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Jordan-Muslim Brotherhood Conflict Heats Up After Zarqawi Homage

The Jordanian government is moving to clamp down on the activities of the Muslim Brotherhood and its Jordanian political arm, the Islamic Action Front (IAF). The IAF, like the Palestinian Hamas, was inspired by and in part founded by activists from the Egypt-based Muslim Brotherhood (MB). Yet while Hamas has maintained active military operations and has been banned in Jordan for several years, and while the Muslim Brotherhood itself has disavowed violence within Egypt but nevertheless remains banned there, the MB and the IAF are both legal in Jordan and the IAF is represented in parliament.

Following the recent killing of Abu Musab Zarqawi in Iraq, four Islamist members of the parliament went to his family home and openly paid their respects to the brutal terrorist. The government arrested them, and this was followed by a harsh declaration issued by several prominent Islamists calling for the replacement of the government. This appears to have been the immediate catalyst to what is looking like the most serious crackdown on Islamist activity in Jordan for some time.

As reported in Al-Hayat (“Amman - Strident Declaration Inflames Confrontation with the Government and a Decision to Dissolve ‘The Islamic Centers Association’ Expected”) on Tuesday, the ill-received mourning for Zarqawi was followed by a declaration published by the “National Jordanian Conference” headed by the general secretary of the IAF, Zaki Saad Bani Rashid. In terms described by Al-Hayat as “inflammatory,” the declaration called for a new government which would break off cooperation with Israel and the United States, recognize Hamas, and provide assistance to the “resistance” in Palestine and Iraq. The Jordanian government responded by talking about the imminent creation of a “temporary administration” which would take over the Muslim Brotherhood’s Islamic centers, a suggestion interpreted to mean that they would be abolished. The threat clearly had an effect, as the article quotes Bani Rashid as saying that the declaration did not represent either the IAF or the MB, while admitting that its language was excessive.

Broadcast on al-Jazeera’s discussion program In-Depth (Ma Wara al-Khabr) early today, the discussion reinforced the impression that the Jordanian government was moving to crack down on the Muslim Brotherhood’s Islamic centers. The discussion included an Islamist, a government spokesman and the editor of Al-Arab al-Yawm, a Jordanian newspaper. The suggestion that the MB and the IAF were separate organizations was mocked by the editor, who noted that they shared resources and activists. The government spokesman affirmed the government’s support for the Palestinian and Iraqi peoples and emphasized that recent actions by Islamists threatened the “national consensus,” a way of saying that the Islamists had gone beyond the bounds of acceptable discourse in the country.

It should be remembered that the leadership of the IAF played an important role in persuading King Abdullah to release Zarqawi and other al-Qaeda members from prison in 1999 as part of an amnesty, a decision the king has greatly regretted. Hatred for Zarqawi was inflamed by last November’s triple suicide bombings which killed dozens of Jordanians. Relations between the kingdom and Hamas hit a low point recently when the government discovered the Hamas was smuggling weapons in from Syria and studying sensitive government sites. All of this is backdrop to these recent actions.

The Jordanian government, led since the 1950s by the late King Hussein and since February 1999 by King Abdullah II, has long walked a thin line in dealing with Islamists, alternatively cultivating and restraining them. The Islamic Action Front rose to prominence politically in the 1990s following Hussein’s decision to allow elections and a more politically open environment, although the parliament’s powers have always been limited. While having one of the Arab world’s most liberal governments, sympathy for al-Qaeda has been stronger than in most Muslim countries. Most Jordanians have opposed the kingdom’s peace treaty with Israel, as well as the intelligence and logistical assistance provided to U.S. forces both before and after the 2003 invasion of Iraq.
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Sowell is an Arabic linguist, attorney and the author of The Arab World: An Illustrated History. You can read more about his book at his website, Arab World Analysis.