On Religious Tolerance In Jordan

Words By: Naseem Tarawnah

This year, the Prophet Mohammad and Jesus (PBUT) share that rare day of birthday celebration. In the past few weeks, we’ve seen a flutter of posts marking the occasion, usually in the form of expressing religious tolerance in Jordan.

Members and symbols of both Muslim and Christian communities grace the photos, videos, illustrations, and statuses that line our Facebook and Twitter streams. Simultaneously, we’ve seen a wide variety of the typical seasonal “fatwa news” from the ultra-conservatives warning Muslims not to greet Christians with a “Merry Christmas” or celebrate it in any shape or form.

Yes, Jordan has a history of religious “tolerance”, but that word has always been problematic for me, and has become increasingly problematic in this region we live in. The forces of extremism are growing stronger and this rising tide of fundamentalism is largely the source of all the tolerance proclamations. They are, in a way, proclamations of national unity in a time of uncertainty, and in a time ruled by fear. These proclamations are important, but they are also a stark reminder that we are stuck in theological rhetoric that trumps any sort of cohesive and inclusive identity.

Every time I’ve seen a headline about a Sheikh that has decreed a ban on Christmas, I see two emerging conversations within the larger community – a liberal one that ridicules it, and a conservative one that acclaims it. I see two camps ensnared by conventional religious identities, with a growing abyss between them. These aren’t strictly religious camps, but ideological ones. Either way, that gap is a reminder that it is perhaps time to evolve past the “tolerance” narrative, and embrace a higher order of things. Something that allows the country to grow its heritage beyond the past; something that allows it to function in the 21st century. The narrative needs to move beyond an annual reminder of what we were, or even what we are now, but rather what we hope to become.

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A few days ago, my son Talal enjoyed his first Christmas show at preschool, and I was admittedly pretty excited to be that guy in the front row filming it like an enthusiastic father. I’ve been pretty adamant about exposing the kid to Christmas this year, as much as is possible with a 2yr old – in Jordan. And I really didn’t analyze why that is until a friend commented about it a few days ago, and it got me thinking a bit more critically about it.

The one word that sums it up for me is: pluralism.

I admit, part of me feels a bit nostalgic these days for the Canadian Christmases I grew up with, and the recent flood of “Canadianess” online – inspired by the country’s acceptance of Syrian refugees – has evoked memories of a type of multiculturalism that’s either non-existent or unformed in this part of the world. Mix that with the emergence of Daesh, and with them, a society that has generally gravitated towards conservatism for well over a decade – a trend that has partly been exacerbated by reactions of a disappointing Arab Spring; a population searching for a safe identity to counter state dominance, and deal with the heightened culture of fear that’s been induced and imposed. Mix that with a population that is actually diverse, but just has trouble accepting that diversity en masse, and will continue to for some time – given the times.

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There isn’t a general appreciation or even understanding of pluralism in Jordan, and the Middle East at large. We are largely taught to “tolerate” rather than “embrace”, and that’s problematic for me as someone who grew up in both parts of the world and was exposed to the contrast.

That contrast has grown immensely since the 90’s – that gap is tangible today in a way that worries me. Teaching kids to tolerate people who are different from them is very, very different from teaching them to embrace a holistic identity that encompasses everyone. This extends well beyond Muslims and Christians in Jordan, and includes any group that looks at another – be they west banker, east banker, Armenian, Circassian, or those that have more recently sought refuge on this land, such as Syrians, Iraqis, or (as we saw from the government’s brilliant display of tolerance a few days ago) the Sudanese. How we deal with people that we consider “different” from the imagined archetype of what is considered “mainstream” – people from different religious sects, with different beliefs, with different sexual orientation, or heck, just people with different ideas that spin away from the “customs and traditions” that were designed to be bent and broken.

A younger generation that is entering its 20’s feels more conservative than ever. And I’m not just talking about religious conservatism, I’m referring to a general trend of social conservatism built over the past decade or so that is reflective of a society grappling with an identity crisis – one that it didn’t give much thought to before but is now forced to, given the times. Mix that with a generation that is largely void of critical thinking due to a crumbling education system, and is bombarded with digital media headlines, and what you get is an incredibly judgemental generation that now represent the majority of the population. Survey them on how they feel about various groups, and I guarantee the results won’t be pretty. Put aside all the studies and polls – all the quantitative headlines – and actually speak to them, and there’s a discernibly genuine struggle for them to accept different ideas, let alone different groups of people, regardless of their beliefs.

So yes, I will grab every opportunity there is to impart lessons of pluralism on my kid. I’ll take him to Abdali and I’ll take him to Fuheis and to Madaba. He’ll wear his Santa hat with the flickering lights, and he’ll sing along to jingle bells at school and at home. Whatever’s available in this limited spectrum of thought. Because what his generation faces is, in my humble opinion, unprecedented in contemporary times. It’s an uphill battle, and the incline is getting steeper every passing year. And I do not use the word “battle” lightly, because a battle is exactly what this is. We’re not just fighting the extremism that seeks to divide, but also the monolithic identity that rejects a multitude of thoughts and beliefs – an identity we’ve grown accustomed to.

This is a battle that starts at home. It might seem hopeful, given the times, but that conversation needs to happen.

So regardless of who you are, where you come from, and what you believe – best wishes and season’s greetings to all, and to all a good night.


  • Why even bother? If you wanted what’s best for your son you’d leave the country. The population here is largely intolerant and bigoted in so many ways that it would take forever to list them. And make no mistake, it’s only going to get worse and worse over the foreseeable future.

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