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The Palestinians Fabrications Concerning Jerusalem: What the Islamic Scriptures and Islamic History Instruct Us (C)

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From the above list contains the most reliable Islamic classical exegetes clearly sums up the issue and refute all political propaganda raised by Muslim and Palestinian politicians. These exegetes acknowledge that it was well-known Muhammad had night dreams and visions, but as about the Jewish Temple Mount there are no evidence and proofs relating to his political and religious activities.

Muhammad did not know anything about Jerusalem, let alone visiting it, and moreover building a mosque there. It is of note that during most of Muhammad’s prophetic career, Jerusalem was under Persian control (614-628). Byzantines returned triumphantly to Jerusalem only in 629.

Indeed, all Palestinian-Islamic assertions are fabrications based on myths with the aim of gaining political targets. The formula is crystal clear: as long as Jerusalem is under Islamic control, it is neglected and comes under oblivion. However, when Jews and/or Christians take control of the city, Muslim raise its artificial fabricated sanctity.

Furthermore, there is also the geographical terminology. The name al-Aqşā means “the most distant,” “the furthest,” cannot be tied or related to Jerusalem or anywhere in the Land of Israel for that matter, because it contradicts the Qur’an’s statement which calls the Land of Israel “the nearest place,” termed Adna al-Ard.

The phenomenon of denying Jewish history in Jerusalem and the existence of its two Temples is particularly perplexing since this denial contradicts the Qur’an itself. The Qur’an specifically mentions the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem and states that the Children of Israel enjoyed two periods of political autonomy in the Land of Israel, and that during those periods they built the First and Second Temples which were destroyed because of their sins.

And we gave Moses the Scripture, and made it a guide for the Children of Israel. Take none for protector other than me… And we conveyed to the Children of Israel in the Scripture: You will commit evil on earth twice, and you will rise to a great height. When the first of the two promises came true… It was a promise fulfilled. Then we gave you back your turn against them, and supplied you with wealth and children, and made you more numerous… Then, when the second promise comes true, they will make your faces filled with sorrow, and enter the Temple as they entered it the first time, and utterly destroy all that falls into their power.

The problem with these false claims is also that they expose an important Arab-Islamic cultural traits which reveal ethnocentric views and claims. It presumes that everything belongs to Islam and nothing will be shared with others. Jerusalem is only sacred to Islam, and since it isn’t sacred to the Jews, they don’t have any rights to it.

History, Religion, and Politics Refute Any Ties of Islam to Jerusalem

Muhammad and the Sahābah

If Jerusalem was so important to Islam religiously; and if Muhammad reached the city and established a mosque on the Temple Mount, called al-Aqşā; and if Jerusalem is indeed the third aram and the first Qiblah; then

How that is nobody knew of it among his friends (Sahābah), and even Muhammad himself did not know about it? He did not mention Jerusalem at all in his sermons and commandments; he did not tell his followers to worship Jerusalem, and above all, he did not send forces to conquer it from the infidels. He did nothing concerning Jerusalem. Is it possible?

The absence of Jerusalem is doubly surprising in light of the fact that in the 90 of 114 Meccan Sūwar the Qur’an frequently refers to stories from the Bible. Muhammad relates to many adventures of the Children of Israel, from Abraham and his sons in the Land of Israel and Egypt; continuing with Moses and the Children of Israel in Sinai, and the conquest of the Land of Israel; and ending with Kings David and Solomon and other Jewish prophets and figures. Kings David and Solomon resided in Jerusalem, the city of the Holy Temple. Nevertheless, Jerusalem is not mentioned, nor the Temple Mount in the Islamic Scriptures.

To comprehend how utterly strange is this phenomenon we must recall that the cities holy to Islam, Mecca and Medina, are described frequently, and these descriptions are accompanied by mention of historical events. Moreover, before Muhammad began his prophecy he engaged in commerce and once visited Damascus. Jerusalem was well known. Commercial caravans to Syria passed near Jerusalem. Still, total silence.

Moreover, one of his biographers, al-Wākidi, that his book, Kitāb al-Maghāzī details very carefully and authentically all of Muhammad’s wars and the places he visited and stayed. How that al-Wākidi does not mention this glorious event of Muhammad in Jerusalem and the mosque he erected there, if it was true? In two occasions the Hadīth mentions a city named Ilia, Madīnat Bayt al-Maqdis, but only in a geographic context and not in a political sense, and certainly not in a religious one concerning Islam.

He who is acquainted with Arab-Islamic political culture exactly knows this scenario is impossible. The admiration to Muhammad among the Muslims is total and absolute. If Jerusalem was important to Muhammad and if he had been there, his generation and later on all the believers would have known it and warship it.

None had happened, because nothing should have happened. The Sīrah (Muhammad’s biography) and the adīth (stories associated with Muhammad or about him as related by his confidants), which are an integral part with the Qur’an to comprise the Sharī’ah, contain extensive descriptions of Muhammad stories, declarations and activities. Still, Jerusalem is not mentioned at all. How could Mecca and Medina be mentioned so many times, while Jerusalem, which Islamic propagators establish as the third holiest city to Islam, is not mentioned?

