Young Jordanians rebel, embracing conservative Islam 
By Michael Slackman
Wednesday, December 24, 2008 
AMMAN, Jordan: Muhammad Fawaz is a very serious college junior with a stern 
gaze and a
reluctant smile that barely cloaks suppressed anger. He never wanted to
attend Jordan University. He hates spending hours each day commuting.
As a high school student, Fawaz, 20, had dreamed of earning a
scholarship to study abroad. But that was impossible, he said, because
he did not have a "wasta," or connection. In Jordan, connections are
seen as essential for advancement and the wasta system is routinely
cited by young people as their primary grievance with their country.
So Fawaz decided to rebel. He adopted the serene, disciplined
demeanor of an Islamic activist. In his sophomore year he was accepted
into the student group affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood, Jordan's
largest, most influential religious, social and political movement, one
that would ultimately like to see the state governed by Islamic law, or
Shariah. Now he works to recruit other students to the cause.
"I find there is justice in the Islamic movement," Fawaz said one
day as he walked beneath the towering cypress trees at Jordan
University. "I can express myself. There is no wasta needed."
Across the Middle East, young people like Fawaz, angry, alienated
and deprived of opportunity, have accepted Islam as an agent of change
and rebellion. It is their rock 'n' roll, their long hair and love
beads. Through Islam, they defy the status quo and challenge
governments seen as corrupt and incompetent.
These young people  60 percent of those in the region are under 25
 are propelling a worldwide Islamic revival, driven by a thirst for
political change and social justice. That fervor has popularized a more
conservative interpretation of the faith.
"Islamism for us is what pan-Arabism was for our parents," said
Naseem Tarawnah, 25, a business writer and blogger, who is not part of
the movement.
The long-term implications of this are likely to complicate American
foreign policy calculations, making it more costly to continue
supporting governments that do not let secular or moderate religious
political movements take root.
Washington will also be likely to find it harder to maintain the
policy of shunning leaders of groups like the Brotherhood in Egypt, or
Hamas in Gaza, or Hezbollah in Lebanon, which command tremendous public
Leaders of Muslim countries have tried to appease public sentiment
while doing all they can to discourage the West from engaging religious
movements directly. They see the prospect of a thaw in relations with
the West, and see these groups as a threat to their monopoly on power.
Authoritarian governments view relative moderation as more of a
political challenge than extremism, which is a security problem that
can be contained through harsh methods.
"What happens if Islamists accepted the peace process and became
more pragmatic?" said Muhammad Abu Rumman, research editor at the
newspaper Al Ghad in Amman. "People see them as less corrupt and as the
only real opposition. Israel and the U.S. might look at them
differently. The regime is afraid of the Brotherhood when it becomes
more pragmatic."
The financial crisis only adds to the anxiety of governments in the
Middle East that had hoped economic development could appease their
citizens, create jobs for legions of unemployed and underemployed young
people and dilute the appeal of Islamic movements. But the crisis and
the drop in oil prices have hit hard, throwing the brakes on
once-booming economies in the Gulf region, and modest economic growth
elsewhere in the region.
In this environment, governments are forced to confront a reality of
their own creation. By choking off democracy and free speech, the only
space where groups could gather and discuss critical ideas became the
mosque, and the only movements that had room to prosper were
Today, the search for identity in the Middle East no longer involves
tension between the secular and religious. Religion has won.
The struggle, instead, is over how to define an Islamic society and
government. Zeinah Hamdan, 24, has traveled a typical journey in
Jordan. She says she wants a more religious government guided by
Shariah law, and she took the head scarf at a younger age than anyone
else in her family.
But when she was in college, she was offended when an Islamist
student activist chastised her for shaking a young man's hand. She
wants to be a modern religious woman, and she defines that as working
and socializing in a coed environment.
