The Impact of Supranational Identities on Interests in Jordan’s Foreign Policy Making
When discussing Jordan’s role in the Middle East, observers and scholars often attribute a disproportionate large role to the kingdom despite its small size, lack of resources, and more powerful neighbors. Unlike neighboring Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon, Jordan does not suffer from the presence of a variety of ethno-religious identities; instead, a predominantly Sunni nation with about 6% Christian community illustrate homogeneity on the surface. However, looking deeper into the demographic fabric of Jordan, we see a number of sub-state identities that play a large role in influencing foreign policy decision making. More specifically, Jordan is a home to a multigeneration Jordanians of Palestinian origins in addition to Jordanians or “East Bankers” or “Transjordanians”. Such a demographic makeup often transcends a common national Jordanian identity, resulting into major prevalence of supranational identities such as pan-Arab and Pan-Islamist identities. These demographics and identities along with its location and geographic proximity to many protracted conflicts in the region require cautious and very calculated foreign policy making, often taking the shape of omni-balancing.
In this paper, I look at the dynamics between identities and interests in Jordan’s foreign policy making. I examine how Jordan’s supranational identities, namely Pan-Arabist and Pan-Islamist identities, shape and influence its interests. I argue that these identities intertwine and overlap, further complicating foreign policy decision making in a sense that such identities take precedence on the expense of state national interests and ultimately result in shaping these interests to align with these supranational identities. In furthering this argument, I explore Jordan’s role in the ongoing Arab-Israeli. More specifically, I analyze how the precedence of identities over interests impacts domestic dynamics, foreign policy orientation, and foreign policy outcomes.
In this case, supranational identities are those that transcend national identities. They are cross-border identities that often supersede nation states and their associated identities. Literature shows that this concept is vastly understudied, especially in the Middle East despite the fact that supranational identities are somewhat inescapable in the region given the underdevelopment of individual national identities. Instead, most literature studies this concept within the context of Europe. For instance, Zimmerbauer indicates that supranational identities contribute to the idea of bounded regions and regional identities, with Medrano, Ciornei, and Apaydin asserting that it implies solidarity, and Kennedy adding that supranational identities can be a stepping stone for democratization. Richard Lyons refers to supranational identities as an alternative form of identity, conversed with regional identities, national identities, place identities, historical and cultural identities, geographic identities, and socioeconomic and political identities, and together, they make “self-identity”. He asserts that a high degree of identification with a supranational identity may lead to a perceived conflict at the intra-national level.
Of the prevalent supranational identities in the Middle East and in Jordan, Pan-Arabist and Pan-Islamist identities are at the forefront. James Mellon indicates that these two identities provide a “supranational ideal transcending individual states as a focus of identity capable of shaping ends and means of foreign policy.” Adeed Dawisha in Arab Nationalism in the Twentieth Century: From Triumph to Despair looks at the foundation of Pan-Arab identity or Pan-Arab Nationalism as shaped by the rhetoric that Arab states can be stronger through economic, political, military, and cultural solidarity and cooperation. Arab Nationalists such as Gamal Abdel-Nasser and Baathists such as Hafez Al-Assad viewed Arab states as artificial entities, created by the West, to keep Arabs politically, economically, and militarily ineffective. This anti-imperialist narrative gave much attraction to this notion, propelling many Arabs to cling to this identity, as it remains a major draw until this very day. Ali Muhsen Hamed adds that much of this overarching consensus lies within the shared language and history that binds Arabs together, making the idea of transforming these bonds into political bonds appealing. Faheem Sheikh illustrates that while it has not been successful in achieving its goals (which have been contested in themselves), Pan-Arabism will remain prevalent as long as Israel remains in the region.
The second form of supranational identity is Pan-Islamic identity; that is the identification with the wider group of the Ummah. Cemil Ayden asserts that Pan-Islamist identity came into being as a response to the lack of leadership for the imagined Muslim World, which refers to narratives of geopolitics, civilization, and religious tradition. Ayden indicates that it is when Islam is under scrutiny or attack that Pan-Islamist identity is heightened. Moreover, Raymond Hinnerbusch reasons that historically, Arabs have identified with such groups far more intensely than they have with their territorial states. As such, many states and nonstate actors have worked towards utilizing this form of identity to rally support.
Supranational Identities in the Jordanian Context
How does Jordan view itself vis-à-vis these identities? Looking at the Jordanian constitution, Article 1 asserts that Jordan is a Hashemite Kingdom, it is an Arab state, and the Jordanian people is a part of the Arab Nation. Article 2 adds that Islam is the religion of the state. These two articles show identification and association with the overall Arab and Islamic identities. As for how Jordanians view themselves. The World Values Survey data shows that religion is very important for Jordanians, as stated by 95.4% of the general public, with 77.2% said unprompted that religious faith should be taught to children at home, 93.1% feel close to the Arab World, and 95.6% feel close to the Islamic World.
As such, it is evident that Jordan and Jordanians place great value and identify largely with Arabs and Muslims, but how does this affect foreign policy decision making? Mitzen asserts that states need to experience one-self as a whole to ensure their ontological security, Darwich adds that security is ensured vis-à-vis a stable conception of self-identity. Further unwrapping this conception, if a state has many competing identities, how does it maintain its security, let alone its interests. Acknowledging this challenge, Jordan prioritized people’s contestations of its identity and worked on shaping its interests as byproduct, as Lynch asserts “Jordan’s foreign policy can be best explained by incorporating public contestation of identity in which the interests of the state came to be defined rather than simply pursued.” Such a Constructivist method utilizes what is known as Steven David’s omni-balancing or Hinnerbusch’s domestic security dilemma. In essence, Jordan’s preferences are constructed through the intertwining and overlapping dynamics of these supranational identities, propelling Jordan to give its national interest in foreign policy making a passenger seat to the supranational identities, which in turn shape its foreign policy orientation to align more clearly with these identities, as they become the prime foreign policy determinants.
The Case of the Palestinian-Israeli Conflict
The Palestinian-Israeli conflict is Jordan’s most important foreign policy issue. Its importance stems from geographic proximity posing a security threat. It also stems from Jordan’s Pan-Arab and Pan-Islamic identities, along with the presence of a sizeable Palestinian community in the kingdom. Within this conflict, Jordan exhibits a major struggle between identities and interests, particularly through its dealings with Israel. Marc Lynch indicates that there are “sharp contradictions between demands of identity and of interests,” whereby Jordan’s identities would place Israel as its eternal enemy while its interests would view Israel as a necessary strategic partner. Jordan has carried out its dealings with Israel privately, “cautious of open collaboration that would place Jordan outside the Arab consensus and in violation of its own identity.
With the two options in mind (enemy or partner), Jordan approached the conflict cautiously. For many years, Jordan has been a strong advocate for the Two State Solution, particularly since its first official participation in direct Palestinian-Israeli peace talks that resulted in The Wye River Memorandum in 1998. King Abdullah, since ascending to the throne in 1999, placed major priority over the Two State Solution, often asserting that it is the only option and the only solution to the conflict and to peace in the region. He indicated numerous times that Jordan’s stance will not change. This is attributed to many reasons, as indicated earlier, but another reason is the Hashemite custodianship over Muslim and Christian holy sites in Jerusalem, a near century long responsibility of the Jordan monarch, a source of legitimacy domestically, and a bargaining piece within the conflict. This custodianship has been contested; in fact, in 2017, the Saudi monarchy made public assertions that they look to challenge it. This can be explained through Darwich’s ontological insecurity of similarity argument, that Saudi’s leadership of the Islamic world is hindered in the presence of the Hashemites’ custodianship over Jerusalem’s religious sites.
Saudi’s remarks followed the United States’ decision to move its embassy to Jerusalem from Tel Aviv, a move that preceded its declared “Deal of the Century”. Trump’s election into presidency saw a disruption to the peace process and associated resolution of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, as he essentially argued that a Two State Solution should not be the only option on the table. The Deal of the Century is proclaimed as the ultimate solution to the conflict, but it essentially ends the Palestinian quest and their right to return, with more Palestinians will be expelled from their homes into Jordan as their “substitute home.” One can argue that King Abdullah retrospectively warned of such an alteration. In fact, in his book Our Last Best Chance: The Pursuit of Peace in a Time of Peril, he argues that “if we do not seize the opportunity presented by the now almost unanimous international consensus on the solution, I am certain we will see another war in our region-most likely worse than those that have gone before and with more disastrous consequences.”
The departure from the previously quasi-unanimous Two State Solution poses major complications for Jordan’s foreign policy making, particularly with the aforementioned supranational identities intact. Essentially, following the reveal of the proposed deal, Jordan has been pressurized by various world and regional leaders to alter its position on the deal, with various accounts conforming attempts to penetrate Jordan’s political and security institutions to weaken its position on the Palestinian cause. King Abdullah’s response to the Deal of the Century has been manifested through three No’s: “no to giving in on Jerusalem”; “no to alternative homeland for the Palestinians in Jordan”; and “no to settling the Palestinians in Jordan” which received an average of 94% strong support among Jordanians, as shown by a national poll conducted in August 2019.
Jordan’s seemingly unshaken position is driven by the fact that Jordan holds a vast majority of Jordanians of Palestinian origins and Palestinian refugees. As such it is imperative for Jordan to advocate for their rights. The alternative homeland rhetoric also poses a threat to Jordan’s own sovereignty as well as to the Palestinians’ right of return. In exchange for this firm stance, Jordan has been under massive pressure; for example, the Saudi-owned Ritz Carlton luxury hotel project in Amman has been halted and listed for sale for “government stubbornness”. There have also been many reports of an attempted coup or infiltrations into the Jordanian system. Many international nongovernment organizations have reduced their work in Jordan, particularly in the humanitarian sector. Additionally, with the rising unemployment rates in Jordan and the stagnant economic situation, it has been reported that Jordan would be financially pressured into agreement, as the United States can stop its annual $1.275b financial aid package to Amman while the Gulf States have been pumping endowments into the Central Bank of Jordan to further lure in the kingdom. Moreover, Jordan has been promised a share of the Saudi pledged $50b mega projects in Jordan, Egypt, Gaza, the West Bank, and Egypt.
Domestically, countless demonstrations have further solidified Jordan’s stance on the matter. However, one additional matter was conflated with the Deal of the Century: a natural gas deal between Jordan’s NEPCO (National Electric Power Company) and the US-based Noble Energy to supply Jordan with natural gas, albeit imported from Israel. This deal, while would provide Jordan with favorable prices, it would both position Israel as a mega provider of natural gas in the region and place Jordan under further pressure domestically. In fact, following the unveiling of the Deal of Century, Jordanians took to the streets to protest the gas deal as well, under the slogan “enemy gas is an occupation”.
As such, Jordan’s foreign policy making in the midst of all of this is as complicated as ever. On the one hand, political and economic pressures mount with rising unemployment and deteriorating economic situation. The kingdom is risking not only its biggest financial provider in the United States, but also its most important political ally. It would also risk the $1.5b penalty clause for the gas deal along with the risk of going back to the international market, a move that saw tremendous daily losses, particularly following a series of bombings of the Egyptian gas pipelines during the Egyptian revolution. And most importantly, Jordan is risking its political role on the peace process map, as its political and military power relative to the rest of the actors entail that it cannot sustain the pressures for long. On the other hand, Jordan would gain tremendous financial and economic benefits from the United States and especially the Gulf States, but it would be risking domestic support, from both Jordanians and those of Palestinian origins. As such, the situation can be best described as a process of clipping Jordan’s wings.
With that, if we were to look at the situation from the Realist point of view, it is mostly in Jordan’s best interest to agree to the deal to sustain its national, economic, and political securities. However, Jordan’s supranational identities are likely to trump such interests, with Jordanians’ closeness and identification and affiliation with the Arab and Islamic worlds add a serious dimension to be addressed. As a result, Jordan is left with the imperative to omni-balance the situation, with the spectrum leaning more towards the domestic security dilemma which is shaped by supranational identities.
As such, it is more realistic to illustrate the situation through a Constructivist point of view. As indicated earlier, a Realist point of view would propel Jordan to sign off on the deal; however, with increasingly vocal demonstrators, Jordan had to proceed with caution. In essence, a strictly economic deal (i.e. NEPCO’s deal with Noble Energy) was faced with major public discontent, meaning the kingdom cannot even justify its signing on the Deal of the Century, regardless of how unlikely that is. In other words, Jordan’s deal with Noble gave a realistic indicator to further shape its foreign policy orientation in the conflict, in a learning process that further shapes its interests. This means that Jordan’s interests came to be rather defined through this conflict, and they are likely to sustain themselves, particularly that any change in Jordanians’ identities is unlikely. Ultimately, the king’s “Three No’s” represent Pan-Arab and Pan-Islamic identities and even interests, a process that shows an adoption and application of the public’s supranational identities onto its own national interests.
Understanding that it cannot possibly emerge out of this crisis without losses, Jordan looks to balance its national security with its domestic security dilemmas while looking to ensure the most favorable outcome out of this unfavorable identity-interest dichotomy. Jordan’s foreign policy making toward the Palestinian-Israeli conflict especially amid the Deal of the Century has been more shaped by its identities rather than interests. It prioritizes its supranational identities over its national interests, elevating the importance of domestic security dilemma higher than the traditional security dilemma, and further leaning the spectrum of omnibalancing domestically. As such, Jordan has and will likely continue to place greater priority on its supranational identities over its interests. Finally, given Jordan’s decision making resilience and history of forging middle paths, it has shifted its interests to align more clearly with its supranational identities, following a constructivist learning process of its own identities.
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The once vibrant wetland culture of Hamun has now become a relic with scenes of abandoned boats and dried up lake beds
It seems only a few decades ago, when Iran was home to some of the Earth’s most fertile and agricultural land. Large permanent rivers flowed through and contributed sediment-rich soil to the abundant oasis that previously characterized Khuzestan, a southwestern province of Iran. Similarly, Iran’s historical southeastern Sistan-Baluchistan Province, housed a once-vibrant agricultural community and vast wetlands known as the Hamun Wetlands, an oasis in an otherwise Mars-like landscape.
Khuzestan Province neighbor Iraq’s southern marshlands is an area historically known as the Mesopotamian Marshes. The region is often referred to as the ‘Cradle of Civilization’ for being home to ancient civilizations, such as Sumer and Babylon who made sophisticated use of the dense marshland. Surrounded by a vast arid landscape, has made it a unique yet abundant biome filled with fish, migratory birds, and even big cats such as lions, tigers, leopards, and cheetahs that once heavily prowled but have had their ranges significantly reduced due to human activity.
Prior to the onset of desertification and 20-year drought that began after the 1950s due to Afghanistan building a dam on the Helmand River, these once thriving cradles of civilizations have become desolate wastelands resulting in the exposure of both lakebeds and the consequences of human negligence on the environment. The once vibrant wetland culture of Hamun has now become a relic with scenes of abandoned boats in dried up lake beds and skeletal remains of fish baking in the scorching sun being common sightings.
When we think about climate change, our minds often evoke replayed images that you see on commercials for climate change advocacy such as melting ice caps, rising sea levels, and island nations being swallowed up which does not cover the whole story of our changing planet.
“Desertification is a slow-moving disaster,” says Dr. Kristina Shull, a current post-doctoral fellow at Harvard University. Shull specializes in the intersections of history, migration and policy and noted this process is in part a result of water mismanagement, such as the over-use of dams, as well as government corruption. “Local and regional politics are also shaped by global inequalities exacerbated by US sanctions and histories of colonialism,” she says.
Desertification, drought, dust storms, and rising temperatures in the Middle East are largely an overlooked topic, mainly due to its numerous conflicts, sectarian schisms, and ongoing proxies that achieve mainstream media attention.
Neighboring the harsh mountainous desert terrain of both Pakistan and Afghanistan, Iran’s southeast-eastern province of Sistan and Baluchestan Province is one of the least developed regions of Iran taking shape in a lack of infrastructure and economic development resulting in the region having the lowest per capita income in Iran. This purposeful neglect has resulted in over 70 percent of the Baloch living below the poverty line by State Department estimates due to state-sponsored marginalization-resulting from the Baloch being a Sunni minority in a Shiite theocracy. This, coupled with having to face extreme drought has prompted resistance and anger towards the Iranian government among the local majority ethnic population — its Baloch-Sunni residents. Dry winds, similar to the wildfire igniting Santa Ana winds of California, dominate the region and are known as the “Wind of 120 Days”, and have a fearsome reputation among U.S. service members in Afghanistan who faced these winds first-hand with numerous injuries being attributed to being physically lifted up and being pegged by loose objects. However, the number of days in this storybook title is increasing as the lack of moisture fuels the intensity and recurrence of these harsh desert winds.
A prime example of this crisis can be seen in southern Iran where thermometers consistently hit a scorching 110F (43.3C), and maximum temperatures of 131F (55C) being recorded at an alarmingly increased rate. For U.S. readers to relate, Iran is undergoing a modern-day Dust Bowl.
Notably, climate migration within the Middle East is a growing contributor to internal displacement and deserves more attention from the mainstream media and multilateral action. Minority-inhabited territories such as Khuzestan and Balochistan, with already marginalized local tribes, are generally rich in resources and agricultural potential. Yet exploitative policies coupled with water mismanagement due to corruption are severely affecting traditional livelihoods. This mismanagement and political negligence have exacerbated the environmental crisis in addition to humanitarian impacts encompassing food insecurity, mass migration, health hazards, soil deterioration and desertification. “Those on the front lines and who are most directly affected are often of indigenous or minority communities who have been historically and economically marginalized and experiencing environmental racism as a result,” states Dr. Shull.
The Baloch tribes, local to Balochistan, depended on managing fisheries along the Hamun river for survival – an oasis in a barren landscape. Following drastic and swift change of the landscape due to drought, the local Baloch have had to pack up their former livelihoods and migrate elsewhere where they will likely face discrimination. Nearly one-fifth of the Sistan-Baluchistan province’s inhabitants have either had to move to neighboring provinces inland or are at-risk of being displaced immediately due to deteriorating conditions. Likewise in Khuzestan Province to the west of Sistan-Baluchistan, many agricultural livelihoods depended on producing and exporting lucrative crops such as dates, wheat, barley, and sugar cane. Today, these livelihoods are at stake with the lack of moisture in drying plains allowing dust to rise before winds carry it away creating unstable and weakened soil, which is not ideal for agriculture. The weakened soil has made it susceptible to being blown away forming into massive dust storms which encapsulates major cities such as Abadan and Ahvaz.
The environmental impact from desertification has become detrimental both to the health and livelihoods of the local populace resulting in residents emigrating en-masse to northern Iranian cities in order to escape desertification.
The wetlands of Hamun suffered major dry spells by the start of 1950s but the conditions worsened significantly in the late 1990s where Southern Iran suffered a water crisis. By 2011, Khuzestan had the third largest level of emigration — behind Tehran and East Azerbaijan Provinces. The negative environmental impact in Khuzestan is so bad that it has caused many government employees, enjoying the most stable jobs in Iran through its current economic crisis, to even submit requests to move to other cities due to the mismanagement of water and the accompanying drought making conditions unbearable. By 2018, drinkable water had become so scarce, it had to be rationed among individual Abadan residents.
In both regions of Iran, development projects in the form of dams take some of the blame in these drastic environmental changes. Dam projects resulting in environmental catastrophe seem to be the norm in recent years, as evidenced by tragedies such as the Brumadinho dam disaster in Brazil earlier this year. Per the norm, against the advice of environmental experts and cautionary preliminary studies, the Gotvand Dam was built upon the Karun River near the Gachsaran Salt Mine in Khuzestan Province in 2012, to supply sugar cane plants with hydro-electric energy and since then has increased water salinity to levels that inhibit its use in agriculture and even drinking. This has had a primarily negative impact on the marginalized Ahwazi Arabs of Iran who’s farming livelihoods have been hampered by increased salinity levels from the Gotvand Dam.
Development projects and political corruption go hand-in-hand in producing disastrous results for the environment. The local populaces contend that the detrimental decision-making is because none of the cabinet members of Presidential administrations came from either of these regions, despite their economic and political importance due to water, farming and oil resources as well as a sizeable heavy industry base and electricity generation. Instead, ministries are dominated by relatively powerful local figures made up of both politicians and clerics, from Isfahan, Kerman, and Yazd, provinces who profit from the exploitation of these regions by operating in a mafia-like manner rife with embezzlement of state-funds and payoffs, similar to that of the political machines of the late-19th century in the United States who effectively ruled cities such as Chicago – a common theme now in authoritarian countries marked by a lack of effective internal oversight. Disenfranchised farmers stripped of their livelihoods have even disrupted official prayer ceremonies that are essentially religious distractions to showcase false piety and turn attention away from the real issues, such as the case in Isfahan in 2018 where farmers from rural areas banded together and turned their backs towards the aforementioned corrupt clerics while chanting anti-state slogans in a show of solidarity.
“Climate change contributes to social conflict and unrest we are seeing world-wide. However, governmental responses that are repressive create a feedback loop that in turn exacerbates the disparate impacts of climate change, social inequities, and so on,” states Dr. Shull
The lack of inclusivity in the policy-making process increases the marginalization of ethnic minorities such as the Ahwazi Arabs and Balochis in terms of policy impacts. While both ethnic groups have been represented by organized armed resistance from their fringes towards the Iranian government in response to state marginalization, both the Ahwazi Arab and Baloch people face a changing environment and climate as the ultimate obstacle in achieving stable livelihoods while voicing their frustrations with the state. While individuals attempt to stay in their ancestral homelands of Khuzestan and Balochistan, others feel the strain of staying in an unstable environment and migrate towards more developed urban centers in the north of Iran to achieve new livelihoods.
