Last update: 2020-07-23 09:20:06
The Muslim Brotherhood (Jamā‘at al-Ikhwān al-Muslimīn) was founded in Egypt by a school teacher named Hasan al-Banna (1906-1949) in 1928. The organisation meant to fight the British colonial influence in Egypt at the time, was strongly anti-Zionist and aimed to inspire, educate and mobilise the Egyptian population with a vague, simple and somewhat populist message: “Islam is the solution”. The Brotherhood quickly spread throughout Egypt and grew in numbers. Because of its success, it became an example for other like-minded Islamic activists in the Middle East, including in Jordan.
The Muslim Brotherhood’s fortunes have varied throughout the Middle East, but its story has often been one of repression. The organisation—or similar groups working under different names—was cracked down upon in Egypt in the 1940s–1960s and was even decimated in Syria in the 1980s. In the Gaza Strip, the Palestinian branch of the Brotherhood—Hamas—has held power since 2007, but it has been embattled—both locally by Fatah and internationally by Western powers—ever since. Jordan, by contrast, seems to have been an oasis of stability for the Muslim Brotherhood, which has been accepted by the Hashemite regime almost since its founding. In 2020, however, the organisation was officially dissolved, raising the question of whether the Jordanian Muslim Brotherhood was really an exception in the Arab world or rather common after all. This article seeks to answer that question by looking at the organisation’s historical background, its political integration, its social activities and the breakdown of its relationship with the regime.
The Muslim Brotherhood in Jordan was founded by ‘Abd al-Latif Abu Qura (d. 1967), a merchant from the Jordanian city of al-Salt who had been a staunch proponent of the Palestinian cause for years. Abu Qura had indicated his desire to found a local branch of the organisation to al-Banna and the latter supported him in this. With the help of emissaries from Egypt and strongly influenced by their ideology, the Jordanian Muslim Brotherhood began in 1945. It had a rather vague ideological platform that focussed on spreading and teaching Islam to a new generation of Muslims and setting up an Islamic system and society in cooperation with similar organisations elsewhere in the Arab world. Unlike its Egyptian counterpart, the Jordanian Muslim Brotherhood initially had quite a narrow agenda that avoided overtly political issues in Jordan itself and focussed mostly on what they saw as the liberation of Palestine. Given the desire of the ruler, Emir (and later King) ‘Abdallah (r. 1921–1951), to buttress his own Islamic credentials and to support an alternative to the secular and revolutionary forces that were so popular in the region at the time, it was perhaps not surprising that the regime gave the Muslim Brotherhood official (yet sceptical) permission for its activities in 1946.
The reason King ‘Abdallah was somewhat wary of the organisation was that he realised that the Muslim Brotherhood’s views on Palestine were quite at odds with his own, more pro-Zionist ones and he therefore made the group seek explicit official permission to set up new branches and even buildings so as to keep a close eye on them. While the king’s relatively pro-Zionist and pro-Western views had the potential to clash with the ideas of the Brotherhood, the latter nevertheless managed to integrate its own views into those of the regime and support the latter at times when it needed it most. When the monarchy was challenged for being insufficiently Arab by Arab nationalists across the region, for example, the Brotherhood strongly opposed the pro-Western and anti-communist Baghdad Pact and Eisenhower Doctrine in the 1950s and applauded King ‘Abdallah’s successor and grandson King Husayn (r. 1953–1999) when he refused to join them. The same applies to the monarch’s decision to rid the Jordanian army of the last vestiges of colonial influence by dismissing the British General and Chief of Staff of the kingdom’s armed forces, John Bagot Glubb, in 1956. The Brotherhood similarly supported the regime during an alleged Arab nationalist coup in 1957 and tacitly agreed when the state killed or expelled thousands of Palestinian militants in “Black” September 1970.
In the meantime, the Muslim Brotherhood had been allowed to participate in parliamentary elections and had had a parliamentary presence since the 1950s. This changed when national elections were suspended by the regime in 1967, when Jordan lost the West Bank to Israel and thus could not include all the people it considered Jordanians in the political process. After the regime renounced its claims to the West Bank in 1988, this could no longer be used as an excuse, however, and after far-reaching economic reforms in 1989 led to protests in the country, the regime sought to channel this unrest through renewed parliamentary elections in the same year. The Muslim Brotherhood did very well in these elections, winning 22 seats (out of 88 in total), and became the biggest parliamentary force in the country. The regime, however, was less interested in real democratisation and more concerned with keeping potential opposition at bay. As such, it sought to curb the Brotherhood’s influence by gerrymandering electoral districts and changing the electoral law. As a result, the organisation lost six seats in the elections of 1993.