‘Umar bin al-Khattāb, the Conqueror of Jerusalem

If Jerusalem was so important to Islam religiously; and if Muhammad reached the city and established a mosque on the Temple Mount called al-Aqşā; and if Jerusalem is indeed the third aram and the first Qiblah; then

How that is the Land of Israel was conquered by ‘Umar bin al-Khattāb in 634, but the Muslims did not bother to conquer Jerusalem until four years later? That is certainly an indication of the unimportance of Jerusalem as far as Islam is concerned. Had Jerusalem been of any real religious significance for Islam, it certainly would have been conquered as first priority.

Is it possible that ‘Umar bin al-Khattab, one of Muhammad’s closest confidantes, did not know there was a mosque on the Temple Mount that allegedly erected by Muhammad? Moreover, he entered the Temple Mount with a Jewish convert, Ka’ab al-Akhbar, as an instructor. ‘Umar turned to him to find the direction to pray towards Mecca. If there was already a mosque there that Muhammad had ostensibly built, wouldn’t ‘Umar have known about it, and wouldn’t he have prayed there?

Sure, there was no mosque there whatsoever. When Ka’ab, the Jewish convert, took off his shoes [in deference to the holiness of the Jewish shrine], suggested to build a mosque on the place of the Jewish Temple, ‘Umar angrily responded that Ka’ab had never really left his Jewish faith. He insisted that the Muslims are required to pray solely toward the Ka’aba in Mecca, and did not even listen to the idea of building a mosque on the Temple Mount.

In addition to the absence of any real significance of Jerusalem in the eyes of Islam, immediately after it was conquered, the Muslims reached an agreement of surrender with the Christian leadership and thereupon proceeded to leave Jerusalem and ignore it, preserving its Christian character. Had Jerusalem occupied an important religious role in Islam, the Muslims would have not abandoned it to the Christians immediately following its conquest and granted the Christians far-reaching autonomy in it.

These facts bring the Islamic propagation concerning Jerusalem to absurd and ridicule. If the al-Aqşā mosque indeed was located on the Temple Mount, could we imagine that ‘Umar bin al-Khattāb would belittle it and, by so doing, deny the validity of its source in the Qur’an? Obviously not. The fact is that there is no reference in the Qur’an to al-Aqşā or to any particular sanctity of the Temple Mount.

Moreover, After ‘Umar left the Temple Mount and signed a treaty of protection with the Christians, called Dhimma, he decided to establish the Muslim capital in Caesarea. Later on the capital moved to Ramle, the only city the Muslims built in the Land of Israel. Does it sound logical from Islamic perspective that had al-Aqşā been located in Jerusalem built by Muhammad, could ‘Umar or any Muslim blatantly disregard it and erect the capital in other cities? Indeed, ‘Umar did so because there was nothing out there in Jerusalem sacred to Islam.

Jerusalem under the Umayyad Dynasty (al-Khilāfah al-Umawiyyah)

If Jerusalem was so important to Islam religiously; and if Muhammad reached the city and established a mosque on the Temple Mount called al-Aqşā; and if Jerusalem is indeed the third aram and the first Qiblah; then

How that is Jerusalem continued to be in oblivion and negligence, and that the Umayyad’s capital was established in Damascus, and that still there was no prayer toward Jerusalem and even no known mosque there?

However, the internal war between Muhammad’s family and the Mecca-oriented group against the Umayyad’s Damascus-oriented Dynasty, brought a change. Due to the circumstances the Umayyads had to choose an alternative to the ājj in Mecca, and Jerusalem was chosen just because of its location.

For that reason, the Umayyad ruler, ‘Abd al-Malik (685-705) built the first mosque ever, only in 691, in Jerusalem, called the Dome of the Rock, Qubt al-Sakhra’, on the Temple Mount. There was no religious decree or orientation there but pure politics. Why the Temple Mount? Because Jerusalem at that time was only a small part of what is known today as ‘the Old City.’ Another reason, the Umayyads wished to act against the Christians, where there was a church on the foundations of the Jewish Temple.

Only in 715 a second mosque was built by Suleiman, al-Walid’s son, called Masjid al-Aqşā. It was built 83 years after Muhammad’s death. From the emergence of Islam until 691 the Muslims built many mosques in all the lands they have conquered but not in Jerusalem. Is it something to consider?

A number of factors contributed to the decision to choose Jerusalem: First, the rebel forces of ‘Abdallah ibn al-Zubayr controlled the ijaz (Arabia) and prevented the Umayyad from taking part in the ājj (pilgrimage to Mecca). Furthermore, the Umayyad Dynasty sought to legitimize their control of Syria: they had competitors in Arabia as well as in Iraq for the control of Mecca. Finally, in the absence of a spiritual center, the Umayyad needed a location like Jerusalem.

The power struggle within Islam itself has brought Jerusalem to the core. The Damascus-based Umayyad Caliphs who controlled Jerusalem wanted to establish an alternative holy site if their rivals blocked access to Mecca. That was important because the ajj to Mecca was one of the Five Pillars of Islam. As a result, they built what became known as the Dome of the Rock shrine and the adjacent mosque. Indeed, all Umayyad’s sources reveal that Jerusalem was chosen for its geographical location and not for any Islamic reason connected to Muhammad.

