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Young Islamists and the civil state in Jordan

Apr 11,2018 - Last updated at Apr 11,2018

February’s Cabinet reshuffle reignited the debate about governance in Jordan. Despite reticence around the term “civil state”, there is a clear mounting consensus on the value of one, even — perhaps surprisingly — on the part of young Islamists.

Debate around the concept of the civil state in Jordan has been minimal and cautious, despite the depth of academic literature about the Arab social contract. Apart from scattered media articles, the most significant effort has perhaps been the platform of the Maan (“together”) electoral list in the lead up to the 2016 parliamentary elections.

A healthy debate on the civil state in Jordan should be capitalised on. The current levels of distrust in the government and parliament are unprecedented, and political apathy and socio-economic discontent are widespread. The latest protests across the country underscore the need for a structural reorientation of the social contract and a political overhaul.

While supporters see the civil state as an icon for rule of law, accountability and meritocracy, sceptics question the secular implications. The discourse generally pits secularists and Islamists on opposite sides of this divide. However, recent transformations within the Islamist parties demonstrate that even Islamists, traditionally staunch opponents of the civil state, now embrace the concept, and that the youth generation does not necessarily reflect this polarisation.

 

Islamist youth 

and the civil state

 

While conducting research for our forthcoming book, my colleague Mohamad Abu Ruman and I, met with young members of the Islamic Action Front (IAF), the National Congress Party–Zamzam, and the Partnership and Rescue Party (PRP). Both Zamzam and the PRP splintered from the Muslim Brotherhood (MB), and have developed their own political agenda. 

A predictable point of agreement was that the civil state concept is vague and needs to be further defined to reflect the Jordanian political and cultural context a concern they share with the leftist and secular, sceptics who question advocates for a civil state in Jordan. What was more surprising was that interviewees had strong opinions on the role of the civil state in Jordan, and were generally quite embracing of this. 

Members of the IAF stressed that democratic power transfers should be a key feature of a civil state. This may reflect the widely held perception that election laws have previously been used to prevent the rise of Islamic parties.  PRP members emphasised the importance of the rule of law and constitution authority, where Zamzam members prioritised accountability. They called forstrict transparency and anti-corruption measures, appointments governed by a doctrine of meritocracy, and safeguards to identify under-performers and transgressors and hold them accountable.

 

The role of religion 

and the civil state

 

The group pushed back on the notion that the governance model Islamists aspire towards cannot be reconciled with, or does not protect, individual civic rights or transfers of power. IAF members pointed to legal equality, consultative governance, whether in the form of shura or democracy, and transparency as foundational principals shared by both proponents of secular governance and Islamists. They referred to the Madina Constitution written by Prophet Mohammad, which set out the rights of Jews, Christians and Muslims, for example. 

PRP members were more critical about the concept of an “Islamic” state. Some admitted that their romanticised image of an ideal state had been replaced with a more pragmatic model. The outcomes of the Arab Spring, reading more diversified literature and their experiences during the 2012 protests in Jordan, had led them to push for a civil state. They want to work with non-Muslims, secularists, nationalists and leftists to create a shared sense of Jordanian citizenship.

Within the broader Islamist political establishment, a key objection is that a civil state might undermine the role of religion. The group we spoke to did not share this concern, however. They opined that Jordanians, Muslims and Christians alike, tend to embrace conservative social norms. In a representative parliament, they argued, legislation will reflect the views of the populace. Even if a law did not conform to their individual interpretations of Islam, it would be accepted and respected if it emerged through a democratic process.  

 

The writer is a senior researcher and team leader of human security at the WANA Institute. She is an expert in peace studies and conflict transformation with special emphasis on the nexus between Islam, violence and peace building. The views expressed in the article are part of field work conducted by Mohamad Abu Rumman and Neven Bondokji for their forthcoming book on transformations among young Islamists in Jordan after the Arab Spring.

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