Analysing Jordan’s model strategies and mechanisms for manipulating Islamic activism

Developing Just Leadership

Laila Juma

Dhu al-Hijjah 03, 1422 2002-02-16

Book Review

by Laila Juma

The Management of Islamic Activism: Salafis, the Muslim Brotherhood and State Power in Jordan by Quintan Wiktorowicz. Pub: State University of New York Press, Albany, NY, 2001. Pp: 205. Pbk: $18.95.

Of all the West’s client states and regimes in the Middle East, Jordan is arguably the most successful. Its creation (as the Emirate of Transjordan), and the installation of the Hashemite monarchy to rule it in 1922, were almost accidents; both the territory and Abdullah ibn Husayn were spare parts left in the box when France and Britain completed their carving up of the region after the first world war. Within a few years Abdullah was bemoaning his misfortune and demanding to be promoted to Damascus or Baghdad. A few decades later, however, when Abdullah’s grandson, king Hussein ibn Talal, died (1999), his funeral was a major international state event, attended by VIPs from all over the West hailing him as an international statesman. His son, Abdullah II, is now hailed as a model ruler in the Arab world, and Jordan, far from being a bit of nowhere-in-particular, is regarded as a key Western ally in the region.

Explanations of the status accorded to Hussein after his death focused, quite rightly, on his pro-Israeli stance. (It is interesting to note that British prime minister Winston Churchill said, after the assassination of Abdullah in 1951, that "the Arabs have lost a great champion [and] the Jews have lost a friend".) However, there was more to it than that. Hussein was also praised for his ‘liberalisation’ of Jordan’s politics during the last decade of his life, which was seen as a model of political development in the Arab world.

The reasons for this are not difficult to see. The West has apparently irreconcilable demands in this area. They want their authoritarian clients to maintain absolute control, to ensure that they can continue to do the West’s bidding without hindrance, while at the same time creating the impression of a popular, open, democratic and representative political system, in order to legitimise the regimes and disarm their critics, both locally and in the West. Both the West and their local clients know, however, that everywhere in the Muslim world the opening of politics to any popular involvement whatsoever inevitably results in Islamic influences emerging, which is the one thing the West fears most. What Jordan has achieved, since Hussein initiated a series of political reforms in 1989, is a limited loosening of politics in order to open the system to public debate, without any significant challenge to the establishment’s absolute authority. It is precisely this that the West would like to see repeated in other Arab countries, such as Egypt and the monarchies of the Arabian peninsula.

The fact that the Muslims’ commitment to Islamic values and principles remains the greatest threat to the success of these efforts is reflected in the title of the book under review: The Management of Islamic Activism: Salafis, the Muslim Brotherhood and State Power in Jordan. In this book, based on research conducted in 1996-97, Quintan Wiktorowicz, an American academic, examines the strategies by which Jordan has sought to manage and control the political expression of Islamic values in Jordan since the beginning of Hussein’s political "reforms", by looking at the experiences of both state officials and Islamic groups of different kinds. Among the latter, Wiktorowicz particularly focuses on the Muslim Brotherhood (Ikhwan al-Muslimeen), Jordan’s best-established Islamic organisation, and the Salafis, who have tended to work through less formal networks.

Jordan’s political reforms began in April 1989, when Hussein "set forth an agenda of political change to end martial law and ushered in an new period of political liberalization." Wiktorowicz characterises the change as follows:

"Various restrictions on political freedoms and civil liberties were repealed, and the most stringent authoritarian measures were curtailed. The role of the security apparatus in the regulation of political activity was reduced as norms of political participation replaced exclusionary practices. In that same year, parliamentary elections were held for the first time since 1966, attracting previously isolated groups and activists from across the political spectrum; and by 1993 twenty political parties had registered with the government. The expansion of formal political participation was accompanied by greater freedom of association and a burgeoning civil society. Jordanians enjoyed new opportunities to form civil society associations and began to act collectively through legal organizations. This process of political liberalization is incomplete and questionable practices persist, but the entire structure of the political system has changed so profoundly that hardly any segment of society remains unaffected."