Ya’qubi, the 9th century historian describes the issue: at that time ‘Abd al-Malik forbade the people of Syria to make a pilgrimage to Mecca because Ibn Zubeir, in Mecca revolted against him and forced the pilgrims the swear allegiance to him. Therefore, he built a dome over the Rock on Bayt al-Maqdis. Indeed, on the place of Jerusalem in Islamic tradition, S. D. Goitein takes issue about the role of the Umayyads in promoting the sanctity of Jerusalem.

It was not easy to change the Muslims’ consciousness concerning Jerusalem and ājj. That is why a new religious-educational orientation was established, called Fadā’il al-Quds literature. The target was clear: to make Jerusalem a place of sanctity for the masses under the Umayyads. However, when reading the material written on Fadā’il al-Quds the conclusion is clear: it does not say anything about Muhammad in Jerusalem and the erection of mosque there during Muhammad’s life. There was only a new invention of Jerusalem as a holy city deserves to serve the ājj ritual.

In this context, and for obvious political reasons, several clerics active during the period of the Umayyad dynasty set this holiness rating for Bayt al-Maqdis. They stated as follows: “prayer in Mecca is like one hundred thousand prayers, prayer in Medina is like one thousand prayers, and prayer in Bayt al-Maqdis is like five hundred prayers.”

According to al-Muqaddasi (985), an historian in Jerusalem (as his name testifies, referring to the Jewish name of Jerusalem), the Dome of the Rock sought to elevate and sanctify Jerusalem, thus serving as a counterweight to the Christian churches that dominated the city, such as the Church of the Sepulcher. That is why there sprung up an entire literature about the “praise of Jerusalem” (Fadā’il al-Quds). Still it was of note that the region’s capital was al-Ramlah and not Jerusalem. Moreover, this sanctity remained for only 60 years. When the Umayyad dynasty fell in 750, Jerusalem also fell into near obscurity for 350 years, until the Crusades.

Jerusalem Under the Abbasid Dynasty (al-Khilāfah al-‘Abāssīyah)

The House of Umayyad fell in 750, and the entire ruling family were slaughtered by the Abbasids. For 350 years, up to the conquest of Jerusalem by the Crusaders, no Islamic entity displayed any interest in the city. The “Praise of Jerusalem” literature, that emerged for political reasons during the Umayyad dynasty and lasted at most 60 years, disappeared, and a new contradictory literature appeared that belittled the importance of Jerusalem.

If Jerusalem was so important to Islam religiously; and if Muhammad reached the city and established a mosque on the Temple Mount, called al-Aqşā; and if Jerusalem is indeed the third aram and the first Qiblah; then

How that is a new Islamic literature considered Jerusalem a source of heresy and rejection of Islamic sacred writings? How that is in 1033 the Dome of the Rock, most symbolically, collapsed and no one bothered to restore it as a holy site of worship? In 1173 Benjamin of Tudela visited Jerusalem. He described it as a small city full of Christian groups with two hundred Jews dwelt under the Tower of David. No Muslim community was mentioned.

The Fatimid control of Jerusalem ended when it was captured by the Crusaders in July 1099. The capture was accompanied by a massacre of the Muslim and Jewish inhabitants. Jerusalem became the capital of the Christian Kingdom of Jerusalem. The Church of the Holy Sepulcher was rebuilt, and Muslim mosques on the Jewish Temple Mount were converted for Christian purposes.

At the beginning, even the conquest of Jerusalem by the Crusaders failed to arouse any sense of shock or cultural-religious humiliation around the Islamic world. The Christian Crusaders destroyed mosques and synagogues, and built churches on those sites. Most of all, they pointed to Jerusalem as the pinnacle of their religious campaign. Moreover, the Ayyubid Dynasty destroyed the walls in expectation of ceding the city to the Crusaders as part of a peace treaty.

The Muslims did not refer to the conquest of Jerusalem as a goal. Only a few voices mentioned the city, and only few sources can be cited in the reports of travelers of that period who barely mention Jerusalem in a religious context and certainly not as an important site for tourism. The religious side was much less even mentioned let alone practiced. It was pure politics. Infidels occupying a Muslim land, and from social-economic perspective impoverishment and misery of Jerusalem were at their peak.

However, through time there emerged some different voices, such as that of Ali the son of Tahir al-Sulami, a cleric who resided in Damascus, who preached the need for Jihad against the Crusaders. The 12th century Nur al-Din, the ruler of Aleppo and Mosul pressed hard for a Jihad against the infidels. For that he employed the religious motifs used by the Umayyads such as Fadā’il al-Quds. The Praises of Jerusalem literature had returned, and a new slogan flourished, to be used extensively later on against the State of Israel: “liberating al-Aqsa” from the infidels.

A genuine change in the attitude toward Jerusalem emerged only when Salah al-Din al-Ayyubi was dubbed the “liberator of al-Quds” in 1187, a cornerstone event founded in religious belief. The main motifs defined on the basis of the city’s sanctity deriving from the mosques found on the Temple Mount, and the fact that Jerusalem was the first Qiblah and the third Haram in Islam.

The Kingdom of Jerusalem lasted until 1291, however, Jerusalem itself was recaptured by Salah al-Din al-Ayyubi in 1187. Yet, Salah al-Din al-Ayyubi made no real efforts to make Jerusalem a religious center. No significant religious institutions were built in Jerusalem during his reign, and very soon he called on the Jews to return to their holy city. His success was more political than religious: he invested efforts in the struggle against the infidels, to gain sovereignty over what was called Islamic territory.