"If we implement Shariah law, we will be more comfortable," she
said. "But what happens is, the people who come to power are
Like others here, she is torn between her discomfort with what she
sees as the extreme attitudes of the Muslim Brotherhood and her
alienation from a government she does not consider to be Islamic
enough. "The middle is very difficult," she said.Focus on popular causes
Under a bright midday
sun one recent day, Fawaz and his allies in the Islamic student
movement put on green baseball caps that read, in Arabic, "Islamic
Current of Jordan University" and prepared to demonstrate. Fawaz
carried a large poster board reading, "We are with you Gaza."
The university protest reflected the tactics of the Muslim
Brotherhood in the country as a whole: precisely organized,
deliberately nonthreatening and focused on popular causes here such as
the Palestinians. The Brotherhood says it supports democracy and
moderation, but its commitment to pluralism, tolerance and compromise
has never been tested in Jordan.
Fawaz and about 200 other students stood in a straight line,
extending nearly two city blocks, parallel to the traffic on the major
roadway in front of the university. More than half of the students were
women, many with their faces veiled.
State security men in plain clothes hurried up and down the line.
"Brother, for God's sake, when will you be angry?" one security agent
screamed into his phone, recording for headquarters the slogan on a
student's placard.
At 12:30 p.m., the male students stepped into the road, blocking
traffic, while the women rushed off to the sidewalk and melted back
into the campus. One minute later, they walked out of traffic, took off
their caps and folded up their signs, tucked them into computer bags
and went back to school.
"I want to be able to express what I want; I want freedom," Fawaz
said, after returning to the campus. His glasses always rest crooked on
his face, making him look younger, and a bit out of sorts. "I don't
want to be afraid to express my opinion."
Fawaz grew up in a small village called Anjara, near Ajloun, about
50 miles from Amman. His father grew up in the Jordan Valley and worked
as a nurse in Irbid. Fawaz said he was 8 years old he was first invited
to "leadership retreats" with a youth organization of the Brotherhood.
When he was 13, the youth group took him on a minor pilgrimage to
Mecca. So, he said, he had been enticed by religion at an early age.
But he only decided to become politically active  and to join the
Brotherhood  when he was denied a scholarship to study abroad.
While there are no official statistics on student membership in the
Brotherhood, only a fraction of Jordan University students are formally
affiliated. Yet many others say they share the same vague sense of
discontent and yearning, the same embrace of the Brotherhood's slogan,
"Islam Is the Solution," a resonant catchall in the face of many
The university, with about 30,000 students from across the country,
has long served as a proxy battlefield for Jordan's competing 
interests.Competing loyalties 
In Jordan, unlike Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood is legal, with a
political party and a vast network of social services. It also has a
political party, called the Islamic Action Front. While some fear it as
too extreme, others argue that it has sold out by working within a
political system they see as corrupt and un-Islamic. On campus, the
Islamists try to build sympathy, handing out study sheets or copying
notes for students.
Fawaz decided this year to run as an Islamist candidate for the
student council, an influential organization with its own budget and
the right to put up posters, distribute fliers and hold on-campus
The Islamic students' movement had boycotted the elections for years
to protest a change of election rules that called for appointing  not
electing  half of the council's 80 members. The rule change, decreed
by the former university president, was made in order to block the
Islamists, who were the most organized group on campus, from
controlling the council.
That is a direct echo of how the state has long tried to contain the
Islamist movement in Jordan. The Brotherhood is allowed to operate, but
the government and the security services broadly control the outcome of
Indeed, as Islamist movements have swelled, governments across the
Middle East have chosen both to contain and to embrace them. Many
governments have aggressively moved to roll back the few democratic
practices that had started to take root in their societies, and to
prevent Islamists from winning power through the voting booth. That
risks driving the leaders and the followers of Islamic organizations
toward extremism.
At the same time, many governments have tried to appease popular
Islamist fervor. Jordan recently granted a Muslim Brotherhood-aligned
newspaper the right to publish daily instead of weekly; held private
talks with Hamas leaders; arrested a poet, saying he had insulted Islam
by using verses of the Koran in love poems; and shut down restaurants
that had served alcohol during Ramadan, though they had been licensed
by the state to do so.
