In recent weeks and months there has been a cacophony of Salafi protest that has swept Gaza against the ruling Hamas government related to treatment of prisoners, corruption, and ability to practice Islam as they see fit.
One of the groups speaking out has been Majlis Shura al-Mujahidin fi Aknaf Bayt al-Maqdis, a jihadi organization that is sympathetic to al-Qaeda’s worldview. By glomming onto a mainstream Salafi cause, MSM is attempting to co-opt individuals to gain a stronger footing within Gaza to challenge Hamas (albeit only at the political and not military level yet), whom they view as an enemy similar, though, on a lesser level than Israel.
Following a cross-border attack on Israel carried out by one Egyptian and one Saudi fighter, the organization’s formation was first declared on 19 June 2012, which was announced in a video released from the Sinai Peninsula, featuring seven fighters. The two attackers read their martyrdom wills in the video as well.
In the first part of the video, the speaker in the center reads out a statement and begins by invoking Qur’an 61:4, ‘Verily does God love those who fight in his path in a row as though they were a firm edifice,’ followed by references to standard global jihadist themes such as the necessity of implementing the Shari’a on Earth and reviving the glory of the Ummah.
The Majlis also appeals to fellow Muslims in countries like Lebanon, Jordan, as well as the ‘Syrian Muslim people- the mujahid [people] brutalized under the control of the idolatrous, criminal Nusayri [derogatory term for ‘Alawite’] regime.’
The flag used is identical to the one pioneered by al-Qa’ida’s Iraqi branch known as the Islamic State of Iraq, and the group praises ‘Sheikh Osama Bin Laden’ in its founding statement. Yet, while the al-Qa’ida affiliation thus illustrated is not in doubt, the group’s primary focus to attack Israel has been evident from the beginning.
This is apparent in the reference to the obligation of ‘the people of Tawhid [monotheism]’ to heed the ‘screams of al-Aqsa and the moans of prisoners under the grip of the enemy Jewish cowards.’ The founding statement includes in its conclusion a call for God to defeat ‘the Jews and the kuffar.’
In a video from October of last year, the Majlis likewise vowed to fight the Jews as enemies of God. In the wake of an April 2013 rocket attack on Eilat, the group released a video, part of which featured scenes of Jews praying at the Western Wall, denounced by the Majlis as the ‘Judaization of al-Aqsa.’ The video then continues with the recurring theme of treatment of Muslim prisoners by Israel.
MSM and Hamas
The focus on Israel is also made clear by the fact that the organization maintains a presence among Salafist jihadists located in the Gaza Strip. In light of Hamas’ detention and torture of jihadist individuals, the Majlis has on more than one occasion raised the issue of Hamas’ conduct towards Salafist militants.
For example, a senior Salafist in Gaza affiliated with the Majlis recently affirmed: ‘We will continue the jihad regardless of the stance of Egypt or Hamas,’ adding that the Majlis has ‘precise knowledge on the complete cooperation between Egypt and Hamas in the war against the Salafists.’
In a similar vein, the Majlis recently released a statement calling for the release of all Salafist detainees held prisoner by the Hamas government: ‘Everyone who has a free voice and noble pen, and everyone who has a living conscience and faith should raise his voice to pressure the dismissed government to put a stop to its pursuit against the rights of its mujahideen.’
Criticism of Hamas has been a recurring theme in Salafist discourse. A very noteworthy example is a Salafist-Jihadist video (NB not from an al-Qa’ida affiliate) from about a year ago that purports to document evidence on numerous counts of Hamas’ perpetrating- in the words of the video title- ‘massacres…in Gaza against the Salafist mujahideen.‘
For example, at 17:40 onwards, the video offers a purportedly intercepted radio transmission from the leadership of the Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades giving orders to destroy houses and a mosque frequented by Salafists with missiles.
Like the affirmation to continue jihad despite perceived Egypt-Hamas cooperation against Salafist militants, the latest call by the Majlis for Hamas to release Salafist detainees comes following the killing by Israel of a Majlis militant called Haitham Ziyad al-Meshaal, now commemorated as a ‘martyr’ in a video released by the organization.