Upon termination of the Crusader era, Jerusalem again sank into relative oblivion and negligence. The rise of puritanical trends within Islam also contributed to the neglect of Jerusalem. The anbali exegete, Ibn Taymiyah (1263-1328) is identified with this trend more than anyone else. He was active in abolishing Jerusalem’s elevated status. He strenuously asserted that Jerusalem occupied no important religious role in Islam, and that the city’s prominence derived exclusively from Judaism and Christianity. In his Great Compilation of Letters, he stated that directing prayer toward Bayt al-Maqdis (the Jewish Holy Temple) was nullified, and whoever does so is a heretic, becoming an apostate (Murtad). If he doesn’t retract, he is to be executed. No later scholar could disagree with this rule nor with the traditions did he observe.

In fact, beginning with the 12th century, Islam became increasingly rigid and ceased absorbing new ideas. The gates of innovation (Ijtihād) were closed, and the era of Muhammad and the four Righteous Caliphs became the perfect way of life Muslims must follow and imitate. First and foremost among these was the notion that Jerusalem was not sacred. In any way it has become null and void, even heresy.

Though the short-period change of Jerusalem as being religious in Islamic conceptions was raised during the Umayyad’s rule and the Ayyubi’s, it was solely political, targeted against their enemies than religious feelings. It reappeared in the 20th century in the political struggle against the Jews and the State of Israel. It was not and still is not the mixture between religion and politics, but the political use of religion for political ends.

Jerusalem under the Ottoman Empire (Osmanlī Devletī)

If Jerusalem was so important to Islam religiously; and if Muhammad reached the city and established a mosque on the Temple Mount, called al-Aqşā; and if Jerusalem is indeed the third aram and the first Qiblah; then

How that is the trends revealed during the Abbasid rule became apparent during the reign of the Mamlūks who came from Egypt and secured their control over the Land of Israel and Syria after their victory over the Mongols in 1260? That fact is that Jerusalem once more fell into awe-full neglect and poverty with no economic or political support. Many public buildings constructed during the reign of the Mamlūks fell into disrepair or were closed. Even Safed and Gaza, small cities at that time, were granted status as independent provinces but not Jerusalem.

The rule of Suleiman and the earlier subsequent Ottoman Sultans brought an age of religious peace, were Jew, Christian and Muslim enjoyed the freedom of religion in Jerusalem. However, from Muslim perspective the four hundred years of the Ottoman rule, 1517-1917, Jerusalem remained in its inferior and impoverished status under the regional rule of Damascus (Villayet-province).

Though Suleiman the Magnificent rebuilt the walls of Jerusalem, and reinforced public structures, soon after its conquest, these steps were taken merely because Jerusalem serviced the pilgrims on their way to Mecca. Cairo (Fustāt), Damascus (as-Shām), Constantinople (Istanbul), and other metropolitan centers were considered to be of religious significance and places of warship. Jerusalem was not part in this list. Jerusalem was certainly not on the same status as Mecca and Medina.

By the 19th century, Jerusalem had been so neglected by Islamic rulers that several prominent Western writers who visited Jerusalem were moved to write about it. French writer Gustav Flaubert, for example, found “ruins everywhere” during his visit in 1850. In Innocents Abroad, 1869, chapter LIII, Mark Twain described the condition of Jerusalem under Ottoman Muslim rule: “Rags, wretchedness, poverty and dirt, those signs and symbols that indicate the presence of Moslem rule more surely than the crescent-flag itself, abound… Jerusalem is mournful, and dreary, and lifeless… In chapter LVI: “Renowned Jerusalem itself, the stateliest name in history, has lost all its ancient grandeur … the wonderful temple which was the pride and the glory of Israel, is gone, and the Ottoman crescent is lifted above the spot where, on that most memorable day in the annals of the world, they reared the Holy Cross.”

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Middle East

Syrian Coup de Grâce

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The Middle Eastern land has a diverse blend of history with conflicts and developments in knowledge. Where on one hand Baghdad was considered as the realm of knowledge on the other hand Constantinople was a symbol of power and domination. But now it seems that all has been shattered completely with conflicts.

The Middle Eastern landscape is facing its worst time ever: a phase of instability and misery. The oil ridden land is now becoming conflict ridden, from Euphrates to Persian Gulf; every inch seems to be blood stained nowadays.  The region became more like a chess board where kings are not kings but pawns and with each move someone is getting close to checkmate.

Starting from the spring which brought autumn in the Middle Eastern environment, now the curse is on Assyrian land where blood is being spilled, screams have took over the skies. The multi facet conflict has caused more than 400,000 deaths and 5 million seeking refuge abroad whereas 6 million displaced internally.

What began with a mere peaceful civil uprising, has now become a world stage with multiplayers on it. Tehran and Moscow are playing their own mantra by showing romance with Assad while Washington has its own way of gambling with kings in their hand. Involvement of catchy caliphate from 2014 is worsening the complexities of the Syrian saga. The deck is getting hot and becoming more and more mess, chemical strikes, tomahawk show, carpet bombing, stealth jets and many more, Syrian lands is now a market to sell the products exhibiting fine examples of military industrial complex. While to some, Syrian stage seems to be a mere regional proxy war, in reality it seems like a black hole taking whole region into its curse. One by one every inch of the country is turned into altar as the consequence of war. A country is now ripped into different territories with different claimants, but the question still remains as “Syria belongs to whom?”

