Jordan's King Balances Threats Abroad And Critics At Home

Feb 24, 2015
Originally published on February 25, 2015 8:27 am

Jordan's King Abdullah has faced a delicate balancing act ever since he ascended the throne in 1999 following his father's death. His country shares borders with Iraq, Syria and Israel among others, and there always seems to be trouble in the neighborhood.

His latest challenge has been to convince Jordanians that it's in the country's interest to play a prominent role in the U.S.-led coalition against the self-declared Islamic State.

Many Jordanians were skeptical if not outright opposed. But when they saw their pilot Moaz Kassasbeh killed on video by ISIS, they rallied behind the king.

The monarch even found support from critics like Dima Tahboub, the spokeswoman for the Islamic Action Front, a political party allied with Jordan's wing of the Muslim Brotherhood. The brotherhood, an Islamic social and political movement, is big and legal in Jordan.

"This is the phase where we should unite our efforts with the government and with the regime because we thought that our country is threatened, our Islam is threatened, so we should stand united in the face of that," says Tahboub, who was educated at the University of Manchester in England.

The phase she spoke of lasted less than a month.

Last week, a leading member of the Muslim Brotherhood was sentenced for remarks he posted on Facebook attacking the United Arab Emirates. He was convicted of insulting a friendly government and received 18 months in prison.

"Our king speaks well, he promotes Jordan very good in Western communities," Tahboub says.

But for domestic opposition groups like her party, she says, things are not so good.

For example, the electoral system makes it impossible for a party to win many seats in Parliament. In a more representative system, the Islamic Action Front could have real political power.

Some defenders of the status quo fear that if the front won power, Tahboub's party would reverse Jordan's pro-Western alignment.

So what does the party stand for?

"Our belief is not that radical. We believe in moderate Islam. There has to be a social contract between people. Making a woman wear the headscarf or preventing people from drinking liquor is not going to be our priority at that time," she says.

"Our priorities will be educating people, empowering people to rule themselves, to be free in their own countries," she adds.

She acknowledges that the party would like to see social measures, like a ban on alcohol, put on the ballot.

"If people agree to that, if we put that to the vote, and the majority of the Jordanian people say, 'OK, we want to prevent liquor in the country,' then that's democracy, that's their decision," she says. "Why does democracy [here] have to be different than democracy in the United States? If people agree and there's a consensus, well, let it be."

Asked about polygamy, a policy sanctioned by the Quran and practiced by some traditional Muslims, she says: "Polygamy is like other issues. They're not our priority to handle now. We should be interested more in human rights. We're suffering from all kinds of injustices."

"The West should appreciate that the Arab countries and the Muslim countries have their uniqueness," she adds. "If we meet, we meet as equals, but we have our differences."

As for the battle against ISIS in Syria, Tahboub's party supports retaliatory airstrikes against ISIS, provided they don't kill innocent civilians. But when it comes to Jordanian troops entering Syria, the party is against that, as are most Jordanians.

"We have to face the ideology of ISIS in Jordan to protect the minds of our youth from what ISIS presents," she says. "They are hijacking Islam to us."

She compares ISIS to fanaticism in Christianity.

"Should we blame Christianity for that; should we blame the churches for that? Each church has its problems. Each church has its alien offspring," she argues.

In her view, Westerners as well as Arab rulers need to distinguish between Islamic political parties and extremists. Arabs in many countries are, she says, "being handcuffed by our governments, by our regimes. They are treating us as an equal problem to these radical fanatics."

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Transcript

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

I was in Amman, the capital of Jordan, last week hearing from Jordanians about the state of the kingdom. It's an interesting place at an interesting time. Jordan is an overwhelmingly Sunni Muslim country that borders Iraq, Syria, Israel and Saudi Arabia. Jordanians had been far less committed to fighting ISIS in Syria than their monarch, pro-Western King Abdullah II. But when they saw their pilot, Moaz Kassasbeh, killed on video by ISIS, they rallied behind the king, even Dima Tahboub.

DIMA TAHBOUB: This is the phase where we should unite our efforts with the government and with the regime because we thought that our country is threatened, our Islam is threatened, so we should stand united in the face of that.