The day before Haitham was assassinated, relatives of imprisoned Salafist militants in Gaza held a demonstration calling on Hamas’ security forces to release their detained kinsfolk. The al-Qa’ida flag’s presence may indicate that some of the imprisoned fighters in question are members of the Majlis.
It turns out that Haitham, who was targeted as a suspect behind the rocket attacks on Eilat, had once been a member of the Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades but according to the Majlis, left out of disillusionment with Hamas’ participation in ‘the game of democracy’ (a reference to the 2006 legislative elections that were judged to be free) and its ‘removal of the divine Shari’a.’
One should compare this sentiment with a statement from the group that condemned Hamas, the Muslim Brotherhood and some Salafist parties (e.g. Egypt’s an-Nour) for entering into the ‘mud of democracy.’ Here is a photo of Haitham from his funeral in Gaza– his coffin wrapped in the al-Qa’ida flag. His dislike of the concept of democracy is corroborated by his testimony in the video celebrating his martyrdom.
Unsurprisingly, Hamas condemned Israel’s targeting of Haitham, but many in jihadist circles did not fail to notice Hamas’ double standard behind the condemnation.
For instance, the jihadist outlet Ibn Taymiyyah Media released a statement noting that the Salafist jihadists in Gaza have been caught between the ‘hammer of Jewish aircraft and the anvil of Hamas and its security apparatus,’ noting the ongoing imprisonment and disappearances of Salafist militants.
In the meantime, however, Hamas, which has a vested interest in portraying itself as the true spearhead of ‘resistance’ against Israel, remains undeterred from cracking down on Salafists it perceives as its rivals, having just announced the arrest of several ‘extremist’ Salafist militants in Gaza on charges of stealing missiles.
The accusation of stealing weaponry- a familiar charge on Hamas’ part- is strongly denied by the Salafists, including those affiliated with the Majlis, which in October of last year released a video to refute the allegation. The video purportedly shows how they themselves manufacture projectiles to fire against Israel.
The global jihadist ideology of the Majlis and its animosity towards Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood notwithstanding, it should not be thought that the group is planning on armed confrontation with Hamas or the Egyptian government anytime soon.
On the contrary, when there was an attack last year on Egyptian border guards at the Rafah crossing into Gaza, the Majlis was quick to issue a denial of responsibility, while condemning the Egyptian army’s stance against jihadist fighters.
In short, the group will continue to attempt to carry out attacks on Israel, while avoiding an open fight against Egypt or Hamas. Even so, Salafist resentment about treatment under Hamas’ hands could lead to a more general shift in the Salafist trend in Gaza towards the open al-Qa’ida affiliation of the Majlis. Indeed, the banners on display at that demonstration in Gaza on Monday by the relatives of imprisoned Salafists may be a strong indication that such a turn is already underway.
To an extent, it would seem Hamas heeds internal Salafist pressure to enforce Islamic law more rigidly, as illustrated by the recent initiative for gender segregation in schools. Yet in the eyes of the Salafist militants, these Islamization moves are merely cosmetic and do not compensate for imprisoning and torturing Salafist brethren and so ultimately cannot off-put attempts by the Majlis to co-opt Salafist opinion in Gaza towards its orientation.
Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi is a Shillman-Ginsburg Fellow at the Middle East Forum and a student at Brasenose College, Oxford University.
China-US and the Iran nuclear deal
Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir Abdollahian met with Chinese Foreign Minister, Wang Yi on Friday, January 14, 2022 in the city of Wuxi, in China’s Jiangsu province. Both of them discussed a gamut of issues pertaining to the Iran-China relationship, as well as the security situation in the Middle East.
A summary of the meeting published by the Chinese Foreign Ministry underscored the point, that Foreign Ministers of Iran and China agreed on the need for strengthening bilateral cooperation in a number of areas under the umbrella of the 25 year Agreement known as ‘Comprehensive Cooperation between the Islamic Republic of Iran and the People’s Republic of China’. This agreement had been signed between both countries in March 2021 during the Presidency of Hassan Rouhani, but the Iranian Foreign Minister announced the launch of the agreement on January 14, 2022.
