Shift in religious discourse, will al-Jolani clash with HTS Sharia scholars?
Enab Baladi – Hassan Ibrahim
The Commander-in-Chief of Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, Abu Mohammad al-Jolani, recently appeared in a meeting with ministers in the Syrian Salvation Government (SSG) operating in Idlib, the General Shura Council, and notables in the northern Syrian region, speaking about what is permissible and what is religiously forbidden, authority, prevention and advocacy, in an unusual speech that carried a remarkable shift from the faction’s roots and religious discourse.
A talk in which al-Jolani touched on what is permissible and forbidden, the difference between the authority of God and the authority of reality, and customs and traditions and their observance, drawing a new approach for Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (formerly al-Nusra Front), with regard to religious preaching and authority, revising fatwas rooted in Tahrir al-Sham.
The speech sparked widespread controversy, but it was not surprising in the changes that occurred in the behavior and rhetoric of Tahrir al-Sham over the years, followed by speculations about the occurrence of defections or a rift between the legislators of Tahrir al-Sham, and questions about the extent of persuading the West to remove the Salafist faction from the lists of “terrorism.”
Tahrir al-Sham appeared for the first time in Syria in early 2012 under the name Jabhat al-Nusra for the People of the Levant. It is a faction distinguished by its emergence from the womb of al-Qaeda, the most prominent jihadist faction on the world stage, and later announced its separation from any organization and considered itself a local Syrian force.
“No calling with a stick,” a strategic and propaganda line
Al-Jolani’s speech came through a video recording published by the HTS’s Amjad Media outlet on April 27, in which he said that the authority for prohibition is with God only, and the authority on earth has the right to prevent and has the right to administer what is permissible and what is forbidden, and it is not possible to consider what is forbidden except with definitive evidence and proof.
The commander of Tahrir al-Sham added that the presence of a “swordsman” at the door of a court or a preacher in the markets is “a dwarfing of (Islamic) Sharia,” as he described it, pointing to the presence of the “public morals” police and the Ministry of the Interior that deals with violations, and has circulars on restaurants and cafes that control them within a specific framework.
Al-Jolani said that the religious advocacy aspect must prevail over the stick, and people’s customs must be observed, and experiments that have proven to be unsuccessful should not be repeated, giving an example of Saudi Arabia when it prohibited women from driving cars and then allowed that, indicating that authority is in contradiction.
He stated that a disputed issue gives room for deliberation, and therefore covering the face for women in public is not obligatory, and the veil that uncovers the face is a legitimate veil, and therefore the authority does not have the right to impose the veil on the general public, “because we do not want to transform society into a hypocritical society,” he said.
Al-Jolani continued, in response to a question about the suspension of the “al-Hisba” apparatus, that it became clear, after the Saudi experience, that the designation of the Committee for the Promotion of Virtue had negative results, indicating that “the authority of the al-Hisba, which represented the religious police, supply, and price control, was distributed among many institutions, the idea of enjoining good and forbidding evil is found in mosques, in customs laws, in supply laws, in the judiciary, and in separating grievances.”
Azzam al-Qaseer, expert in Islamic movements and Salafi-jihadi transformations, said that it has become clear to all observers that the successive issuance of such statements by the leaders of Tahrir al-Sham is an expression of a strategic line followed by HTS since al-Nusra Front separated from al-Qaeda organization in mid-2016, especially after the current military and legal leadership settled by al-Jolani.
Al-Qaseer told Enab Baladi that al-Jolani and his aides want to consolidate their rule and secure their survival by convincing the international community and regional actors that Tahrir al-Sham has abandoned its “terrorist legacy” and that it has become a local entity and part of the Syrian revolution.
The researcher believes that the statements in this context come as propaganda to convince observers of the moderation of Tahrir al-Sham’s discourse and its distance from the approach of the Islamic State group in imposing the provisions of Sharia as understood by the IS leaders.
“New vision,” will it cause a rupture?
al-Jolani’s statements related to “sensitive” matters related to religious and Islamic Sharia matters are not considered a simple matter amid the possibility of defections.
The transformation comes within a faction that includes Sharia scholars with wide influence, an audible word, and those with power over most of the HTS decisions, along with its leader al-Jolani, who were also known for their fatwas, which have always sparked widespread controversy, and for their stances on issues outside Syria that have links to jihadist groups.
On April 30, the HTS senior commander Maysar bin Ali al-Jubouri (al-Harari), known as Abu Maria al-Qahtani, published a saying for Imam Ibn Qayyim al-Jawziyya (A prominent medieval Islamic jurisconsult), states: “Whoever gives fatwas to people simply by what is transmitted in books, regardless of their customs, their times and places, their conditions, and circumstantial evidence, he has gone astray and led astray.” Analysts considered al-Qahtani’s post as an analogy and simulation of the statement of al-Jolani.
