Getting serious about fighting extremism in Jordan

Sunday 28/08/2016

It seems odd that it would take Jordan’s intelligence service seven months to apprehend a temporary mosque preacher who was enlisting jihadists to join the Islamic State (ISIS).

Equally strange is that it took Jordanian bureaucrats more than a decade to recognise their call to rehabilitate mosque preachers who feed extremism to young people frustrated by the lack of job opportunities and swelling poverty.

By his own admission, Reli­gious Affairs Minister Wael Arabeyat said only 800 of Jordan’s 6,200 mosques, includ­ing some 1,700 in Amman, are controlled by the government.

“Most of the rest are dissemi­nating ultra-extremist ideology, similar to ISIS,” said Jordanian analyst Labib Kamhawi. “When you have no job, no money and live in absolute poverty, you’ve got nothing to lose to kill in the name of Allah to be rewarded in paradise.”

With as many, or as fallacious, policies adopted over the years, Jordan took a lackadaisical approach to how to eradicate home-grown Islamic extremism, despite frequent crackdowns on militants for various reasons.

Regionally, Jordan sought to avoid sensitivities with its Saudi neighbour, cash-strapped Amman’s erstwhile bankroller. Traditionally, Saudi Arabia maintained close ties with hard-line Jordanian clerics, especially southerners in the volatile city of Maan, a bastion for extremists close to the Saudi border.

Domestically, with the religion of the state being Islam and with a largely conservative society, exceedingly cognisant of “deca­dent” Western values, Jordan’s pro-US rulers have long sought to avoid taking steps that could be interpreted as anti-Islamic.

Once recently, a Jordanian prime minister incurred the wrath of his countrymen when he suggested having the five daily calls to prayer come via local radio and TV stations, instead of loudspeakers mounted on mosque minarets to avoid bothering the sick and elderly. The proposal was quickly shelved.

The same premier was accused of being an “apostate” for saying Jordan was saturated with mosques. He urged alms givers to stop building mosques and instead use their money for other benevolent reasons, such as schools or health clinics.

As a result of the state’s hesitancy to take a clear-cut stance on mosques, a freewheel­ing preaching system emerged over the years but became more conspicuous recently with the rising popularity of social media.

Abdul-Aziz al-Saifi, a self-pro­claimed Jordanian child preacher, hijacked local mosques with anti-Jewish tirades, calling Jews “enemies of God and humanity” and urging their annihilation by jihadists and Islamic armies.

Authorities seem torn between their indignation at the 12-year-old’s conduct and their reluc­tance to oppose his populist ideas, hailed by supporters as “messages from God”.

The temporary preacher who was enlisting youth to join ISIS at a grand mosque near Jordan’s largest Palestinian refugee camp, Baqaa, just north of Amman, was helping a state-appointed preacher who never took to the pulpit because he was busy with two private jobs. The temp preached that Christians and Jews were enemies of Islam and should be ostracised.

Arabeyat has dictated that a handful of mosques across the country would deliver speeches on Friday, the week’s main prayer day. Others would listen via live broadcast by a licensed preacher in another mosque or can do without the speech until the system is rehabilitated.

He said, under a deal with Japan and the UN Development Programme, Jordan would start training mosque preachers by the end of the year on a curriculum preaching tolerance and peace, instead of extremism and violence.