During the meeting between Wang Yi and Hossein Amir Abdollahian there was a realization of the fact, that cooperation between both countries needed to be enhanced not only in areas like energy and infrastructure (the focus of the 25 year comprehensive cooperation was on infrastructure and energy), but also in other spheres like education, people to people contacts, medicine and agriculture. Iran also praised the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and said that it firmly supported the One China policy.
The timing of this visit is interesting, Iran is in talks with other signatories (including China) to the JCPOA/Iran nuclear deal 2015 for the revival of the 2015 agreement. While Iran has asked for removal of economic sanctions which were imposed by the US after it withdrew from the JCPOA in 2018, the US has said that time is running out, and it is important for Iran to return to full compliance to the 2015 agreement. US Secretary of State Antony Blinken in an interview said:
‘Iran is getting closer and closer to the point where they could produce on very, very short order enough fissile material for a nuclear weapon’
The US Secretary of State also indicated, that if the negotiations were not successful, then US would explore other options along with other allies.
During the course of the meeting on January 14, 2022 Wang Yi is supposed to have told his Chinese counterpart, that while China supported negotiations for the revival of the Iran nuclear deal 2015, the onus for revival was on the US since it had withdrawn in 2018.
The visit of the Iranian Foreign Minister to China was also significant, because Foreign Ministers of four Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries – Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Oman and Bahrain — and Secretary General of GCC, Nayef Falah Mubarak Al-Hajraf were in China from January 10-14, 2022 with the aim of expanding bilateral ties – especially with regard to energy cooperation and trade. According to many analysts, the visit of GCC officials to China was driven not just by economic factors, but also the growing proximity between Iran and Beijing.
In conclusion, China is important for Iran from an economic perspective. Iran has repeatedly stated, that if US does not remove the economic sanctions it had imposed in 2018, it will focus on strengthening economic links with China (significantly, China has been purchasing oil from Iran over the past three years in spite of the sanctions imposed by the US. The Ebrahim Raisi administration has repeatedly referred to an ‘Asia centric’ policy which prioritises ties with China.
Beijing is seeking to enhance its clout in the Middle East as US ties with certain members of the GCC, especially UAE and Saudi Arabia have witnessed a clear downward spiral in recent months (US has been uncomfortable with the use of China’s 5G technology by UAE and the growing security linkages between Beijing and Saudi Arabia). One of the major economic reasons for the GCC gravitating towards China is Washington’s thrust on reducing its dependence upon GCC for fulfilling its oil needs. Beijing can utilize its good ties with Iran and GCC and play a role in improving links between both.
The geopolitical landscape of the Middle East is likely to become more complex, and while there is not an iota of doubt, that the US influence in the Middle East is likely to remain intact, China is fast catching up.
Egypt vis-à-vis the UAE: Who is Driving Whom?
“Being a big fish in a small pond is better than being a little fish in a large pond” is a maxim that aptly summarizes Egyptian regional foreign policy over the past few decades. However, the blow dealt to the Egyptian State in the course of the 2011 uprising continues to distort its domestic and regional politics and it has also prompted the United Arab Emirates to become heavily engaged in Middle East politics, resulting in the waning of Egypt’s dominant role in the region!
The United Arab Emirates is truly an aspirational, entrepreneurial nation! In fact, the word “entrepreneurship” could have been invented to define the flourishing city of Dubai. The UAE has often declared that as a small nation, it needs to establish alliances to pursue its regional political agenda while Egypt is universally recognized for its regional leadership, has one of the best regional military forces, and has always charmed the Arab world with its soft power. Nonetheless, collaboration between the two nations would not necessarily give rise to an entrepreneurial supremacy force!