SIEGEL: Dima Tahboub, Ph.D, is the spokesperson for the Islamic Action Front, the Jordanian political party allied with her country's wing of the Muslim Brotherhood. The Brotherhood, an Islamic social and political movement, is big and legal in Jordan. Tahboub was educated at the University of Manchester in England, and that phase that she spoke of lasted less than a month. Last week, a leading member of the Muslim Brotherhood was sentenced for remarks he posted on Facebook attacking the United Arab Emirates. He was convicted of insulting a friendly government - one and a half years in prison.

TAHBOUB: Our king speaks well. He promotes Jordan very good in Western communities.

SIEGEL: But for domestic opposition groups like her party, she says, things are not so good. For example, the electoral system makes it impossible for a party to win many seats in parliament. In a more representative system, the Islamic Action Front with ties to the Muslim Brotherhood could run very well. Some defenders of the status quo fear that if they won power, Dima Tahboub's party would reverse Jordan's pro-Western alignment. So what does the party stand for?

TAHBOUB: Our belief is not that radical. We believe in moderate Islam. There has to be a social contract between people. Making woman wear the headscarf or, you know, preventing people from drinking liquor is not going to be our priority at that time. Our priorities will be educating people, empowering people to rule themselves to be free in their own countries.

SIEGEL: But when you say it's not your priority at that time, a skeptical listener says, aha, it's down the road. It's what comes next.

TAHBOUB: If people agree to that - if we put that to the vote and the majority of Jordanian people say OK, we want to prevent liquor in the country, then that's democracy. That's their decision. Why has democracy to be different than the democracy in the United States? If people agree and there's a consensus, well, let it be.

SIEGEL: Polygamy - it should be legal or it's an old, outmoded social custom?

TAHBOUB: OK. Polygamy is like other issues. They're not our priority to handle now. We should be interested more in human rights. We're suffering from all kinds of injustices. These things have to be discussed, but they're not a priority. And the West should appreciate that the Arab countries and the Muslim countries have their uniqueness. If we meet, we meet as equals, but we have our differences and this uniqueness has to be appreciated, not battled against.

SIEGEL: As for the battle against ISIS in Syria, Dima Tahboub's party, the Islamic Action Front, supports retaliatory airstrikes against ISIS provided they don't kill innocent civilians. But Jordanian troops entering Syria - the party is against that as are most Jordanians.

TAHBOUB: We have to face the ideology of ISIS in Jordan to protect the minds of our youth from what ISIS present. All the efforts should unite in serving this purpose.

SIEGEL: A Jordanian friend told me that when ISIS declared a caliphate, it was a problem because in the hearts of many Muslims, the idea of restoring the caliphate is a very positive idea.

TAHBOUB: Yes. This is the problem. They are hijacking Islam to us.

SIEGEL: But the argument that's raised in the U.S. is it feels as if Muslims who hate ISIS are trying to avoid any responsibility from any connection between more reputable Islamic institutions - those attached to Saudi Arabia - and it sounds to American ears evasive - that people don't want to say, yeah, these people, they're part of our family - that's the really bad end of our family.

TAHBOUB: It's like fanatic Christians. Should we blame Christianity for that? Should we blame the churches for that? Each faith has its problems. Each faith has its alien offsprings.

SIEGEL: But we ask the National Council of Churches to renounce those groups, and they do.

TAHBOUB: And we do also in our Islamic institutions. You know, Yusuf al-Qaradawi, which is, you know, a very prominent Muslim scholar in Qatar - he was one of the first to offer his condolences to the family of Moaz, and he denounced that crime. He said it was a hideous, heinous crime. So we have that offspring like any faith - like any group, and we're trying to deal with it. But, you know, we are being handcuffed by our governments, by our regimes. They are treating us, you know, as an equal problem to these radical fanatics.

SIEGEL: Dima Tahboub, spokesperson for Jordan's Islamic Action Front, the party linked to the Muslim Brotherhood. Tomorrow, an online journalist, a government minister and Jordan's balancing act with the media. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.