This year, the new president of Jordan University permitted all
student council seats to be elected, but with rules in place that
would, again, make it nearly impossible for the Islamist bloc to have
Two days before the voting took place, Fawaz was campaigning on the
steps of the education building, dressed in his best suit and tie. His
campaign message to the students was simply, "For your sake."
Running as an Islamist risks consequences: Fawaz said that he was
approached by a student in his class who he believed was delivering a
message from the security services. "He told me that they will write
about me; I will never get a job," Fawaz said.
But even when the police ordered him to take down his posters on election day, 
he remained resolute and confident.
"Everybody knows that I am going to win," Fawaz said, without sounding 
boastful. "Because I represent the Islamic movement."
But he did not win. Instead, a candidate representing a large tribe
from the city of Salt won, reflecting the loyalty to bonds of kinship
and family heritage even as tribal culture has begun to absorb more
conservative Islamic practices and beliefs.
Yet Fawaz was untroubled. "What is important for me," he said, "is
to serve the movement by spreading the word among the students."
Amjad al-Absy, 28, remembers the moment when he pledged to join the
Muslim Brotherhood. He was 15 and he was identified by Brotherhood
recruiters when he was playing soccer in a Palestinian refugee camp. He
described how the Brotherhood monitors young men  when they play
soccer, go to school, to mosque, to work, as well as in the street and
singles out those who appear receptive.
"Once you say yes, they put you in a ring, in a family," said Absy.
"Outside of the Brotherhood, there is no concern for young men, there
is no respect. You are alone."
Absy and his friend Tarak Naimat, 24, said that while they were
students at the university, they had helped to recruit other young men.
"In the computer lab, in the mosque, you buddy up," Naimat said.
"Then you participate in events together. Then he becomes a member. If
he's advanced, it can take six months. If less, maybe two years."
The appeal, Naimat said, was simple: "It gives you the feeling you
can change things, you can act, you can be a leader. You feel like you
are part of something important."
Recruiters to the movement operate in a social atmosphere far more
receptive than in the past. Every one of five young men talking near
the cafeteria of the university recently insisted that the only way
Jordan would have democracy was under an Islamic government, which is
what the Brotherhood says it wants to achieve.
Muhammad Safi is a 23-year-old with neatly gelled hair and a
television-white smile who described himself as the least religious
student at the table. He said he had lived in the United States for
five years and was eager to marry an American so he could return. Yet
he declared: "An Islamic state would be better. At least it would take
care of people."A political crossroads 
The task facing Middle East governments and Islamic leaders is to
figure out how to harness the energy of the Islamic revival. The young
 the demographic bulge that is defining the future of the Islamic
world and the way the West will have to engage it  have embraced Islam
with all the fervor of the counterculture.
But the movement is still up for grabs  whether it will lead to
greater extremism, even terrorism in some cases, and whether the vague
dissatisfaction of young people will translate into political
engagement or disaffection.
So the cycle is likely to continue, with religious identification
fueled not only by the Islamic movements, but also by governments eager
to use religion to enhance legitimacy and to satisfy demands of their
citizens. That, in turn, broadens support for groups like the
Brotherhood, while undermining support for the government, said many
researchers, intellectuals and political scientists in Jordan.
The battle lines are clear on the campus of Jordan University. Bilal
Abu Sulaih, 24, is a leader in the Islamic student movement. He
returned to school this year to study Islamic law after being suspended
for one year for organizing protests, he said. During the year off, he
said, he worked as a student organizer for the political party office
of the Brotherhood. "We are trying to participate," he said of the
movement's role on campus. "We do not want to overpower everyone else."
But his reassurances were brushed aside as another student
confronted him. "It's not true," shouted Ahmed Qabai, 28, who was
seated on a nearby bench. He thrust a finger in Sulaih's direction.
"You want to try to control everything," Qabai said. "I've seen it
before, your people talking to women and asking them why they're not
Sulaih, embarrassed by the challenge, said, "It's not true."
Qabai made it clear that he detested the Muslim Brotherhood, getting
more and more worked up, until finally he was screaming. But what he
said summed up the challenge ahead for Jordan, and for so many
governments in the region: "We all know Islam is the solution. That we
agree on."


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