Egypt and the UAE share a common enemy: political Islamists. Yet each nation has its own distinct dynamic and the size of the political Islamist element in each of the two countries is different. The UAE is a politically stable nation and an economic pioneer with a small population – a combination of factors that naturally immunize the nation against the spread of political Islamists across the region. In contrast, Egypt’s economic difficulties, overpopulation, intensifying political repression, along with its high illiteracy rate, constitute an accumulation of elements that serves to intensify the magnitude of the secreted, deep-rooted, Egyptian political Islamists.
The alliance formed between the two nations following the inauguration of Egypt’s President Al Sisi was based on UAE money and Egyptian power. It supported and helped expand the domestic political power of a number of unsubstantiated Arab politicians, such as Libya’s General Khalifa Haftar, Tunisia’s President Kais Saied and the Chairman of Sudan’s Transitional Sovereignty Council, Lieutenant-General Abdel-Fattah Al-Burhan. The common denominator among these politicians is that they are all fundamentally opposed to political Islamists.
Although distancing political Islamists from ruling their nations may constitute a temporary success, it certainly is not enough to strengthen the power of the alliance’s affiliates. The absence of true democracy, intensified repression by Arab rulers and the natural evolution of Arab citizens towards freedom will, for better or for worse, lead to the re-emergence of political Islamists. Meanwhile, Emirati wealth will always attract Arab hustlers ready to offer illusory political promises to cash in the money.
The UAE has generously injected substantial amounts of money into the Egyptian economy and consequently the Egyptian State has exclusively privileged Emirati enterprises with numerous business opportunities, yet the UAE has not helped Egypt with the most critical regional threat it is confronting: the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam. Meanwhile, Egyptian President Abdel Fatah El Sisi’s exaggerated fascination with UAE modernization has prompted him to duplicate many Emirati projects – building the tallest tower in Africa is one example.
The UAE’s regional foreign policy that hinges upon exploiting its wealth to confront the political Islamist threat is neither comprehensible nor viable. The Emirates, in essence, doesn’t have the capacity to be a regional political player, even given the overriding of Egypt’s waning power. Meanwhile, Al Sisi has been working to depoliticize Egypt completely, perceiving Egypt as an encumbrance rather than a resource-rich nation – a policy that has resulted in narrowing Egypt’s economic and political aspirations, limiting them to the constant seeking of financial aid from wealthy neighbors.
The regional mediating role that Egypt used to play prior to the Arab uprising has been taken over by European nations such France, Germany and Italy, in addition of course to the essential and ongoing role of the United States. Profound bureaucracy and rampant corruption will always keep Egypt from becoming a second UAE! Irrespective of which nation is in the driver’s seat, this partnership has proven to be unsuccessful. Egypt is definitely better off withdrawing from the alliance, even at the expense of forgoing Emirati financial support.
Kurdish Education in Turkey: A Joint Responsibility
Turkish elites often see Kurds as posing a mortal threat to their homeland’s territorial integrity. Kurdish elites often harbor pan-Kurdish dreams of their own.
Modern Turkish nationalism based its identity on statist secularism practiced by Muslims who are Turks. The secularist paradigm of a “Turkish Nation” struggled hard with accommodating Christians (Armenians, Greeks, Assyrians) and Kurdish-speaking Muslims. Kurdish coreligionists were expected to become Turks, i.e., to abandon their cultural heritage for the “greater good” of a homogenous Turkish nation.
This cultural-identity conundrum led to a century-long violent conflict, but also to genuine efforts by many Kurds and Turks to reach a common vision that would accommodate both Turkey’s territorial integrity and Kurdish cultural rights.
The rise to power of Erdogan’s Islamist Justice and Development Party (AKP) in 2002 appeared to imply a watershed, bringing about a measure of cultural liberalization toward the Kurds. More Islam seemed at first to signal less nationalistic chauvinism.
IMPACT-se, a think tank focusing on peace and tolerance in school education, pointed out in “Two Languages One Country,” a 2019 report that showed liberal elements being introduced in the Turkish curriculum by the AKP government. These “included the introduction of a Kurdish language elective program, the teaching of evolution, expressions of cultural openness, and displays of tolerance toward minorities.”