The assertion of Islamic principles and values was the immediate and outstanding popular response to this process. In the elections held in 1989, independent candidates associated with the Islamic movement won 34 of the 80 seats in parliament. By the next elections in 1993, Islamists had become more organised, and the Islamic Action Front (IAF) became the largest party in parliament with 22 seats. Other Islamists won seats as independents.

However, the powers of parliament were strictly limited, as Wiktorowicz acknowledges, and he considers that it is the opening of civil political space that is more significant, with previously informal or underground Islamic groups and movements taking the opportunity to emerge as significant social organisations, in the form of a myriad of Islamic NGOs and other formal associations. At the same time, other Islamic groups have emerged further down the hierarchy, so to speak, to utilise and occupy the informal social networks previously used by the movements that have since transferred their work to the formal sphere of politics. A key element of Wiktorowicz’s study is to explore why some Islamic groups prefer to take this approach, rather than avail themselves of the benefits of working through the official systems.

Wiktorowicz acknowledges bluntly that "democratization in Jordan represents a ‘survival strategy’ by a semi-rentier state." (A rentier state is one which derives the bulk of its revenue from exogenous sources rather than domestic production or taxation, and therefore is less accountable to its society.) The first section of this study is committed to Jordan’s strategies for the "management of collective action" through "state disciplinary technologies and tactics, which facilitate its ability to manage the population." To explain how the state does this, Wiktorowicz refers to Michel Foucault’s arguments that "disciplinary power derives not from the use of visible coercion and commands, but from the ability to partition space into surveillable units which can be regulated and administrated... Disciple orders individuals in spatial settings to maximise the ability of the state or those in power to maintain constant surveillance through organization."

What Jordan’s political liberalisation achieved, in other words, was the bringing of Islamic activities into public spheres, where they could be monitored, manipulated and guided by the authorities. The second part of the book focuses on the state regulation of Islamic activities in line with this strategy. Wiktorowicz demonstrates how, by offering incentives and rewards for "acceptable" (ie. non-threatening) forms of Islamic activism, the state has deterred Islamists from pursuing other lines of activism that would have brought the wrath of the regime upon them and made it impossible for them to pursue their "legitimate" work. In this way, the state has effectively brought the Islamic groups into the system and taken the credit for their efforts, while limiting their freedom to criticise those parts of the state’s policies that they oppose.

He then goes on to examine the Islamic social organisations which have emerged to operate in the new political space created by the political reforms, the ways they have organised and operated, and in particular their attitudes towards and interaction with the state. His study tends to confirm that the opening of political space to "moderate" Islamic groups has resulted in a massive growth of organised Islamic activity, while restricting and even reducing the level of "radical" Islamic criticism of the state’s legitimacy and policies. He also looks in detail at the role of the Muslim Brotherhood, which has always operated as a moderate group in Jordan, and has used the reforms to expand its activities and influence considerably. Wiktorowicz concludes that "The Muslim Brotherhood’s organizational success has benefited both the Brotherhood and the regime. Not only has the Brotherhood’s expansion in civil society allowed it greater opportunities for reaching new constituencies and garnering support, but its high profile and moderate stance serve to counter radical Islamic groups... This creates a legitimating buffer that protects the regime from revolutionary discursive challenges."

The final part of the book is a study of the Salafi groups that have emerged as a major non-official sector of organised Islamic activity. It includes a detailed survey of Salafi ideas and activities in Jordan, contrasting them to the acquiescent attitude of the Muslim Brotherhood. Wiktorowicz traces the emergence of jihadi attitudes among Salafis in the early 1990s, and the ways in which the regime responded both by acting through the traditional repressive mechanism of the mukhabarat (secret police) and intelligence agencies, and also increasingly through the administrative measures put in place for the management of Islamic activities.

Wiktorowicz’s emphasis is on the Jordanian experience as a model for political and social control on the part of an established regime seeking to ‘liberalise’ its politics. His study demonstrates many of the problems with working through established political systems that Islamic movements have often confronted, and which have led more realistic and radical movements to reject that approach altogether. At the same time, his books contains a considerable amount of useful data on the activities and organisation of Islamic groups in Jordan that is not available elsewhere. For those readers who are interested in studying contemporary political Islam and the attempts of the West and its clients to contain it, from whatever perspective, this is book is certainly useful.

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