In the meantime, the Jordanian government had adopted a political parties law in 1992, compelling all movements that wanted to participate in elections to do so through actual political parties. The Muslim Brotherhood responded to this by setting up the organisationally independent Islamic Action Front (IAF) in the same year. The fact that Jordanian Islamists now had their own party whose sole task was to deal with politics strengthened a growing politicisation in the movement that had started with the rise of a new generation of leaders who, particularly after the demise of foreign enemies like the British, started focussing more and more on Jordanian issues. This politicisation, a brief period of governmental participation by the Brotherhood in 1991 as well as the founding of the IAF also led to an internal debate on the Islamic arguments for and against taking part in a system that was not (fully) Islamic. This debate eventually settled on the conclusion that it was allowed to participate in the Jordanian system.
Although the debate cleared the way for political participation from an Islamic point of view, it did not undo the measures the regime had taken against the Brotherhood and the IAF to limit their influence. The situation became even worse from their point of view when King Husayn made peace with Israel in 1994, an agreement that the Muslim Brotherhood and the IAF (as well as many other Jordanians) vehemently rejected. The IAF’s inability to stop the peace accord with Israel as well as its more general lack of success in parliament not only made it more oppositional, but it also increased the number of Islamists who believed it would be better to boycott the 1997 parliamentary elections. Although not all members of the party agreed with this, the IAF as a whole eventually decided not to participate in the 1997 polls.
An important part of the Muslim Brotherhood’s popularity and electoral success was based on its extensive network of social activities, which “represent the foundations of [the] alternative society” as the organisation envisages it. The Brotherhood’s efforts in this regard go back decades to the very beginning of the organisation. This was partly related to the official permission it received from the regime: precisely because the latter did not want the Brotherhood to act as a force of political opposition, it was recognised as a charitable association in 1946, not as a political group. Although this mandate was broadened when the organisation gained official permission as an “Islamic group” in 1953, it was clear that in order to remain on good terms with the regime, the Brotherhood had better limit its activities to uncontroversial things. These initially included fighting in the 1948 war over Palestine, in which the Jordanian army also participated, and recruitment through boy scouts clubs and mosques.
Since the 1950s, the Muslim Brotherhood has expanded its social activities to education. It has set up primary schools of its own to give children both a profane and a religious education that is focussed on leading an Islamic lifestyle, which includes the separation of boys and girls in class, Islamic family values and encouraging pupils to fast during the month of Ramadan. A more important educational activity that the Muslim Brotherhood has engaged in is trying to influence the existing public school system. This was rooted in the organisation’s frustration over what they saw as a Western curriculum taught at schools and universities. In response, Brotherhood members tried and succeeded to obtain jobs at the Ministry of Education in the 1960s, from which they were able to influence the curricula as well as the process of hiring people. Aided by sympathetic teachers, students and pupils, the Muslim Brotherhood thus succeeded in making Jordanian education more Islamic and, as a result, turning schools and universities into recruitment pools for their own organisation.
The best-known organisation for social activities affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood in Jordan is undoubtedly the Islamic Centre Association (Jam‘iyyat al-Markaz al-Islāmī), which functions as an umbrella society encompassing a large network of various educational, medical and charitable activities. Founded in 1963, the Islamic Centre Association has become the charitable arm of the Muslim Brotherhood and, though organisationally separate, can wield personal and economic resources that make it a force to be reckoned with in Jordanian Islamism. Among the most important organisations led by the Islamic Centre Association is the Islamic Hospital (Al-Mustashfā al-Islāmī) in Amman, founded in 1982. This hospital is one of the best in the country, yet is also one that is based not on charitable ideals but on commercial ones. As a result, the hospital – while also helping the poor – charges relatively high prices for its services, which has led to criticism from people who believe that it has abandoned the charitable ideals of the Islamic Centre Association. The latter nevertheless remains an important social reserve for members of the Muslim Brotherhood and it is therefore not surprising that the regime has tried to stifle its activities under the guise of fighting corruption since the mid-2000s.
