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Thursday, January 10, 2008

The Jordanian Question: Part 1

The first piece in an on-going personal exploration of radical Islam in Jordan.

Over the next few months, I'll be posting a several part investigation into radical Islam in Jordanian society. Most of this will come from a lengthy background essay of mine on the topic. The series will culminate with a report during the mid-summer when I return from a Tufts University Joint Research Project, in coordination with the United States Service Academies at West Point, Annapolis, and Colorado Springs, on this very matter. We will be interviewing college students, government officials, and similar sources to ascertain a better picture of what is going on in Jordan today. I don't have the slightest clue where our investigation will lead us, but suffice it to say, it should be very interesting indeed. Here then, is part one.

Jordan has a long history of supporting Western interests and cooperating on matters of war and peace, especially in the post 9/11 environment. Jordan has been an invaluable ally and bastion of moderation in a region which is increasingly seeing polarization between autocratic regimes and jihadist opposition. While the Jordanian Monarchy exercises more control over Jordanian society than we would find to be democratic, the traditional American foreign policy calculation has been that the Hashemites are worth supporting because they favor American interests in the region. Consequently, it’s worth examining the society the Hashemites have created and seeing if in fact the Hashemite have fostered a society which is worth such vast levels of U.S. support.

In examining the success of the U.S.-Jordanian relationship, one of the most important factors to consider is the radicalization of the Jordanian population itself. If Islamism has taken hold in Jordan, despite the Monarchy’s pro-Western orientation, that would present cause for serious concern. On the surface, this appears not to be the case. The Jordanian political arena ostensibly is more stable than that of, for example, Egypt, and jihadist violence by domestic political parties seems minimal. How Jordan has avoided the widespread political violence which has engulfed so many Middle Eastern states is one of the most important comparative questions of today. Unlike most of the “moderate” Arab states, Jordan has sought to include the Islamist opposition within mainstream society. As in many Arab states, the Islamist opposition in Jordan is the Muslim Brotherhood. The Jordanian chapter of the organization was formed in 1945 and from the beginning, the Jordanian Brotherhood renounced violence as a tool to institute Islamist society. The Brotherhood has enjoyed a curious relationship with the Monarchy, in which the Brotherhood historically has been able to criticize the King—even severely at times—while it has stayed within the bounds of political opposition and has not directly challenged the legitimacy of the Monarchy.

The Jordanian Brotherhood began with a focus on social issues that allowed it to advocate for Islamist policies while posing no threat to the Monarchy. As the Brotherhood gained grassroots support throughout Jordan, it was able to gradually increase the scope of its priorities to include issues such as the Palestinian question and the Monarchy’s pro-Western agenda. As the Brotherhood increased the scope of its issues, it also increased the scope of its operations. The Monarchy has traditionally allowed the Brotherhood to run candidates for elected office, and the Brotherhood has also taken to reaching out to civil society groups such as labor and professional organizations in order to expand its reach. The Brotherhood now commonly runs its members for the boards of different labor organizations in an attempt to cut across traditional cleavages in Jordanian society and expand its member base. In fact, professional and labor organizations have become some of the Brotherhood’s most important outlets for dissent. The government generally tolerates this circuitous method of political criticism and allows for alternative opinions to be expressed so long as they do not cross the line and leave the realm of the loyal opposition. As a result, the Jordanian Brotherhood and its political offshoot, the Islamic Action Front (IAF) have traditionally stayed within the regime’s defined boundaries and seldom ventured beyond the line of what is commonly acknowledged as acceptable behavior.