The saga of Syrian dusk has its long roots in past and with each passing moment it is becoming a spiral of destruction. What is being witnessed in current scenario is just a glimpse of that spiral. It has already winded the region into it and if not resolve properly and maturely it can spread like a contagious disease that can take whole Middle East into its chakra.

With recent development in Iran nuclear deal which left whole world into shock; and house of Sauds forming strong bond with western power brokers and Israel, to counter Tehran (because kings of holy desert have so much engraved hatred towards shiaits, that they prefer to shake hands with Jews and establish an unholy alliance) is making matters worse. This all has the potential to push the region into further more sectarian rifts. With Syrian stage already set. The delicacy of the situation is not secluded from the palette of the world.

Despite the condemnations from across the globe, humanitarian watch remains blind and failed to address the issues in Syria leaving Syrians in long lasting agony and despair The symphony of pain and suffering continues in the Middle Eastern region while world watches like a vicious sadist, the region becomes a playground for major powers as ‘Uncle Sam” has their own interests in engaging, Kremlin have their own concerns same goes for every single actor who is party to the conflict.

The panacea to the Arabian pain is simple “a sincere determined approach” to the disease. Even if every party with draws from the conflict the situation can get worse due to the generated power vacuum and can make Syria a replica of Iraq. The Syrian grieve needs to be addressed through proper management skills, if not the curse is upon whole region.

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The battle for leadership of the Muslim world: Turkey plants its flag in Christchurch

Dr. James M. Dorsey

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When Turkish vice-president Fuat Oktay and foreign minister Mevlut Cavusoglu became this weekend the first high-level foreign government delegation to travel  to Christchurch they were doing more than expressing solidarity with New Zealand’s grieving Muslim community.

Messrs. Oktay and Cavusoglu were planting Turkey’s flag far and wide in a global effort to expand beyond the Turkic and former Ottoman world support for President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s style of religiously-packaged authoritarian rule, a marriage of Islam and Turkish nationalism.

Showing footage of the rampage in Christchurch at a rally in advance of March 31 local elections, Mr. Erdogan declared that “there is a benefit in watching this on the screen. Remnants of the Crusaders cannot prevent Turkey’s rise.”

Mr. Erdogan went on to say that “we have been here for 1,000 years and God willing we will be until doomsday. You will not be able to make Istanbul Constantinople. Your ancestors came and saw that we were here. Some of them returned on foot and some returned in coffins. If you come with the same intent, we will be waiting for you too.”

Mr. Erdogan was responding to an assertion by Brenton Tarrant, the white supremacist perpetrator of the Christchurch attacks in which 49 people were killed in two mosques, that Turks were “ethnic soldiers currently occupying Europe.”

Messrs. Oktay and Cavusoglu’s visit, two days after the attacks, is one more facet of a Turkish campaign that employs religious as well as traditional diplomatic tools.

The campaign aims to establish Turkey as a leader of the Muslim world in competition with Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and to a lesser degree Morocco.

As part of the campaign, Turkey has positioned itself as a cheerleader for Muslim causes such as Jerusalem and the Rohingya at a moment that Saudi Arabia, the UAE and other Muslim nations are taking a step back.

Although cautious not to rupture relations with Beijing, Turkey has also breached the wall of silence maintained by the vast majority of Muslim countries by speaking out against China’s brutal crackdown on Turkic Muslims in the troubled north-western province of Xinjiang.

Mr. Erdogan’s religious and traditional diplomatic effort has seen Turkey build grand mosques and/or cultural centres across the globe in the United States, the Caribbean, Europe, Africa and Asia, finance religious education and restore Ottoman heritage sites.

It has pressured governments in Africa and Asia to hand over schools operated by the Hizmet movement led by exiled preacher Fethullah Gulen. Mr. Erdogan holds Mr. Gulen responsible for the failed military coup in Turkey in 2016.

On the diplomatic front, Turkey has in recent years opened at least 26 embassies in Africa, expanded the Turkish Airlines network to 55 destinations in Africa, established military bases in Somalia and Qatar, and negotiated a long-term lease for Sudan’s Suakin Island in the Red Sea.

The Turkish religious campaign takes a leaf out of Saudi Arabia’s four decade long, USD 100 billion effort to globally propagate ultra-conservative Sunni Islam

Like the Saudis, Turkey’s Directorate of Religious Affairs (Diyanet) provides services to Muslim communities, organizes pilgrimages to Mecca, trains religious personnel, publishes religious literature, translates the Qur’an into local languages and funds students from across the world to study Islam at Turkish institutions.

Turkish Muslim NGOs provide humanitarian assistance in former parts of the Ottoman empire, the Middle East and Africa much like the Saudi-led World Muslim League and other Saudi governmental -non-governmental organizations, many of which have been shut down since the 9/11 attacks on New York and Washington.

Saudi Arabia, since the rise of crown prince Mohammed bin Salman in 2015, has significantly reduced global funding for ultra-conservatism.

Nonetheless, Turkey is at loggerheads with Saudi Arabia as well as the UAE over the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi; Turkish support for Qatar in its dispute with the Saudis and Emiratis; differences over Libya, Syria and the Kurds; and Ankara’s activist foreign policy. Turkey is seeking to position itself as an Islamic alternative.