Breakdown of Relations
The regime has thus increasingly limited the Muslim Brotherhood’s activities in both the political and the social sphere. This increased even more with the advent of the so-called Arab Spring, the series of uprisings in the Middle East starting in late 2010. Although Jordan did not witness anything like the huge demonstrations that took place in countries such as Egypt and its regime was not toppled, the uprisings in other Arab countries did inspire reformers and activists in the Hashemite Kingdom. As a result, many believed the time was right to take to the streets and protest against corruption and in favour of economic and political reform. One of the most prominent forces on the streets in the early 2010s was the Muslim Brotherhood.
The “Arab Spring” brought a broad coalition of parties, organisations and groups to the streets that used the slogan “the people want the reform of the regime” (al-sha‘b yurīd islāh al-nizām). Although this was clearly a more moderate demand than the one expressed by similar groups in other Arab countries (“the people want the downfall of the regime”—al-sha‘b yurīd isqāt al-nizām), the regime nevertheless saw it as a challenge. In the case of the Muslim Brotherhood, the “Arab Spring” proved an opportunity to push for its long-held beliefs in reform, including limiting the power of the king, making governments a reflection of parliament (rather than having them appointed by the crown) and changing the electoral law to what it had been in prior to 1993. At the same time, the Muslim Brotherhood was increasingly coming under fire in other parts of the Middle East. The Egyptian branch’s 2012 electoral victory had been countered with a military coup in 2013 and regimes in Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates went on to outlaw the organisation altogether. This led some Brothers to disagree with the organisation’s fervent push for reform and to adopt a more careful approach, fearful of how the regime might otherwise respond.
This division on tactics came on top of other divisions that had long existed within the Muslim Brotherhood. These included disagreements on whether to focus on preaching or politics, whether to privilege the Palestinian cause or Jordanian issues, whether to pursue an exclusively Islamist agenda or a more inclusively reformist one, whether to strive for an Islamic state or to deal with the Jordanian state on its own terms and whether to participate in elections or not. As mentioned, the Brotherhood had decided to boycott the elections in 1997, which had caused some of its members to split off and found the Islamic Centre Party (Hizb al-Wasat al-Islāmī) in 2001. Divisions on electoral participation had become even greater since then, as the IAF also decided to boycott the 2010 and 2013 elections. Disagreements over these and other issues eventually led to alternative initiatives such as ZamZam, a broad-based reformist platform set up in 2012 and supported by a number of Muslim Brothers, and an alternative Muslim Brotherhood that arose in 2015 to claim the mantle of the original Brotherhood organisation.
The regime probably saw this as an opportune moment to shape the organisation into a less oppositional form. Given that the alternative Muslim Brotherhood consisted of people who were more pro-regime and had long felt that the electoral boycotts were a bad idea, the regime accepted its claim that it represented the true Muslim Brotherhood. The original organisation, meanwhile, was told that it had failed to register properly and, as such, could no longer function as the Muslim Brotherhood it claimed to be. This decision was accepted by a Court of Cassation in Jordan in 2019, claiming that the Jordanian Muslim Brotherhood had, in fact, been an illegal organisation since the 1950s. In July 2020, a new court decision confirmed that the original Muslim Brotherhood, which had received official permission from the regime, had been engaged in social activities for years and had participated in parliament almost since the beginning of the state, was dissolved.
While the Jordanian Muslim Brotherhood seems like an exceptional case in the Middle East—with its official permission, its cordial relations with the regime and its continuous presence in society and (through its own organisation and the IAF) in parliament—the recent dissolution of the organisation suggests that its fate is rather in keeping with the rest of the region after all. Yet such a conclusion would fail to take into account the historical context in which the Muslim Brotherhood was founded and developed as well as the agency of the organisation itself.
The historical context of the Brotherhood’s founding and development clearly shows that the Jordanian regime, while not overly enthusiastic about the organisation, nevertheless had good reason to allow it. During the international and regional challenges it faced in the 1950s-1970s, the Muslim Brotherhood was an important ally supporting the king when the latter’s political future was threatened. It was partly because of the later absence of common threats that the Brotherhood and the regime have simply had less need for each other since the 1970s.
The Muslim Brotherhood’s own agency should also not be dismissed in all of this. The Egyptian Brotherhood started out as an ideologically vague organisation and this continued with the Jordanian branch of the group. Underneath the surface, however, the Brotherhood had always been divided on several ideological and strategic issues, particularly so in the last few years. These divisions were exploited by the regime, to be sure, but it would not have had anything to exploit if those divisions had not been there in the first place. For that, the Muslim Brotherhood mostly had itself to blame. As such, the Muslim Brotherhood may have ended up as just another outlawed Islamist group in the Middle East, but it nevertheless remains exceptional for the way this came about.