Political Islam’s Opportunity in Jordan

In line with the speedy evolution in three nearby countries, Islam as a political force is moving to center stage in Jordan, where the government is a cooperative U.S. ally but where Muslim activists are cool both to Washington and Israel.

The path to greater influence and perhaps dominant political power may be through municipal elections that are supposed to take place this year and balloting for parliament in 2007, independent political observers say. However, rules for each vote have yet to be set, and the conditions will go a long way in revealing how quickly the country’s ruler, King Abdullah, is willing to democratize in the face of the Islamic surge.

On Sunday, police briefly detained dozens of activists from Jordan’s only legal Muslim party, the Islamic Action Front, who were handing out leaflets to protest rising fuel prices. The leaflets called for shops to close, but the response was negligible.

In any event, the blossoming of Islamic parties in Iraq, the success of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood in parliamentary elections last year and, most of all, the recent victory by Hamas in Palestinian legislative elections have convinced leaders of the Islamic Action Front that it can aspire to power here. “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.”

Such attitudes are in harmony with the Middle East’s other emergent Islamic movements and reflect one of the risks in President Bush’s drive to democratize the region: the stronger the Islamic parties, the greater the threat of upending pro-American alliances.

Jordan would appear to have a lot to lose by distancing itself from Washington. It receives U.S. economic aid and signed a free-trade agreement in 2000 that has bolstered the economy and investment. But many Jordanians have suffered from other aspects of U.S. policy, analysts point out.

The war in Iraq has disrupted favorable trade relations between Iraq and Jordan, particularly the oil that Jordan had received at heavily discounted prices during the rule of Saddam Hussein. A perception that Iraq’s Sunni Muslims, with whom most Jordanians are co-religionists, lost out in the U.S.-led invasion has also soured opinion here.

Moreover, Palestinians make up about half of Jordan’s nearly 6 million people and are heavily represented in the Islamic Action Front. By and large, they consider U.S. policy toward Israel harmful to their kin in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. The party sympathizes with Hamas, formally known as the Islamic Resistance Movement, which the United States and European Union have labeled a terrorist organization. “We have a special feeling for Hamas in the face of the Zionist project,” Saad said.

The party’s precise strength is difficult to gauge, although it is already the biggest force in parliament, with 17 seats out of 110. Analysts agree that it is Jordan’s best-organized party and potentially the biggest electoral juggernaut, if only because the country’s 32 other parties are in disarray. “This is the usual pattern in the Middle East. The Islamists are strong by default,” said Nabib Kamhawi, a political analyst and human rights activist.

Parliament is set to consider changes to the municipal election laws this spring that would make all town hall positions elected. A change under consideration for next year’s parliamentary vote would end quotas for such groups as Christians and tribes and let voters choose from lists of candidates in a system Jordanians have labeled “one man, one vote.”

In the run-up to municipal elections, the Islamic Action Front is steering clear of divisive social themes, such as whether women must be veiled, alcohol banned and school curriculums changed to more closely mirror Islamic belief. Instead, it raises clean government as an electoral banner, to exploit the perception that the Jordanian government and the monarch’s inner circle are corrupt. An anti-corruption platform was instrumental in Hamas’s appeal in Palestinian elections.

The party is a wing of Jordan’s Muslim Brotherhood, an umbrella movement that began in Egypt more than 80 years ago and has inspired Islamic political groups throughout the Middle East. Because the front has long been legal here, it is relatively easy to observe how it works to broaden its appeal. It recruits young activists and trains them both in Islamic belief and professional fulfillment.

Mustafa Mubarak, for instance, is a Muslim Brotherhood activist who has been in training for five years. “It was nothing shocking for me. One thing that the Front calls us to do is to implement the Koran’s rules. Not by force, but through substantial dialogue,” he said in an interview.

In Mubarak’s view, the main difference between an Islamic party and secular groups is that in the Brotherhood and the Front, members live the program of moral and political action under Islamic law, which regulates many forms of behavior and interaction, including diet, marital relations and social welfare. “We don’t live a life of contradictions,” said Mubarak, who proudly announced he had persuaded his mother to cover her head for modesty.

Mubarak, 23, whose family is of Palestinian origin, began studying at “Koran centers” and joined an Islamic Boy Scouts group. “They taught me social equality and also that I could be something someday,” he said. He teaches high school chemistry. “God sent us to save people who want to be saved,” he said.

Mubarak recruits other members in universities and is preparing to campaign for Islamic candidates in the municipal and parliamentary contests. His activism has attracted police attention; he said police called him in recently, asked about people he meets with and advised him to stop. “But we are legal,” he said. “The frontiers are opening to us.”

The Front benefits by its association with the Muslim Brotherhood’s charitable and educational organizations, funded in part by donations.

At the Arkam School, a showcase institution with students from kindergarten through 12th grade, Khalil Askar, the headmaster, was cautious about linking the Brotherhood’s social activity with political ambitions. “We stay out of politics. That’s for the Islamic Action Front,” he said. “Of course, schools like this do encourage people vote for Islamic politicians. In the Middle East, other ideologies have tried and failed. Islam is the solution.”

Tuition at the school, about $700 a year, is about a tenth of what parents would pay to send their children to equivalent nonsectarian academies. Beyond that, Askar said, the school provides “Islamic education and morals. We don’t have scandals here.”

After the seventh grade, girls wear head scarves and long caftans, although Askar said such dress was optional. They are segregated from boys. “We consider it respect to women. They can act as they want and talk as they want,” Askar said.

Academic classes are brought into line with Islamic thought. The other day, in a high school science class, girls were discussing biology in the context of Islamic teaching. “We reject evolution. God created people, and people began as human beings from the beginning,” said one student, Batul Ahmed Ali.

The Brotherhood’s Islamic charities operate clinics in poor neighborhoods that offer treatment and medicine and have expanded into providing food, job training and school clothing.

Fawaz Mazrawi, a Brotherhood activist, operates one in the working-class Jebel Nasr neighborhood. It is a clean, bright place plastered with Koranic sayings and hygienic advice. Mazrawi said the goal is to supplement, not compete with state services. “We have to be fair. The government can provide more comprehensive care. But we fill in gaps,” he said.

“We are not terrorists,” he said, answering a question that had not been asked. “We are here to provide services.”
© 2006 The Washington Post Company