First Published on Eon Magazine
An Analysis of the Triadic Relationship of Saudi, Iran, and Jordan and The Impact on Pan-Islamism in the Post-Cold War Era
The Cold War era in the Middle East saw the emergence of various colliding ideologies, with kingdoms ideologically deterring Nasser’s Pan-Arabism quest at the core of the mid-twentieth century. The post-Cold War era was just as scrambled in the Middle East as it was throughout the world. With global powers marking the end of their mega financial and security support to their-once-proxies, the Middle East was set for the emerging Sunni-Shia rhetoric to be heightened at its central stage. As such, Saudi Arabia and Iran began to exert their spheres of influence in the region, and by the start of the second decade of the twenty-first century, one can argue that Muslim states in the region are aligned with one sphere or the other.
Despite different social and political ideologies penetrating Middle Eastern states at the national and local levels, Islamic ideologies retained their importance not only in shaping state dynamics, but also in shaping Pan-Islamism, as states pushed their own versions of the Muslim World. Since the decline of the Ottoman Empire and ultimately its fall, Muslim states sought to revitalize the role of the leader of the Muslim World. Three states have been at the forefront of this quest in the Post-Cold War era: Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Jordan. Both Saudi Arabia and Iran see themselves as the rightful and legitimate leader of the Muslim World, while Jordan’s Hashemite leadership has advanced its own imaginative Muslim World through the lenses of Hashemite legitimacy. On the local level, the Arab Barometer Wave II illustrates that 54% of Saudi Arabian respondents and 44% of Jordanian respondents disagree that religious practices are private and should be separated from social and political life. Similarly, according to the World Values Survey, 94.3% of Iranian respondents and a staggering 99.5% of Jordanian respondents characterize religion as either “rather important” or “very important,” ultimately showcasing the role played by religion in state-state relations, state-society dynamics, and societal relations.
While the conventional discussion of the Muslim World in the modern era automatically is inherently narrow, placing Saudi Arabia as the global leader of Sunnis and Iran as the global leader of Shiites, the role played by the Hashemites in Jordan is ought to be incorporated in the discussion of Pan-Islamism. As such, this paper explores the impact of the triad of Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Jordan on Pan-Islamism. It addresses the roles played and the avenues utilized by these states in filling the vacuum of Pan-Islamism and advancing their geopolitical interests. As such, this triad’s attempt to exert religious legitimacy and exercise the lead role in the Muslim World has changed in the past 28 years, and it has resulted in enabling non-state actors to pursue their own versions of Pan-Islamic thought, albeit through violent extremist means.
In order to explore the impact of this triad on Pan-Islamism, it is important to define what a triad and Pan-Islamism are. Alex Mintz defines triads in his article “Triads in International Relations: The Effect of Superpower Aid, Trade, and Arms Transfers on Conflict in the Middle East.” He indicates that triads consist of three members of the international community, such as countries A, B, and C. He adds that any two countries of a triad “may be linked through formal or informal alliance structures, while two may have a hostile relationship or one nation has influence on the other two nations.” Furthermore, Lee, Muncaster, and Zinnes explore triadic interactions through their module of: “the friend of my friend is my friend, the friend of my enemy is my enemy, the enemy of my enemy is my friend, and the enemy of my friend is my enemy.” The authors add that this rule manifests itself in the creation and preservation of the polarity of regions, as the nature of relations whether amiable or hostile intensify with time. These dynamics can be seen, at face value, in the triad of Saudi, Iran, and Jordan. With the first two in a clear intensifying hostility, Jordan’s position had to be determined with this increasing conflictual relationship.
As for the Muslim World and Pan-Islamism, Cemile Aydin, in his book “The Idea of the Muslim World: A Global Intellectual History,” explores these notions throughout the late 18th century until the end of the Cold War. The idea of the Muslim world and Pan-Islamism embrace and incorporate the notion of Muslim unity. In fact, Cemile Aydin illustrates that the idea of the Muslim World refers to narratives of geopolitics, civilization, and religious tradition. He adds that it does not mean Ummah, which refers to the Muslim community, expressing unity and theoretical equality of Muslims from diverse cultural and geographical settings. Both Cemile Aydin and Dwight Lee attribute the emergence of the idea of the Muslim World as well as Pan-Islamism to Europeans’ categorization of race. Aydin indicates that Pan-Islamists and Islamophobes utilized the imaginative idea of Muslim unity in ways to advance their own agenda, as they argued for and responded to racialization. Lee adds that Pan-movements emerged as a trend, responding to Europeans’ racialization of groups. He argues that Pan-Islamism “was probably adopted as an imitation of Pan-Slavism.”
Many of the themes and parameters he utilized in his analysis are still prevalent today, including Muslim unity and solidarity, narratives of Islamophobia, Pan-Islamic discourse, public opinion, and state and non-state actors attempting to fill the vacuum left by the caliphate. As such and given the rise of ferocious extremist organizations, it is important to analyze the extent to which the contemporary shape of the Muslim World, particularly the aforementioned triangle, contributed to allowing the motives and space for such organizations to advance their own agenda. The prevalent geopolitical rivalry of Sunna-Shia and its inability to produce appropriate responses to islamophobic narrative have fragmented the Muslim World and hindered Pan-Islamic thought and ultimately allowed for terrorist organizations to gain a voice in the discourse despite Jordan’s efforts.
Relations Among the Three States
Before discussing the roles played by the triad, it is important to provide a background about the relations between the three countries. The following section offers an overview of the relations of Saudi Arabia with Iran, Saudi Arabia with Jordan, and Iran with Jordan.
Saudi Arabian-Iran Relations
The dynamics and relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran can be viewed through the lenses of the Realist international affairs theory, with emphasis on rivalry, distrust, and embracing conflictual relations to gain internal support. Scholars including Cemile Aydin in The Idea of the Muslim World, Shahram Chubin and Charles Tripp in Iran-Saudi Arabia Relations and Regional Order, Gwenn Okruhlik in “Saudi Arabian-Iranian Relations: External Rapprochement and Internal Consolidation,” and Frederic Wehrey et. al in Saudi-Iranian Relations since the Fall of Saddam: Rivalry, Cooperation, and Implications for US Policy, all provided analyses of Saudi-Iran relations through realism.
Saudi-Iranian relations cannot be addressed without understanding the impact of the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran and the dynamics it posed on the region in general and in Saudi Arabia in specific. In fact, the aforementioned scholars marked the revolution as the start of their rivalry, and this rivalry has been manifested in religious legitimacy and regional security and hegemony. Aydin asserts that Saudi Arabia feared the impact of the revolution on its internal societal fabrics, given the sizeable Shiite community. Iran’s leadership began voicing an anti-West and anti-allies-of-the-West narrative, with Saudi Arabia at the core, as they saw the Kingdom as America’s eyes, ears, and hands in the region. As such, ties with the United States has been an integral part of Iran’s narrative in the region. More specifically, Iran sees Saudi as a “client of the US” who implements the orders provided from Washington, an outside force to which it denounces a “demonic role”. These orders include economic issues such as oil prices and political matters with Palestine at the core.
The 1979 Islamic Revolution marked the beginning of the religious primacy rivalry. Aydin reports Ayatollah Khomeini’s narrative towards Saudi Arabia, arguing that the leaders of the Kingdom has failed to be a leader of the Muslim World, and it was time for Iran to demonstrate its religious legitimacy, as they questioned the compatibility of monarchy with true Islam. With time, the relationship between the two states became centered around competition for legitimacy as leaders of Islam. For Saudi Iran’s threat was about the power of the ideals portrayed by its leaders who sought to expand revolutionary Islam, as a foil to Saudi’s failed policies. As such, Iran’s model proclaimed the spread of true Islam, and that as its rightful leaders, they would speak as its imaginative universal authority. They saw Saudi’s approach as passive, unlike Iran’s which supported Muslim rights, albeit through militant means.
Khomeini saw his divine right to rule and urged the Shiite community in Saudi to fulfill their roles and follow the example of Iran, whereas King Fahd of Saudi countered with asserting that Iran’s actions were “against the interests of Islam, the Muslim World, and the stability of the Middle East.”
Saudi Arabia was facing its own internal issues, including the ramifications of the 1979 Islamic Revolutions on the social dynamics, the rise of oppositions, Islamism, succession struggles, demonstrations, the effects of the Gulf War, and socioeconomic issues. With struggle comes opportunity, and for Saudi’s leadership, it was time to embrace an outside enemy to suppress the internal issues. Gwen Okruhlik argues that regimes facing issues at home create enemies abroad for the idea that external conflict results in internal cohesion, manifested in rallying around the flag. As such, Saudi Arabia began to move away from the possibility of reconciliation with Iran and more towards embracing it as its inherent ideological enemy, to face domestic issues.
In a region of majority Arab Sunni states, Iran’s worldview of the Middle East has been one of insecurity, particularly following the 1979 Revolution, the subsequent war with Iraq, and the Gulf War. Kayhan Barzegar illustrates that while Iran’s posture in the Middle East is inherently one of insecurity, the solution does not lie within policies of containment, isolation, or destabilization. An International Crisis Group report titled “Iran’s Priorities in a Turbulent Middle East,” further highlights the roots of Iran’s sense of insecurity in the region, asserting that Iran was at the wrong end of a tremendous sense of strategic solitude throughout the war with Iraq. It was the fact that Arab states stood behind Saddam’s government in hopes of containing Iran’s revolutionary ideals from spreading into the region, thus pushing Iran towards forging relations with Hafez Al-Assad in Syria and establishing Hezbollah in Lebanon.
Consequently, with the fall of Saddam and the Baathists in Iraq, Iran’s arguably biggest rival was gone, resulting in further concerns in Saudi Arabia over Iran’s regional ambitions manifested in expanding its sphere of influence by not only physically surrounding the Kingdom with allies but also by outshining its leadership in major Pan-Arab issues including Palestine. Moreover, from 2003 up until the end of the first wave of the Arab Spring, Saudi Arabia, all of a sudden, found itself surrounded by Iran’s allies and proxies. Baghdad, Damascus, Beirut, Qatar, and Yemen are now within Iran’s sphere of influence, gaining the Islamic Republic a geographic advantage over the Kingdom, thus, perhaps leveling the military superiority which has kept Saudi feeling safe.
Saudi Arabian-Jordanian Relations
Saudi-Jordanian relations are now among the most important and strategic in the region. Multiple data sources show that Jordanians have a high favorable views toward Saudi, with 83% of Jordanians describing their views as very favorable in 2017. Arab Barometer Data highlight the economic relations between the two states, as 78% of Jordanians indicated their hopes for the economic relations with Saudi to became stronger in 2017 than it was in the year before. Data from Konrad Adenauer Stiftung illustrate that 22.4% of Jordanians view Saudi as Jordan’s strongest ally, second to the United States, while 58% perceived Saudi to have an influence on Jordan. Moreover, current relations between the two countries are highly positive. One can argue that the relations are good because of economic reasons and because of geopolitical reasons.
Jordan’s economic stagnation has caused tremendous tension internally. Saudi Arabia, concerned for the impact an unstable Jordan could have on an already gruesome situation in the region, ran to Jordan’s aid. In 2011 Jordan received $1.7 billion, in aid from the GCC, mainly Saudi, United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, and Qatar, as part of a $5 billion in financial aid for development in Jordan. In addition to this, Saudi Arabia is a home to a sizeable number of Jordanian workers. Of the 750,000 Jordanians working abroad, it is estimated that 400,000 work in Saudi Arabia, who actively send remittances home. These remittances sent by Jordanian workers in Saudi comprise for 10% of Jordan’s GDP ($3.8 billion) annually. These economic factors, in the form of foreign aid and remittances, are not the only factors shaping relations between the two countries, as geopolitical factors play an integral role.
In fact, one can argue that Saudi Arabia’s alliance with Jordan serves towards its own sphere of influence to counter Iran’s. The rise of Iran as a geopolitical force along with its perceived threat on the region’s Sunni monarchies led both Jordan and Saudi to each other. At a first glance, the alliance is imbalanced with Saudi’s wealth far surpasses Jordan’s, who remains reliant on the financial support of its allies, including Saudi Arabia. However, Jordan is just as important for Saudi Arabia. Jordan’s location is strategic for Saudi in its quest for containing Iran’s expanding bloc. The two countries have implemented numerous military strategies together. On the ideological level, Jordan being a Sunni Arab monarchy is just like Saudi and a direct foil to Iran.
The current relations between the two kingdoms tend to turn a blind eye on their darker past. The two kingdoms did not always see eye to eye. King Hussein of Jordan over the span of 4 decades kept Saudi on their toes. He consistently highlighted his direct descent from prophet Muhammad and that he was the grandson of Sherif Hussein bin Ali, the leader of the Great Arab Revolt, thus giving him a legitimate claim over Arab leadership. King Hussein sent hints and messages at Saudi indicating that his ancestors came from Saudi and one day he could regain that. Given the nature of the rise of the Al-Sauds, such claims had to be taken seriously.
Putting these differences aside, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait sought to lure in Jordan with financial aid. In the 1970s, over 40% of all budgetary aid of the two Gulf countries was provided to Jordan in the form of grants, subsidized oil, or low-interest loans. Jordanian workers were sending remittances back to Jordan. Thus, both factors were enhancing Jordan’s economic stability. For Saudi Arabia, a stable Jordan was essential for its own security, as Jordan was a buffer from the Arab-Israeli conflict and radical ideologies. By the mid 1980s, Saudi and Kuwait began decreasing their foreign aid to Jordan, due to the ramifications of the Iran-Iraq war in which the two countries were spending big, as oil prices decreased. As such, Jordan turned to form alliances with two of its most immediate neighbors: Syria and Iraq. With Syria, Jordan had hoped to increase bilateral trade and form a united front in seeking funds from the GCC. Jordan’s alliance with Iraq was problematic for Syria and for Saudi Arabia later on. When Jordan needed to make a decision between Iraq and Syria, Iraq’s financial prospects to Jordan made the difference.
Jordan’s relations with Iraq solidified, and in 1990, Jordan was one of the very few countries who stood with Iraq in its invasion of Kuwait. This has led to tensions between Amman and Ryadh. For King Hussein of Jordan, Baghdad was essential, and his alliance with Saddam Hussein was financially rewarding in aid and oil support. With the 2003 US invasion of Iraq, Jordan remained a channel for Iraqi funds, businessmen, and even trade exchanges to circumvent the blockade. Later on, it dawned on Jordan that it had just lost one of its most important economic and political, let alone wealthy allies, sending Jordan back towards restoring and strengthening ties with Saudi Arabia. The situation this time was less problematic for Saudi, as King Abdullah II of Jordan was unlike his father. King Abdullah acknowledged his Jordanian identity and worked towards building a solidified Jordanian identity on the basis of pride in country and flag. The byproduct of such actions was that Saudi no longer feared a Jordanian imaginative divine return to Saudi lands as its rightful leaders.
While current relations are positive, they are not at the peak they reached in 2011 – 2016 anymore, for two important reasons. Jordanian public opinion has been growing more critical of Saudi Arabia, particularly in regards to the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi. The brutality of the action and the media attention it gained affected Jordanians’ views toward Saudi. The second important matter is the issue in Jerusalem, in what has become to be known as the “Deal of the Century.” Deal of the Century is portrayed as the ultimate solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict, and it entails the end of the Palestinian quest and their right to return. Instead, more Palestinians will be expelled from their homes into Jordan as their “substitute home.”
A brief analysis of the region shows that major GCC countries including Saudi Arabia have signed off on the deal, leaving Jordan behind as a strong antagonist to the deal. King Abdullah II of Jordan spoke consistently and repeatedly that Jordan is a red line and will never succumb to any pressures, and that he will continue to advocate for the Two State Solution. The Gulf countries led by Saudi seem to be persistent on realizing the deal. June of 2018 saw a major wave of demonstrations in Jordan against structural adjustments and taxation laws. Saudi Arabia and UAE pledged $2.5 billion in aid to Jordan, presumably to support the kingdom out of its economic struggles, though many sources suggest that the underlying message was to pressure Jordan towards accepting the deal.
Jordan’s relations with Iran are much more complicated to unfold. While 83% of Jordanians indicated high favorable views of Saudis in 2017, only 4% of Jordanians indicated high favorability towards Iran. Jordanian-Iranian relations have resembled a roller-coaster, with times the two states enjoyed great relations, with other times they would appear as bitter rivals. Interestingly, and despite Saudi Arabia’s influence on Jordan’s stance towards Iran, it was not until recent years that Jordan began dealing with Iran as Saudi’s rival.
Dr. Mohannad Mobidien argues that Jordan-Iran’s relations were characterized by cooperation and understanding during Iran’s monarchy era between 1949 – 1979. King Hussein of Jordan and Mohammed Reza Pahlavi of Iran inaugurated Jordan’s embassy in Tehran in 1959. Jordan and Iraq had agreed to counter the United Arab Republic by creating the Arab United Kingdom in 1965, however, the revolution in Iraq ended the prospect for that, thus pushing Jordan towards bolstering its relations with Iran to ensure sovereignty, independence, and security. In 1960, however, relations between the two countries began to worsen when Iran recognized Israel. While the Shah of Iran reiterated that it was not a new stance for Iran, King Hussein of Jordan urged him to change his position. Later on, while Jordan recognized the Palestinian Authority and Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) as the legitimate representatives of Palestinians, Iran acknowledged Hamas as the legal representatives of Palestinians.
Jordan’s leadership welcomed the new “Islamic Republic” following the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran with open arms. Will Fulton, however, indicates that relations between the two countries were immediately strained with the establishment of the Islamic Republic. It was all due to the fact that King Hussein held close ties with the Pahlavi monarchy of Iran. Nevertheless, the war with Iraq meant that Jordan had to take a position. As such, King Hussein backed Iraq in all conferences, meetings, summits, and visits around the world. Jordan provided volunteer fighters to Iraq and established fifteen centers in Amman which recruited 2,500 volunteers to fight for Iraq. As King Hussein continued to support Iraq in all means possible, including granting access to port of Aqaba for transporting military supplies, Syria mirrored Jordan’s actions with Iran and provided it with ground and airspace, transporting 1,500 Iranian soldiers to South Lebanon.
After the Gulf war, Jordan’s alliance with Iraq against Iran hindered ties between the two countries, especially that many reports suggested direct Jordanian involvement with Iraq against Iran, an action that is harder to reconcile from. With the passing of Khomeini in 1989, Iran’s foreign policy in the region turned towards normalization relations with Arab neighbors, which meant that they had to ensure that their policies do not involve “exporting the revolution.” During the second Gulf War in 1990, Jordan’s position at the United Nations kept relations positive with Iran, as Jordan’s representative to Iran and later the Foreign Minister visited Iran. Such actions steered diplomatic relations back on track. The situation did not last long, as Jordan discovered a violent extremist organization under the name “Jadish Mohammad” who admitted receiving support from Iran. A few months later, Jordan discovered armories which it perceived as a direct threat to the regime. Hamas admitted that the source was Iran, but the aim was to supply the West Bank.
In 1994, Jordan signed the Wadi Araba Peace Treaty with Israel, which sparked massive criticisms from Iran. Jordan expelled Iran’s ambassador in Jordan along with 21 diplomats under the charges of establishing terrorist cells in Jordan for both Hamas and Hezbollah, and following the killing of a Jordanian diplomat in West Beirut. Three years later, the election of Mohammed Khatami as Iran’s new president saw the resumption of diplomatic relations. Once again, however, tensions flared quickly, as Jordan arrested four Palestinians coming from Iran carrying huge amount of money, believed to be for plotting operations against Israel. Then, Jordan discovered a 16-member cell and arrested 83 others who received training in Iran. King Abdullah II of Jordan raised the issue with George W. Bush, a move that was not received too softly in Iran and accused King Abdullah of inciting the US against Iran.
In 2010, King Abdullah urged president Obama to refrain from military force against Iran, referring to it as “Pandora’s Box.” King Abdullah asserted that Iran’s strength lies in rhetoric of injustice against Palestinians and Jerusalem, and that once those cards are off the table, Iran’s influence through Hezbollah and Hamas decreases substantially. He added that Iran has positioned itself as an advocate of Palestinian affairs, and as long as Israel commits human rights violations against Palestinians, Iran will keep revamping its military and causing tension in the region.
Despite all of these tensions, the situation never escalated further than that. The influx of Iraqi refugees into Jordan, however, brought a sizeable portion of Shiites. They slowly organized themselves and managed to convert tens of Jordanian Sunni families. In 2015, Jordan and Saudi affirmed their rejection of Iran’s approach in the region, and in 2016, Jordan rejected Iran’s request for half a million visas to visit Shiite holy sites in Jordan. Jordan’s situation was clearer, and it backed Saudi in its rivalry with Iran, especially that in 2018, Jordan’s Minister of Industry ruled out any economic or commercial rapprochement with Iran because of “the political divergence between the two countries.” Instead, Jordan reestablished its close economic ties with war-torn Iraq, a step Iran fears due to the historic ties of Jordan and Iraq, and the ability for economic prosperity to change Iraq’s stance in the region. Then, Iran’s “Shia crescent in the Eastern Mediterranean” could lose a major ally to one of the “wild cards.”