And while no open debate was permitted, IMPACT-se noted “a slight improvement over past textbooks in recognizing the Kurds, although they are still generally ignored.” Yet, the name “Kurd” is no longer obliterated from the curriculum. Kurdish-language textbooks were authored as part of a wider Turkish-Kurdish rapprochement.
In June 2012, the Turkish government announced for the first time, that a Kurdish elective language course entitled: “Living Languages and Dialects” (Yaşayan Diller ve Lehçeler), would be offered as an elective language for Grades 5–7 for two hours per week.
IMPACT-se studied these textbooks (published in 2014 and 2015 in Kurmanji and Zazaki) in its report and found that the elective Kurdish-language program strengthens Kurdish culture and identity, while assuming a pan-Kurdish worldview devoid of hate against Turks. Included are Kurdish-historic places in Turkey, Iran and Iraq (but not Syria). The textbooks cover issues such as the Kurdish diaspora in Europe, the Kurdish national holiday of Newroz, with the underlying revolutionary message of uprising against tyranny. Children’s names are exclusively Kurdish. Turks and Turkey are not represented in the elective Kurdish books (but are obviously present across the rest of the curriculum).
The latter is a surprising and counter-intuitive finding. Textbooks published by Turkey’s Ministry of Education focus solely on the Kurdish side, with pan-Kurdish messaging, and no Turkish context. There could be several explanations for this, but the fact remains that Turkish-Kurdish relations are still not present in Turkey’s Kurdish language program.
The overall conclusion of IMPACT-se has been that this program is pioneering and generally excellent. There are some problems, however. One problem is that the elective program is minimalistic and does not meet Kurdish cultural needs. However, the program ignores the Turkish-Kurdish dilemma, hence projecting an inverted mirror image of the Turkish curriculum at large, which ignores the Kurdish question. There is no peace education in either curriculum. Therefore, IMPACT-se recommended enhancing the Kurdish-language program, while adding a healthy dose of pertinent peace education to the curriculum’s Turkish and Kurdish textbooks.
Sadly, the last few years have also seen broader moves by the Turkish government to quash Kurdish cultural and educational freedoms. The armed conflict between separatist groups and the Turkish military resumed in 2015, followed by the 2016 detention of high-ranking officials of the peaceful pro-minority People’s Democratic Party (HDP). By 2020, 59 out of 65 elected Kurdish mayors on the HDP ticket in previous years had been forced out or arrested by security forces.
Simultaneously, elective programs such as Kurdish have been neglected and largely replaced by religious “elective” courses, which are often mandatory. Specifically, elective Kurdish courses are being clamped down or de facto erased in certain schools (despite being originally offered in 28 cities and with an expected enrollment as high as 160,000).
And then there is the question of full education in Kurdish. Article 42 of the Turkish Constitution bans the “teaching of any language other than Turkish as a mother tongue to Turkish citizens at any institution of education.” And yet, Turkish authorities looked the other way between 2013 and 2016, as five fully Kurdish elementary private schools were opened in the southeastern provinces of Diyarbakır, Şırnak and Hakkari. The last of these schools, Ferzad Kemanger in Diyarbakır, was closed on October 9, 2016. Apparently these schools conveyed pan-Kurdish messaging (Ferzad Kemanger was an Iranian-Kurdish elementary school teacher. He was wrongly accused of being a terrorist and executed by Tehran in 2010).
There can be no Kurdish heritage without Kurdish languages, making the current situation untenable. Kurdish education should become a priority again.
But this is not enough. A common Turkish-Kurdish vision should be developed. Educationally, a serious effort should be directed toward educating both Turks and Kurds about the other’s identity, culture, shared history, commonalties, conflicts and interactions.
Two ethnicities sharing one homeland in a volatile region pose a great challenge for both. A careful educational plan can lay the groundwork for peace and prosperity. Kurdish education in Turkey should be considered a joint responsibility leading to a common vision.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect an official position of IMPACT-se.
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