One of the main items on my agenda in Amman last week was to check in with the Jordanian Muslim Brotherhood, which is actually more interesting right now than it has been in years. I guess trouble and turmoil builds character. The JMB has been under great pressure for the last few years, with the tacit deals which used to govern relations with the Hashemite regime long since broken down. The regime has been playing tough, with the November 2005 hotel bombings and the early 2006 Hamas electoral victory generally seen as the turning point. The crackdown has been on all fronts - not just the blatant interventions in the municipal and Parliamentary elections, but also the government taking over the leadership of a key Islamic charity on thin allegations of corruption (no evidence of which I have yet seen produced) and interfering with MB social services and outreach efforts throughout the country.
The JMB has seemed divided and uncertain about how to respond to these new conditions. I have heard and read a lot of accounts now of deep conflicts between hawks and doves over the nature of political participation, Jordanian-Palestinian tensions, class issues, and the struggles of the organization to renew itself in the face of sustained regime pressure and challenges from the salafi flank. After the electoral disaster in 2007, tensions inside the MB and IAF seemed to boil over, with the dismissal of the Shura Council and new leadership elections - resulting most recently in the elevation of the Palestinian-origin hawk Dr Himman Said to the position of general guide.
During my week in Amman I talked to some of the best Jordanian analysts of the movement, as well as several MB/IAF leaders. The general consensus seems to be that the sustained regime repression has taken a real toll on the movement, strengthening hawkish, more radical voices in the JMB and weakening the hand of the doves... a dynamic we see playing out again and again, most recently in this week's reports of the rising conservative (dawa) role in the Egyptian MB's shura council. But there is a lot of disagreement about whether this has had a serious effect on the movement's popularity and about the future of the movement. And, of course, it's important to take into account the self-interest of Jordanian MB leaders in telling an American researcher that regime repression is weakening moderates...
My friend Mohammad Abu Rumman – whose monograph on the 2007 Parliamentary elections I highly recommend – has become a prominent advocate of the position that the MB has been badly weakened by the regime's efforts. His accounts of the internal disarray in the JMB and Islamic Action Front have provoked some clear resentment within those organizations (dropping his name didn't have quite the effect I had anticipated!), but seem accurate and well-sourced to me. But other equally well-placed analysts argue that Abu Rumman overstates the decline of the organization and misses its real, continuing, and even growing strength. Certainly, all point out, no other opposition movement has emerged to compete with it - if anything, the JMB's struggles have left a political void which is hardly healthy.
One example of the controversy: Abu Rumman argues that the MB has become primarily an organization of the Palestinian middle class, losing Jordanians and the lower classes either to salafi groups or to non-Islamist trends. But Yasir Abu Hilala, the al-Jazeera correspondent and al-Ghad columnist, argues that the "Palestinianization" of the MB is actually a regime strategy - as in the co-opting of prominent Jordanian members with government portfolios and the equation of the JMB with Hamas - which is doomed to fail. Which is right?
So on my last day in Amman I had long conversations with two senior leaders from the IAF, Ali Abu Sukkar and Ruhayl al-Ghuraybeh, and chatted with the party director and half a dozen people hanging around the office (including Shaykh Hamza Mansour, who I’ve interviewed before).
They were all surprisingly frank about the internal debates within the movement. Everyone I spoke with argued that the regime’s repression is hurting those voices favoring political participation. Abu Sukkar argued that the repression had tipped the balance of opinion between those in favor of political opposition and those opposed. Prior to the 2007 elections, opinion had been evenly split, but the regime’s interventions had weakened the voice of the moderates and strengthened that of the critics. If an internal vote were held today, he suggested, it would likely go against participation. Hence the election as general guide of Hammam Said, who would likely produce sharper rhetoric and allow fewer consultations with the regime than in the past. He hastened to add that the debate was not over violence – all the MB, by consensus, rejected the use of violence against Muslim governments while supporting it as resistance to foreign occupation – but over the narrower question of the value of political participation.
I asked them both blunt questions about Qutbism, violence, and trends within the movement. Their answers seemed fairly frank. Both acknowledged multiple trends within the movement. Ghuraybah argued that in the 1990s, the youth were more liberal than their elders because their experience was of democracy and participation. But now, the youth are more radical than their elders because their experience is of repression and regime manipulation. Abu Sukkar talked about members of the MB leaving in frustration over the movement’s perceived failures, and moving on to more radical movements – a clear example of the crumbling firewall I've discussed before. Again, they have a clear interest in making this argument.. but at the same time, that doesn't mean that it isn't right.
Both leaders talked at length about how the regime’s crackdown was interfering with their ability to be a force for moderation among the Islamic community. The government ban on Muslim Brothers preaching in mosques had simply removed moderate voices and replaced them with – more often than not – uneducated salafis who preached a far more radical doctrine (or with dullards who the people did not respect). The crackdown on charities meant that the MB was unable to provide the social services which the state neglected, intensifying the struggles at the popular level and again weakening voices for moderation and participation. And the political repression discredited the voices of participation and moderation, tipping the balance towards the more radical voices.
I also talked to both of them about issues surrounding Iraq, but I'll save that for later.
The lines within the MB seem starker here than in Egypt, as does the directness of the salafi challenge (the Hamas issue and Iraq both weigh much more directly here, of course). Just walking across the street from one MB-linked bookshop to another is revealing: one featured a fair amount of jihadist-leaning literature, with a display of Sayid Qutb and some fairly rough Jerusalem pamphlets; the other featured walls of carefully-groomed "Islam lite" media preachers, lots of dawa instructional pamphlets, a large display of Yusuf al-Qaradawi, and not a jihad text or Qutb book in sight. Interestingly, Amr Khaled was the most prominent cross-store common feature, with large displays in both.
I came away with more questions than answers. I'll need to look much more closely at all of this next time - and would love to hear from those working on Jordanian MB issues these days.