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War against IS begins at the pulpit

Nov 02,2014 - Last updated at Nov 02,2014

As Jordanian fighter jets take part in bombing runs hundreds of kilometres away along the Syrian-Turkish border and northern Iraq, a more intensive, quieter war is being waged against the Islamic State (IS) at home.

In the Kingdom’s mosques and schools, religious officials are cracking down on extremism, rooting out pro-IS preachers and self-proclaimed religious leaders who have encouraged over 1,500 Jordanians to fight alongside the jihadist group in Iraq and Syria.

His Majesty King Abdullah alluded to Jordan’s struggle against extremism in his recent Speech from the Throne, declaring the fight against terrorism and extremism “our war” and a “religious and humanitarian duty”.

If Jordan is at war with ideology, then preachers have become its ground troops.

As part of its new crackdown, the Ministry of Awqaf and Islamic Affairs banned six preachers in October for pro-IS sentiments in their sermons, sending four to the State Security Court in a warning to clerics with jihadist sympathies.

Awqaf officials say they are only enforcing the country’s Preaching and Guidance Law, which sets the guidelines for acceptable speech in Friday sermons and criminalises speech that threatens Jordan’s stability, encourages sectarianism or incites violence.

Despite merely following routine procedures, religious authorities admit that the task at hand is anything but ordinary.

As Minister of Awqaf and Islamic Affairs Hayel Dawood puts it, “Jordan is at war with IS and our mosques are the frontlines”.

In a bid to “round up the troops”, the ministry is holding a series of townhall meetings with 5,000 preachers across the country, to remind clerics of the guidelines for acceptable speech for Friday sermons and to send a stern warning to those looking to use the pulpit to promote extremist ideology.

These first-of-their-kind summits have been largely cordial affairs, with preachers openly debating matters ranging from the use of the ministry’s Hajj fund to the acceptable political subjects to include in Friday sermons.

The government delivered its message loud and clear: extremism will not be tolerated in Jordan’s mosques.

Despite the renewed crackdown and campaign to root out extremism, religious authorities face an uphill battle.

The Ministry of Awqaf and Islamic Affairs currently employs 2,000 imams and 1,400 muezzins to staff the Kingdom’s 7,000 mosques.

The deficit has forced officials to farm out Friday sermons to over 2,000 private individuals and unofficial clerics, placing nearly half of the country’s mosques in the hands of unknown, unlicensed imams and preachers whose sermons and theology may veer far from ministry guidelines and subscribe to extremist interpretations of Islam.

The lack of manpower reportedly leaves 1,500 mosques empty during Friday prayers, giving ample room for extremist groups and jihadists to convene, organise, preach and recruit.

On any given Friday, the ministry employs between 60 and 80 observers to monitor the country’s 7,000 mosques and verify that sermons do not cross the boundaries and veer off into hate speech, political grandstanding or calls for jihad.

However, with each observer tasked with monitoring over 100 mosques spread tens of kilometres across, true monitoring of mosques has been a logistical impossibility.

Even imams themselves say they face daily challenges in their bid to rid their mosques of extremism.

Clerics say that while delivering sermons rejecting IS and its distorted interpretation of Islam, supporters of the jihadist group attending Friday payers discreetly recruit for their cause.

Emboldened IS supporters gather in between prayers, hijack Koranic lessons and other, less-regulated mosque activities to gather, plan and promote.

Preachers brave enough to speak out against IS say they have been met with threats of violence, with supporters of the jihadist group allegedly attacking six clerics over the past three months and sending death threats to dozens more.

Yet religious officials and clerics remain steadfast in their renewed war against extremist ideology.

The Ministry of Awqaf is set to request an additional 120 monitors to keep watch over the country’s mosques and is requiring clerics to re-register for the right to deliver sermons. 

Officials are even distributing leaflets and guidelines to provide suggested topics for Friday sermons.

No matter the style or subject of the sermon, clerics ascending the pulpit across Jordan will all share one simple message for Friday’s faithful.

As IS recoils from coalition bombings in Iraq and Syria, its supporters may find new places of refuge across the region.

Jordan’s mosques will not be among them.

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