Days after al-Jolani’s video, unconfirmed news circulated on local pages about a member of the Supreme Fatwa Council and head of the Sharia Council in Tahrir al-Sham, Abd al-Rahim Atoun (Abu Abdullah al-Shami), leaving his post.
It was reported that the reason for leaving the position was previous disputes with Sharia scholars due to “the HTS’ storming” of the rural areas of Aleppo previously, including linking the resignation to al-Jolani’s speech and his recent “religious” transformation.
The former Sharia leader in Tahrir al-Sham and the dissident from it, Abu Yahya al-Shami, wrote on Telegram that Atoun may sit and remain silent as if he is in Tahrir al-Sham, and he does not talk about the reason for his leaving or announcing his resignation.
Enab Baladi contacted the HTS’ Media Office to verify the resignation information and obtain clarifications, but it did not receive a response until the report was published.
An expert in jihadist affairs and a researcher at the Center for Operational Analysis and Research, Orwa Ajoub, commented on the news via Twitter, saying that informed sources denied the validity of the resignation and that Atoun was very close to the leadership of Tahrir al-Sham and played an active role in consolidating its rule and separation from al-Qaeda.
Ajoub pointed out that the source of the allegation is Saleh al-Hamwi, a former dissident from Tahrir al-Sham, who has every motive to weaken the group by encouraging wishful thinking rather than facts.
The researcher pointed out that this does not mean that the differences between the leaders of Tahrir al-Sham do not exist, but they have been contained so far.
The expert in Salafi jihadism, Azzam al-Qaseer, believes that there is a serious possibility of a rift between the members of the HTS if al-Jolani continues with his “pragmatic approach,” especially since he moved from focusing on denying the charge of “terrorism” by using diplomatic, political language centered on the idea that the HTS is not interested in launching external attacks and targeting Western interests, to assert about new shifts in the religious discourse of the HTS, which is the ideological nerve that binds some of the religious references to Tahrir al-Sham.
The researcher considered that, in general, al-Jolani’s statements can be understood as an additional concession on his part in an attempt to ensure his survival, the continuation of his rule, and perhaps a political role in the future.
Tahrir al-Sham witnessed splits within its inner house, embodied in the exit of its most prominent leaders from religious currents, who were not satisfied with the attempt of Tahrir al-Sham to change the tone and course to keep pace with the current new military and political reality in the region.
The past years have also witnessed a struggle between the faction’s moderate and extremist currents and the departure of Sharia scholars and leaders from the faction, including Talha al-Maysar (Abu Shuaib al-Masri), Abu al-Abd Ashda’a, Abu al-Yaqzan al-Masri, Abdullah al-Muhaysini, and Musleh al-Alyani.
Words not enough
Any behavior and speech by al-Jolani and HTS legislators is accompanied by a talk about the possibility of removing HTS (then al-Nusra Front) from the “terrorism” list that Washington enrolled in December 2012 and was approved by various countries, including Turkey.
Following the disengagement from al-Qaeda and the change of the faction’s name to Jabhat Fatah al-Sham, the former US envoy to Syria, Michael Ratney, confirmed on March 12, 2016, that al-Nusra Front is a “terrorist entity.”
The faction did not succeed in escaping from the classification after changing the name to Hayat Tahrir al-Sham on May 15, 2017, as Washington insisted on placing it on terrorist lists, followed by the inclusion of leaders in it intermittently, while Tahrir al-Sham believes that Western classifications “miss the truth” and was not based on “concrete facts or evidence.”
Al-Jolani is still listed among America’s wanted persons, with a reward of up to $10 million for anyone who provides information about him.
Al-Qaseer believes that the HTS leaders’ claim of moderation in their organization is nothing more than a propaganda campaign for external consumption, considering that the West and regional countries are not satisfied with such statements.
Al-Qaseer explained that there is a need for the al-Jolani group to take practical and serious steps to prove Tahrir al-Sham’s change, considering that such steps should include lifting the HTS grip on the local civil society and expanding the margin of freedoms as well.
There is also a basic need to end the control of the military wing, represented by al-Jolani and his associates, over the local administrative body, the Syrian Salvation Government (SSG), and its affiliates.
The HTS has military and security control over Idlib governorate and part of the western countryside of Aleppo, Latakia countryside, and al-Ghab Plain, northwest of Hama. Then it moved to dismantle the jihadist groups whose military formations were dominated by foreign fighters.
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