Ultimately, Saudi and Iran are bitter rivals and are at a quasi-cold war through proxies; Saudi and Jordan are close allies with shared interests in the region, except for the Palestinian-Israeli conflict; and Jordan and Iran experienced rivalry and allegiance, as the current situation can be explained through Lee, Muncaster, and Zinnes’ module of “the enemy of my friend is my enemy” or the “friend of my enemy is my enemy.”
Individual Strive for Pan-Islamic Leadership
This brief overview of the direct relations between the triad sets the stage to analyze the roles they have played in filling the vacuum of Pan-Islamist leadership. Cemile Aydin described that feelings of Muslim solidarity would be heightened when religious freedom is oppressed and threatened. The Ottoman Empire long served as the leader of the Muslim World, but its collapse left an ideological power vacuum. Saudi Arabia and Iran attempted filling the role. With Abdel Nasser’s policies of Pan-Arabism, Muslim solidarity was becoming more unattainable. Leaders of Saudi and Iran saw a united Muslim World as a solution to global and domestic issues.
King Faisal of Saudi Arabia worked to rebuild the Muslim World in an age of nation states Saudi, who was worried about internal strife, feared Iran, and developed its internationalism narrative focused on Sunni message. Iran saw itself capable of leading Pan-Islamism, as it signaled out the Gulf monarchies and secular states for allying with USA. While Suliman’s Rushdie’s “The Satanic Verses” was under massive scrutiny, Khomeini capitalized and emerged as a spokesman of an imagined Muslim World and revealed that Muslims in the west were an extension into the heart of western civilization. Khomeini attempted to reform the Muslim World along the lines of postcolonial region still humiliated by the USA, Europe, Britain, and post-colonial Muslim elites and secular states allied with the West, mainly Saudi Arabia and Egypt.
The following section explores the means through which the triad sought to demonstrate leadership of the Muslim World in the Cold War era. It also analyzes the impact of their actions on Pan-Islamist thought.
Saudi Arabia’s quest for Islamic leadership has taken multiple shapes in the past. Aydin illustrates that King Faisal sought to modernize the country by utilizing oil. He was cited to have used narratives of Pan-Islamism to rally Muslim-majority states behind Saudi’s approach so that Saudi can emerge as the true leader of the Muslim World. The idea was that in a world of nation states interacting in a world economy, economically advanced countries have more agency in the world.
Nawaf Obeid explores the dynamics of religion in Saudi’s governance. He indicates that the rules of Saudi have long shared power with the religious “Ulema”, a powerful group of spiritual leaders. Al Saud controlled the state and the Al Ash-Sheikh who are descendent of Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab controlled religious institutions, albeit with the king holding the position of the country’s supreme religious leadership, mainly as the custodian of Mecca and Medina, Islam’s holiest two shrines. The Ulema hold many important positions in public institutions, such as judges, lawyers, and imams.
As such, Saudis consider themselves as the custodians of true Islam, Islam’s holiest two sites, and they consider themselves to preach the right form of Islam. Saudi’s leadership believe that the fall of the Ottoman Empire placed the banner of Islam in their hands, yet they believe it is their divine right to spread Wahhabi Islam, as Wahhabis managed to exert influence since 1979. Such an approach has led to the spread of violent forms of political Islam in many areas. Saudi’s view of their divine right to lead is manifested in their belief that they were chosen by God through the Prophet and the Arabic language, the language in which Islam was brought. This belief is contradictory to the essence of Islam which places morality over ethnicity. Ultimately, they managed to combine religious and nationalistic factors well to convince the world of their legitimacy as the supreme dynasty to carry the banner of Islam through their ethnicity and Arab origins. This approach, which Heghammer assigns the terms of “socio-revolutionary Islamism”, “classical jihadism”, and “global jihadism” to it, entails that Saudi’s Pan-Islamism is centered on macro-nationalism of an imagined Muslim community.
The Arab Spring posed a tremendous threat to Saudis quest for Pan-Islamist leadership. In essence, the empowerment of Islamists in many neighboring countries such as in Egypt and Tunisia, amongst others, entailed that Saudi Arabia was losing its “unique Islamic credentials.” While the Saudi regime was eager to contain these movements to maintain its regime and stance as the sole Islamic model in the region, the military coup in Egypt, which ousted Morsi breathed a sigh of relief for Saudi.
However, the rise of Prince Mohammed bin Salman into power saw a substantial change in Saudi’s Pan-Islamist aspirations. Bin Salman is changing the Kingdom into a secular state more than a theocratic one. His approach reasoned that Saudi’s sole role in the region in the past has been centered around its religious status, and to place that status at risk can result in a greater role in the region. Moreover, as Faisal Devji argues, Saudi’s project to turn into a politically-defined state rather than a religious-defined one can demolish the vision of an Islamic geography. Devji adds that this may also result in Islam finally becoming a truly global religion while the Middle East may still enjoy the pride of the place of its origin despite the fact that the vast majority of its believers reside elsewhere in the East. Devji concludes that Islam would inevitably find its home in Asia, as most of its followers live there in addition to the fact that wealth and development is achieving substantial results there. Saudi Arabia, with Mohammed Bin Salman’s vision, is on the verge of abandoning its quest for Pan-Islamic leadership, and with time, its only importance in Islam will remain merely in Mecca and Medina as the destination of pilgrimage.
This transformation in Saudi’s regional foreign policy has been manifested in the narrative. While Saudi’s allies in the region tend to be Sunni-majority states and its rivals tend to be Shiite-majority or Shiite-backed states, Saudi now reasons its approach through geopolitical narrative rather than religious. Part of this changing narrative has been Iran’s transformation in its regional foreign policy from exporting the revolution to advancing the interests of its leadership in gaining geopolitical importance.
Iran’s Pan-Islamist leadership aspirations has long used Saudi Arabia as its foil. Iran claims that Saudi’s alliances with neo-imperialist global powers, mainly the United States, has weakened Saudi’s legitimacy as well as its Islamic identity. Instead, Iran views its resistance narrative as a more legitimate representation of Islamic geopolitics. As such, Iran’s worldview of the Muslim World and its Pan-Islamist narrative places United States as the enemy of Islam. For instance, Iran’s current president Hassan Rouhani urged Muslims of the world to unite against the United States. He added that if Muslims were to submit to the West and the United States, they would be betraying Islam and the future generations of the Middle East.
Unifying against a common enemy has long been a module utilized by nationalist movements, but in this context, Iran uses such narratives for Pan-Islamist and geopolitical purposes. Ayatollah Khamenei reduced the solution to the contemporary Muslim World to merely “unity amongst Muslim states” and “the weakening of America.” He added that only by following this module, Muslims of the world would be able to enjoy a bright future and Ummah would prosper. As such, Iran’s narrative of “unification of the ranks of Muslims against the enemies of Islam” was highlighted in 2008, which was referred to as “the year of Islamic unity,” and this is a shift from its previous efforts to spread the revolution. Moreover, Iran, after 40 years of its Islamic Revolution, has not exported its revolution, but it has, in fact, expanded its influence in the region. Iran’s leadership now utilize their 1979 movement to help Iran secure its interests and enhance its role in the region.
Iran now holds an annual Islamic Unity conference and its charter illustrates its guiding principles, manifested in Iran’s aspiration for Islamic cooperation. This document urges Muslims of various sects to refrain from “name-calling” or takfir (denouncing one’s faith or belief). This is the embodiment of Iran’s vahdat of Pan-Islamic unity. Despite the promise of this charter, much of Iran’s Pan-Islamist aspirations is geopolitical, to enhance its position as a leader of the Muslim World. These aspirations remain somewhat unattainable or hard to achieve given Iran’s characteristics as a Shiite Persian state, unlike Saudi Arabia who has used its Sunni Arab traits to advance its geopolitical interests in the past.
Iran’s Shiite traits placed limits on its aspirations, but recently, Iran’s leadership has turned towards embracing its Shiism and assume its role as the protector of Shiites within the Muslim World. Iran now embraces the Shiite communities around the Middle East to spread its sphere of influence to advance what King Abdullah II of Jordan referred to as “the Shia Crescent.” The pressing question is: has Iran been advancing a Pan-Islamist narrative or a Pan-Shia narrative. The short answer is both. Research shows that Iran aspires to utilize a Pan-Sha approach in order to advance its Pan-Islamist aspirations. In essence, Iran acknowledges the shortcomings of Pan-Shiism experiences in Central Asia and the Caucasus. They also know that to establish the Shia Crescent will not achieve any results beyond being denounced by Western powers, antagonizing Sunni Powers, and block Iran’s influence. As such, Iran seeks to refrain from any intra-Islamic confrontations in order to expand its sphere of influence beyond Shiite-majority areas. This explains Khamenei and Rouhani’s narrative in Muslim unity, refraining from takfir practices, and rallying under the banner of Islam against their imagined enemies in the West.
Despite King Abdullah’s warning of the Shia Crescent in 2004 when he wanted to bring the attention to Iran’s regional behavior, Iran has been able to expand its influence in the Middle East. Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon are now all under Iran’s direct sphere of influence. King Abdullah’s theory did not account for Saudi Arabia’s influence, using very similar approach. Yet, Iran seems to attempt to upstage Saudi in matters pertaining for Pan-Arabism. Muhammad Javad Zarif, Iran’s Foreign Minister, asserted that Iran will continue to support oppressed peopled globally, mainly Muslims. Nevertheless, analyses show that Iran only interferes when it concerns its own national interests, and while it mainly supports Shiites, it does support Sunnis if it is within its best interest to do so.
Iran’s policies in the region has served to develop loyalty to the region, and it has been successful with developing Shiite militias in Iraq, Lebanon, and Yemen who are trained by Iran and serve to preserve Iran’s influence. For instance, its support for the Houthis, a Yazidi Shiite sect, is explained through the lenses of protecting Shiites around the region. Iran has also been utilizing education, culture, and media to advance its geopolitical interests, by investing in Karbala and Najaf in Iraq, supporting the Islamic Azad University networks in Syria and Iraq, and producing Arabic-speaking radio and television programs to affect public opinion, with Hezbollah in Lebanon being the embodiment of Iran’s approach in the Middle East, as it blends soft and strong power.
Many of the scholars reviewed earlier asserted that Saudi Arabia transformed itself from preaching Pan-Islamism to advance its economic development, to highlighting its ethnic-religious superiority as the divine chosen leaders of the Muslim World, and eventually to stepping back from this role, as the new leadership seeks to enhance its geopolitical role, through social and secular reforms. Iran has also undergone certain changes in its Pan-Islamist narrative. Whereas Khomeini sought to expand the revolution, more recent approaches saw Iran preaching Islamic unity. Nowadays, Iran adopts a mixed method of Pan-Shiite and Pan-Islamist narrative, albeit for geopolitical purposes.
Jordan’s Pan-Islamism narrative is different from the duo. Jordan’s Pan-Islamic leadership aspirations can be seen as both reactionary and proactive. Both King Hussein who served as King of Jordan between 1952 – 1999 and King Abdullah II (1999-) highlighted their Hashemite heritage and direct lineage of Prophet Muhammad. King Abdullah II has been far more active in pursuing a Pan-Islamist leadership than his father, who was more concerned with Nasser’s Pan-Arabism, among other geopolitical challenges. King Hussein lived in a fragmented era, given the 1967 war, the 1979 Islamic Revolution of Iran, the Iraq-Iran War, and the Gulf Wars. As such, he was more concerned with politics than religion, and he was content with Saudi Arabia assuming the role of leaders of the Muslim World, as he did not want to antagonize the Saudis.
On the night of November 9th, 2005 Amman witnessed a major terrorist attack, as 3 hotels in the capital were bombed, leaving over 60 people dead and hundreds wounded. This gruesome event propelled Jordan to react. In a region of colliding Saudi Sunni messages, Wahhabism, Iran’s Pan-Shiite rhetoric, and terrorist organizations, Jordan’s leadership sought to assume a role of an advocate for moderate Islam.
King Abdullah II denounced radicalization and violent extremism as Islam’s biggest and most threatening enemy. He drafted the Amman Message, which was a document that sought to reiterate Islam’s true message. A year later, he enacted the “Kalema Sawaa’” and established the Inter-Faith Forum in efforts to establish effective dialogue amongst different world religions, highlight their similarities, and stress on the fact that violent extremism is the enemy of all religions. The inter-faith forum is a continuation of the Royal Institute for Inter-Faith Study established in 1994 by Prince Hassan bin Talal. He spoke at multiple international conferences with moderation, placing himself as a leader of moderate Islam, as he denounced the extremists as “Khawarej (the outlaws) of Islam.” His efforts received global recognition, as he received the Templeton Prize in 2018 due to his efforts in seeking “religious harmony within Islam and between Islam and other religions.”
More recently, Jordan has been under scrutiny in the region amidst efforts by regional leaders to shake Jordan’s position on the “Deal of the Century.” King Abdullah affirmed conspiracies penetrating into Jordan’s political and security apparatus to cause tension in the country and weaken its position on Jerusalem and the Palestinian cause as a whole. As such, he reiterated multiple times that his position is final and that “Jerusalem is a red line to him and all of his people” and that “his position on Jerusalem is unwavering.” In a transcript published by the Hashemite Royal Court, King Abdullah II was quoted affirming that Jordan’s position on the matter cannot be pressured and the answer will remain negative. He added that “Arabs and Muslims will stand with us.”
Jordan’s position on the matter is threefold: first, Jordan holds a vast majority of Jordanians of Palestinian origins as well as Palestinian refugees and it is in Jordan’s best interest to advocate for their right of return. Secondly, Jordan sees the “alternative homeland” strategy within the “Deal of the Century” as undermining its own sovereignty and Palestinians’ right of return. Thirdly, Jordan’s Hashemite leadership is the legitimate custodian of the Al Aqsa mosque and other Islamic and Christian holy sites in East Jerusalem. This custodianship dates back to Sherif Hussein bin Ali, the leader of the Great Arab Revolt. The Hashemite’s custodianship is also recognized by the Palestinian Authority and is documented in the 1994 Wadi Araba Peace Treaty with Israel.
Amidst the turmoil in the Middle East and the failure of regional powers to produce concrete solutions to the issues, radical alternatives became more attractive, particularly for young, disenchanted people. Saudi’s fixation on Iran and Iran’s disturbing behavior in the region left a void in the leadership of the Muslim World, as Jordan’s role was reactionary at heart. With that, violent extremist groups gained support to advance their own versions of Pan-Islamic worldview. In fact, the failures of regional powers contributed to the deepening of what is known as “the Fall from Grace.”
Fuller asserts that Islamist groups carry the banner of Islam in their rhetoric because it makes their quest for gaining legitimacy easier. The Fall from Grace is a romanticized notion and refers to an era in which Islamic civilization produced literary and technological innovations. Such groups, consequently, attribute the decline of the Muslim World to the transformation towards modern nation states and to the deviation from religion. With that, multiple violent extremist groups utilized this narrative in their quest for reestablishing the Caliphate, the most recent of which was Daesh, who denounced the vast majority of Middle Eastern countries as the enemy due to their failure in upholding religious law and resolve the region’s most pressing issues.
The rise of Wahhabism in Saudi Arabia was to contain and counter Shia revival in Iran. Since then, Saudi Arabia emphasized its divine role as the rightful leader of the Muslim World. However, now that the state has developed its economy, the new leadership looks to give up its historic role in the region to move beyond a mere religious leader towards a geopolitical leader. On the other hand, Iran had initially sought to spread its revolution in the region, but slowly moved towards establishing a concrete geopolitical stance, through establishing and strengthening its sphere of influence. Now that Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Bahrain, Qatar, and Yemen have all, in varying degrees, fell within Iran’s influence, the Islamic Republic continues its “Shiization” policies, as it recruits people from East and Central Asia and sends them back with a new ideology.
Iran’s leadership argues that their approach to assuming leadership of the Muslim World is through Pan-Islamist mechanism, however, their actions portray a Pan-Shiite end goal. This can be described a “cognitive dissonance”, a term borrowed from the field of psychology. In essence, Iran’s discourse is different than the policies and actions implemented. Iran’s interference in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Yemen, and Bahrain fall within its Pan-Shiite strategy to strengthen its geopolitical position in the region. It is not to protect Muslims despite their sects.
The geopolitical relations amongst the triad of Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Jordan has done more harm to the Muslim World and Pan-Islamism than good in the Post-Cold War era. Saudi-Iran relations have been fragmented, and the two states are practically at a cold war. Jordan-Saudi relations have moved past the Hashemite-Saud rivalry over religious legitimacy and have moved on to develop close geopolitical strategic ties, to counter Iran. Jordan-Iran relations have gone through ups and downs, until Jordan chose to side with Saudi Arabia to stop the spread of the “Shia Crescent.” With the exception of a few initiatives led by Jordan such as the Amman Message, Kalema Sawaa’, Inter-Faith Forum, and its position on Jerusalem and the Palestinian cause, which have all been reactionary in nature, the three states, particularly Saudi and Iran have failed to demonstrate true leadership of the Muslim World. Instead, they remain wary of one another and craft their regional foreign policy in that regard. While Saudi is moving past its historic role as the leader of the Muslim World, Iran’s Shiite trait limits its quest and its aspirations remain cognitively dissonant, as Jordan’s prospects are contained by regional pressures. These geopolitical dynamics have enabled non-state actors to gain agency and pursue their own versions of the Muslim World and Pan-Islamism.
In the midst of uncertainty over leadership of the Muslim World, Turkey is in fact slowly positioning itself a popular alternative to replace Saudi Arabia. In a study conducted by PEW Research Center in 2017, about 79% of respondents from the MENA region see Turkey as gaining a prominent actor in the region, tied with the Russia with 3% behind the United States and ahead of Iran, despite is regional behavior. Furthermore, 66% of Jordanians surveyed indicated favorable views towards Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, second to King Salman of Saudi Arabia with 86% favorability. These percentages may be closer nowadays following recent events in the region. Nevertheless, Turkey is slowly positioning itself to gain the role of the leader of the Muslim World, as the true successor of the Ottoman Empire.
The complexity of the rivalry between Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Turkey nowadays pose challenges in the region but also creates opportunities, politically and religiously. To capitalize on these challenges and opportunities, a potential Pan-Islamist leader would need proper resources. Jordan cannot afford the resources, especially nowadays with the pressure posed by regional and global powers, but Jordan’s prospects has and will remain the consensus that a stable Jordan is in the best interest of all actors involved. Should religion remain highly important in the region, and World Values Survey data illustrates that it is, then Jordan could become the next leader of the Muslim World. The Hashemite leadership provide the legitimacy, and the actions taken by Jordan in this context have been moderate and portrayed leadership.
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Bookmiller, Robert. “Jordan’s Inter-Arab Relations: The Political Economy of Alliance Making.” Middle East Policy Council. 2017.
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Lee, S.C., Muncaster, R.G., and D.A. Zinnes. “The friend of my enemy is my enemy’: Modeling Triadic International Relationships.” Synthese: An International Journal for Epistemology, Methodology and Philosophy of Science 100, no. 3 (1994): 333.
Saudi Arabia and Iran’s interests are at two opposite sides in the region. Peter Salisbury concludes that the two states are in a scramble for regional influence, impacting many existing conflicts. Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Bahrain, and Yemen are examples of the two states attempting to advance their interests, with the last being the latest and most complex. When applying the Realist theory of International Relations, one can argue that Saudi Arabia and Iran are at a regional Cold War.
Rasmussen illustrates that a conflict is “an escalated competition at any system level between groups whose aim is to gain advantage in the area of power, resources, interests, and needs.” He adds that such groups have to perceive that the dimension of their relations is “mutually incompatible.” This discerption is agreed on by Holder and Henry, who added that two parties are at conflict when their actions in pursuit of their interests are to damage the other party. Katz and Lawyer assert, consequently, that the actions of one party have to impact their rival; otherwise, it is a difference, not a conflict. Saudi Arabia and Iran are at a competition to gain an advantage in the region, their interests are incompatible, and the actions of one directly affect the other. The question is what type of conflict?
Zbigniew Brzezinski defines cold war as “warfare by other (non-lethal) means.” Medhurst, Ivie, Wander, and Scott associate “rhetoric” with the idea of cold war, asserting that the means used are aimed at ensuring a full-scale war between the two competing, confronting, and rival parties does not erupt. Andrew Mumford adds that when two parties seek to advance their interests and strategic goals but avoiding a direct warfare, they engage in proxy wars, defined as “the product of a relationship between a benefactor, who is a state or non-state actor external to the dynamic of an existing conflict, and the chosen proxies who are the conduit for the benefactor’s weapons, training and funding.” He illustrates that proxy wars are the “logical replacement for direct warfare.”
As such, Saudi Arabia and Iran are engaging in indirect war through proxies in Syria and Yemen, among others, in pursuit of advancing their own interests and strategic goals through a Middle Eastern Cold War. Of the many places where the two states engage in some level of rivalry, Yemen stands out as the most confrontational and brutal conflict, with Saudi Arabia deterring the Iran-backed faction: the Houthis. The conflict in Yemen is generally analyzed through one of three narratives: the Saudi-Iranian proxy war narrative, the sectarian narrative, and the AQAP/failed state narrative. This protracted conflict has seen numerous failed conflict management attempts, along with many intervening institutions. This paper analyzes the conflict, examines past and current conflict management strategies, assesses the various intervening institutions, and recommends the most relevant strategy that can best address the conflict.
