Political Islam & National Reform in Jordan

There was a very interesting article in yesterday’s Washington Post which discusses the political changes emerging in Jordan and what they mean for political Islam. It’s a great read especially at a time when municipal elections are coming up as well as parliamentary elections within this next year or so.

The Islamic Action Front which is the political representation of Jordan’s Muslim Brotherhood is usually considered by those who are completely unfamiliar with it as just another ultra-conservative group. This is mainly because it is automatically compared to its neighboring counterparts such as Hamas in Palestine or the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt or Islamic parties in Iraq. A closer look tells us that these groups differ in their politics and their approach and appeal to their respective societies, according to each country. Jordan is no exception.

In Jordan the Brotherhood focuses primarily on social activism and from my own observation they have helped a great deal of people in the country. Be it through cheaper education, clinics, food and clothes distribution, or anything else. I would say (cautiously) that the majority of charitable organizations in the country are affiliated with the Brotherhood in one form or the other.

But the IAF poses a problem in the face of reform; at least for the secular reformists. Mainly, how do you go about setting up a parliamentary system where the majority seat holders will be asked to form a party, in a political environment where currently only the IAF has an form of organized political power. It would ensure the IAF a win every time, especially with the disarray of the other 30 something parties who either refuse or have a tough time coming together.

“We not only have the right to participate in elections, but to form a government if we win,” said Zaki Saad, the party leader. “Political Islam is a big part of the Arab people, so we represent a wide spectrum of Jordanians.”

Saad predicted that if his party were to achieve a dominant place in government, Jordan’s relations with both the United States and Israel would change. Jordan signed a peace treaty with Israel in 1994. “We are clear,” Saad said. “We reject this treaty because it is against Jordan’s national interest. But we will move cautiously. We will ask for a referendum on it.”

As for Washington, he said, “We have no problem to open dialogue, but in Jordan’s interest.”

The article also made a passing mention of something I’ve been meaning to write about for awhile now: the removal of the quota system in parliament and what it will mean for all the groups “protected” by it such as Christians, women etc.

Back to the Brotherhood.

The other problem seems to be political platforms. I think it’s safe to say that most (if at all none) of these parties actually have a platform. How do they “work”? Party loyalty. The IAF however is religiously oriented so people have certain expectations. Once in power they will ban basically everything. This is the same perception that was taken with Hamas. Once in power they would shift the social paradigm back to a more morally concentrated one, done so politically and legally. This would actually affect west Amman as comparatively the rest of the country is pretty conservative as is, but mainly through cultural and traditional values as opposed to religious ideals.

The other problem however is that the IAF doesn’t preach banning. So to an extent reformists really have no accurate way of telling which way they’ll swing once in power. As a platform they preach anti-corruption in the government instead of (as this article relates) banning alcohol or enforcing the veil. And also as the article tells, this is something similar to what Hamas did in order to win.

However, putting the constant comparison to Hamas aside, the IAF has had a lot more practice at this. It began as a political party and remains a political party. The general society is a lot more familiar with their record. One example is last summer where parliament MPs decided to give themselves BMWs as a gift from themselves to themselves for you know, all the hard work they’ve done since being elected. The IAF members however refused the expensive cars and called it corruption. It became well publicized and in a few days HM King Abdullah ordered the cars to be taken away. I believe they replaced them with Toyotas or something.

In January the IAF’s deputy head Jamil Abu Bakr was charged and brought before the State Security court for “insulting the dignity of the state” by posting on the party’s website in December 2004 certain criticisms by other members of the IAF on favoritism and nepotism in the government.

In an interview with Reuters at the time Abu Bakr said: “This is legitimate political criticism about fighting corruption and nepotism which King Abdullah himself always talks about the need to combat. We did not accuse any officials by name,”

So it’s tough for the government to say they want political reform where people can criticize, because the only people that seem to do that are the IAF members. Similarly it’s also tough for the government to say we want a system where it’s “one man, one vote”, knowing full well the IAF will win.

Not a pleasant situation.

This may be one of the reasons the turning wheels of the highly publicized National Agenda have come to a grinding halt, and with it any promises of reform.

Abu Aardvark recently posted an article on his blog from the NYT. An interesting excerpt of that article:

The effort toward what was called the National Agenda set off a contentious battle between Jordan’s elite Western-educated reformers, who were accused of debating issues behind closed doors, and entrenched forces in the Parliament and Senate, who sought to have greater say in the program.

Advocates like Marwan Muasher and others were quickly tainted, perceived as serving an American agenda rather than seeking reform.

Jordan’s elected Parliament sought to stymie any laws presented out of the effort, dismissing them as an effort aimed at appeasing the West, while the Senate, appointed by the king and comprising predominantly old-guard powers, also worked to preserve its hold.

This is very true. And it a cruel irony really because you have several groups or parties that are all involved political elements and all of them have a different reason to avoid the National Agenda and avoid national reform. For the IAF and the tribal conservatives of the parliament itâ??s a matter of fear that social reform and political reform will mean people will begin fornicating in the streets of Amman and American flags will be hung everywhere. For the old guards (and they are many), it’s a matter of preserving their seats.

So everyone has different reasons, but all of them have a vested interest in seeing this agenda ‘go away’. Under the King’s request some laws have attempted to get through parliament and are shot down.

