The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

How Jordan uses Islam against the Islamic State

Jordanians and Syrian refugees pray in the Ramtha Grand Mosque on the first day of the holy month of Ramadan in July 2012 in Ramtha, Jordan, near the border with Syria.  (AP File Photo/Mohammad Hannon)

Many people in the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan fear the ideological appeal of the Islamic State could create a homegrown threat from the militant group. To counter this potential threat, Jordan has imposed new rules on its Muslim clerics. The country has stepped up efforts to pressure its lay and state-employed clerics to preach a moderate form of Islam, or one that does not promote radical ideas that could destabilize the kingdom. Those who follow the strict government guidelines for their Friday sermons are compensated financially. Those who don’t are blacklisted or worse.

For some, engagement in the “war of ideas” at home in a state with a very robust security and intelligence apparatus may be deemed unnecessary. Others may find it counterproductive and self-defeating in the long term to have religious institutions serve the political and security interests of the regime. In fact, evidence from across the region suggests that these efforts may encourage vehement opposition and fail to stem the tide of radical Islam. How likely are Jordan’s renewed efforts to achieve the desired results?

Based on Jordan’s past experience, the kingdom has a better chance to succeed than most other countries in the region. Moreover, if Jordan continues its approach of responding to crisis through gradual institutional change, the Hashemite regime’s reforms are likely to be an effective counter to the Islamic State.

The recent article “The Rise of Official Islam in Jordan” in Politics, Religion & Ideology demonstrates that state efforts to control and manage the ideas and discourse in the religious public sphere have a long history in the Arab world. Many post-independence regimes have co-opted their religious institutions to bolster their legitimacy. Egypt’s al-Azhar is one of the most famous examples, where the state institution in the 1960s ruled that socialism – a philosophy associated with atheist communists – was in fact in line with Islam. Similarly, Saudi Arabia’s former Grand Mufti Ibn al-Baz ruled that Western troops were permitted on the sovereign territory of the country that protected Islam’s most holy sites, and Osama bin Laden accused Saudi clerics of being influenced by the West.

However, state attempts to co-opt religious leaders have often been met with fierce resistance. For example, while in prison Sayyid Qutb, a member of the banned Muslim Brotherhood and the best-known jihadi ideologue, argued it was a religious imperative to overthrow leaders who had abandoned Islam. Similarly, in Saudi Arabia popular clerics strongly protested their government’s decision to support military actions against former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein during the Persian Gulf War (1990-1991) and to allow foreign troops on its soil. This policy had received the blessing of state-sanctioned religious authorities.

Given that other countries in the region have struggled to develop credible versions of “Official Islam” – state-sponsored religious institutions – what makes Jordan’s efforts more likely to succeed? It’s a combination of historical legacy and shrewd regime policies.

There were challenges from the beginning. Unlike many other states in the region, Jordan lacked a preexisting religious intelligentsia within its borders. At independence the newly installed King Abdallah I established Dar al-Ifta (Department for Issuing Fatwas) headed by the Grand Mufti of Jordan to represent the highest religious authority in the territory. However, he did little else to affect the religious space. This strategy continued even after Jordan gained control of the West Bank following the first Arab-Israeli War (1948-1949). Instead of appointing a new Grand Mufti of Jerusalem – a historic center of Islam – or further developing Dar al-Ifta to bolster the monarchy, King Hussein turned to an alliance with the Muslim Brotherhood. Thus, in a period when other states in the region were developing official Islam, Jordan continued to have relatively little interest in actively managing the public religious space.

The Iranian Revolution was the major catalyst for a change in Jordan’s development of official Islam. Shortly thereafter, the regime founded the Royal Aal al-Bayt Institute as a research center for Islamic thought and the Advisory Council for Fatwas. Jordan also increased funds for building mosques and for other religious spaces during this time. The number of mosques across the kingdom more than doubled from 1984 to 1995. Many Islamic shrines were also upgraded with King Hussein’s personal funds and not state funds.

Official Islam was also employed to respond to domestic political challenges. After Islamists won parliamentary elections in 1989, Dar al-Ifta dramatically increased its output of fatwas. However, after Islamists lost a significant number of seats in the 1993 parliamentary elections, Dar al-Ifta’s role decreased as the Islamist electoral challenge seemed to subside.

The regime once again turned its attention toward bolstering official Islam in response to the rise of global jihadism in the 1990s. The newly enthroned King Abdallah II further built up both Aal al-Bayt and Dar al-Ifta after the intelligence services thwarted jihadi plots against Jordanian targets. In the years that followed, Aal al-Bayt brought in world-renowned Islamic scholars through a series of high-profile conferences focused on key issues facing the Muslim community. These conferences focused on the need for moderation as a means of countering radical Islam and resulted in the Amman Message in 2004 and the Common Word in 2007.

Following another crisis, the Amman hotel bombings in 2005, the state again upgraded the institutions of official Islam. It split Dar al-Ifta from the Ministry of Awqaf (Ministry of Religious Endowments), increasing its prominence and giving Dar al-Ifta explicit authority to oversee all fatwas in the kingdom. More significantly, the Grand Mufti was elevated to the rank of government minister, and parliament passed a law restricting those who could legally issue fatwas in Jordan to the Grand Mufti and Dar al-Ifta.

In contrast to some of Jordan’s neighbors, these institutional changes have been seen as legitimate. Using public opinion data from the Arab Barometer, our previous research shows that the Jordanian public supports regime efforts to restrict the political space. Indeed, the Jordanian state appears to have developed a credible form of official Islam that has effectively controlled the religious space.

How has Jordan been able to achieve this outcome while other states in the region have struggled? First, the Jordanian state has been able to build up religious institutions because there were no strong centers of religious authority before the establishment of the state. In fact, the absence of a religious institution to co-opt appears to actually have been an asset. Moreover, the monarchy did not call upon official Islam to endorse its most controversial decisions that would strongly imply that it is simply an arm of the state, such as its disengagement from the West Bank in 1988.

Second, Jordan has built up these institutions gradually and strategically in response to threats rather than to preempt them. This step-by-step development over the last 35 years, as opposed to a clear takeover of the religious space, has demonstrated a long-term strategy by the regime to deal with the crisis at hand, yet not to overreach into the religious space with illegitimate institutions.

If history is any guide, it is likely that Jordan’s recent measures to strengthen official Islam will be perceived as legitimate. Most Jordanians will be supportive because they fear the spread of the Islamic state’s ideas on their own soil. However, the state cannot overstep its mandate, despite the temptation to use brute force to prevent the spread of radicalization. Thus, Jordan should continue to employ new policies as a response to prevent and not to preempt so that public opinion is behind them. If Jordan follows this trajectory, these efforts are likely to further limit the ability of radical Islam to take hold within the kingdom.

Michael Robbins (@mdhrobbins) is the director of the Arab Barometer (@arabbarometer). His work on Arab public opinion, political Islam and political parties has been published in Comparative Political Studies, the Journal of Conflict Resolution and the Journal of Democracy. Lawrence Rubin (@lprubin73) is assistant professor in the Sam Nunn School of International Affairs at the Georgia Institute of Technology. He is the author of “Islam in the Balance: Ideational Threats in Arab Politics” (Stanford University Press, 2014).