Cemile Aydin, Shahram Chubin and Charles Tripp, Gwenn Okruhlik, and Frederic Wehrey explored Saudi-Iranian relations with emphasis on rivalry and use of conflictual relations to gain internal support, especially amid the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran, which many scholars define as the start of this rivalry towards religious legitimacy, regional security, and regional hegemony. Iran’s leaders in late 1970s and early 1980s declared its anti-West narrative, placing Saudi Arabia at the center of such rhetoric. Ayatollah Khomeini asserted that Saudi’s leadership failed to lead the Muslim World in the face of western control, and that, Iran had to exert its role as the rightful leader of the Ummah. Saudi, fearing the effects of the 1979 Iranian Revolution, decided to embrace Iran as an enemy to suppress internal issues and to create cohesion.
Following the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, Iran began expanding its sphere of influence. This sphere of influence was manifested in Iran geographically surrounding Saudi, through alliances with Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Qatar, Bahrain, and Yemen. Simon Mabon writes in Saudi Arabia and Iran: Power and Rivalry in the Middle East that the US-led invasion of Iraq marked an integral era in the Saudi-Iran conflict, as they were allowed time and space to engage in proxy antagonism to advance their strategic goals. The Arab Spring provided an opportunity for the two states to extend their influence through a proxy war in Yemen. With Ali Abdallah Saleh’s regime collapsing, insurgency in Yemen expanded, with AQAP, Al Hirak Al Janoubi, Daesh, and the Houthis, among others found time and space for their movements. The involvement of Saudi Arabia and Iran through proxies further complicated the course of the conflict in Yemen.
Saleh’s deputy Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi was unable to deal with Jihadists’ movements, separatists’ activities, and the Houthis and security forces, who are loyal to former president Saleh, forced Hadi to flee Yemen and advanced from the south to the north, reaching Saudi’s southern border. Saudi Arabia led a coalition with 8 other mostly Sunni states, receiving logistical and intelligence support from the US, UK, and France, to restore Hadi’s government. They began launching air strikes against the Houthis, and supported the legitimate government’s forces. Meanwhile, Al Hirak Al Janoubi, a separatists’ movement are seeking independence for the south, to partition Yemen into its pre-unification days: East and West.
This multidimensional conflict also includes support from Iran to the Houthis, a revivalist movement representing Zaydi Shiites. Salibury’s research finds that the Houthis’ leadership are committed to the principles of Hussein Badr Al-Deen Al-Houthi, largely influenced by the Islamic Revolution of Iran. The group does in fact receive support from Iran, but the extent to which it takes orders is yet to be confirmed. Their prime objective is to deter any foreign intervention in Yemen, perceived to be Saudi’s “Yemeni government puppets.” In January 2015, they seized Hadi’s presidential palace, private residence, and the two headquarters of Yemen’s intelligence organization. They called for more political power, as the sanctions imposed by the international community remain ineffective in deterring them.
In recent months, the UAE, Saudi’s biggest ally in this conflict, left the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen due to financial constraints. Since Saudi cannot support any group besides the government of Hadi, its involvement remains mostly in the form of airstrikes and deterring attacks from the Houthis who continue to fire missiles from Saudi’s southern border. Saudi continues to do what is necessary to ensure the retention of Hadi’s government while defending attacks from the Houthis, backed by Iran.
Saudi Arabia wants to ensure the protection of its boarder by deterring Houthi attacks and ensuring the presence of an internationally recognized, legitimate government in Yemen under the leadership of president Hadi. The Houthis, who are supported by Iran, Hezbollah, and Al Quds Force, continue to target Saudi with drone and missiles strikes, the latest of which targeted ARAMCO, Saudi’s most important oil production site. Ultimately, the Yemen conflict’s complexity reached another level with the involvement of Saudi and Iran. Saudi Arabia’s proxy in Yemen is somewhat nonexistent after UAE’s retreat, diminishing the relevance of the coalition, and solidifying Saudi’s direct involvement under the umbrella of national security. On the other hand, Iran’s involvement is manifested in the Houthis as its proxy. The Houthis also seek to ensure that Yemen is alleviated from outside intervention by Hadi’s government allies; mainly Saudi. Riedel argues that the Houthis “embody what Iran seeks to achieve across the Arab world: the cultivation of an armed non-state, non-Sunni actor who can pressure Iran’s adversaries both politically and militarily.” The below table illustrates the main actors and their motivations:
Protection of its boarder and national security, and reinstate president Hadi
Yemeni president Hadi, Yemeni tribal leaders and religious leaders
Deterrence of any outside intervention in Yemen, mainly from Saudi
Iran, Hezbollah, Al Quds Force, and security forces
Advance its own geopolitical interests, enhance its sphere of influence, and weaken Saudi
The below timeline shows the most important developments in Yemen since the Arab Spring:
An Analysis of Previous Conflict Management Attempts
Previous conflict management efforts in Yemen have been centered around peace-talks, ceasefire, political transition/ power sharing, and mediation. The plethora of techniques utilized is not a surprise given the complexity and multidimensionality of the conflict, with the Saudi-led coalition and later Saudi alone engaging in direct cross-border armed conflict with the Houthis, sectarian separatist groups fighting, and an international effort against AQAP and other terrorist organizations.
First UN Special Envoy on Yemen
Similar to its efforts in Syria, the United Nations Security Council established the Office of the Special Envoy to the Secretary-General on Yemen in 2015. This office has aimed to provide necessary support to the Yemeni-led political transition through an inclusive engagement and participation of all demographic groups involved, including women, youth, the Houthis, and the Southern Hirak Movement. The UN also facilitated a National Dialogue Conference in January 2014, featuring delegates from all Yemeni regions and political affiliations. The delegates drafted the blueprints for a federal and democratic Yemen, based on the principles of good governance, rule of law, and human rights, which were to become the foundation for a new constitution to be drafted by a Constitutional Drafting Commission. While these efforts established an all-inclusive local vision for a better future for Yemen, it disregarded outside interventions and allegiances as well as their impact on intergroup dynamics. It also disregarded a far more important point, which was the ongoing armed conflict between various local groups and between the Saudi-led coalition and the Houthis. All of which culminated in its failure to bring about proper transition in Yemen.
Former UN Special Envoy for Yemen Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed attempted repeatedly to establish a peace agreement amongst the disputing parties, but the Houthis and their allies the Saleh forces along with the Saudi-led coalition continued to disagree over the main points and objectives. In October 2016, Ould Cheikh Ahmed presented a peace plan which relied on a gradual transfer of presidential power to a new prime minister or a vice president, as the president position would become a limited, ceremonial position. The plan also featured a formation of a national unity government, a gradual removal of the Houthi-Saleh forces from the cities they had seized between 2014 and 2015, the formation of an international observation mission to verify this proposed withdrawal, and finally a gradual transition towards presidential and parliamentary elections.
This plan faced a number of issues which either exposes Ould Cheikh Ahmed’s weakness on standing firm or the lack of political or even military support of the international community to back this plan. Nonetheless, president Hadi rejected the plan, arguing that it would legitimize the Houthi-Saleh forces’ control over the capital. He also required that the forces disarm, which Saudi insisted that they are relinquished to a third-party while the new unity government proposed by Ould Cheikh Ahmed prohibits any deployment of weapons that can threaten Saudi in any shape or form. The Houthis countered by demanding Hadi’s resignation and the formation of a new unity government in which they can have a meaningful seat on the table and addend their forces to the national armed forces. These various demands propelled Ould Cheikh Ahmed to withdraw the plan and altered it to enable Hadi’s stay in office until elections, which the Houthis rejected immediately and demanded a new special envoy.
The Second UN Special Envoy on Yemen
Following the 2018 coalition airstrikes on Hodeida, a coastal region, the United Nations represented by its newly appointed Special Envoy for Yemen, Martin Griffiths, attempted to negotiate a cease-fire. This cease-fire in Hodeida came after the Houthis seized the port that is essential for humanitarian aid along with Saudi carrying airstrikes on the port, albeit claiming them to be against the Houthis, according to Neil Patrick. Patrick adds that Saudi sought to halt the Houthi’s control over the port and their assaults on shipping in the Red Sea.
The cease-fire, also known as the Stockholm agreement, was limited to the Hodeida port on the Red Sea. The Stockholm agreement stipulated a cease-fire around Hodeida, a prisoner swap in Taiz, and a statement of understanding among all sides to form a committee to discuss the future of Taiz, which later came to be known as the Regional Deployment Committee (RDC). While direct fighting in the Hodeida port did stop, the confrontation increased in other areas.
Peter Salisbury, a renowned analyst on this particular conflict, characterizes the Stockholm Agreement as hard-won despite its shortcomings. He emphasized the importance of its success for future similar efforts. He argued that this agreement did not include any technical details on its scope, duration, or nature of the ceasefire to hostilities; specifications in relation to breaches; or any mechanisms for quick action points in the event any fighting restarts. Such points are integral in any ceasefire agreements, and their absence from the Stockholm Agreement left adequate space for the warring parties to reengage. In fact, the Houthis were not prevented from handing over the port to themselves, as they rendered Patrick Cammaert, the UN chair of the RDC, was overstepping his mandate, particularly that the meetings were held in areas controlled by the Yemeni government. Alistair Burt, the United Kingdom’s Middle East Minister, voiced his doubts over the resolution, arguing that it merely was enacted to build confidence between the disputing parties and to keep the RDC negotiations going. As such, one can argue that the UN Special Envoy, Griffiths, in this ceasefire agreement, had a long-term vision of the parties returning to the negotiation table that his plan was not solid to maintain and enforce the ceasefire that would enable such negotiations to happen. In fact, Griffiths himself spoke about his optimism and his confidence in his ability to bring the parties to the negotiation table. By that time, it had been almost two years following the failure of the last direct negotiation round. Griffiths’ plan had the support of the coalition partners.
It was rather clear that the international community, eager to resolve the conflict, was also thinking ahead with Griffiths beyond and disregarded whether the Stockholm Agreement stands still or fails. Foreign ministers of the United States, the United Kingdom, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates met to discuss the practical steps following the ceasefire in Hodeida. Gerald Feierstein analyzed that it was important to provide the necessary political and diplomatic support for Griffith to pursue his plan. But Feierstein’s analysis presumed, much like the international community, a larger level of political will among the major players in this conflict, namely Saudi, Iran, UAE, and the Houthis. Instead, he argued that the Yemeni population, feeling the effects of the conflict, would be very much be open to and support the plan. Though this assumption is valid, the general Yemeni population have lost their agency in this conflict shortly after the Arab Spring. Furthermore, the “quad meeting” and Feierstein’s article anticipated Saudi and UAE’s goodwill in both reconstruction and economic revival through a reintegration into the GCC, a proposal that appears unlikely, as the two states would be reluctant to re-engage Yemen into the GCC, particularly with Iran’s direct ties to the Houthis, who in Griffiths’ plan, would have a seat on the decision-making table, and with the poorly enforced ceasefire, would still have direct control over the Hodeida port, an important commercial port in Red Sea trading routes.
The United States’ Role in Yemen
Looking at the role played by the United States in Yemen, a Congressional Research Service Report illustrates the US approached Yemen through the following action points:
Support for U.N. efforts to advance a political process;
Condemnation of Iran’s destabilizing role in Yemen;
Assistance for the coalition;
Sales of armaments and munitions to Gulf partners;
Counter-terrorism cooperation with the ROYG and Gulf partners;
Humanitarian Aid for Yemen
Former President Obama signed off on the “provision of logistical and intelligence support” to the Saudi-led coalition in their military operations in Yemen, and he announced the “Joint Planning Cell with Saudi Arabia to coordinate US military and intelligence support.” Perhaps the largest driver behind the US engagement was the operations against AQAP and Daesh in Yemen, as they worked closely with the Republic of Yemen Government and allies in the region in conducting airstrikes on AQAP and Daesh. As such, the United States’ management of the Yemeni conflict prioritized the fight against terrorist organizations, and one can argue that in this regard, they have been relatively effective.
The European Union’s Role – Mediation
The role played by the European Union in Yemen has been through the realms of mediation. Mediation is defined as a “form of negotiation in which a third party helps the disputants to find a solution that cannot otherwise find by themselves. It is a three-sided (or more) political process in which the mediator builds and then uses relations with the other parties to help them reach a settlement” Mediation seeks to highlight a set of mutually beneficial settlements, but a major prerequisite is forming formidable diplomatic relations prior to initiating these efforts, something that arguably Ould Cheikh Ahmed and Griffiths failed to do. In fact, Griffiths has accused the Saudis and the Houthis of war crimes in Yemen. Though the accusations are valid, they hinder his efforts to broker a peace agreement through direct face-to-face negotiations.
Natalie Girke writes that the European Union started its mediation efforts through its Delegated Mediation Support Team (MST) following the 2011 uprising and concluded with the failure of the 2014 National Dialogue Conference. Girke outlines that the MST managed to establish mediation awareness in Yemen, but it was short-lived and did not manage to realize its full potential. She reasons that the UN Special Envoy sidelined the EU out of the process.
An Analysis of Current Conflict Management Efforts in Yemen
Though Saudi was seemingly left alone when the UAE left the coalition for financial concerns, recent developments show a different reality. Current conflict management efforts taken in Yemen are now leaning more towards power sharing and political restructuring. The past few months have seen some positive efforts to bring a settlement to the conflict. The Yemen’s internationally recognized government agreed with the Houthi rebels to set up observations posts to observe the ceasefire in Hodeida and de-escalate the areas prone to conflict, an effort that was supported by the UN Hodeida mission.
Two weeks following this agreement, the Yemeni government with its President Hadi who supported by the broader international community and Saudi signed a power-sharing agreement with the southern separatists the Southern Transitional Council (STC) headed by Al Zubaidi, who is backed by the UAE. The agreement, known as the Riyadh Agreement, seeks to stop the fighting and to bring stability to Yemen. In this agreement, the Yemeni government will enable the separatists to assume equal representation while their security forces will join in with the government forces under the defense and the interior ministries.
The third major development in recent months came in one week following the power-sharing agreement when the Saudis and the Houthis are believed to have held an indirect, secret peace talks on November 13th, 2019 to end the war in Yemen. These negotiations have taken place in Oman who served as the mediator. Reports indicate that the talks followed on to a video conference two months ago.
When we cross-examine UAE’s withdrawal from the Saudi-led coalition and their reentry into the scene through backing the southern separatists and co-brokering the Riyadh Agreement with Saudi, we find a positive and a negative side to this turn of events. Salisbury asserted that if the Riyadh Agreement is adopted well, it would prevent a “war-within-a-war” between Hadi’s government and the STC, and it would also provide credibility to future government negotiations with the Houthi rebels, which followed a week later. On the other hand, Salisbury highlighted that the deal is much open to interpretation, loosely worded, and has an ambitious timeline.
On the other hand, Gamal Gasim, a Yemeni-American political science professor, downplayed the agreement, reiterating the fact that the disputants are merely extensions of one or other countries in the region. He added that the Southern Separatists, though backed by the UAE, are still likely to pursue their long-term goal of succeeding and establishing their own state. Gasim sees the strategic objectives of the Riyadh Agreement through two scenarios: first, it may strengthen the coalition in facing the Houthis who are backed by Iran, particularly that they have achieved some gains against Saudi recently. Alternatively, it may help maintain the alliance and utilize it to enhance the Saudi-UAE geopolitical positions in plausible negotiations with Iran and the Houthis. Said Thabet sees another scenario in which Yemen is partitioned into a northern state under Saudi influence and a southern state for the STC to be directly overseen by the UAE. Thabet does not anticipate any STC rejection to this proposal since they long sought to achieve this. This proposal, however, presents complications for the situation involving the Saudi-Houthis stalemate.
Assessing the Intervening Institutions
There have been a number of intervening institutions in the Yemeni conflict since its inception. The list of intervening institutions or actors include Saudi Arabia, Iran, the UAE, the United States, the United Nation through Office of the Special Envoy to the Secretary-General on Yemen, the European Union, and the GCC and coalition member including Oman, excluding local actors such as the Houthis, Hadi’s government, security forces, and the STC. A Human Rights Watch report indicates that the coalition members, involved in unlawful attacks, have avoided international legal liability by refusing to provide any information related to the role played by their forces in these attacks.
The previous sections illustrated the roles played by these intervening actors. This section assesses their strengths and weaknesses according to what literature outlines as effective conflict management actor. Robert Zikmann indicates that an effective institution in conflict management understands the conflict and adopts an active response such as domination, distributive bargaining, compromise, and integrative bargaining, as opposed to a passive response such as denial, avoidance, or capitulation.
Klein, Reiners, Zhimin, Junbo, and Šlosarčík illustrate that major powers adopt one of three diplomatic strategies: unilateralist, bilateral, and multilateral. Applying that onto conflict management, we can argue that an effective intervening actor has the ability to leverage relations, whether bilateral relations or more effectively, multilateral relations. Hampson and Zartman focus on the actors’ ability to adopt the appropriate narrative and shift between them when needed. One of these narratives, straight talk, is helpful in producing alternatives to a negotiated settlement. BATNA or Best Alternative to a Negotiated Agreement are security points, which aims at illustrating the, usually undesired, alternative.
Olson and Pearson argue that a successful intervening actor are separate, neutral, an outsider-impartial, and sovereign/independent. They have the ability to bring parties to an agreement through repeated attempts and in the presence of an external military intervention. This last point can be extended to encompass the actors’ ability to maintain the agreement and peace. Other aspects for the strength of an intervening actor include political will and playing a stabilizing role. The following table illustrates the extent to which the intervening actors have fulfilled effective roles in each of these factors. They are assessed on a scale of 1 to 5, whereby 1 means lowest performance/ ability and 5 means highest performance/ ability, for each category to calculate a score out of a total of 65.
Category and commentary
Special Envoy Ahmed
Special Envoy Griffiths
GCC and coalition
Understands the Conflict: Complete understanding of the conflict and its consequences
Adopts an active response: Proactively seeking to manage the conflict
Build relations with stakeholders: Meaningful bilateral and multilateral relations with all parties involved
Has the ability to leverage relations: Using them to broker a settlement
Adopted an appropriate narrative: Approaching the conflict through relevant narratives to its nature and the parties involved
Has the ability to shift between narratives: Can switch the tone when needed to arrive at the best outcome
Separate, neutral, and impartial: Not a perpetrator in the conflict; can sideline their gains for a productive management
Sovereign/independent: The actor is the sole decision-maker of their own actions
Persistence: Attempting repeatedly until the sought objective is met
Ability to maintain the agreement and use military intervention if needed: Can ensure the sustainability of the agreement and use force when needed
Ability to maintain peace: Can uphold ceasefire and ensure infighting does not rebreak
Political will: Fully determined to bring a settlement
Plays a stabilizing role: The actor is stabilizing the conflict and is not inflecting any counterproductive or destabilizing actions
Looking at the table above, we find that there are areas of strength and areas of weaknesses, individually and collectively. Overall, Special Envoy Griffiths with his office top the list as the most effective intervening actor, with Ould Cheikh Ahmed slight behind. This is because the former envoy did not manage to uphold his relations with all parties involved, and he was not as persistent as Griffiths. In fact, the Houthis demanded his replacement, as he failed to deal with them properly and failed to keep Saudi, Iran, and others accountable, unlike Griffiths who was vocal in his condemnation.
Other major actors, namely the US and the EU have limited their involvement to rather underwhelming roles. The United States focused on the fight against terrorism, which is the basis for their relatively high score. On the other hand, they contributed largely to the coalition, which played a counterproductive and destabilizing role. The EU were fulfilled after their incomplete mediation efforts. Both actors have not adopted an active response, did not invest much time or effort in building relations, were not persistent, did not invest in maintaining any agreements or maintaining peace, and they lacked the political will.
Saudi, Iran, the UAE, and the coalition countries have shown a number of weaknesses in their interventions. They did not separate their interests from the conflict; they were sporadically inactive, but when they were active, they played a rather destabilizing role. They also did not build meaningful and useful relations, they were inflexible, they were not persistent in the positive sense, and they were not able to uphold any agreement or ceasefire, let alone, peace. The only exception is recent efforts that brought Hadi’s government with the STC and then the Saudis with the Houthis, but even that can inflect further instability to the conflict going forward.
Is Stabalization the Answer
In the midst of geopolitical talk and conflict management efforts, the magnitude of the humanitarian crisis in Yemen often gets sidelined. HRW estimates 7,000 civilian deaths, 11,000 in casualties, and 3 million women and girls at the risk of violence, and 14 million face the risk of starvation and death. These numbers are for 2018 alone, as the actual total numbers are much higher in terms of deaths and casualties. These numbers, coupled with the ongoing insurgency, intergroup fighting, and cross-border war, necessitate efforts to stabilization as a step for further conflict management efforts. The US government, through the Stabilization Assistance Framework, defines stabilization as a “political endeavor involving an integrated civilian-military process to create conditions where locally legitimate authorities and systems and peaceably manage conflict.
Stabilization is a prerequisite to restructuring/ rebuilding and state building efforts. It can be effective in stopping the infighting, and it can maintain peace. It celebrates inclusion for all stakeholders, and it is less financially consuming and far better viewed internationally, unlike its counterpart, full military intervention. Stabilization also serves as a bridge for a longer-term reconstruction and reconciliation. The success for stabilization is contingent on local and international partnerships, to essentially approach the conflict and its burden on the local people cooperatively. It would not be fully successful without some military presence on the grounds, which would seek to ensure fighting does not break again.