Decades of Saudi funding has left the kingdom’s imprint on the global Muslim community. Yet, Turkey’s current struggles with Saudi Arabia are more geopolitical than ideological.

While Turkey competes geopolitically with the UAE in the Horn of Africa, Libya and Syria, ideologically the two countries’ rivalry is between the UAE’s effort to establish itself as a centre of a quietist, apolitical Islam as opposed to Turkey’s activist approach and its support for the Muslim Brotherhood.

In contrast to Saudi Arabia that adheres to Wahhabism, an austere ultra-conservative interpretation of the faith, the UAE projects itself and its religiosity as far more modern, tolerant and forward looking.

The UAE’s projection goes beyond Prince Mohammed’s attempt to shave off the raw edges of Wahhabism in an attempt to present himself as a proponent of what he has termed moderate Islam.

The UAE scored a significant success with the first ever papal visit in February by Pope Francis I during which he signed a Document on Human Fraternity with Sheikh Ahmad al-Tayeb, the grand imam of Egypt’s Al-Azhar, the revered 1,000-year-old seat of Sunni Muslim learning.

The signing was the result of UAE-funded efforts of Egyptian general-turned-president Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi to depoliticize Islam and gain control of Al Azhar that Sheikh Al-Tayeb resisted despite supporting Mr. Al-Sisi’s 2013 military coup.

To enhance its influence within Al Azhar and counter that of Saudi Araba, the UAE has funded  Egyptian universities and hospitals and has encouraged Al Azhar to open a branch in the UAE.

The UAE effort paid off when the pope, in a public address, thanked Egyptian judge Mohamed Abdel Salam, an advisor to Sheikh Al-Tayeb who is believed to be close to both the Emiratis and Mr. Al-Sisi, for drafting the declaration.

“Abdel Salam enabled Al-Sisi to outmanoeuvre Al Azhar in the struggle for reform,” said an influential activist.

The Turkey-UAE rivalry has spilt from the geopolitical and ideological into competing versions of Islamic history.

Turkey last year renamed the street on which the UAE embassy in Ankara is located after an Ottoman general that was at the centre of a Twitter spat between Mr. Erdogan and UAE foreign minister Abdullah bin Zayed al-Nahyan..

Mr. Erdogan responded angrily to the tweet that accused Fahreddin Pasha, who defended the holy city of Medina against the British in the early 20th century, of abusing the local Arab population and stealing their property as well as sacred relics from the Prophet Muhammad’s tomb,. The tweet described the general as one of Mr. Erdogan’s ancestors.

“When my ancestors were defending Medina, you impudent (man), where were yours? Some impertinent man sinks low and goes as far as accusing our ancestors of thievery. What spoiled this man? He was spoiled by oil, by the money he has,” Mr. Erdogan retorted, referring to Mr. Al-Nahyan.

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Who Will Rebuild Syria: Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close

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After raging for eight years, the violent phase of the Syrian civil war seems to be reaching its final stages, with Idlib as the last holdout. Recently, leaders of Russia, Iran and Turkey held talks in Sochi to discuss securing peace in Syria and preventing a large-scale military assault on Idlib, Syria’s last rebel enclave. World leaders have also discussed the the reconstruction of the war-torn country. Russian President Vladimir Putin urged European Union countries to help rebuild Syria, arguing that it would lead to a faster return of refugees from Europe to their country. His efforts have so far been unsuccessful as EU countries refuse to participate in a rebuilding process that involves Bashar Al-Assad. Arab states are considering readmitting Syria into the Arab League and have shown interest in investing in the country’s reconstruction. However, the United States is pressuring the Gulf states to hold back on restoring relations with Syria and investing in its reconstruction. As such, it seems that in addition to Russia, China, Iran, and India are best poised to invest in and benefit from the country’s rebuilding. Former United Nations Special Envoy to Syria, Staffan de Mistura estimates the cost of Syria’s reconstruction to be 250 billion USD, while the Syrian government estimates the number to be 400 billion USD. Either way, the cost is too high for the Syrian government to finance on its own without the help of its leading businessmen and international partners and allies.

How the Civil War Changed Syria’s Economic Environment

However, during the eight years of ongoing civil war, some prominent faces in Syria’s economic arena have disappeared, giving way to new actors who have positioned themselves and their businesses to benefit from the vacuum created by the civil war and, therefore, became highly influential, obtaining access to Al-Assad’s ‘inner circle’. Some of Bashar Al-Assad’s inner circle members were forced to flee the country, defect to the opposition, or remain neutral—thus losing their favourable position in this inner circle. This applies not only to the decision-making process, but also to the country’s internal economic process. The International Crisis Group’s Peter Harling argues that the war “forced large families to exile or to shut their businesses down and allowed a new generation of wheeler-dealers to emerge.” However, most of these actors and their assets have been sanctioned by the West due to their relationship with, and involvement in projects linked to the Syrian government. This creates a hurdle on the way to Syria’s reconstruction as many businessmen find their own funds—as well as international funds, companies and suppliers—inaccessible.

