yemen, characterized the meeting as between "the Muslim Brotherhood and the Secretary-General of the Zionist party, Erdoğan." On August 9, 2023, he wrote: "The meeting of the Muslim Brotherhood with the Secretary-General of the Zionist Party Erdoğan... If you observe, the party leaders are present, including Al-Zindani, Al-Sagheer, and Al-Shanqiti... Take note of the humiliation and degradation they are experiencing... It appears to me that the meeting aims to exploit religious discourse to serve the upcoming Zionist war, and Allah knows best."
Saudi writer Mohammed Al-Dermh stated in an August 9, 2023 post, that the scholars who met with President Erdoğan were members of the Muslim Brotherhood terrorist group. He also mentioned that the IUMS is on the terrorism list in Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain, and Egypt. According to Al-Dermh, "In 2017, the Senior Scholars Council of Saudi Arabia warned citizens against joining it (IUMS) due to its narrow ideological views, prioritizing its interests over those of Islam and Muslims, and its role in fomenting discord in Islamic and Arab countries, specifically."
 See MEMRI Special Dispatch No. 8860, Turkey's Religious Affairs Ministry, Authority Over Hagia Sophia Mosque And 2,000 Mosques Around The World, Part I – Turkish Press Reports On Ministry's Jihad Connections, Corruption, July 23, 2020.
 Iumsonline.org/ar/ContentDetails.aspx?ID=30114, August 9, 2023.
 Youtube.com/watch?v=YTsaCu4N0c8, August 9, 2023.
 Twitter.com/drassagheer/status/1689669024521527296, August 10, 2023.
 Aljazeeramubasher.net/opinions/2023/8/10/حول-زيارتنا-للرئيس-أردوغان, August 10, 2023.
 Twitter.com/Hamza_tekin2023/status/1688995819817508864, August 8, 2023.
 Twitter.com/Abdelazizsedah1/status/1689312976690454535, August 9, 2023.
 Twitter.com/Zahir550/status/1689392101962952704, August 9, 2023.
 Twitter.com/mohammedaldermh/status/1689276178018758656, August 9, 2023.