Most people think I’m silly for saying this (and I don’t care) but this is why I always believe that it should be an absolute monarchy right now. Technically it’s a constitutional monarchy and the King is bound by the constitution which in turn kind of favors the monarchy to the point of making it absolute. But what I’m saying here is that it should be absolute literally and not just technically. I mean if the King really wants the reform he talks about, and the laws he’s trying to push through parliament, then he should just fire everyone (I think he can actually do that). Just fire everyone, send them all home, and then do what you want. Don’t think politicians in Jordan are not aware that this fantasy of mine is a far stretch from what could potentially happen.

On the other hand the King and the reformists are not in a great position. How do you bring reform to a country whose people don’t want to necessarily change? How do you say that as part of this path to reform we must have free elections; only to end up with a party (or parties) who want nothing but to stall reform? Obviously you can’t fire everyone and do it yourself; you can’t force people to reform.

Reform is stuck between a rock and a hard place.

But this all just my opinion. I don’t know what I’m saying half the time anyway.


  • Nas, they might be moderate or even atheist playing religious. I have no problem with that!

    It is just that Religion and politics don’t meet! Sooner or later they’ll be applying Islamic laws and way of life a thing that is great and just in your perspective, but isn’t in mine!

    I refuse as well a Christian state that applies Christian laws and traditions on people!

    You see Jesus said it : “Then give to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”

    The Catholic Church got into lots of trouble and committed crimes against humanity and Christianity, becuase they were a state not a religious entity. When you run a state you will commit acts against your believes! Some of the Muslim Caliphates were leading a blasphemous life, and fought over power! Even the Rasheeden Caliphates, they did attack other countries and robbed their treasuries, didnâ??t they?

    Natalia It’s not about the honor crimes thing!It’s much bigger.
    What would be your stand if they cancel Christmas and Easter Holiday in Jordan as Muslims are not allowed to share with others religious holidays?

    DISCLAIMER: I’m talking about political Islam, not about Islam!

  • Firas, “theyâ??ll be applying Islamic laws and way of life a thing that is great and just in your perspective”

    where did I say that? stop generalising for a moment. just because i’m a Muslim doesn’t mean I support the IAF’s politics by default so give me a break.

    as for your history, yes the rightly-guided Caliphs did that…every empire in this world has done that up till this day, even the secularists. that’s what empires do, they conquer. how did the rightly-guided caliphs committ blasphemous acts?

    lastly, you’re conclusions about what would be banned or cancelled are nothing more than your own predictions which you must admit are based on absolutely no facts whatsoever. just because they are part of a Muslim organization does not mean they are talibanis. 😉

  • The problem you are outlining in this nice post is really the problem of Democracy: The emotional & average-IQ majority. And unfortunately, those can be moved from one side to the other with a passionate Friday-khutba, an expressive poem, or the price of bread.

    This brought the end of Democracy to Rome – when Sulla discovered that passing laws through the “Plybians People’s Cousels” is much easier than debating your way through the senate. Shakrespeare’s Ceaser is also a great example.

    The US is facing this problem now: according to a political research (that I can’t remember where I found right now), the right wing voters are people who read very little, believe whatever you say, and are fooled by appearances. In other words: they are the average Joe. For a long time, the average joe did not vote… but now he is (thanks to Falwell), and there are LOTS of average Joes out there, and unfortunately, their votes got us Bush in power and the Iraqi invasion.

    So, what is the solution? I don’t know for sure, but I know it must evolve from within the society – a law is a hollow law unless it has evolved from the needs of the people for their own use.

    I think the solution is in “educated democracy”, where your vote is weighed by your Educational Degree (for lack of a better “official” “verifiable” measure).
    Uneducated: 1 vote, Elementary graduate: 2 votes, Thanawi: 3 votes, 2-year college: 5 votes, BSc: 8 votes, MS: 15 votes, PhD: 20 votes. Univ Prof: 25 votes. Also: 1 vote per 5 years of age after 20 years old (thus, older people get more votes).

    I think this solution is democratic: all get to vote, and is weighed towards educated people who “supposedly – and for the most ” are more able to think analytically, debate, and decide for the country.

    Such a move would politicise universities: political thought, ideas, and options will be discussed much more in universities: which I think is a healthy phenomenon.

    Tribes & villages with less educated people (compared to cities) might oppose this move, but another way to spin this is… the power is not taken from the tribe, but it’s placed in the more educated people within each tribe or village – which I think is healthy. It will be a hard sell. We can create an “education level” for Tribe Chiefs (equal to an MS or something) – to make the system work for the tribes.

    Degrees will be sold & bought for political gain – there’s not much to do about this. Just like votes are bought & sold today. We can just hope that educational institutions will try to remain somewhat sincere. Another measure we can take: Educational-Degree does not count for voting purposes until 5 years have passed. This way, young hot-blooded fresh-graduates do not sway decisions greatly. We “hope” that the 5-year delay will result in: more mature voters. And it will lower the short-term gain of selling/buying degrees (thus, less people will do it).

    I am an Engineer and thus I’m not taken seriously when making such proposals. You are a pol-sci. What do you think?

Your Two Piasters: