Every spring, Jordan marks two national holidays that put the iconography of the state on proud display. May 25 is Independence Day, which fetes the 1946 formal (if not actual) termination of British colonial control and the establishment of an independent state. June 10, Army Day, serves a dual function: It celebrates the institution that has long defined the kingdom’s identity and security, and it commemorates the Great Arab Revolt (GAR), the World War I campaign against the Ottoman Empire from which the ruling Hashemite family constructed its national founding myth.
The Jordanian flag figures centrally into such celebrations. A defining symbol of national identity, it is a variation on the banner of the GAR. It thereby reinforces the continuity of the Hashemite association with the goals of Arab independence and unity articulated by the leader of the GAR, the Sharif Husayn, the great-great grandfather of Jordan’s King Abdullah II.
This year, however, on June 9, the day before Army Day, King Abdullah II presented a different, and for the vast majority of Jordanians unknown, flag to representatives of the Jordanian Armed Forces. During a celebration at the Al-Husayniyya Palace in Amman, the king revealed a new banner with the basmallah (Muslim profession of faith: in the name of God, the merciful, the compassionate), the first verse of the Koran and a seven-pointed Islamic star in white all on a solid crimson background. The new flag was described as a 500 year-old symbol of the Hashemite family and the original flag of the GAR. Jordanians expressed surprise at its appearance, while political analysts scrambled to decode the reasons for the introduction of such a symbol at this particular juncture.
The introduction of this new flag during a period of crisis is a bold move to recast aspects of Jordan’s “national narrative.” As Yaacov Yadgar has defined it, a national narrative is “the story that a (national) collective tells about itself. It tells the individuals constituting the nation (and anybody else who is interested) who they are, what comprises their past (the national, common one), the structure of their characteristics as a collective and where they are heading.” As a result, there is much in these narratives that is enduring. However, they should by no means be considered unchanging. The primary goal of the national narrative is not historical accuracy but rather the creation of a “usable past:” a past that a leadership can marshal but also modify when necessary to confront the challenges of the present.
While leaderships have a range of tools at their disposal to reinforce their power, history shows that regimes of all types deploy official stories to aid in legitimating and maintaining their authority. A careful examination of changes in the symbols or other elements of a national narrative can therefore offer important insights into a leadership’s perception of its vulnerabilities and strengths in the face of crises as well as clues about short-term shifts in state policy, whether foreign or domestic.
Jordanians debating the introduction of the new flag agree that the primary driver is the rise of the Islamic State (ISIS) and the threat it poses to Jordanian and regional security. ISIS challenges the regime’s legitimacy in two areas that are pillars of the official narrative: the Hashemites’ service in defense of the Arab nation (first established through the GAR) and their leading role as defenders of Islam. Both the Islamic State’s territorial conquests of Arab lands near Jordanian territory and its adoption of the jihadist black banner—which carries the seal of the prophet as a symbol of its claim to lead forces aimed at establishing a new caliphate — threaten long-standing bases of Hashemite legitimacy and control. The newly unfurled Hashemite flag, therefore, should be understood as a narrative rescripting through which the regime seeks to reassert its own sources of strength while simultaneously rejecting the claims, aims and symbols of ISIS.
The connection between the two sources of regime legitimacy currently challenged by ISIS was highlighted in the June 9 ceremony, as the crimson and white banner was displayed on a military vehicle used in the GAR. The flag was then presented to the leadership of the Jordanian Armed forces to, in the words of the statement issued by the Royal Court, convey “a message to the nation … of peace, love, tolerance, justice … and coexistence in the face of those Khawarij, who falsely claim they are defending Islam, while Islam condemns them.” The use of the term Khawarij, used again by the king in a meeting the following day, aims to establish a parallel between members of ISIS and the original Khawarij, Muslims who split with the mainstream community in the 7th century and developed an extremist doctrine.
Thus, the first critical element of the evolving narrative is a reassertion of the Hashemites’—and by extension, of Jordan’s— absolute rejection of the religious extremism practiced by ISIS. Coupled with an insistence on the authenticity of a moderate Islam is the assertion of the Hashemites’ right to play a preeminent role in the broader Muslim community by virtue of their claim of lineage to the prophet Muhammad and their service under the Ottomans as guardians of Mecca and Medina. Following World War II, Arabism was central to consolidating their rule; but as political Islam grew in appeal in the last decades of the 20th century, the family’s Islamic bona fides assumed increasing prominence in the narrative. The establishment of the Aal al-Bayt Institute for Islamic Thought in 1980 and the Royal Institute for Inter-Faith Studies in 1994 was central to this evolution. These efforts were complemented domestically by the development in the narrative conveyed in school textbooks. Those produced since the 1990s ensure that Jordanian pupils study not only the Hashemites’ lineage but also their role in spreading Islam throughout the world. Indeed, the coverage of the GAR is no longer presented solely in terms of Arabism but instead as a marriage of Islamic and Arab goals.
The second element of the ISIS-targeted narrative offensive involves a rescripting of the charge of the Jordanian Armed Forces. For decades, its role was to protect the homeland and to defend usurped Arab rights in Palestine. However, in recent years, its primary field operations have been peacekeeping missions. This changed in fall 2014, when Jordanian pilots began flying missions against ISIS. By late spring 2015, with continuing ISIS advances in southern Syria, King Abdullah had begun to speak openly about the need to support Sunni tribes in neighboring Iraq and Syria. Currently, the Jordanian commitment appears be limited to supplying weaponry to these tribes to serve as a forward line of defense for the kingdom. However, the presentation of this new flag, with its multi-layered symbolism, may well portend a shift in military doctrine. As heir to the GAR army, Jodan’s basic mission, that of supporting Arabism, will remain — although not through the kind of territorial expansion the first Hashemite kings had in mind. Now, however, their cause is not just Arab, but Sunni Arab, and even more specifically, in support of Sunni Arabs who subscribe to an Islam that, in keeping with Hashemite discourse, poses no threat to the territorial status quo.
The ISIS threat is only the most recent episode in which the central elements of the Jordanian national narrative have been rescripted or reinterpreted. Former King Abdullah I’s controversial annexation of the rump of Palestine in 1949-50 required discursive legitimization. So did King Hussein’s competition with the Palestinian fedayeen after 1967 as well as his widely criticized July 1988 administrative and legal disengagement from the West Bank. Even more dramatic was Hussein’s 1990 instrumentalization of his Hashemite lineage to reinforce his position domestically during the regional crisis following Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait.
That the regime survived in all of these cases cannot, of course, be attributed solely to clever marshaling of state discourse and symbols. Indeed, a study of narrative changes during periods of crisis is unlikely to enable us to predict success or failure in confronting the challenges. Such study can, however, provide insights into state perceptions of opportunities and vulnerabilities during times of crisis. Political leaders clearly understand the importance of careful narrative construction and deployment. Like the Hashemite kings who preceded him, King Abdullah II clearly recognizes the power of shaping popular understandings of national identity and mission in reinforcing the legitimacy of his regime.
Laurie A. Brand is the Robert Grandford Wright Professor of International Relations and Middle East Studies at the University of Southern California. She is the author of “Official Stories: Politics and National Narratives in Egypt and Algeria,” (Stanford University Press, 2014).