Turkey’s governing Justice and Development Party (AKP) has started questioning the credentials of Saudi Arabia to host the annual Muslim holy pilgrimage, or Hajj, claiming that the safety of travelers may be compromised as Turkish Islamists ratchet up their campaign against Riyadh.
Speaking to party members at a meeting on Turkish foreign policy, Numan Kurtulmuş, deputy chairman of the AKP and a former minister, said the concerns of one and a half billion Muslims worldwide about their safety while in Saudi Arabia may render the requirement to perform the Hajj pilgrimage null and void and strip the Saudi king of the title of Custodian of the Two Holy Cities (Khadim al-Haramayn al-Sharifayn in Arabic).
The comments by Kurtulmuş were made against the backdrop of the murder last year of Saudi Arabian journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi Consulate General in Istanbul. Stressing that the title of Khadim al-Haramayn al-Sharifayn bestows the highest recognition in the world for a Muslim, Kurtulmuş said it implies safety and that millions of Muslims who go to Saudi Arabia every year should start thinking about what could happen to them while in Saudi Arabia.
“Such a concern presents us with a problem in the requirement to perform Hajj. If Muslims start to feel concerned about their safety during Hajj, there won’t be any title of Khadim al-Haramayn al-Sharifayn [for the Saudi king], nor will there be an environment in which to perform Hajj in peace,” he said.
Kurtulmuş’s remarks were made during an internal consultation meeting between party leaders and AKP provincial chairpersons from 81 provinces across Turkey. It was held November 3 and 4, 2018 and attended by top party management as well as officials from the Turkish Foreign Ministry and the Maarif Foundation.
Relations between Ankara and Riyadh have soured in recent years over the support of the Erdoğan government for the Muslim Brotherhood network. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who has shifted Turkey toward the Iran axis, has become increasingly vocal against the Saudi government. In December 2018 Erdoğan vowed to escalate Turkey’s campaign against oil-rich Saudi Arabia and admitted that his intelligence agency was behind operations targeting the Arab state.
Erdoğan is also using the International Union of Muslim Scholars (IUMS), a Muslim Brotherhood-linked organization and the brainchild of pro-Erdoğan cleric Yusuf al-Qaradawi, who endorsed suicide bombings and armed rebellion in Syria, in an effort to undermine the Saudi leadership. Qaradawi was in Turkey in November 2018 to attend an IUMS event and expressed his support for the Erdoğan government. He lashed out at Saudi Arabia, bashing the Saudi leadership for targeting the Muslim Brotherhood, including himself, and maintained that the country’s behavior has nothing to do with Islam. The IUMS, listed as a terrorist group by Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Egypt and Bahrain, has been branching out in Turkey with the generous support of the Erdoğan government.
In December 2018 the Turkish government’s top imam, Ali Erbaş, visited Tehran and pledged to cooperate on the Hajj with Sayyid Ali Ghazi Asker, the Iranian supreme leader’s representative for Hajj and Pilgrimage Affairs, as part of Erdoğan’s efforts to counter Saudi Arabia and its allies. Both countries send 170,000 people in total to Saudi Arabia annually for the annual Hajj pilgrimage.