Stabilization would be effective in Yemen for a number of reasons. First, stabilization has seen relative success in Iraq and in Syria, two nearby states going through similar issues. In both states, the United States spearheaded stabilization efforts and forged effective, and necessary, partnerships with local actors, mainly to deter terrorist organizations, such as in Syria and in Iraq, two of the most recent US engagements in the Middle East region. In Syria particularly the US’ alliance with the Syrian Kurds proved effective in territorially defeating Daesh, albeit served as a building block for a Turkish offensive on the-now-enhanced Syrian Kurds. In Iraq, the anti-ISIS coalition was supported directly by the UN Assistance Mission to Iraq (UNAMI), proving for relative success too. As such, the US appears more in favor for such an engagement as opposed to its alternative, military intervention, which not only has been too costly on the US budget, but it has also harmed the US’ image in the region.
Another reason why stabilization would be effective in Yemen is that stabilization tends to be inclusive in nature. In this context, recent talks between the Hadi Government and the STC, between the government and the Houthis, and between the Saudis and the Houthis pave the way for further collaborative effort for stabilization, especially following the agreement between the first two groups to joining their arms together under the Ministries of Defense and the Interior. With that, the political will, internally, is welcoming for such a plan.
For this plan, the United Nations may also see necessary that it deploys a peacekeeping mission. Its special envoy on Yemen also has to maintain its role as the integrated and impartial broker. Griffiths ought to keep the parties talking, periodically, to facilitate the next steps for Yemen. These two subfactors are necessary to counter the possibility of spoilers. Spoilers are defined as “groups and tactics that actively seek to obstruct or undermine conflict settlement through a variety of means, including terrorism and violence.”
Possible spoilers for stabilization in Yemen are Saudi, UAE, Iran, the Houthis and resurgent terrorist organizations such as the AQAP and Daesh. The Hadi government and the STC are not included in this list due to their allegiances to bigger actors in the region, namely Saudi and UAE. The Houthis are included, however, as they may still act independently of Iran. The complexity and multidimensionality of the Yemeni conflict makes predictive analysis difficult. Nonetheless, peacekeeping missions along with the joint forces of STC and Yemeni government, and perhaps with US support, can act swiftly to any terrorist spoilers.
Griffiths, on the other hand, has a large role to play, to keep Saudi, Iran, and the UAE accountable and monitor their actions. For that, he would require the support of the international community to back his vocal statements against any potential spoilers on their part. Saudi and UAE established quasi-mandates over the north and south parts of Yemen, respectively, and if they anticipate that this proposal may hinder their geopolitical stance, they may inflect destabilizing actions. Griffiths would have to mediate between the Houthis and the Saudis to establish important guarantees. If Saudi had claimed its motivation in engaging in Yemen was driven by national security and if the Houthis claimed their motivation was the rejection of any Saudi involvement, then a prolonged ceasefire and an agreement to guarantee neither of that happens would propel the two parties to disengage.
Ultimately, it is important to note that Saudi Arabia and its coalition have been losing much support inside of Yemen as well as internationally, following the murder case of journalist Jamal Khashogji and careless airstrikes on civilian targets. On the other hand, Iran as destabilizing as it is, has utilized the media better. The more civilian casualties, the more Yemeni people seem to stand behind the Houthis. Saudi Arabia, by contrast, are appearing in the media somewhat arrogantly and their killing of children, women, civilians, and the destruction of many schools and hospitals have been a card used effectively by the Iranian-backed propaganda.
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Theological Pathway Out of Islamic Extremism: Using Islamic Study and Qur’anic Reading in De-Radicalization Programs
The spread of the Internet and the advent of social media have played a key role in the recent rise of violent Islamist extremism globally. Platforms such as Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter have exacerbated the problem of Islamist radicalization and incited terrorism, as algorithms that underpin these networks promote engaging content, in a feedback loop that, link by link, guides new audiences to toxic ideas. The internet has also offered terrorists and extremists the capability to communicate, collaborate with and convince other individuals towards their ideology, creating more opportunities to radicalize and accelerating the process of radicalization. Today, radicalization primarily occurs on the Internet. Individuals radicalize “remotely” by consuming jihadist propaganda online, and become self-directed, internet-inflamed Islamist extremists who self-recruit in extremist groups. Unfortunately, this increase in online Islamist radicalization and jihadism has been tied back to Islam, in turn provoking a rise in Islamophobia and Muslim hate crimes. Yet, most Muslim majority countries have centered their deradicalization programs around theological dialogue in an effort to contest interpretations and messages received from violent extremists and jihadist propaganda. These “soft” counter-terrorism programs seek to undo the radicalization process, divorcing Islamist militants from their extreme beliefs by providing spiritual guidance and encouraging personal reflection on Islamic theological principles. This essay seeks to examine the importance and the process of deradicalization programs that rely on theological dialogue and Islamic religious re-education. Why does this ideological component of deradicalization programs matter to counter extremist narratives? How is this type of deradicalization carried out and what are the theological underpinnings in the Qur’an that allows for deradicalization? In addition to answering those questions, this essay will also assess the degree of success these programs have.
Why It Matters: Deradicalization and Ideology, Reversing Islamist Extremist Indoctrination
Many people who radicalize online actually have poor knowledge of Islamic theology and religious texts, and many have not even read the Qur’an. This is problematic because extremist narratives manipulate specific verses to fit their political purposes and jihadist ideology. Theological dialogue and Islamic re-education help challenge extremist interpretations of Islam, disseminating ideas of peace to correct radical ideas and to prevent jihadist recidivism. This theological deradicalization process is based on the assumption that militant Islamists do not have the proper understanding of Islam and that their religious interpretation is wrong, therefore implying they can and must be reeducated or reformed. Moreover, since Islamist militants tend to be ideologically motivated and committed to jihadism, it is difficult for them to renounce their ideology, which is rooted in a major world religion. Deradicalization focusing on ideological moderation hence provides an opportunity to leverage mainstream Islam to challenge extremist interpretations of the religion and their radical Islamist ideology. It also facilitates the deradicalization of radical Muslims by making it possible for them to renounce their extremism without also renouncing their faith. Furthermore, this type of deradicalization program offers a compelling approach to counter-terrorism because it allows Islamist militants to engage with the most authentic and legitimate source of Islam—the Qur’an, which they cannot question. This will likely effect a more permanent change in the militant’s worldview, but will also help weaken the radical Islamist movement altogether by discrediting its ideology, especially considering most radicals had little to no formal religious training.
Another important element in theological-based ideological deradicalization is that it can redirect jihadis quest for significance sought in extremist groups towards new, more positive and fruitful goals. Indeed, Islamist militants tend to join extremist groups because they wish to be relevant, to have meaning in their lives—a desire that is fulfilled through extremist narratives that present violence as a spiritual duty or even necessity and a politically acceptable method. Former extremists tend to have a dramatic impact when countering these motivations because they personally denounce radical Islamism and encourage Islamic moderation, which will push Islamist militants to question and eventually renounce extremism, in addition to fatally discrediting jihadist groups. By engaging these militants with theological dialogue, these programs can redirect militants’ quest for significance towards more positive goals, like piety, moral uprightness, or da’wa. Essentially, this type of deradicalization program aims to reverse Islamist extremism by challenging ex-combatants’ Islamic beliefs system and using credible religious sources to support their religious re-education and curb their radicalism.
How to Use the Qur’an to Deradicalize Ex-Jihadis?
Religious scholars and Islamic clerics are recruited in those theological deradicalization programs to discuss and educate Islamic extremists on Islamic theology, relying on the Qur’an, to emphasize religious tolerance and provide gentler interpretations of passages that could be taken to promote violence. Participants are listened to and share their ideological motivations with these religious experts, who then guide them through a religious academic course of study. The main objective of the course aims to persuade the participants that their jihadist interpretation of the Qur’an is incorrect. In particular, these religious leaders strive to dislodge certain concepts like ‘takfir’ (apostasy) or ‘al-wala’ wal-bara’ (loyalty and disavowal’), which nurture and sustain hatred, repudiation, and enmity towards non-Muslims and Muslims who do not abide to the same religious interpretation. Based on this creed, intolerance and radicalism are justified and allows for the killing and brutal murder of any non-Muslim or whoever that does not belong to the group, even though the Qur’an strictly orders that anyone offering peace should never be described as “unbeliever” (4: 94). A main issue that leads to misinterpretation and misunderstanding of the Qur’an is that often these contentious verses are taken out from their general context to fit a specific political and ideological agenda. Nonetheless, a more accurate understanding of specific verses should be bounded within its overall context and place in the Surah. For example, if the general context talks about an ancient history, one should not apply the specific verses absolutely on the present. Moreover, if the general context of the Surah talks about war, then the specific verses should not be applied in times of peace at all. In order to combat these distorted understandings, religious and community figures use Qur’anic study to promote and restore the true spirit of Islam, which revolves around peace, tolerance, and pluralism. In addition to intensive spiritual guidance, states have supplemented this effort by reforming mosques, training imams, and implementing Islamic religious seminars or workshops to promote a more moderate message of Islam within its society that counters extremist narratives.
Islamic religious re-education focuses on reconciling Islam with peace and tolerance by contextualizing verses that could be seen as promoting violence and analyzing verses that teach love, compassion, and promote religious freedom. Indeed, the Qur’an presents a peaceful life where the infinite compassion and mercy of God manifests itself on earth, and offers love and compassion for every human being, no matter their religion. In 2: 208, the Qur’an says: “O You who believe! Enter absolutely into peace (Islam). Do not follow in the footsteps of Satan. He is an outright enemy to you,” which is a call for peace and the importance of fostering a life in absolute sincerity and honesty before God. The concept of religious tolerance in Islam is most explicit in 2:256, “There is no compulsion in acceptance of the religion. The right course has become clear from the wrong” and 28:56, “You cannot guide those you would like to but God guides those He wills. He has best knowledge of the guided.” Here, the Qur’an highlights that no one should be forced to believe in Islam or practice Islamic principles, and that whoever disbelieves will eventually be guided towards Islam and will be dealt with only by God. Another clear elicitation of tolerance is expressed in 109: 6“For you is your religion, and for me is my religion.” God also insists that only He will be the judge for matters in which humankind differs (22: 69-76). In 2:62, God says: “Those who believe and those who are Jews and Christians, and Sabians, whoever believes in Allah and the Last Day and do righteous good deeds shall have their reward with their Lord, on them shall be no fear, nor shall they grieve.” This verse illustrates that regardless of individuals’ beliefs, God has an extraordinary tolerance for Jews and Christians, indicating they will be admitted to heaven if they do good, and thus should not be discriminated against by Muslims on earth.
Furthermore, the Qur’an provides an environment where people can fully enjoy freedom of thought and religion, allowing people to live by the faith and values they believe in. According to the Qur’an, everyone has a right to live freely, by his beliefs, whatever they may be. Even in regard to Christians and Jews, the Qur’an describes them as “the people of the Book,” and says “God does not forbid you from being good to those who have not fought you in the religion or driven from your homes, or from being just towards them. God loves those who are just.” (60: 8) This quotes showcase the potential for interfaith dialogue; Muslims who share basic values and ethics of goodness as Christians and Jews should strive together to spread moral virtues across the world. God explicitly states in the Qur’an that the existence of people from different faiths and opinions is something that we have to acknowledge and welcome heartily, for this is how He created and predestined humankind in this world: “We have appointed a law and a practice for every one of you. Had God willed, He would have made you a single community, but He wanted to test you regarding what has come to you. So compete with each other in doing good. Every one of you will return to God and He will inform you regarding the things about which you differed.” (5: 48) In acknowledgement of these quotes, we can say the Qur’an displays the importance of accepting human beings as they are, regardless of their differences in values, and that Islam is a religion of mercy, kindness, tolerance and ease. By emphasizing on Qur’anic values of non-violence, religious tolerance and pluralism, religious experts can and have reverse(d) and rectify(ied) jihadis radical ideological indoctrination and brainwashing.
To conclude, deradicalization programs that rely on theological dialogue and religious re-education are essential because they have more potential in bringing permanent change in the militant’s worldview, avoiding jihadist recidivism, and in facilitating deradicalization by allowing radical Muslims to renounce their extremism without renouncing their faith. This type of program has been somewhat successful although most experts agree that this success is difficult to quantify because it requires longer time to meaningfully measure the success of such effort, and because this ideological component of deradicalization is usually combined with a social component to rehabilitate extremists and facilitate their reintegration into mainstream society after they have completed the program. This involves not only cutting former ties to extremist groups and their network, but also ensuring ex-militants and their family can find alternative sources of income, housing, healthcare, and education so that they can establish a new life outside of the group.
Perspectives on Women in Islam: Qur’anic Injunctions, Salafi-Wahhabi Behavior, and Islamic Feminists’ Arguments
Gender roles in Islam is a contentious topic that has lingered in the Islamic world, especially from the twentieth century. Islam has widely and historically been regarded as inherently misogynist and particularly oppressive towards women. Specific verses in the Qur’an can be seen as controversial in terms of women’s rights and their status in society, and they have frequently been used as grounds to justify restrictions imposed on women, such as on their mobility and economic empowerment. Various scholars and ideologues have nonetheless sought to re-evaluate this claim, advancing the Qur’an’s progressive and egalitarian character. Islamic feminists in particular, such as Leila Ahmed, have argued that Islam is “stubbornly egalitarian” and that the original message has been corrupted by a male-dominant interpretation that has controlled the Islamic narrative over the centuries. This debate surrounding women’s status in Islam has been increasingly salient with the rise of Islamist radicalism and jihadism globally. ISIS has, for example, despite its brutality, attracted many Western Muslim women who have sacrificed their home, family, and Western livelihood to join the Islamic Caliphate in Syria or Iraq. This has been shocking and incomprehensible to many people who do not understand why any female who enjoys democratic rights and equality before the law would want to join a group that actively promotes her own oppression. What are Salafi-Wahhabi groups’ behavior towards women? What role should women occupy according to Salafi-Wahhabi thought? What are the Qur’anic injunctions on gender relations, and how do they differ from the arguments put forward by Islamic feminist scholars and Salafi-Wahhabi groups like ISIS? This paper seeks to analyze and compare these three different perspectives, presenting an overview of what the actual situation is for women in Islam according to these views and how the latter two may contradict or be in harmony with the Qur’an.
Quranic Injunctions on Women in Islam
Islam has often been blamed for the prevailing conditions of women in the Muslim world. The Qur’an cites men as the protectors or providers of women, the righteousness of the latter defined in terms of obedience to males: “Men are in charge of (or: are the protectors) of women, because God has given preference to the one over the other, and because (men) provide support for women from their means. Therefore, righteous women are obedient…” (4:34). This verse has repeatedly been used and interpreted by male rulers and jurists to showcase a naturalness of the circumstance in which women, because of their innate qualities and characteristics, have clearly defined roles and cannot appropriate the functions of men, who thus have authority over women. It offers a justification for the role of the male as head of the household and the final decision-maker, but these gender differences do not deny Muslim women equal rights and responsibilities.
The Qur’an explains that men and women were both created from dust, from one soul, and that God “placed between them affection and mercy” (30: 20-21; 4:1). Eve was therefore not created from Adam, as it is portrayed in the Bible, but the two were created independently and emanated from the same source. Indeed, the two genders were created to complement each other and the combination of the two reflects God’s perfection in His feminine and masculine attributes. God’s jamal names (feminine names of beauty) and jalal names (masculine names of majesty)constitute kamal (divine perfection), and both manifest themselves in the human domain, for example through women and men. More importantly, the original sin does not originate from Eve in the Qur’an, unlike in the Bible; the fault is attributed to both Adam and Eve. Both genders are therefore put on an equal stance in the Qur’an. The male/female dichotomy in the Qur’an in regard to gender roles and relations are not indicative of inequality or characterized by hierarchy; on the contrary men and women were created differently to complement one another and are considered equal in the eyes of God. It is often confused, however, with inequality because many argue that males’ innate attributes or characteristics, such as strength and authority, require them to provide for women or take care of them, which must imply that they are superior in some way to women, who are viewed as forgiving, compassionate, and acquiescent. However, as previously explained, both masculine and feminine characteristics are considered important in the Qur’an as they reflect God’s binary attributes and His divine perfection in being both majestic and feared, but also merciful and caring.
Another issue that has led to the common misperception that the Qur’an is discriminative towards women or even misogynistic is the way the Qur’an was interpreted in the decades following the Islamic revelation, which translated into patriarchal norms and bias policy issues. These norms or policies discriminated women for their perceived inferiority relative to men, as it was understood by Muslim male rulers, and because of a male-dominated Qur’anic interpretation that excluded half of the Muslim population.
Although early Islamic societies at the time of the Prophet may seem to subjugate women, especially from a modern perspective, an examination of the Jahiliya lifestyle—prior to the Qur’anic revelation—in terms of polygamy, easy divorce and remarriage, loose family ties, and obsession with sexual pleasure, shows that the Prophet elevated women’s status by banning infanticide, providing women inheritance rights (which they did not possess before the rise of Islam), making marriage a sacred union where men are limited in the number of women they could marry, and secluding women to showcase their privilege, honor, and purity.
Women Inheritance Rights
The Qur’anic revelation provided clear progress for women in the pre-Islamic period. The Qur’an lays out specific legal protections for women in marriage, divorce, and inheritance, more so than in the other Abrahamic religions. With the rise of Islam, women gained inheritance rights, although they are only given one half of what men are offered because men act as the provider for his wife and their family. The Qur’an prescribes clear guidelines in 4:11 regarding inheritance rights and the division of property among your children: “For the male, what is equal to the share of two females. But if there are [only] daughters, two or more, for them is two thirds of one’s estate. And if there is only one, for her is half. And for one’s parents, to each one of them is a sixth of his estate if he left children… [These shares are] an obligation [imposed] by Allah.” While women are offered relatively less than men in terms of inheritance, they are still incorporated in the share of a family’s heritage, which is more than they received prior to the Islamic revelation.
Women’s Marital Rights
As for marriage, there is no references as to the age of marriage in Islam in the Qur’an. Various contradictions exist in regard to this topic, notably discrepancies among different Hadiths and between the Sunnah and the Qur’an. The Qur’an does not state a specific legal age of marriage; however, it does provide guidance and mentions clearly two situations that should be considered before marriage: that one must be physically mature (i.e. sexually) and be of sound judgement (i.e. mentally mature) in order to get married. It is to be noted that these conditions are subjectively defined as they are meant to depend on and evolve with time and space. The Qur’an is indeed atemporal, designed for all of mankind in the past, present and future, so while it might be morally acceptable back then to marry as a child, now it is not, and the Qur’an allows flexibility with the interpretation of the age of marriage so that it supports values of different times. In 4:6, the Qur’an states: “And test the orphans [in their abilities] until they reach marriageable age. Then if you perceive in them sound judgement, release their property to them. And do not consume it excessively and quickly, [anticipating] that they will grow up.” Hence, according to the Qur’an, one can test the mental ability and maturity of a young man or woman—and whether they are of a marriageable age, if he/she is capable of managing her own affairs well. This verse also warns those entrusted with wealth not to consume or waste it before they grow up, and grown up is referred to in Arabic as “shudud,” which means physical maturity, the period from adolescence to adulthood. This means a marriageable age begins at post-puberty, from adolescence onwards. References to post-puberty or the need to be physically matured before marrying is further referred to in 4:6, 24: 31, and 24: 58-59.
There are other guidelines provided in the Qur’an to consider before marriage such as determining mutual attraction and compatibility, (2:221, 30:21, 33:52), ascertaining whether the potential partner is of similar beliefs/faiths (2:221, 60:10), discussion of and agreeing to the level of dower and other terms if any (4:4, 4:24), understanding and mutual acceptance of marriage as a solemn covenant or strong oath (4:21, 2:232, 2:237, 24:33), and if male, capable of providing for the household (2:228, 2:233, 4:34, 65:6). Thus, according to the Qur’an, marriage is a solemn covenant of mutual trust and faithfulness for each other that arises when two individuals are ready to move on to a new phase of adulthood in their life.
Child marriage has been a very contentious issue in the debate surrounding women’s rights in Islam. It has been practiced in the Islamic world, principally justified through different Hadith reports, specifically the one narrating the Prophet’s marriage to Aisha when she was six years old, and the consumption of this marriage when she was nine. This has offered legal justifications for certain states to accept and tolerate this practice. Nonetheless, while providing volumes of historical information about the Prophet, these hadith narrations were written 200-300 years after the Prophet’s death and thus are not free from faulty and self-contradictory materials that were gathered and orally transmitted from flawed human beings going back to the companions of the Prophet himself. In fact, the information about Aisha’s age when she got married to the Prophet is widely quoted and found in many books but only comes from a single person: Hisham bin Urwah. This information was reported through Iraqis, which has been quoted as unreliable by Yaqub ibn Shaibah. Furthermore, the Qur’an clearly stipulates that all marriages of the Prophet were lawful: “O Prophet, indeed We have made lawful to you your wives” (33:50). The Qur’an also declares Muhammad to be a man of highest moral standards (68:4; 33:21) and the best exemplar for humanity, instructing Muslim believers to follow Muhammad’s teachings and accept him as a final authority in all of their affairs. If the Prophet was so righteous and if all his marriages were lawful, and considering Qur’anic guidelines on marriage, this would imply that Aisha could not have been six or nine when she married Muhammad, but could have been at least 16-19 of age at the time of her marriage. The Qur’anic guidelines in regard to physical and sexually maturity (4:6) tell us that Muhammad could not have married a young girl of age six or nine.