Economic Sanctions as an Obstacle

Economic sanctions have been successful in limiting the activity of Syria’s economic actors. It didn’t put them out of business as they have developed methods to bypass sanctions. Among those is establishing a close relationship with the Syrian government based on a system of ‘favors’, in which businessmen provide the government with some financial services in return for access to lucrative projects across the country. This poses several obstacles in the face of the country’s reconstruction. How independent are these businessmen from the government as economic actors best poised in terms of access and financial resources to rebuild the country? Given their proximate relationship to the Assad government, it is unlikely that they will gain access to foreign funds needed for the country’s rebuilding. Moreover, do their interests lay in rebuilding infrastructure and improving citizens’ living standards? Or will they rather pursue lucrative projects that are not entirely related to infrastructure, and therefore, will not bring significant benefit to the majority of the population? Furthermore, given the nature of the political and economic process in Syria, foreign companies will need to partner with local Syrian actors who have close ties to the government to be able to effectively invest and participate in the rebuilding process. However, these partnerships are restricted due to economic sanctions. As such, it is important to identify these local actors, their relation to the Syrian government and what initiatives towards rebuilding the country they have taken thus far. The most prominent and currently active businessmen in Syria can be divided into two groups: the ‘old guard’ who have been able to withstand local and external pressures and remain operable, and the ‘new guard’, who saw in the civil war the opportunities to gain access to financially beneficial economic sectors and projects.

Syria’s Most Prominent ‘Old Guards’

Rami Makhlouf is at the top of the ‘old guard’ list. Even under Western sanctions, he is still successfully operating in the country. This is in great part due to his relation to Al-Assad: he is a cousin from mother’s side. Following the outbreak of the war, Makhlouf stated that he would turn to charity and no longer pursue projects that can generate personal gain. However, Makhlouf still has close ties with leading businessmen in the country and is active in several economic sectors, including telecommunications (he owns mobile network company Syriatel), import/export, natural resources, and finance. Moreover, the Makhlouf empire has branches in some European countries, and a team of lawyers creating shell companies and bank accounts to bypass economic sanctions. Therefore, even if at times he is not the face of projects, it is highly likely that Makhlouf is somehow still benefiting from his relations with other businessmen and his numerous shell companies.

Mohammad Hamsho is another infamous old guard who currently serves as Secretary of the Damascus Chamber of Commerce, Secretary of the Federation of Syrian Chambers of Commerce and member of the People’s Assembly for Damascus. In 2018, Hamsho visited Tehran and met with Secretary General of Tehran Chamber of Commerce, Dr. Bahman Eshghi. During the meeting, both sides affirmed their determination to work on improving their economic relation, and signed a memorandum of understanding on cooperation between the two countries in various economic, trade, investment and production sectors. However, given that both countries are under sanctions, the magnitude of their economic cooperation is still hard to predict. Hamsho has been subject to US sanctions since 2011, but has been successful in having European sanctions lifted in 2014 on the grounds that there was insufficient evidence of his involvement with the regime. Two prominent Syrian businessmen who landed on the EU’s latest list of sanctioned individuals, published on January 21, 2019, are Nader Qalei and Khaled Al-Zubaidi. The two are leading actors operating in Syria with investments in the construction industry. One of their most significant investments is in the construction of Grand Town, a luxury tourist project. The Syrian government has granted Qalei and Al-Zubaidi a 45-year agreement for this project in exchange for approximately 20% return on revenue. According to the Council of the EU, Qalei and Al-Zubaidi benefit from and/or support the regime through their business activities, in particular through their stake in the Grand Town development. One of the most prominent actors in the country’s media sector is Majd Sleiman, otherwise known as the ‘intelligence boy’, son of Hafez Al-Assad’s cousin. Sleiman is currently the chief executive director of Alwaseet Group, one of the largest media groups in the Middle East and North Africa region. At the age of 25, he was already running several businesses and had established regional and international connections in the Middle East, Africa, East Asia, Europe and the United States. Even though Sleiman is active in the media and publishing sector, which is considered unprofitable, his companies received significant amounts of money from British accounts. This could be indicative of potential money laundering for the Syrian regime through British banks, via Sleiman.

Syria’s Most Prominent ‘New Guards’

With some families falling out of Al-Assad’s favors, and others exiled or unable to operate due to economic sanctions, a few savvy businessmen found an opportunity to fill the newly created vacuum and establish ties with the Al-Assad government by providing it with much needed services. Most prominent among these ‘new guards’ is Samer Foz, a leading Syrian businessman, known for his ruthlessness in conducting business. In fact, in 2013, Foz served a six month jail sentence for killing a Ukrainian/Egyptian businessman in Istanbul, Turkey. Foz is involved in multiple sectors of Syria’s economy, including brokering grain deals, and a stake in a regime-backed joint venture involved in the development of Marota City—a luxury residential and commercial development project. After several of Al-Assad’s former business allies found themselves unable to continue their business activities, Al-Assad welcomed Foz to his inner circle. Moreover, after being heavily affected by the war, Syria’s agricultural industry suffered, and Foz positioned himself as one of the few businessmen with the ability to broker grain deals. As a result, he received access to commercial opportunities through the wheat trade. Through his investments in the food industry and some reconstruction projects, Foz made his way into the inner circle by providing financial and other support to the regime, including funding the Military Security Shield Forces. Notably, Foz maintains very close ties with Iran, as well as Russia and other Western and Arab countries such as Italy, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Lebanon.

