Jordan’s King Abdullah flying high

Has Jordan’s king yielded to populist impulses as a public relations move to boost his standing?

Jordan king in uniform
The religious credentials of King Abdullah, a descendant of the Prophet Muhammad's family, do not travel far in the Muslim world, Sadiki writes [Getty]

In one sense, Jordan’s King Abdullah II has deftly turned the debacle over the brutal killing by Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) militants of the captured jet-fighter pilot, Moaz al-Kassasbeh, into a principled rallying point around his leadership and crisis management know-how.

The 53-year-old monarch is passing with flying colours all popularity tests, as can be gauged by various barometers (social media, the local press, supportive rallies). And national unity has not gained as much currency as at present, since the king, his air force and security apparatuses have closed ranks behind the common objectives of avenging Kassasbeh’s murder, executing the kingdom’s vow to wipe out ISIL militants.

For now, most of the issues (limited and state managed democratisation, high unemployment, and corruption … etc), which had pushed the king and his people far apart throughout the 2011 to 2013 period, at the height of the Arab Spring protests, seem to be drowning in the populist wave in which the people are cheering the king’s declared war against ISIL.

Stroke of genius

Nothing perhaps stands out higher than the stroke of genius that allowed the king, for now, to secure the neutrality – if not the support – of the radicalised wings of the country’s diverse and powerful Islamist forces, notably Salafi-Jihadism.

Jordan launches new air strikes against ISIL

The irony in all of this is that what is emerging is a Jordan-Jordan cacophony; more or less “Salafists” are now pitted against more or less jihadists of the same umbrella organisation, Salafi-Jihadism, which counts up to 5,000 members many of whom are today mobilised either in Syria (al-Nusra Front) or Iraq (ISIL).

The burning of the Jordanian pilot has more or less confused the growing number of sympathisers, who have until recently been dazzled by ISIL’s military gains such as in Mosul, with it being taken as the result of righteousness of cause and method as well as of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s leadership know-how and skill.

The burning has not only spawned an internal polemic about Islam’s position on the use of such brutal method, but also over the utility of such methods in serving the broader goals of Islam and Muslims.

An internal rethink

In a word, what the coalition’s jet-fighters and western security apparatuses have not been able to realise in their bid to weaken and divide Salafi-Jihadism, is happening as a result of the Jordanian pilot’s murder through an internal rethink of Baghdadi’s ISIL (a hodge podge of former Baathists and jihadists).

The Jordanian monarch is unwittingly helping this emerging schism. He is compensating for his past failure to employ political methods - in favour of security measures perhaps partly responsible for radicalisation of thousands of Jordanian youth.


The Jordanian monarch is unwittingly helping this emerging schism. He is compensating for his past failure to employ political methods – in favour of security measures perhaps partly responsible for the radicalisation of thousands of Jordanian youth – by the recent release of Salafi-Jihadism’s most prominent spiritual leader, Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi (real name Assim Barqawi) a Palestinian Jordanian.

Ironically, he was imprisoned under a revised anti-terror law that prohibits expression of ideas that may be interpreted to abet terrorism.

He was convicted and imprisoned late last year for condemning the US-led coalition war against ISIL, describing it as a kind of “crusade” against Islam.

It is not the release in itself that is significant; it is the timing that was forced by a spot of bother that embarrassed the king, his government and his intelligence services, despite its infiltration of both al-Nusra and ISIL; the inability to secure a deal that could have saved the captured pilot’s life.

Having been let down by ISIL, Maqdisi is now emerging as an incisive critic of ISIL interlocutors he was able to speak with from his prison cell, before his release last week.

He is the most prominent Salafi-Jihadi intellectual to-date to question some ISIL leaders’ use of lies and un-Islamic ways not only by deceiving him about the fact that the captured Jordanian pilot might have been killed weeks earlier, but also the doubts Maqdisi is now expressing about the entire ISIL project and its righteousness.

Could this be the onset of a process in which Salafi-Jihadists exchange declarations of “takfeer” (relegating a fellow Muslim to the sphere of unbelief)?

Thus far, King Abdullah’s cunning combines against mostly Jordanian Salafi-Jihadists threatening his kingdom along long border stretches with Iraq and Syria, the vitriol of the most famous and quietest Salafi-Jihadist learned scholar, his air force’s intensified bombing, and his own populist propaganda.

However, perhaps his fiery rhetoric partly masks the impotence of his small kingdom.  

The negatives: Possible backlash?

Jordan’s participation in the coalition against ISIL may, at least initially, have been a symbolic act; a Muslim nation fighting against a group claiming to have established a caliphate in Syria and Iraq.

What began as symbolic participation, may very well lead to Jordan being dragged into a conflict whose limits it does not and cannot define. In one form or another, this will produce a backlash among the kingdom’s radicalised youth. 

Furthermore, talk of an ideological battle also adds to the contentious mix of polarisation. The religious credentials of King Abdullah, a descendant of the Hashemites (the Prophet Muhammad’s family), do not travel far in the Muslim world.

A small desert kingdom so conspicuously dependent on outside forces is unable to muster much religious clout among Muslims. Hence the “Good Muslim” versus “Bad Muslim” type narrative could prove to be futile.

It neglects critical self-evaluation, including a review a la David Cameron in the UK of the state of political Islam, deficits in the absence of the state in areas of social justice, rule of law and democratic transition. The king has been ill-advised on viewing Islamism through a security prism – including the moderate Muslim Brotherhood.

Zaki Beni Irshid, its former deputy general guide, will be sentenced next week for merely writing an article criticising an Arab state – read by the king’s judges as “undermining relations with a friendly country”.

Winning the war against ISIL is not simply a question of a long war, security methods or a fiery rhetoric in the domain of religious narratives. But if it were so, then Jordan right now lacks the resources on both fronts.

Dr Larbi Sadiki is a senior lecturer in Middle East Politics at the University of Exeter, and author of Arab Democratisation: Elections without Democracy and The Search for Arab Democracy: Discourses and Counter-Discourses.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.