As for polygamy, a practice that was fairly common before the Qur’anic revelation, was restricted to two conditions in the Qur’an: “And if you fear that you will not deal justly with the orphan girls, then marry those that please you of [other] women, two or three or four. But if you fear that you will not be just, then [marry only] one or those your right hand possesses. That is more suitable that you may not incline [to injustice]” (4:3). First, this verse states that men can take a second, third or fourth wife if he is afraid that orphan girls will not be provided for, and thus under this condition, can marry them to provide for them. Second, a man can only marry another woman if he treats his wives equally and justly. Only under these conditions is polygamy accepted according to the Qur’an. Marriage is considered a significant sacred alliance and solemn covenant that unites a man and a woman as companions for life. Because of its importance in the eyes of God, divorce is strongly discouraged in the Qur’an. However, when it is necessary, the Qur’an not only guarantees women a right for divorce without requiring the husband’s consent (khul divorce), but also protects women and assures equal rights with men (compensation if husband initiate divorce and right to child custody).
Seclusion and Veiling
In terms of seclusion and veiling, the Qur’an promotes modesty for both men and women: “Say to the believing men that they should cast down their glances and guard their private parts. That is purer for them… And tell the believing women to cast down their glances and guard their private parts and not display their adornment except that which [necessarily] appears thereof and to wrap [a portion of] their headcovers over their chests and not expose their adornment except to their husbands, their fathers…” (24:30-31) Seclusion was also adopted as a practice in the Islamic world from the Byzantine and Persian empires, and was perceived as a sign of privilege, reserved to elite women who were not required to work in the fields along their male counterparts. However, what began as an attempt to protect women—as a sign of prestige, respect, and wealth, or as a “partition” from men to make clear that veiled women were not available, actually led to a real lack of freedom for many women who became excluded from the world of males and from life outside their homes. Even the mosque, guaranteed to them by the Prophet as a place of worship, became inaccessible to some.
As such, the Qur’anic revelation provided a clear progress for women in pre-Islamic societies. Historic circumstances have unfortunately worked in the disfavor of Muslim women, particularly due to a male-dominated interpretation of the Qur’an that excluded women from this process. Pre-existing patriarchal norms were also reinforced over the years, coinciding with the rise of Islam, and therefore these norms were mistakenly seen as emanating from the Qur’an. These predominant traditions of male authority made it difficult for women to avail themselves of the rights guaranteed in the Qur’an, and they faced particular hardships in divorce, employment, and political activity. Gender relations and inequality in the Islamic world hence did not originate from the Qur’an but was a product of history, culture, geography, and politics. I will now examine how Islamic feminist scholars and how ISIS have interpreted Qur’anic injunctions on women in Islam, analyzing how different these two perspectives are from each other and how consistent they are with Qur’anic injunctions.
Islamic Feminists’ Views on Women’s Rights in Islam
Islamic feminists argue that the Qur’an is fundamentally egalitarian and provides agency for women. They believe that the original message was corrupted by male Islamist jurists and Qur’anic scholars who have controlled the Islamic narrative, excluding women from this process. Because of this, Islamic feminists have often held that Islam needs re-interpretation to include women’s interpretation of the Qur’an, which they argue would reduce some of the underlying biases that have resulted from this unfair or unbalanced analysis. Several prominent scholars emerge from this debate, including Asma Barlas, Fatima Mernissi, Leila Ahmed, and Amina Wadud. This paper will look particularly at the arguments of Asma Barlas, Leila Ahmed, and Albert Hourani.
Asma Barlas highlights that the dominant male-voice in the discussion and interpretation of the Qur’an, and subsequent exclusion of women, was a major factor in the patriarchal interpretations of Islamic religious texts and the corruption of the original message. She blames in particular the early companions of the Prophet for excluding women from the interpretation process and for formulating Islamic tradition and society based on patriarchal and misogynistic values. Her critique focuses on Hadith traditions as she perceives the Qur’an to be in line with gender egalitarianism. She specifically denounces male biases and interpretations of the Prophet’s life and actions as restricting women, and views Islam as portraying women equal to men, arguing that the Prophet did not treat women inferiorly. In fact, the Prophet’s wives and many women after the Qur’anic revelation had a prominent role in the transmission of the Prophet’s sayings and the spread of Islam, notably Khadija, Aisha, Fatima, Mariam, among many others.
Leila Ahmed assumes that Islam is stubbornly egalitarian. She states that “Islam’s ethical vision […] is thus in tension with, and might even be said to subvert, the hierarchical structure of marriage pragmatically instituted in the first Islamic society,” suggesting that Islamic scholars and/or ruling men curtailed women pre-Islamic autonomy and participation to serve their own political purposes, establishing institutions of patriarchal marriage as solely legitimate. Primarily, she holds responsible “the political, religious, and legal authorities in the Abbasid period,” for hearing only and instituting the androcentric voice of Islam, which “has defined Islam ever since.” She also accuses negative foreign influences of the Byzantine and Persian Empires, as well as the Prophet Muhammad’s own practices of secluding and veiling his wives for subverting Islam’s egalitarianism. Identifying these different “corrupting” influences of Islam and the Qur’an, Ahmed’s argument is perhaps too thoroughgoing as it confuses different social dynamics that had unintended consequences, notably in relation to veiling and women’s seclusion from the rest of the society. As explained above, veiling and women’s seclusion was a sign of privilege and of belonging to the upper-class in various societies, like in the Persian, Byzantine, and Chinese empires. As the Islamic polity grew in strength during the Islamic conquests, the Prophet and its successive leaders imitated the practices of privileged families to assert Islam’s power. However, veiling was never intended to be a patriarchal custom, it only became one gradually in later decades, as Islamic rulers and scholars installed the veil to control women’s sexuality. Moreover, Ahmed overlooks pre-existing patriarchal institutions of Arab tribal societies during the Jahiliya period and paints a too optimistic reality of Jahiliya societies, which Albert Hourani recovers from in his argument. Ahmed’s argument can also be problematic because the Qur’an declares the Prophet Muhammad to be a man of highest moral standards (68:4; 33:21) and the best exemplar for humanity. In many verses, the Qur’an enjoins Muslim believers to follow Muhammad’s teachings and accept him as a final authority in all their affairs, which is therefore in direct contradiction to her statement about the Prophet’s corruption of the original message of Islam.
Albert Hourani looks at women’s deprivation of inheritance, their tight monitorization through marriage alliances, and limited spatial mobility during the Jahiliya period. He argues that Islamic rules were “incidental to the process of patriarchy,” which he believes has resulted “from the incomplete and degeneration of the tribal society and of the structure of defense it erected to maintain integrity.” He therefore infers that Islamic rulers did not bring up patriarchy, but that patriarchy was already present in Arabian societies before the Qur’anic revelation and it was only reproduced and reinforced throughout the centuries.
Hence these three scholars all perceive the Qur’an and Islam as fundamentally egalitarian and most generally agree that patriarchy in Islamic societies resulted from various political, geographical, and/or cultural factors, which reinforced patriarchal norms and misogynistic values over the centuries.
Women’s Islamic Movement
Muslim women taking part in the Islamic feminist movement actively sought to rectify the oppression they were facing by resorting to Islamic principles and using Islamic sources to show that gender egalitarianism is a discourse valid within Islam. Women’s oppression was seen as originating from the absence of proper Islamic principles, which pushed Muslim women to call for an Islamicization of their societies and a recommitment to Islam in order to regain their rights guaranteed under Sharia law. This mission was not merely a call for women to stay at home, but a call to enhance and reconceptualize women’s role in the family as mothers and wives that was different but as equally important as men’s duties, as they prepare the next generations for a leading and productive role in society.
These women also argued for a re-interpretation of Islamic jurisprudence and a new form of ijtihad that include women, using Islamic religious texts to justify their arguments and showcase their capability to provide social and political leadership. In order to assert their presence in previously male-defined sphere, they negotiated their entrance into these arenas by relying on specific Qur’anic verses and Hadith reports that historically secured their subordination to male authority. According to them, women’s subordination to feminine virtues such as shyness, modesty, and humility was a necessary condition for their enhanced public role in religious political life. Concretely, these women aimed to revive Islamic values in social life by establishing for example neighbourhood mosques, institutions of Islamic learning or da’wa training centres, and Islamic charities dedicated to social welfare for the poor and religious activities. Essentially, they sought to educate ordinary Muslims in Islamic religious virtues, moral uprightness, and pietistic conduct, as well as in the proper performance of religious duties and acts of worship.
Several prominent Islamist women activists are reputed for their role in leading this women’s liberation movement, notably Zaynab al-Ghazali. Al-Ghazali played a leading role in developing and spreading Islamism in Egypt in the 20th century. Her modernist religious activism emphasized on women’s visibility within the boundaries of Islam, calling for women’s active role in public, intellectual, and political life in accordance with Islamic standards of reserve, restraint, and modesty that were required from pious Muslim women. Her speeches and writings often invoked that Muslim men and women were equally called upon to serve God and emphasized equity and compatibility between men and women. She also held weekly religious sermons and organized religious lessons, which she claimed had a following of three million women.
Even today, many Muslim women have used their Islamic expertise to enter politics and negotiate with male leaders in the midst of conflict. Their religious knowledge and piety were key factors for them to gain esteem and respect, and they were able to use their religiosity to effectively settle differences and bring peace. A notable success was the role of Afghan women when they negotiated directly with Taliban leaders, addressing violence and bringing attention to social and humanitarian concerns. For example, at the 2004 constitutional convention, women successfully reached across ethnic lines to push for a written commitment to equal rights for all Afghan citizens. They also worked in schools and community organizations to counter extremist narratives for the peaceful upbringing of their children and life within their community.
Thus, Islam has repeatedly been used as a ground to justify women’s liberation or equality to men. Scholarly but also practically, Islamic feminists have defended women’s rights on the basis of Qur’anic injunctions and Islamic law, which they perceive as granting them specific rights to assert their presence in public, intellectual, and political life. While some scholars may have been too thoroughgoing in their arguments, especially when they criticize the Prophet Muhammad, most arguments put forward by Islamic feminists are in harmony with the Qur’an, particularly in relation to women’s different but equal role to men in society.
ISIS’ Interpretation of Women’s Rights in Islam and their Treatment in IS Held Territories
ISIS’ interpretation of women’s rights and their treatment in society according to Islamic principles is in stark opposition to Islamic feminists’ interpretation of the Qur’an. This paper will show that ISIS’ interpretation is less accurate because it is less in harmony with the Qur’an and the group has manipulated certain verses to fit its political purposes.
Propaganda Targeting Arab Muslim Women and Portrayal of Women’s Roles
I will closely analyze ISIS’ manifesto published by the all-female police ‘Al Khanssaa Brigade’ to recruit Arab Muslim women to join the Islamic Caliphate. This manifesto is not aimed at a Western audience but is clearly designed to draw women from the region, particularly those in the Gulf. We can also deduce from the numerous references to Saudi Arabia in the manifesto, that the target audience can be narrowed down to women in the Kingdom and that ISIS’ interpretation of Islamic sources is the closest to Saudi Wahhabi Islam and can be associated with the Salafi-Wahhabi trend of Islamic political thought.
I have chosen to focus my analysis on this manifesto to analyze ISIS’ Salafi-Wahhabi ideology towards women because these guidelines present something that is more akin to the realities of living as a female jihadist in IS-held territories, in comparison to ISIS propaganda targeting Western women. From it, we generally learn that while there are indeed women operating to battle, police, and fight under certain circumstances, this is actually very low on the list of responsibilities given to women. The manifesto specifically emphasizes the importance of motherhood and family support, stating the role of women is “divinely” limited, and overall it has a very misogynist interpretation of the Qur’an and Hadith.
The manifesto reflects ISIS’s archaic, literalist interpretation of Sunni Islam, imposing a strict attire on all women, which resembles the Saudi niqab (all-black dress covering every inch of their bodies, including gloves to cover their hands and fingers). The manifesto encourages women to remain hidden and veiled, confined within a single space that they cannot leave unless under exceptional circumstances—to wage jihad when there are no men available or to study religion. Women are also allowed to exit their houses if they wish to go to Shariah courts and are legally entitled to openly talk about their issues for consultation on marriage, divorce, and inheritance, without the need for bargaining or bribery.
A sedentary lifestyle is declared to be women’s divinely appointed right, revolving around motherhood and maintenance of the household, while men provide for women and wage jihad to build the Caliphate. The guide also urges Arab Muslim women to emulate the women first called to Islam, like Khadija, Aisha, or Fatima. This is a contradiction to the previous statement about women’s sedentariness because the wives of the Prophet, his daughters, and others had a prominent role in supporting the Prophet to spread the Islamic message and in the transmission of Islamic knowledge after his death. The manifesto completely discounts this key role and even neglects it. Furthermore, as previously discussed, this sedentariness and need to remain hidden or veiled from the rest of society was not initially a restriction imposed on women, but rather established as a sign of privilege, wealth, and power. In 33: 32-33, the Qur’an states: “O wives of the Prophet, you are not like anyone among women. If you fear Allah, then do not be soft in speech to men, … but speak with appropriate speech” and “abide in your houses and do not display yourselves as was the display of former times of ignorance.” This shows that the wives of the Prophet, despite being veiled and hidden, had enormous power and influence both within the household, in supporting the Prophet, and in guiding believers with their speech.
Furthermore, the guide clearly stipulates that men and women are not equal under Islam, saying “upon examination of the state of the human condition, it is clear that God provided for man’s needs.” It further declares that “woman was created to populate the Earth just as man was. But as God wanted it to be, she was made from Adam and for Adam.” We know after discussing Qur’anic injunctions on women in Islam that this statement is false because Adam and Eve were created from the same soul and that God created them as mates, placing between them “affection and mercy” so that they may find tranquillity among each other (30: 21). The manifesto nonetheless uses this same verse to illustrate that there is no greater responsibility for women that to be a wife to her husband, which is an inaccurate interpretation of this verse because the emphasis is on the complementarity of the genders who become soulmates, and not on women’s submissiveness to and housework for men. Furthermore, the manifesto explains that men, notably in Western societies, have felt emasculated due to women supporting or helping to support their husbands and family. In 4:34, the Qur’an says: “men are in charge of women by right of what Allah has given over the other and what they spend for maintenance from their wealth.” This verse has been used to assert that having a job is only a task reserved for men, arguing that men have been “given the body and brain to tend to his wives, daughters, and sisters. ISIS further justifies women’s limited ability to work with “monthly complications”, “pregnancies”, and “nature of her life and responsibilities to her husband, sons, and religion.” However, if she is forced to work outside of the house, ISIS stipulates that women must be rewarded for this service, through assistance with household chores and childrearing as well as limited working hours so that she can tend to her family.
In regard to education, in order for woman to fulfil her role to bring up, educate, protect and care for the next generation to come, ISIS highlights that she cannot be illiterate or ignorant and that Islam does not ordain the forbidding of education or blocking of culture from women. Learning shariah sciences and fiqh is indeed ordained for women in ISIS. Ideally, girls begin studying from 7 and end at 15, sometimes a little earlier. They must be taught mental arithmetic and skills according to their age as well as their mental and physical development. Curricula focus on fiqh and religion, especially related to women and rulings on marriage and divorce, as well as important household skills, such as knitting, cooking, and other manual skills. Schools are naturally gender segregated, and girls are required to stop studying when they marry. Their role as mothers or wives can begin as early as nine years old, but the manifesto states that “most pure girls will be married by 16 or 17, when they are still young and active,” while men will not be more than 20.
ISIS’ manifesto imposes many restrictions on women and clearly portrays women as second-class citizens. Overall, this ultra-conservative religious narrative glorifies women’s roles as mothers and wives, depicted as a religious duty, and denigrates women who seek anything else than to dedicate herself to giving birth and rearing her children, which can happen as early as nine years old.
This paper has allowed us to examine the actual situation of women in Islam and the rights granted to women according to the Qur’an. From the analysis, we can deduce that the Qur’an indeed provides an egalitarian discourse on gender relations and justifies the male/female dichotomy on the basis of the complementarity of the genders, which reflects God’s divine perfection in His binary attributes (feminine and masculine names). Islamic feminists undoubtedly offer the closest interpretation to this religious text, using Qur’anic verses to defend their liberation and rights as Muslim women. On the contrary, ISIS portrays women as second-class citizens, manipulating Qur’anic injunctions to justify women’s subordination to men and their brutal misogynist ideology.
Youth, Activism, and Inclusion in the 2010s: Studies from Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq, and Morocco
I. Congenital Revolutionaries: The Sanguine Essence of Lebanon’s Youth
In Biology, there is a field of study known as Epigenetics that focuses on how an individual’s behaviors and environment can cause changes that affect the way their genes work. Epigenetics does not concern the actual nature or mutation of the genes themselves, but rather how the body changes the way in which it reads and expresses genetic sequences. To put it in other words, the tangible remains the same while the intangible alters in its manifestation. The manner in which a reaction usually takes shape can be forever changed because of its environmental influences, altering the nature of these interactions forever. If a woman has psychological stress during her pregnancy it can lead to pathological outcomes in the child when it is born.This concept of the nature of expression changing is present in a field of study considered a hard science that deals with things that can be observed, measured and tested repeatedly to ensure the result of objective truths. So, what of social sciences? If one’s environment can alter the way in which their genes are expressed, can it not do the same for how a society expresses itself based on the environment it exists in? A once generally peaceful society constantly exposed to a hostile environment can surely change how it expresses itself and responds to events in its environment over time. The ideological structure, nature and accepted norms of societies have constantly evolved as their environments have throughout history. A society where large-scale hostility and calamities are relatively anomalous will respond a specific way to its first catastrophe, but over time will make the necessary adjustments to survive when repeatedly subjected to adversity.
According to Lebanese folklore, the city of Beirut has been destroyed and rebuilt seven times throughout its 5,000-year history. Many would argue that it recently went through its eight destruction on August 14th, 2020 when over 2,700 tonnes of ammonium nitrate exploded in its port, causing over 200 deaths, 6,000 injuries, 15 billion US Dollars in damage to property and an estimated 300,000 people homeless. The history of Lebanon has been filled with hardships, wars, colonization, occupation and famine. However, since its creation as an independent state in the 1940’s, political instability and corruption have been the major sources of its hardships. In the period following the end of its fifteen-year Civil War that saw Lebanon occupied by both Syria and Israel, led to over 100,000 deaths and the exodus of almost a million people from 1975 until 1990, the country has existed in a constant state of instability. Generation after generation has fought against the government’s corruption and negligence of its citizenry, each time resulting in little to no change. Over the past two decades the country has seen revolution after revolution, with the country’s youth largely leading the charge. Even after so many failed revolutions, the youth continue to stand up against Lebanon’s repressive government hoping to achieve the change their predecessors fought for. In a conversation about the October Revolution of 2019, a cousin of mine, aged 30, who recently moved to the US last year stated, “I have lived through and participated in seven revolutions in my lifetime. Nothing ever changes, and it never will,” a sentiment shared by many in Lebanon. Yet time after time the youth continue to fight. For centuries the Lebanese people have been involved in political struggle, forever scarring their social memory across generations. The youth of Lebanon have no other option but to be revolutionary, it is inherent to their identity and society. Their collective historical experience has given them two options: capitulate or continue to resist in the face of futility. They have chosen the latter.
The War Generation
Lebanon was forever changed after its fifteen-year civil war. Tens of thousands of lives were lost, countless Lebanese became internally displaced, almost a million fled the country and the demographic make-up of the country and its regions were drastically altered forever. The war generation had desires of leaving the country they no longer could endure, and many gave up on the possibility of a stable and peaceful Lebanon. People growing up during the war and those born during it only knew Lebanon as an unstable, hostile country, one that did not match the memories of their parents and grandparents. The disconnect between generations was so drastic, one Lebanese woman who spent most of her adolescence in that period stated: “I was talking to my mother the other day and got really angry. I told her she never should have brought us up to think that the world was beautiful. Everything I grew up believing turned out to be wrong in the last few years. She should have trained us to know that life was not so nice, but she was training us for the Lebanon she knew.”
Lebanon’s government has historically been unwilling to provide its citizenry with basic social services, leading to overwhelming distrust of the government. To this day, the Lebanese people do not trust the government, with reports that only eight percent of Lebanese citizens trust the government in 2016 and only nineteen percent in 2018. For the generation that lived through the war, there was no reason for them to have hope for any change after its end.
Renewed Distrust: False Promises and Ta’if’s Shortcomings
The signing of the Ta’if Agreement in 1989, responsible for ending the war, promised a return to normalcy, and changes government that would better serve its constituency. However, the agreement did not live up to its claims, and continued to enable the corrupt and inequitable government and conditions. The agreement stipulated that the Syrian military would withdraw from Lebanon within two years but did not do so until 2005 after the assassination of Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, which was widely believed to have been done or supported by the Syrian government. According to the agreement, a special parliamentary council was to be created that would establish a timeframe in which political sectarian would be completely abolished, but thirty years later no such council has been created. Rather than abolishing the sectarian system, it simply recreated it while modifying its sectarian power balance. The Ta’if agreement called for the disarmament of all Lebanese militias, with the exception of Hezbollah who maintained their claim as a resistance group against the Israeli Occupation of Lebanon from the early 1980’s until May of 2020. Even after Israel’s withdrawal from Lebanon in 2000, Hezbollah remains armed to this day while participating in both domestic and regional conflicts such as the Syrian Civil War with many Lebanese citizens and politicians view as contributing to Lebanon’s instability. These constant failures and the government’s inability to deliver on its promises to improve its citizens quality of life only led to more distrust in the system by the generations who lived through these eras.
