washingtonpost.com  > World > Middle East > Near East > Jordan

Jordan Acts to Curb a Rising Chorus of Critics

By Scott Wilson
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, September 30, 2004; Page A18

AMMAN, Jordan, Sept. 29 -- His arrest started as an invitation to coffee and ended three days later, when he walked out of a jail cell.

Ahmed Kafaween, a longtime leader of Jordan's most influential Islamic group, arrived at the provincial government building in the southern city of Karak one afternoon this month after being summoned for a chat by the police chief, who had kindly provided an escort.

Ahmed Kafaween, center, a leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, was detained for three days after using a mosque as his platform for political comment. (1996 Photo/AP)

"On August 20th, did you say during Friday prayer that the al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem was in danger of being destroyed by the Jews and that the United States supported its destruction?" Kafaween recalled being asked by an Interior Ministry agent, who was reading from a file. "Did you denounce other Arab governments for doing nothing about it?"

Kafaween said yes, then refused to sign a pledge never to do so again. He was jailed for three daysas part of a nationwide roundup of 38 Islamic leaders, activists and clerics on Sept. 9 for allegedly violating a law prohibiting political commentary inside mosques.

"It was a way to stop our tongues," said Kafaween, 57, a leader of the Muslim Brotherhood and a former member of parliament. "But we can't be made to keep our mouths shut."

The detentions signal a rare crackdown by one of the Middle East's most tolerant governments, now facing uncharacteristically strident criticism from a popular Islamic movement over its alliance with the United States and diplomatic relations with Israel. As violence worsens in Iraq on this small desert kingdom's eastern border and in the West Bank in the opposite direction, Jordan's traditionally moderate Islamic activists have intensified their rhetoric denouncing the government, which has responded by enforcing strict limits on free speech.

The criticism poses a challenge to King Abdullah as he pushes Western-style reforms in a country buffeted by the anger that the Iraq war has stirred in the region. Largely as a reward for Abdullah's support for the war, U.S. military and development aid to Jordan nearly tripled in 2003, to more than $1.5 billion. But that economic assistance has compromised the government in the eyes of an increasingly angry population of 5.5 million.

Signaling his concern, the king wrote an open letter to his prime minister in July that called for new preaching guidelines that "take into consideration the new variables and emphasize the compassion of the Islamic religion."

But in recent weeks, elderly Islamic leaders and members of a younger, more radical generation have stepped up criticism of government policies, delivering much of it from inside the country's well-monitored mosques. Many of the critics are young, unemployed and attracted to the social and political changes promised by Islamic politics, including a more democratic government favored by the movement's main organization, the Muslim Brotherhood.

During Friday sermons, speakers have called the monarchy "an infidel government" for its support of the United States, lashed neighboring Arab governments for their passivity and called for an end to a decade-old agreement normalizing relations with Israel, according to government officials familiar with the arrests. Other speeches have allegedly questioned the legitimacy of the monarchy.

"There have been violations of the law in the past, but they never criticized in this way," said Ramadan Rawashdeh, an adviser to Prime Minister Faisal Fayez. "They are a political party, with a political headquarters, so give your political lessons there. We think doing so in the mosques is against our religion and against the law."

Hamza Mansour, secretary general of the Islamic Action Front, the Muslim Brotherhood's political arm, said the scope of the recent arrests, some of which were made during night raids on private homes, makes them more significant than others. He said the targets, including a former cabinet minister, five former members of parliament and a regional political official, were symbols of the movement.

The former minister of holy places and Islamic affairs, Ibrahim Zaid Kilani, suffered a mild heart attack when police entered his house, and he remains hospitalized. All of those arrested have since been released. Most of them were required to sign pledges to refrain from expressing criticism in the mosques.

"The harassments are not new, but they have increased greatly because of international pressure," said Mansour, who asserted that the monarchy had typically moved hardest against the brotherhood at times when Jordan was aligned with an unpopular U.S. policy. "By doing this, they ignore the people who are moderate and give opportunity to those who are not. The alternative is much more extreme than we are."

CONTINUED    1 2    Next >

© 2004 The Washington Post Company