Another relatively new name to the arena of businessmen in Syria is Mazen Al Tarazi. Al Tarazi resides in Kuwait and has launched several campaigns in an attempt to get into Al-Assad’s inner circle. One of his campaigns was named “Returning to Syria” in which he pledged to bear the cost of Syrians wanting to return to their country. Moreover, in 2014, he assigned a plane at his own expense to transfer Syrians from Kuwait to Damascus, and back to Kuwait so they can cast their votes in the Presidential election. In 2017, his attempts proved successful and he was granted an investment license for a private airline in Syria, as well as other projects including a deal with Damascus Cham Holdings for a 320 USD million investment in the construction of Marota City. The Syrian Palestinian businessman benefited from his public support of the Assad government. In fact, according to Syrian media, Al Tarazi’s investment in Marota City is the first investment in Syria in which the investor’s share is greater than that of the public sector (51% of the project was owned by Al Tarazi and 49% by the Damascus Holding Company of the Damascus governorate). This investment, as well as his outspoken support for Al-Assad landed him on the EU’s latest list of sanctioned persons. The final businessman on the ‘new guards’ list is Samir Hassan, owner and agent of several companies in Syria, including Nokia and Nikon. After bad harvests due to war, he invested in imports of food supplies, in particular wheat, rice, sugar, and tea, and developed a close relationship with the Al-Assad family. During the civil war and against the background of improved relations with Russia, Hassan was named the Chairman of the Syrian-Russian Business Council, quite a prestigious position given the special relationship between Russia and Syria. Hassan’s investments in the food industry will also be vital during the reconstruction of Syria where he will be able to provide materials and products needed for reviving the agricultural sector, one of the greatest contributors to Syria’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP).

Trends in investments of Syria’s Businessmen

In general, businessmen involved in the Marota City and Grand Town projects have found themselves under Western economic sanctions. Most of Syria’s prominent businessmen have invested in these projects thanks to their connections with the government. In addition to some of the figures mentioned above, Anas Talas, Nazir Ahmad Jamal Eddine, Khaldoun Al-Zoubi, Hayan Mohammad, Nazem Qaddour, Maen Rizk Allah Haykal and Bashar Mohammad Assi have been recently sanctioned primarily due to their participation in the construction of Marota City. The Marota City and Grand Town projects are not essential for the country’s reconstruction, as they represent luxury residential and commercial projects and do not contribute to rebuilding the damaged infrastructure. However, several of the mentioned businessmen have been investing in infrastructure-related industries, such as the metal and steel industry, as well as the electrical and food industries. Recently, Hamsho bought “Al Sewedy Cables” factory, previously owned by Egyptian businessman Ahmad Al Sewedy, which produces electrical cables, towers, columns, transformers and circuit breakers, as well as a foundry (metal melting) factory that produces material for construction. Hamsho was able to acquire Al Sewedy’s company after it defaulted on loans given to it by the Islamic Bank of Syria and was sold in an auction. Foz has also been investing in former businessmen’s assets as he secured the ‘empires’ of two Syrian millionaires previously in Al-Assad’s inner circle. Emad Hamisho, previously known as the “economic shark” of Syria, and his family were sanctioned by the Syrian Ministry of Finance in 2013 after defaulting on a loan of 3.8 million Syrian Pounds he had borrowed from the real estate bank. In 2014, the sanctions were lifted without any clarifications on whether Hamisho had settled his account with the ministry or not. In 2018, the Ministry of Finance issued a new decision to sanction the assets of “Hamisho Minerals.” Foz saw an opportunity in it and swooped in. He entered into a partnership with Hamisho and created a new company where he heads the board of directors. Moreover, after a series of tightening measures initiated against him by the Syrian government in the early phases of the civil war, Imad Ghreiwaty decided to gradually transfer his investments abroad and resign from his position as the head of the Union of Chambers of Industry. His assets included a cables company, “Syria Modern Cables”, which Foz bought in 2017. Notwithstanding the manner of purchase, these initiatives are important for the country’s rebuilding, and are profitable for the investors, as they will provide construction material necessary for the reconstruction phase.

Financing Syria’s reconstruction

It is evident that rebuilding Syria will be largely controlled by Al-Assad’s inner circle of businessmen who have preferential access to investments and are best positioned to receive projects and tenders in the upcoming period. However, a few businessmen will not be able to rebuild the country on their own, and even the country’s most prominent and richest businessmen will find themselves limited in their activities due to imposed economic sanctions. While Syria’s allies are willing to help, and have already begun cultivating and consolidating relationships with local actors to gain access to the Syrian market, they are also facing certain limitations. Iran and Russia are constrained by economic sanctions of their own, whereas India and China are reluctant to invest unless they receive security guarantees to insure and protect their investments in Syria. Therefore, while both local and external actors are willing and seek to invest in the lucrative industry of Syria’s rebuilding, they are faced with many obstacles, including economic sanctions. The irony of the matter is that actors who have access and finances to invest in rebuilding Syria cannot do so since their access depends on their relationship with Al-Assad—a relationship that has provided them with opportunities and finances, and landed them on international economic sanctions lists that now restrict their ability to operate at their full capacity. With the United States and European Union unwilling to foot the bill, it remains to see whether the Gulf States will overcome Western pressures, restore ties with Al-Assad and invest in rebuilding Syria.

First published in our partner RIAC

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