Post-War Reconstruction: Failures of Liberalization
After the destruction of Lebanon’s economy and infrastructure during the Civil War, the country embarked on a reconstruction period led by then-Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, a Lebanese businessman who had attained massive wealth in prior decades in the construction industry in Saudi Arabia and established close ties with the Saudi government, even gaining citizenship there in 1978. With his ascension to arguably the most powerful position in government, Hariri brought with his plan to rejuvenate Lebanon’s economy called “Horizon 2000.” Playing a major part in Horizon 2000 was the company Solidere, a public-private partnership in charge of redeveloping Downtown Beirut founded by Hariri in 1994 that to this day enjoys special legal privileges. Hariri’s attempts at liberalizing the Lebanese economy were met with many criticisms by his opposition, with many claiming he used his position as Prime Minister and 10 percent shareholder in Solidere to line his own pockets and those of Lebanon’s political elite, as well as pro-Syria officials. With the future of the Lebanese economy and its people largely in his hands, all Hariri gave them was an upscale, overpriced ghost town in downtown Beirut’s city center that no one could afford to live in. Once again the Lebanese government failed to make good on its promises and failed to improve the lives of its people.
The First Revolution Generation
While it had seemed that past generations of the Lebanese had lost any hope that the country would ever progress, attitudes seemingly changed in the mid-2000’s. By 2005, Lebanon had been under Syrian occupation for almost thirty years. Over the three decades of occupation the Syrian military had engaged in conflict with various Lebanese militias and its military, alleged assassinations of key political opponents and political manipulation, leading many Lebanese to grow to resent the country. After the Ta’if Agreement stipulated Syrian withdrawal and Syrian President Hafez Al Assad’s death in 2000, the Lebanese people began to further question Syria’s occupation as seeing as the mandate which granted them the right to intervene expired in 1982, with Lebanon requesting an end to their occupation in 1986. Still, Syrian President Bashar Al Assad and his predecessor continued to intervene in Lebanon both militarily and politically, instilling resentment in a generation of Lebanese people who only knew Syrian occupation and instability. On February 14th, 2005, Rafik Hariri, no longer Prime Minister, was assassinated in a car bomb attack in Beirut, an event that would set the stage for years of revolutions.
Rafik Hariri’s assassination woke the Lebanese people up. On February 21st, 2005 tens of thousands of Lebanese protestors rallied at Hariri’s assassination site demanding Syria’s withdrawal from Lebanon, and blaming Syria and President Emile Lahoud, who was pro-Syrian, for the assassination. These protests were commonly called the “Cedar Revolution,” and would be the first of many revolutions in Lebanon over the next two decades. For weeks, Lebanese protestors held gatherings and rallies in Beirut’s Martyr’s Square. While anti-Syrian protests were not new to Lebanon, there was a shift in demographic participation. Previously anti-Syrian positions and protests were supported by Lebanon’s Christian population, but the Cedar Revolution saw the unification of Lebanese from all sects coming together to oppose the Syrian presence in their country. On March 2nd, Syrian President Bashar Al Assad announced that Syrian troops would withdraw completely from Lebanon within a few months, eventually doing so with the last of their troops leaving Lebanon on April 26th of the same year. However, the anti-Syrian protests did not go unopposed. Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah called for a rally in Beirut in support of the Syrian government, with news outlets reporting somewhere between 200,000 to potentially over 1 million protestors in attendance.
The following year saw the beginning of a conflict between Hezbollah and Israel, with Israel claiming Hezbollah initiated it and vis versa. Conflict between the two in Southern Lebanon and Northern Israel had existed for years, making it difficult to say which entity initiated this specific conflict. The war lasted from July 12th until August 14th, and saw the deaths of over 1,100 Lebanese residents, 2.5 billion USD in infrastructural damage, between 2.5 and 3 billion USD in foreign income from visitors that year and an estimated $7 billion overall price tag for reconstruction. While many Lebanese admired Hezbollah’s strength against the much more powerful Israeli Army, others viewed it as another example of Hezbollah’s actions hurting the rest of the country. In the end support for Hezbollah in Lebanon drastically increased as their resistance to destruction was seen as a win, while support for the government once again took a hit for its perceived impotence against Israel’s attacks.
2006 – 2008 Protests
Not long after the end of the war between Hezbollah and Israel, political protests began to break out. After years of destructive and corrupt government policies and officials, empty promises, high unemployment and decades of armed conflict, the Lebanese people had seen enough. While the Cedar Revolution was opposed to the pro-Syrian government of Lebanon, this time protestors were opposed to the US and Saudi Arabia supported government. After weeks of tension, hundreds of thousands of protestors gathered in downtown Beirut, many of whom were Hezbollah supporters, to protest against Prime Minister Fouad Siniora. The protests continued for almost a year and a half, with violent clashes, assassinations, threats of invasion from foreign countries and hundreds of millions of dollars in losses until their end with the election of President Michel Sulaiman in May of 2008. It seemed as though revolution was inevitable no matter the government. The pro-Syrian government was toppled in support of their opposition. Shortly after, their pro-US and Saudi opposition’s government was toppled by a more pro-Syrian opposition.
The Decade of Protests
By the beginning of the next decade, the Lebanese people were no strangers to anti-government protest. Overthrowing governments, removing foreign countries’ occupying militaries and infighting over the governments structure were a regular occurrence. However, as economic and political conditions continued to worsen, the next decade saw even more anti-government opposition movements. The revolutionary generation of the 2000s had vivid memories of the civil war and its immediate aftermath. Unlike their predecessors, they had no memory of a beautiful and relatively stable Lebanon. They only knew instability and destruction. From this they produced the revolutions and protests of the first decade of the new millennium. The generation of revolutionaries that followed had a different experience. While their Lebanon was just as unstable and often destructive as that of their predecessors, their childhood and young adulthood was molded by revolution after revolution. Revolution and protest became the norm. The next decade would see at least five years with major protests and revolutions, internal armed conflict, the fight against ISIS’s insurgency, conflict with Israel and spillover from the Syrian Civil War. Yet and still, the Lebanese youth continued to fight against their corrupt government despite no logical reason for persistent optimism.
As the Arab world was rocked by the notorious “Arab Spring” of 2011, Lebanon was not immune to its impact. On January 12th, 2011, then-Energy Minister Gibran Bassil announced the resignation of ten Hezbollah affiliated opposition ministers, with the Minister of State Adnan Hussein later becoming the eleventh to do so, signaling the fall of Saad Hariri’s First Cabinet as Prime Minister after his father’s assassination. In February, hundreds of protestors marched in Beirut in opposition to the country’s sectarian political system. Between February and June of of 2011, at least six major protests occurred calling for the end of the sectarian political system and the disarmament of Hezbollah, with thousands participating from cities including Beirut, Baalbak, Sidon and Dora. Later in October, threats of the largest general strike in Lebanon’s history by the General Labor Confederation calling for higher wages and increased benefits were suspended after a deal was made with the government, but the teacher’s union rejected the deal and went on strike anyway, putting a halt to the country’s education system. 2011 was also the beginning of spillover from the Syrian Civil War in Lebanon, with consistent incidents of violent inter-country clashes, armed infighting and confrontations with ISIS in Lebanon until 2017.
Failed Governments: A Country with no President
After the fall of Saad Hariri’s government in January of 2011, Lebanon saw the formation of a series of governments, as well as their subsequent dissolution over the next half decade. Five months after the dissolution of Hariri’s government, Najib Mikati, appointed Prime Minister by President Michel Suleiman, had his proposed new cabinet approved. His government did not last long, however, with his resignation and its dissolution in March of 2013. A few weeks later, Tammam Salam received the necessary parliamentary votes to become Prime Minister, but was unable to establish a new government until February of 2014. The government was tasked with overseeing the 2014 Lebanese presidential election, but the country’s political parties could not reach the necessary two-thirds majority vote in parliament to confirm a president until after 46 rounds of voting October of 2016 with the election of President Michel Aoun. For over two years Lebanon had no President, leading to a reported 8% of Lebanese citizens with trust in the government, 17% in the legal system, 14% in political parties and 10% in parliament. Saad Hariri formed a new cabinet, then again in January of 2019 which lasted until his resignation in October of 2019 due to the October Revolution of 2019-20.
Throughout this period, Lebanon experiences a series of protests and revolutions. In July of 2015 Lebanon began to experience a waste crisis. Due to the government’s negligence, waste collection was stopped in the Beirut and Mount Lebanon regions. The waste companies eventually resumed collecting waste but had no location to discard it so they resorted to dumping it in places all over the city, causing a horrid stench. While the protests were sparked by the waste issue, they quickly evolved to anti-government, citing corruption, electricity blackouts and government inefficiency as motivations. After the government deployed army units in response to protests, Lebanese youth began assaulting officers from afar and destroying barricades. By the end of August, over 100,000 Lebanese, largely comprised of the country’s youth, took to the streets to protest against the corrupt government.
October Revolution and Beirut Blast
In October of 2019, the Lebanese government unveiled their plan to introduce new taxes on gas, tobacco and widely used applications like WhatsApp. While many outside of Lebanon called it the “WhatsApp Revolution” initially, crediting the applications proposed tax as the source of the revolution, it was only the tip of the iceberg. In 2019 Lebanon still did not have consistent and reliable electricity. The country’s internet speeds ranked amongst the lowest in the world. The economy was failing, with youth unemployment reaching 37% and overall employment estimated to be 25% in 2019. Within the week leading up to the protest, approximately 100 wildfires throughout Lebanon, burning over 3,000 acres of land. Due to their lack of equipment, the rapid spread of the fires and poor planning, the Lebanese government could not handle the fires alone and requested aid from a number of countries. In the midst of these wildfires, the Lebanese government unveiled their planned taxes to an already abused and hurt citizenry. Protests began the day the new tax plan was released and lasted for over eleven weeks straight through December, and eventually resumed weeks later in January. The first day of the protests saw one of the Minister of Higher Education’s bodyguards shoot stray bullets in the air as protestors approached his vehicle, causing protests to intensify in strength and number.
As the revolution raged on, protestors called for the end of the sectarian political system, legal accountability for the political and economic elite, the end of corruption and improvement in basic governmental services. Although there had been some level of cross-sect unity in past protests and revolutions, the October Revolution had strong effect of unifying the general public against the rich and corrupt political elite. They chanted anti-government slogans in the streets such as “everyone means everyone,” insinuating that the resignation of one politician will not quell them, and that all the political parties were responsible. The revolution saw violent clashes between the political groups such as Amal and Hezbollah and protestors, and the resignation of Prime Minister Hariri and his successor, Prime Minister Hassan Diab. All over the world, members of the Lebanese diaspora participated in protests from abroad, holding protests in front of Lebanese Embassies in Paris, DC, New York and countless other cities. Videos taken in Lebanon of the protests were spread through Instagram, Facebook, Whatsapp and Twitter, and international diaspora groups were formed to assist from abroad. It was the Lebanese youth who left their classrooms to stay in the streets all day and night for months on end. It was the youth who fought against armed bodyguards, police officers, militia men and hostile members of opposing political parties. The youth disseminated information to the diaspora and the rest of the world through social media posts and campaigns. They had been conditioned and trained for this moment their entire lives, and they did everything they could to try to make a dent in the corrupt system that is the Lebanese government. Although the Novel Coronavirus-19 Pandemic quelled the strength of the protests, they were rejuvenated after the disastrous explosion in the Port of Beirut. Within a week of the explosion, Prime Minister Hassan Diab announced his resignation. Shortly after, Lebanese diplomat Mustapha Adib was designated to become Prime Minister but stepped down within a month after being unable to form a cabinet. Less than a month later, Saad Hariri was reappointed Prime Minister, but has yet to form a cabinet. On the year anniversary of the October Revolution, protestors gathered all across Lebanon to celebrate its first anniversary, blocking roads and marching to the site of the Beirut explosion.
The youth of Lebanon have only ever known dysfunction, chaos and instability. There has never been a time in the life of anyone currently defined as “youth” in Lebanon where there has been true economic, political or social security and stability. A twenty-year-old in Lebanon right now would have experienced the occupation of two neighboring countries, five official wars and conflicts, countless assassinations of high-level politicians, extreme economic despair, the lack of basic governmental services like water and electricity, extreme governmental corruption and at least seven official government resignations. Even when faced with all this, they still continue to fight against a corrupt system they have no logical reason to believe will ever change. The youth of Lebanon are themselves a youth movement. Their mere existence as young Lebanese citizens is resistance against the oppressive and dysfunctional nature of their government. It is not by choice that the Lebanese youth are revolutionaries, their world has simply made it so.
II. Advancing the Democracy Path in Jordan: How the Engagement of Youth can Fulfill the Kingdom’s Democracy
Since the early 1990s, Jordan has forged toward a path of democratization, which has seen further developments over the past decade. The small Middle Eastern Kingdom withered the “Arab Spring” storm and looked to facilitate national reforms. Since 2012, Jordan has had 3 parliamentary elections, the last of which took place in November of 2020, and it has introduced the Decentralization Law and its subsequent Decentralization and Municipalities Elections of 2017, a year after its 2016 Parliamentary Elections. The 2017 Decentralization and Municipalities Elections saw the lowest candidacy age in Jordan’s history, 25, resulting in the elections of numerous candidates under the age of 30 who continue to do tremendous jobs in their governorates and municipalities. At the same time, youth remain politically active in elections, as their voter turnout in 2016 exceeded the national average. Despite these reforms, Jordan still faces a number of challenges pertaining to its democracy, including public participation in decision-making, a somewhat limited role of civil society, low voter turnout, and inadequate youth and women involvement, in addition to other challenges such as unemployment, stagnant economy, and corruption, all of which saw successive governments attempting to address.
The resolution of these challenges, particularly those pertaining to democracy in Jordan, begins with widening the scope of youth inclusion in both the political and public life, as the engagement of Jordan’s youth cohort can bridge Jordan’s democracy challenges, particularly due to their willingness to engage in democratic life, their support for democracy, their success in the Decentralization and Municipality Elections, and the qualities they bring to political and public life vis-à-vis the citizen framework, positing them as ideal candidates for what Jordanians prefer in a parliamentary candidate.
Jordan is considered a youthful state, with over two-thirds of its over 10 million population is under the age of 30 and approximately 30% are between 18 and 30 years of age. Jordan faces a particular set of challenges that it attempts to balance through what Steven David calls “omni-balancing. Specifically, Jordan lies at the heart of the Middle East’s geopolitical conflict, surrounded by a turbulent Iraq in the east, a war-torn and unstable Syria in the North, an oil rich but war-engaged Saudi Arabia in the South, and the region’s longest standing conflict in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict in the west.
The conflicts in Iraq and Syria, which escalated tremendously in the last decade, have amplified Jordan’s economic challenges, especially with the closing of the borders, limiting interstate trade. In fact, Jordan’s transit trade to and from Syria, Lebanon, Turkey, and Europe used to amount to approximately 30% of its imports and 11% of its exports but took a tremendous hit with the Syrian conflict. Further, the influx of Syrian refugees placed extra burden on the Kingdom’s infrastructure and public service sector. These factors in addition to external debt have contributed to reducing Jordan’s annual GDP growth from 6.5% in 2000-2009, to 2.5% up to 2016, and to a mere 2% as of 2017.
This deterioration of the economy was anything but aided by the lack of natural resources and service-oriented economy, as unemployment continue to dwindle, particularly among youth whose unemployment rate stands somewhere between 30% and 35%. The ongoing global pandemic has further exacerbated these challenges, as 1 in 6 young people have lost their jobs.
In a study conducted by NAMA Strategic Intelligence Solutions and the International Republican Institute, the biggest challenges facing youth include economic problems mainly unemployment, price hikes, and low wages. Such protracted challenges propel young people to long for migration, as over half of Jordan’s youth indicated their intentions to migrate.
Jordan has traditionally responded to economic challenges with democratization, albeit “defensive” as Robinson describes it, which looked to widen the scope of liberal rights. Since 2012, Jordan implemented a number of reforms, particularly electoral, with the aim of widening public participation and representation and yielding an effective parliament. Yet, it still faces a number of challenges, manifested in ineffective political parties, somewhat low voter turnout, lack of confidence in the parliament, and inadequate youth and women representation in the parliament, albeit it has seen tremendous improvements at the Municipal level, as Hamza Tarawneh became the youngest mayor in Jordan’s history and managed to translate that success onto effective programs for his city.
This paper highlights a number of important concepts, provides an overview of youth movements in Jordan, illustrates the major challenges facing youth within democracy in Jordan, and advances why and how the engagement of youth can prove effective for the development of democracy in the Kingdom.
To demonstrate the reasons and means through which Jordan’s youth can develop the Kingdom’s democratic process, it is important to illustrate a number of key concepts. Defining democracy takes a number of different approaches. Patrick O’Neil defines democracy as a “system of government that promotes participation, competition, and liberty. David Beetham argues that it is imperative to start from foundational equality, particularly in relation to the equality of capacity in self-determination, rationality, and political equality as he reiterates Robert Dahl’s axiomatic definition. Dahl illustrates that democracy is defined on the basis of two measurable factors: the extent of citizen participation in the political process, or “political equality”, and the degree to which public contestation is accepted, or “political freedom”, under which civil liberties and political rights fall, including the various freedoms and candidacy eligibility, to name a few.
Further, Tilly reasons that democracy does not have a set path or universally acceptable conditions. He adds that identifying paths falls short of specifying any cause-effect relations. Instead, he adopts a political process analysis framework within which he argues that democratization is a movement towards broad and equal citizenship who are bonded by consultations and networks of trust, as the extent to which these factors are effective depend heavily on state capacity. Kohn reiterates Tilly and Putman’s emphasis on trust as a mechanism linking civil society with good governance. He adds that political subcultures are important to facilitate and reconcile opposing interests into consensual political solutions, as the argument illustrates that the associations such as recreational societies, women and youth groups, and cooperatives provide an effective prediction of democratic success. Berman adds another component illustrating that state political institutions have to be responsive in order for an active civil society to strengthen democracy. David Easton also affirms the importance of an effective political system in the overall political process as he indicates that demands and support can yield effective decisions or policies as outputs when the political system is strong and responsive.
Moreover, Robert Putman in Making Democracy Work emphasizes the importance of trust among the civic community in developing successful institutions, whereby a level of mutual trust among citizens can yield an effective democracy, even adding that such a vibrant civil society creates wealth, rather than wealth creating a civil society, meaning the process has to be bottom up. Jeffrey Abramson adds that such trust, especially state-society trust, grows when democratic institutions look to achieve two imperatives: anti-corruption and guarding against arbitrary rule, or in other words, to represent people’s interests.
Looking at youth and democracy, an important component is to unfold what youth generally call for through activism. Yohalem and Martin argue that youth’s civic participation is important for “their own individual development and as a vehicle for public contribution and community change.” The latter factor, referred to by Nermin Allam’s as the citizen frame, in which individuals demand, call for, or address challenges and issues that are of national and/or public concern rather than challenges that are perceived to represent one group. Such an approach was prevalent in the Arab Spring as well as the Post-Arab Spring demonstrations and apolitical activism.
Youth Movements in Jordan
To keep the timeline narrowed, the following provides an overview of youth movements in Jordan during the Arab Spring and Post-Arab Spring. In 2012, a wave of demonstrations broke throughout Jordan, held in all 12 governorates with the central location being “Al-Dakhilyah Circle (the Ministry of Interior Circle – also known as Jamal Abdel-Nasser Circle)”. While the demonstrations featured Jordanians of all backgrounds, youth held a central role, protesting deteriorating livelihoods, unemployment, and austerity measures. Came to be known as Hirak, these demonstrations did not ignore the demands of the wider Jordanian population, instead, “Hirak activists, essentially and expectedly, were magnifying them.”
Post 2012 demonstrations followed a similar approach, adopting the citizen frame, demanding improved conditions and better response to the economic challenges. This time demonstrating at the Fourth Circle, right outside the Prime Ministry, demonstrators were still predominantly made of young people, mostly university educated and skilled professionals including doctors, lawyers, and engineers. Demonstrators demanded the sacking of then Prime Minister Hani Mulki whose public confidence was the lowest recorded figure in Jordan’s history. Youth demonstrated against the worsening of unemployment rates, price hikes, proposed tax laws, and other austerity measures in addition to the Gas Deal, all of which were issues of concern for the wider Jordanian population.
Other notable efforts include a more organized campaign for abolishing Article 308 of the Penal Code, which looked to stop impunity of perpetrators and protect survivors of sexual based violence, and it was organized by many organizations including SIGI, JOHUD, and JNCW and gained major youth support, manifested in student initiatives and wider participation in the campaign activities and outreach.
Challenges to Democracy and Youth Participation in Jordan
At the heart of challenges facing youth in the democratic life in Jordan is the age of candidacy. The Constitution stipulates that a candidate must be at least 30 years of age at the time of assuming a seat in Parliament. On a positive note, the Decentralization and Municipalities Elections of 2017 featured a lowered candidacy age of 25 while that for the Parliament remains at 30, as the average age of the 2016-2020 Parliament started at 51 years. This age restriction limits young people from realizing their potential and transforming their citizen frame approach onto the legislature. Milton-Edwards illustrates that youth face higher barriers to political participation and are offered marginal invitation into participation and civic life, as they remain minorly included in learning and playing any key roles in the state’s decision-making process. With that, young citizens become apathetic, dissatisfied, disenchanted, and worse of all, susceptible to radicalization.
