Words: Naseem Tarawnah | Visual: via Flickr
It’s a 2am traffic light on a Friday night in Amman. Several cars waiting patiently for a green signal have their radio’s tuned to BBC Arabic as it reports an attempted coup in Turkey. With a look of concern on every driver’s face, we listen intently to the news anchor’s voice as she informs us that Erdogan is safe and intends to restore order.
Half the city feels awake but the reactions behind these rolled down glass windows range from mostly sighs of relief to sparse frowns of disappointment, and I find myself wondering if this might be reflective of the collective emotions Jordanian society at large is feeling at this very moment. Are we all tuned into the same frequency tonight because we want to witness the fate of one man, or the ramifications a military coup has on the rest of us in the region?
In an overwhelmingly conservative country, someone like Erdgoan is bound to be popular. Back in 2012, Pew Research Center conducted a study about regional attitudes towards Turkey and Erdogan; unsurprisingly, they were overwhelmingly positive. For Jordan, 70% said Turkey favors democracy in the Middle East, compared to other regional powers like Saudi Arabia (64%), the US (14%), and Israel (3%).
31% of Jordanians polled said that Islam currently plays a large part in their country’s politics; the majority (63%) said it did not, and 80% of that group believes that’s a bad thing.
For many Jordanians, Erdogan’s governments tick off several items on the wish list when it comes to governance and leadership: a country with a thriving economy, an Islamic identity, an ability to flex geopolitical muscle, and relatively stable (recent deteriorations notwithstanding). In Erdogan, many Jordanians perceive these characteristics embodied in the ultimate Muslim strongman. From the economic miracle, to Islameque public policies, or standing up to Israel (reality notwithstanding) – Erdogan satisfies every itch; a throwback for those pining Salah AlDeen nostalgia.
In that same Pew survey, only 31% of Jordanians polled said that Islam currently plays a large part in their country’s politics; the majority (63%) said it did not, and 80% of that group believes that’s a bad thing. Around 72% believe that laws should strictly follow the Quran, while 1% believing laws shouldn’t be influenced at all. Moreover, increasing the role of Islam in the political sphere doesn’t even have to be under the guise of good democracy, as Jordanians surveyed said they favored a strong economy (61%) to a democracy (33%). While we can take these figures with a grain of salt, they do shed some light on the degree of religious conservatism that exists in the country, and why someone like Erdogan might enjoy such popularity.
But Erdogan’s popularity is also indicative of the type of political leadership many would like to see, even if it comes at the expense of democratic values. Specifically religious conservatives that romanticize the glory days of the “ummah”, they would likely prefer an Islamic leadership that consolidates power under a single authority, and dispenses with any other political representations. This is the root of Erdogan popularity amongst conservative Jordanians – a strongman with a strong Islamic identity, pushing religion, and all the while economically-providing as proof of what’s in the pudding.
On the other hand, for the nationalist secularists in Jordan, Erdogan represents a problem. His Islamic tendencies, interventions in public life, and consolidation of political power are all viewed with natural suspicion, to say nothing of having a historic disdain for Turkish rule to begin with. They lean towards another form of idol-worship – the militaristic, secular strong man.
If you’re someone who envisions an economically thriving country that is pluralist, secularist, a politically representative democracy, a security apparatus uninvolved in public policy, and for good measure, has a progressive political agenda – Erdogan is another reminder that you live amongst a slim minority, and that such a reality is far off.
While many have criticized the fact that Jordanians were more interested in the events in Turkey than those in their own backyard, what perhaps frustrates this group most is the realization that Erdogan reveals a great deal about political leadership preferences amongst Jordanians, and those beliefs often determine their political action or lack thereof.
The Autocratic Choice
Erdogan is a reminder that we seem to be hardwired to yearn for authoritarian governance in one shape or another; be it Islamic-conservative or militaristic-secularist. A strongman that rules either with the Quran or the gun, and a willingness to sacrifice democratic values to retain power. The people who cheer for Erdogan remind me of those that chant “Islam is the solution” during random protests, while the people that prefer his downfall remind me of those that cheered on Sisi’s overtake in Egypt.
Cheering on a military coup is no different than cheering on an Islamic power tripper – we’re essentially cheering for the same autocratic entity, only it wears a different hat.
Erdogan is polarizing that way, but also a great litmus test for political leadership perceptions amongst Jordanians. When his name comes up in uneasy conversation, a virtual line in the sand is drawn and people take a step in either direction. Their commitment is based on satisfying emotional appetites as much as ideological subscriptions. The religious conservative’s vote of confidence in Erdogan is as much an expression about their disillusionment with the status quo as the rejection of Erdogan is an expression of fear by nationalists who prefer a non-religious variety of conservatism. The way we – and much of the Arab world – view Erdogan and political leadership generally, is a vivid reminder of what can only naturally come from years under undemocratic rule, and all the baggage that comes with it. Politics centers around faith in a single figure; not a system of governance.
Subsequently, the reactions to what happened last Friday night in Turkey only helped expose the fact that even after everything that’s happened this past half decade – and a century’s worth of experiences that lead to them – the lessons of the Arab Spring remain completely lost on us. Cheering on a military coup is no different than cheering on an Islamic power tripper – we’re essentially cheering for the same inevitably autocratic entity, only it wears a different hat. And this may be the most frustrating thing about the Erdogan effect: its ability to do that rare thing of holding up a giant mirror, reminding us we not only have an ideological split but also a bad tendency of choosing undemocratic leadership – be it religious or nationalistic.
You would think that after all this time, we might have reached a point of realization that neither can move us forward and that we might want to try something else out for awhile. What experiences could we possibly still have to endure that we haven’t already? When does the authoritarian malaise set in? What does that cognitive shift need for it to happen? Does it require a person to inspire it or a movement to lead it? Would it entail a critical moment in social tensions, or will it unfold gradually?