Jordan Salafist leader calls for neutrality in Syria war

In an interview with As-Safir, Jordanian Salafist leader Mohammed al-Shalabi speaks about internal disagreements among Salafists in Jordan, the conflict in Syria and his take on the so-called Arab Spring uprisings.

al-monitor Jordanian Salafi jihadi leader Abu Sayyaf (R) speaks to his supporters in Amman during a demonstration against prolonged detention of the group's leaders, April 9, 2013. Photo by REUTERS/Muhammad Hamed.

Topics covered

syria, salafists, salafism, muslim brotherhood, jordan, jabhat al-nusra, iraq, egypt, arab spring

Mar 10, 2014

In a phone call with As-Safir, Mohammed al-Shalabi, also known as Abu Sayyaf, a prominent figure in the Jordanian Salafist movement, called on officials not to push Jordan toward something unnecessary. He hoped that decision-makers would not cooperate with the United States and Saudi Arabia in the war against “jihadists” in Syria to help moderates. He also urged them not to meddle in any foreign issue.

Commenting on whether the Lebanese circumstances required the announcement of an Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) emirate in Lebanon, Abu Sayyaf (who is not to be confused with Salafist leader Abu Sayyaf al-Ansari in Lebanon) said that in any place in the world, the Salafist movement could only conduct an operation after examining whether it went in line with Sharia law or not, and after considering its advantages and disadvantages.

Shalabi also expressed his view on the initiative begun by Saudi preacher Abdullah al-Mohaisany, which was designed to end the battles between jihadists and ISIS. His view differs from that of Salafist leader Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi, the founder of the Salafist movement in Jordan who is currently incarcerated in a Jordanian prison. Maqdisi blamed ISIS, which set conditions for its agreement on the initiative, for the failure of the initiative. Abu Sayyaf believes that if he were in the shoes of Mohaisany, he would have accepted ISIS’s conditions.

As-Safir:  What is the stance of the Jordanian Salafist movement concerning Abu Sayyaf al-Ansari’s announcement of the formation of an ISIS branch in the northern city of Tripoli in Lebanon?

Shalabi:  We view all of the jihadist movements that are fighting based on the methodology we believe in from the same angle.

As-Safir:  Does the Lebanese situation require fighting, as is the case in Syria?

Shalabi:  I do not have in-depth knowledge of the situation in Lebanon. I support any statement issued by religious scholars there. What I know for sure is that the Salafist movement in any place cannot carry out any operation unless it examines whether the operation is in line with Sharia law or not and considers its advantages and disadvantages.

As-Safir:  How do you describe the relationship between the Jordanian Salafist movement and ISIS?

Shalabi:  First, I object to the use of this acronym. They have named themselves the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham and they have the right to be called by this name.

As-Safir:  The media lately reported statements by Jordanian Salafist leaders banning fighting with the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham. Does it depict the movement’s current relationship with ISIS?

Shalabi:  This is not accurate. The correct text representing the position of the Salafist movement is, “We have advised members of the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham to stay under the banner of Jabhat al-Nusra or to go to Iraq.”

As-Safir:  What is your opinion about the statement of the Salafist leader Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi, currently incarcerated in Jordan, who blamed ISIS for the failure of the reconciliation initiative? [The statement] was part of an audio recording that you received, via intermediaries from inside the prison, and handed to the media.

Shalabi:  It is correct. In the audio recording, Sheikh Maqdisi considered the conditions set by ISIS to meet Sheikh Mohaisany’s initiative unnecessary and illegitimate, given that all of the Islamist groups fighting [in Syria] adopted a methodology that went in line with ISIS’s approach. ISIS set as a condition that the fighting Islamist groups must express a stance regarding the fighting secular and national groups, and regarding neighboring regimes, such as Qatar, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and others.

As-Safir:  As a Salafist leader, what do you think about that?

Shalabi:  Sheikh Mohaisany has refused to agree on the conditions, considering them illegitimate, but I think that Sheikh Mohaisany has to approve these conditions, even if they are wrong, for the sake of public interest. They also do not oppose Sharia law. Had it been up to me, I would have approved these conditions.

As-Safir:  Conditions set by ISIS give rise to questions about the position of Salafists on the various currents in the Free Syrian Army. You said in previous interviews that difference was a necessary evil, in reference to the different methods and approaches adopted, but don’t you think that it is still early for such a conflict?

Shalabi:  I do. We should work on overthrowing the Syrian regime now and find amicable solutions at a later stage. However, I rule out any amicability with the FSA groups, which have different views than ours because they include secular members.

As-Safir:  In this context, everyone knows that Saudi Arabia and the US are placing pressure on Jordan to participate in supporting the moderate “rebels” in the face of Salafist fighters in Syria and the Syrian regime. What is your comment in this regard?

Shalabi:  First of all, we hope that officials will never push Jordan toward what is unnecessary. I also hope that decision-makers will not meddle in any foreign issue. By the way, they prosecute us in Jordan because we interfere in the affairs of a neighboring country, knowing that there are fatwas that allow us to do so. As Salafists, we are loyal to Islam, not to regimes. As citizens and Muslims, we are trying to distance Jordanian society and Muslim honor from events in Syria and neighboring countries. When we seek to maintain Jordan, we do not seek to maintain a regime or a government, but rather the people.

As-Safir:  What is Jordan’s position concerning the fact that Salafists have entered Syria? Did it provide you with facilities in the beginning of the “revolution?”

Shalabi:  The Jordanian state has not allowed Salafist fighters to enter Syria since the start of the Syrian revolution.

As-Safir:  We are reading, on a daily basis, Jordanian, Arab and Western political analyses and sometimes political and intelligence sources, according to which Jordan has been used to facilitate the entry of fighters to Syria.

Shalabi:  This is not true, as evidenced by the fact that we [Salafists] have had detainees in Jordanian prisons since the beginning of the Syrian revolution. At the beginning of the revolution, however, and due to some gaps on the border, many youth managed to enter Syria. After the regular Syrian army retreated from the border and the FSA and others took control, the Jordanian army tried to tighten its control on the border. This reduced the entry of fighters into Syria. The number of fighters entering Syria has recently decreased due to severe measures on the border despite the fact that there are fighters who chose to enter Syria across the Turkish and sometimes Iraqi borders.

As-Safir:  Regardless, you are considered to be a supporter of jihadists entering and fighting in Syria, especially in light of a fatwa issued by scholars who stated that jihad was a duty in Syria. Do you think that Jordan’s tight measures on its border will lead to an escalation with the Jordanian regime?

Shalabi:  The tight measures on the border do not mean that we are in a state of hostility with the state, although the Jordanian state’s non-application of Sharia law is in itself an attack against God, which requires the Salafist movement to revolt against the ruling power.

As-Safir:  Can you explain the idea of ​​revolting against the ruling power?

Shalabi:  Salafist scholars have issued a fatwa whereby revolting against the ruling power should take place whenever possible. For instance, the time is not ripe yet in Jordan, but it is in Syria after the “revolution.” Arab Spring peoples will destabilize the throne of any governor who will not govern by Sharia.

As-Safir:  Do you think that the Syrian revolution was the cause behind the increasing number of people joining the Salafist movement in Jordan?

Shalabi:  Yes. The Salafist movement responded to the call of the Syrian people. The Syrian people asked for relief from all of the populations of the world, yet it was only this movement that stepped up to the plate.

As-Safir:  Earlier on, there were talks were about a Salafist Shura Council in Jordan, yet this subject was no longer tackled. Why is that?

Shalabi:  This subject was no longer tackled due to the Syrian revolution and other reasons that I reserve the right not to disclose. The idea is still there, but the Salafist movement awaits the release of its leaders (such as Sheikh Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi and Abu Qatada al-Filastini and Abu Muhammad al-Tahawi) from Jordanian prisons. It is then that the formation of a Shura Council would be possible.

As-Safir:  You say that the Syrian revolution was one of the reasons why the project of the Shura Council stopped, but in your statements at the end of last year, you pointed out that the council would be formed during 2013, that is, after the outbreak of the Syrian revolution.

Shalabi:  It is true. We have chosen a large number of persons to establish a temporary Shura Council that, in turn, shall choose appropriate persons to establish a permanent Shura Council. This was done with the blessing of Sheikh Abu Qatada and Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi. However, there were internal and external obstacles.

As-Safir:  What you are saying is that there are disagreements between the members of the Salafist movement?

Shalabi:  These were not disagreements but obstacles. This is of course in addition to the youth preoccupation with the Syrian revolution. It is unacceptable that people are getting killed in Syria and their dignity is violated while we here establish a Shura Council. To be honest, there were some internal issues that have affected the establishment of the council.

As-Safir:  You said that the members of the Shura Council were elected. Does this not contradict your vision that rejects democracy and the ballot box?

Shalabi:  A Salafist election is not like elections as we know it. We are against the elections where there is equality between those worthy and those unworthy. We choose a trustworthy party complying with Sharia, and those who vote must also be complying with Sharia. Our elections do not violate Sharia, they are not like secular elections. They represent another type of elections authorized by Sharia and specified in fatwas issued by a group of contemporary religious scholars.

As-Safir:  What is the Salafist movement’s take on the Arab Spring?

Shalabi:  Although the Arab Spring was one of the reasons for the fall of some repressive regimes that had suffocated the Arab nation for decades, and despite the fact that it freed people and raised the ceiling of freedoms, we cannot be associated with movements that became active in the Arab Spring revolutions. These movements raised claims centered on promoting democracy or secularism deemed by Salafism as a sign of apostasy.

As-Safir:  The people’s demands in the Arab Spring are for freedom and democracy that they believe constitute a means to preserve their dignity and livelihood.

Shalabi:  We believe that the remedy for the injustice that people called for fighting is only granted under a regime applying the laws of God. God knows what is best for people. He is the drafter of the source of Sharia (the Quran). This make the Sharia valid anytime and everywhere until Judgment Day. On the other hand, positive laws and some constitutions are always changing by the effect of time and place, and they are deficient.

As-Safir:  You talked positively about the Arab Spring and its role in raising the ceiling of freedoms. Does this not fall within the concepts of democracy?

Shalabi:  The Salafist movement believes in freedom under the rules of Islam. Freedom must not violate Sharia. Salafists believe that freedom emanating from the separation of religion from politics is contrary to Sharia.

As-Safir:  On this basis, how can we understand the nature of your disagreement with the Muslim Brotherhood?

Shalabi:  Some believe our dispute with the Muslim Brotherhood is a secondary and form-related dispute, but it is a fundamental disagreement. According to the ideology of the Salafist movement, democracy and its tools, such as elections and ballot boxes, are unacceptable. The Brotherhood on the other hand believes in them.

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