North Africa, West Asia

Jordan’s Muslim Brothers: the last of a dying breed?

Nikita Malik

Jordan is unlikely to follow Saudi Arabia and ban its Muslim Brotherhood. Fraught with internal divisions, the Kingdom’s largest opposition party poses a weak threat. 

Nikita Malik
13 June 2014

When Tayseer first joined Jordan’s Muslim Brotherhood after graduating from university, fitting in proved difficult. “I faced managerial as well as age issues,” he tells me carefully. “Even my thoughts on Islam and my Islamic values were different. They were not accepted by the Brotherhood”.  

In the past, emphasis on religious ideology served the Muslim Brotherhood well, but now Jordanians desire a nation-centric focus. For the last two years, Tayseer has been involved in a younger, more welcoming movement. It goes by the name of the National Initiative for Building, which in Jordan is better known as ZamZam. ZamZam presents a credible alternative to Jordan’s largest opposition party. 

Following the overthrow of the Brotherhood’s leadership in Egypt, Jordanians are interested in new factions that focus on local issues and reform. ZamZam achieves this by involving all members of the Jordanian polity, irrespective of religion. Some members describe the organisation as ‘post-ideological’, given its emphasis on empowering Jordanian society and strengthening the state, rather than an organisation that has a religious decision-making process.

ZamZam’s main challenge, for the moment, lies in increasing the power of leaders within constituencies, which is proving to be very difficult. Participation in the municipality elections has been disappointingly low in the past. It is hoped, however, that changing perceptions on micro-governance will strengthen a bottom-up dynamic. 

In response to competition posed by ZamZam, the Muslim Brotherhood is striving to initiate changes within its own conservative leadership. But these reforms have resulted in further divisions within the organisation. Earlier this week, one hundred dissenting members planned an ‘opposition conference’ in Jordan’s Irbid district, aimed at revolutionising the group’s governance structure.

A number of decisions made by the governing body have been meet with criticism, particularly a recent ruling to expel three brothers for their involvement in ZamZam. The ousting of these members has been at the heart of an ongoing dispute on the perceived threat of ZamZam. As a result, rivalries within the movement have severely weakened its authority. 

With a fragile centre, members of the Muslim Brotherhood claim political success is impossible. This is partly due to inherent biasin the makeup of Jordan’s electoral system. In the past, Jordan’s King Abdullah famously described the Muslim Brotherhood as ‘wolves in sheep’s clothing’. On the occasions that the Muslim Brotherhood has not boycotted elections, its political wing, the Islamic Action Front (IAF), has gained seats. Yet many insist that these seats are not enough: a mere 27 of 150 seats are eligible to be contested by political parties, on the basis of a national proportional representation voting system. The view that the ‘system works against them’ kept the IAF from running in 2010 and 2013. During this period of political disengagement, conflict within the organisation only escalated.

Coupled with internal fragmentation is the fact that the Brotherhood has had to contend with a number of other Islamist movements. In an article last week, Prince Hassan bin Talal defined Islam as a tolerant religion, stressing that “laws that do not respect human rights and freedom to choose one’s belief lead to oppressive regimes; they do not project the message of religion”. In addition, he elaborated that such “feelings” can fuel violence and extremism. The monarchy’s reaction to an upsurge in Jordanian jihadi sympathisers has meant that the Brotherhood, also based on Islamic ideology, has suffered from the consequences of new regulations.

In response to threats of extremism, the monarchy passed a new anti-terrorism law to aid the work of Jordanian intelligence and military agencies in combating terrorism. The new stipulation, when put into practice, will also allow the government to detain and imprison citizens that support groups in Jordan like the Muslim Brotherhood, which are legal in the Hashemite Kingdom but outlawed in neighbouring countries.

In Jordan, the Muslim Brotherhood has criticised new amendments to the country’s anti-terror law, arguing that these changes are a sign that the Kingdom is devolving into a ‘police state’. Jordan's new legislation comes after Saudi Arabia listed the Muslim Brotherhood and both Syrian jihadist groups as "terrorist" organizations, and ordered citizens fighting abroad to return within 15 days or face imprisonment. 

As a result of the law, members of the Muslim Brotherhood anticipate that their activities will be more heavily regulated and tightened in the future. It is unlikely, however, that the Hashemite regime will criminalise the Muslim Brotherhood. This may be because the Muslim Brotherhood is not seen as a serious threat. Even at the peak of events of the ‘Jordanian Spring’, the movement called for reform within the system of a monarchy, maintaining open channels of communication with the regime. 

The greatest threat to Jordan’s Muslim Brotherhood lies not in potential competitors, parliamentary limitations, or new regulations, as much as it does in lack of progress within the movement itself. “Any person who does not change or develop his thoughts”, Tayseer states simply, “will not have the right tools to cope with new times, with a revolution in the atmosphere. They will not be able to cope with new paradigms”. Reform within the movement has been a long time coming. For the Brotherhood’s future to be bright, it must turn the spotlight on itself. 

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