The second challenge pertains to the successive and short-lived electoral laws. Prior to each of the previous elections, particularly that of 2013 and 2016, incumbent Parliaments looked to mirror Jordanians’ demands for an effective and representative electoral law. The 2010 Parliamentary Elections adopted a single-member-district (SMD) one-person-one-vote system. In 2013, the law transformed into a mixed voting system, combining both SMD and proportional representation (PR) system, with the PR portion being 27 seats out of then 150 seats, which proved insufficient for any of the national blocs to assume any sort of majority within the 2013 Parliament. In 2016, the electoral law shifted towards an open-list proportional system for each of the multimember electoral districts, a system that was attempted again in 2020. With that, a staggering 84% of Jordanian young people believe that elections do not reflect the will of the people.
The third challenge is manifested in weak levels of trust in democratic institutions among youth in Jordan. For instance, a mere 15% of Jordan’s young population indicated having high or moderate confidence in the Parliament, compared to 23% for political parties, and 37% in the Independent Elections Commission (IEC), for an aggregated level of confidence of 25% in the “democratic apparatus.”
Why Youth Engagement is the Answer
There are a number of factors that posit the youth cohort in Jordan viably to drive the democratic process forward. First of all, Beetham’s equality assumption within the theory of democracy asserts that policy and political and administrative actions correspond to the preferences of a majority of citizens. Triangulating this assumption with Allam’s citizen frame, Jordanian youth have demonstrated a clear reiteration of the preferences of a majority of citizens, as they showed throughout the various demonstrations, protests, and other forms of activism that the needs of the people ought to be prioritized.
Secondly, looking at voter turnout in Jordan, we see a moderate to high levels of youth voter turnout. For the 2016 Parliamentary elections, youth voter turnout amounted to 35% for those aged 18-30, about one percentage point below the national average of 36.1%, yet those aged 18-24 turned out to elections at a higher rate than the average with 38%, showing a clear promise among recent graduates. As for the 2017 Decentralization and Municipalities Elections, the national voter turnout average amounted to approximately 31%. Youth aged 18-24, once again, voted at a rate higher than the national average with 33.3% whereas those aged 25-30 underscored with 27.1%. A caveat is that registration for elections is automatic in Jordan, thus, these numbers are calculated against the voting age and eligible voters. Looking at the 2020 Parliamentary Elections, the national voter turnout declined massively, culminating in a modest 29.9% arguably due to the ongoing COVID-19 global pandemic. While age disaggregated data is not yet available, observers note a low urban youth turnout but very high Bedouin youth turnout.
Overall, the younger cohort demonstrate high levels of engagement, voting above average, which reflects positively on their first introduction into the democratic life. However, disenchantment appears to catch up with them toward their second or third election cycle, contributing to a reduced voter turnout coupled with steady low confidence in the democracy apparatus, as indicated earlier. Voter retention is indeed a challenge globally, and Jordan is not an exception in this case. Jordan can perhaps bridge this gap by illustrating that political and public life have a central place for youth. The extent to which a person perceives the impact of their vote plays a large role in whether or not they choose to vote again.
Thirdly, not only did youth demonstrate a high voter turnout, but they also enjoyed some successful results, as they are increasingly seeking to contribute their voices at the national and local levels. As such, 5.4% of all candidates were aged under 30 years, for the first time in any elections in Jordan, with 27-year-old Hamza Tarawneh becoming Moab’s Mayor in Karak Governorate, and Zainab Zubeid, 30 years old, winning a seat in the Northern Badia district making her the youngest woman parliamentarian in the history of Jordan. Additionally, youth have supported and facilitated the electoral process by volunteering with the IEC to urge people to vote, as notably, over 200,000 young volunteers joined the Commission’s campaign in 2017.
The fourth factor pertains to youth’s general value system in Jordan. IRI and NAMA conducted a national survey in 2019 studying the state of democracy in Jordan. The study shows that youth care to a great extent about political reform in Jordan. In fact, Jordanian youth strongly believe that political, economic, and social reform should be introduced gradually rather than all at once, which reflects their belief that the process takes time. Moreover, approximately 58% of Jordanian youth demonstrate strong affinity towards pluralistic political system, which nationalist, left wing, right wing, and Islamist parties compete in parliamentary elections, as opposed to 38% for those who support a system that provides effective services without giving them the right to participate. For a country that faces major economic challenges, affecting youth in particular, this support shows strong affinity towards the essentials of democracy.
Furthermore, the majority of young Jordanians believe strongly in the importance of women inclusion in the decision-making process and across all sectors, including as ministers and prime ministers. Additionally, over two-thirds prefer electoral candidates who retain qualifications, political experience, and defined ideology. Young people’s value system leans in support of democratic ideals, and when they engage in national discourse, their demands reflect those of the broader population’s. Jordan’s youth are the candidates Jordanians want to represent their concerns.
Fifth, the central question, here, is have the interest, particularly economic interests, become ripe enough to represent at the political level? For over 30 years, the government has dealt with economic challenges with certain electoral reforms. With over two-thirds of the population under the age of 30 who are experiencing the worst of economic challenges, these interests have indeed become ripe and the opportunity should be provided for youth to provide fresh energy, alternative solutions, and revoice people’s concerns at the national political scene.
This leads to the sixth factor, which relates to Steven David’s omni-balancing. Further inclusion and proper engagement of youth in the political and public life in Jordan can address Jordan’s internal security dilemma, as they can (a) consistently voice Jordanians’ demands; (b) provide alternative strategies, solutions, and approaches to the economic challenges; (c) further the democratic ideals, especially social equality; (d) strengthen civil society; and (e) mend state-society relations, all of which are components contributing to the success and effectiveness of democracy as well as responding to the domestic side of omni-balancing.
How to Effectively Engage Youth in the Democratic Process
For these factors to be realized, youth are ought to be provided with the opportunity to widen the scope for their engagement in public and political life. Jordanian youth demonstrate a very high affinity and pride in their country, and when compared with other MENA youth, they come second only to Qatari youth. They identify quite closely with their country, with their cities, and with their fellow citizens. These affinities have finally begun to translate onto their involvement in public life.
Youth nowadays value volunteerism much more than they did before; they are engaging in voluntary work, association, initiatives, and campaigns, most of which address challenges of concern for the wider public, such as unemployment. The Ministry of Youth (MOY), particularly between 2019 and 2020, has worked tirelessly to amplify these factors. The Ministry has launched a number of programs and initiatives, including, but not limited to, four national assemblies for Jordanian entrepreneurs, “My Skills” Program, “Jordanian Volunteerism Days” Initiative, “Our Youth is Strength” Program, “Creativity and Innovation Camps” Program, and the “Jordanian Volunteerism Bank”, in addition to other multiple training programs and initiatives. These initiatives have reflected positive enhances in youth’s voluntary work and public life engagement, resulting in tens of youth-led initiatives.
Moreover, international organizations, particularly the National Democratic Institute (NDI) has worked intensively on youth engagement through the “Ana Usharek (I participate) and “Usharek+” programs, which aim towards growing youth’s interests and participation in political and civic life through introducing democratic ideas.
At the same time, it is important to not let these successes push us toward complacency. Milton-Edwards asserts that there remains a need to bolster government-led youth initiatives by supporting and strengthen MOY along with enhancing the coordination among government institutions, NGOs, and donors. She adds that curriculums should emphasize the importance of civic engagement in addition to incorporating a youth inclusion component for NGOs and CBOs’ registration process. She indicates, furthermore, that the private sector should strengthen its ties with the education system to contribute to resolving the challenges associated with waithood.
On the political side, the success brought about with the 2016 Decentralization and Municipalities Elections should be mirrored onto the Parliamentary Elections. This would widen the pluralism scope and mend the inclusion gap. It would result in more issues raised at the national level through a more representative parliament. Youth would be provided with the national and democratic platform to demonstrate the citizen frame, thus magnifying the concerns of the people. Milton-Edwards suggests that there is a need to foster youth political inclusion by lowering the candidacy age, introducing youth quotas in the parliament and even municipal councils, and emphasizing youth voter outreach campaigns. It is somewhat difficult to assert that lowering the candidacy age would directly contribute to voter retention, a challenge facing youth voter turnout post 25, but further engagement of youth in the decision-making process can rally voters through direct, issue-specific, and targeted messaging, which would be successful should it mirror the concerns of the people and counter it with clear solution-based policy campaigns.
Jordan has implemented a number of positive reforms over the past decade with the aim of facilitating an effective, gradual democratic reform. Jordan’s democratic journey still faces a number of challenges that hinder its efficiency and efficacy, particularly when it comes to the degree of youth engagement in political and civic life. The Kingdom also faces serious economic challenges, manifested in unemployment, price hikes, external debt, and declining GDP growth. Jordan’s youth population have been heavily impacted by these challenges over the past decade and have voiced their concerns through elections, demonstrations, and nontraditional activism such as online. This group has also demonstrated apolitical activism in the form of increasing voluntary work. Whether political or apolitical, Jordan’s youth echo the concerns of the wider population through what can be called the citizen frame. In this paper, I attempted to illustrate that the qualities youth possess, coupled with the mannerisms through which they practice activism in political and public life, posit them as ideal candidates to contribute at a larger scale to the resolution of the challenges Jordan faces. Jordan should capitalize on the successes brought about with the 2016 Decentralization and Municipal Elections and the initiatives implemented by the Ministry of Youth, to further widen the scope for youth engagement in public and political life, starting with lowering the candidacy age for Parliamentary elections.
III. Youth of Iraq and Lessons of the 2019 Iraq Protest Movement
The country of Iraq is no stranger to unrest. The country has undergone a series of coups throughout the 20th century that very few Middle East and North Africa (MENA) countries have seen. This custom was abruptly stopped after the rise of Saddam Hussein to power in 1979. This Baath party member succeeded in quashing dissent in the country by first going to war with Iran for 8 years, and then invading Kuwait with all the backlash and repercussions that followed, leading up to the American invasion of Iraq in 2003.
Iraq is undergoing a compounded crisis right now. The coronavirus is wreaking havoc in the country, while at the same time Iraqis are still pursuing a protest movement that just celebrated its first anniversary last October. This paper will argue that the 2019 protest movement in Iraq was categorically different than any other movement that the country had seen since the 2003 American occupation. It will also show the primordial role that youth played in this movement and how they succeeded through building a cross-sectarian nationalist frame.
After the American invasion of 2003, a new Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) was put in place. Paul Bremmer – the head of the CPA- spearheaded many actions, but two main actions will have dire repercussions for the future of Iraq. The first one was what he dubbed ‘de-Baathification’ of Iraq in a misguided analogy to the process of post-Nazi Germany. As we know now, this action led to the removal of hundreds of thousands of Sunnis from the military and the onset of the civil war and everything that followed. In parallel with this process, the CPA was responsible for establishing a power sharing mechanism or political apportioning called Muhasasa. Through this mechanism, each of the main communities in Iraq would have a seat at the table, so that Sunnis, Shia, and Kurds can contribute to running the country. The Muhasasa “restructured the political field and the state, empowering politicians who were championing sectarian identities as the dominant way to reclassify the social world.” These dynamics were happening at the same time and only fed into each other. The new sectarian make-up of the political landscape only exacerbated the sectarian lens through which that many communities started seeing themselves. This political apportioning which was viewed as a solution to the sectarian makeup of the country, ended up being the tool through which elites captured
Context of the Protests
Finally, the direct and latest link to the start of the protests is the ousting of the Counter-terrorism chief General Abdelwahab al-Saâdi. This general is credited with the successes of the Iraqi military against ISIS and was well loved across all sections of the Iraqi population. He was transferred from his post to another position within the ministry of Defense, in a move that everyone saw as a purge because of fears of his rising notoriety. Many observers saw this also from the lens of the battles of influence over Iraq that many foreign states are engaged in. One of the reasons Saâdi was seen as a potential threat is his trainings in the U.S., and his cross-sectarian notoriety, which was seen as a threat to the sectarian political apportioning that the elites of the country are managing.
On October 1st – the first day of the protests- young unemployed graduates, people were angry at the ousting of Saâdi, and people who came to condemn the poor social services and the partisan apportionment (Muhasasa) came to the streets of Baghdad (the Tahrir Square) and other cities (Missan and Wassit). The harsh state response pushed tens of thousands of Iraqis to join the protests in these 3 places, in addition to many other cities at the end of the first week of the protests. In the following weeks, state security agencies and unnamed gunmen and snipers opened fire on the protesters. Live ammunition was used against unarmed civilians, and tear gas ganister were shot directly into the heads of protesters, which led to brutal scenes on the ground.
A committee formed by the government after a general outcry to investigate the violence against protesters released a report in which they confirmed the death of 149 protester and 8 law enforcement agents, the use of snipers to shoot at protesters, and released a number of recommendations including the firing of multiple security agencies’ top officials if justice is to be served.
A Typology of the Protesters
One of the main areas of difference between this wave of protests and all other protest movements that came before is the cross-sectarian and cross socioeconomic base of the protest movement. Since the American invasion of Iraq, there were many social movements sweeping the country. Some of them were organized by the nascent post-2003 political parties, but others were managed and led by dynamics outside the political spectrum, the latest of which is the mass movement starting in October 2019. A typology that might be interesting in distinguishing between the movements linked to political parties and the ones that come from outside the political spectrum is that the ones outside political parties always emanate from socioeconomic grievances linked to the bad management of basic services such as water and electricity and the alarming rise of unemployment. Nonetheless, none of these past movements has ever led to as wide of a base as the one spearheading the movement.
The movement was led youth between 15 and 25 who never saw the reign of Saddam Hussein and who are fed up with the current political elite and the political apportioning (Muhasasa), who do not benefit from the system and who better off in a democratic system. Added to them are former Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) foot soldiers -also mainly youth- who found themselves excluded from patronage connections after the force was brought under the Iraqi military. Also, and since the initial march there was a big presence of young graduates who have been protesting for months and were met with harsh state response. youth from all classes of society joined the protests, students supported tuk-tuk drivers (mostly from poor and working-class neighborhoods), teachers, oil workers, unemployed university graduates, and artists all were represented in the protests.
Youth played a major role in showing up in the streets, managing the day-to-day operations of the sit-ins, running the media realm, supporting protesters on the frontline, building coalitions inside and outside the country, and many other aspects of running a full-scale uprising against a whole political system. A group of youth that some actually dub as the heroes of the movement are the tuk-tuk drivers who became a symbol of the protest. Until recently, the tuk-tuk symbolized the lost dreams of thousands of young Iraqis who had to improvise in light of a complete lack of economic opportunities. The tuk-tuk is actually not legal, which is the reason why they were mostly operating in the outskirts of Baghdad. One of the anecdotes of the movement is that the protesters named their first magazine “tuk-tuk” to symbolize the importance that tuk-tuks played in transporting the wounded, bringing medical supplies to make-shift clinics, transporting people in and out of the protests, and bringing food and other needed items to demonstrators.
Although the movement was leaderless as many accounts have shown, if a group was to be anointed leader it would be the youth of Iraq. They learned from the lessons of the first wave of the protests that swept through the MENA region. They also learned from their own internal waves of protests. But they also learned from what is happening in other MENA countries at the same time, and from movements from across the world.
To call for the protests, Iraqis successfully used social media platforms to urge their fellow citizens to take to the streets. For instance, the first time the hashtag #نازل_اخذ_حقي (I am going out to get my right) appeared was on September 21, 2019. Since then, this hashtag –in addition to the hashtag #نريد_وطن (we want a homeland) — have generated thousands of tweets, peaking around critical dates in the history of the protests.
The protests relied heavily (might be the biggest in the first and second waves of MENA protests) on national flags. The Iraqi flags came to symbolize and paint a picture for the hashtag (we want a homeland): the protests call for a homeland independent of any foreign interference or influence. It rejects any attempts to paint the protests in a sectarian lens and frame the protest within a citizen frame that was used in other localities.
Some of the chants on the ground also echoed this call for an independent nation. In one of those chants, a protest leader asks and then protesters respond: أنا إيراني؟ لا. أنا أمريكي؟ لا. أنا سعودي؟ لا. أنا عراقي؟ ياااااا. (Am I Iranian? No, Am I American? No, Am I Iraqi? Yes). The protests also heavily relied on music. I am hesitant to entertain a cultural argument here. The Iraqi population is known for its love for music, and this might have jumped into the protests. Many songs were made specifically to cheer the protests and protesters. Furthermore, the protesters created vigils for the dead. The vigils contained flags of Iraq, on them photos of the dead and screen shots of their pictures or social media conversations, candles, and roses are ornamenting the vigils.
The “Turkish restaurant” represents a strategic position for both the security forces and the demonstrators. The restaurant faces Tahrir Square, which made it an important spot for security agencies to monitor multiple waves of protests since 2011. Protesters understood this aspect and made taking over the restaurant a strategic goal. At some point, the restaurant housed over 8000 protesters who organized different activities such as singing, arts, and photography. Tuk-tuk drivers played a crucial role within the restaurant ecosystem; they were responsible for delivering everything protesters need from food to medical supplies. The symbolism of the building was so powerful that protesters in other cities took over buildings and named it “The Turkish Restaurant”.
Throughout the protest movement, the Iraqi media has been engaged in all sorts of attacks against protesters. They vilified them, they accused them of treason, of serving foreign agendas, of being puppets of the U.S. The media very often used the term “Joker” to refer to a conspiracy against Iraq supported by the U.S. The same language was used by political/religious leaders vilifying protests and protesters. One TV personality in particular that was the target of many of these attacks is Ahmad al-Bashir who runs a satirical show on the German channel DW al-Bashir Show, and who was considered by many as the voice of the movement abroad.
Why is This One Different?
As stated before, this movement is not the first to rock Iraq since 2003. There are certainly similarities with previous movements, especially that of 2018. They both came in the midst of government formation negotiations. Then, they both have started from socioeconomic grievances to expand beyond it to call for political reforms (albeit in 2019 the protesters called for the system to be overthrown). Also, the state response is very similar, in the fact that they both were faced with outsized violence.
Nevertheless, the movement of 2019 is unique in that even though the protests called for many reforms in multiple sectors, if there should be a theme that united all the protesters is that they wanted an end to the political apportionment (Muhasasa). They blamed political parties for the fate of Iraq, and as a result, protesters set fires to the offices of multiple political parties in Nasiriya, Dhi Kar, Wassit, and other localities. This is a new development in social movements in the modern history if Iraq.
To show their rejection for Iranian influence over Iraq, protesters set fires to Iranian consulates in Najaf Sharif twice in a few days. They also burned the Iranian consulate in the city of Karbala, burned the Iranian flag in the front of the consulate, and put the Iraqi national flag instead. The events can have significant repercussions for the future of Iraq: the events show that Iran does not have the same level of reverence that Iraqis showed it before, and this is also a major development from any previous movement in modern Iraqi political history.
Finally, one of the most enduring lessons of the protests and the one that can deeply transform the Iraqi society in the future is the demystification and the religious and the ceasing to consider the religious figure (The mullahsرجال الدين، أصحاب العمامات، الملات) sacred.
In a country like Iraq, political violence has been intertwined with the history of the country. The 2003 U.S. invasion has only made matters worse by setting up a political apportioning system called Muhasasa. This system allowed for the representation of Shia, Sunnis, and Kurds in political positions. This system which was set up to overcome the communal differences ended up exacerbating them and locking out millions of Iraqis from the networks of privileges that were formed as a result.
As a result of a collation of multiple constituencies, Iraqi youth have spearheaded the movement and created a citizen framework that overcame the sectarian and ethnic differences that the ruling elites used to keep the networks siloed. The movement was partially successful -as it is still happening at the moment, and because there ought to be sometime between the end of the movement and an objective assessment of all its goals. But as it stands today, the movement was first successful in making the end of the whole political system a primary goal and the end of the Muhasasa system a clear first step. Also, they were successful in framing the movement as a cross-sectarian, cross generational, and cross-class movement that encompasses all Iraqis under one flag and for one homeland. Finally, the movement was able to break away from the tight grip that religious figures came to play in mainstream Iraqi politics and demystify mane of their most poignant arguments.
IV. Youth Inclusion in the Decision-Making Process in Jordan and Morocco
Academic research has zoomed in on many demographic categories, from gender to race and from ethnicity to religion; yet, academic research has not focused on youth an important demographic unit. Youth in academic research is generally reactive to issues likely to be faced by youth, and they tend to be perceived as either an issue in themselves, a cause for an issue, or victims for an issue, with examples featuring issues related to education such as retention, truancy, and lack of resilience to waithood. Nonetheless, the geopolitical global context and the role played by youth throughout the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region during the Arab Spring and beyond made many governments and researchers start giving youth more emphasis as a solid, contributing group, with an agency to play an important role in various sectors.
Furthermore, youth in mainstream literature have been viewed as either perpetrators or as victims of violence. While in the past they were viewed as the promise for a greater future, this has not been the case for youth lately. They are rarely perceived as viable decision-makers; stakeholders, or contributors to the decision-making process, particularly in the MENA region.Such a reality contradicts another one. It exposes the fact that youth are some of the most active political actors in the region. In fact, Rased in Jordan showed that young Jordanians contributed the highest voter turnout in the 2016 Parliamentary elections and in the 2017 Municipalities and Governorate Councils Elections, with the average turnout of young voters was 38%, higher than the national average of 36%. Moreover, in the 2017 local elections, 5.4% of all candidates were aged under 30 years, with some notable successes, such as the 27-year-old Hamza Tarawneh, who won as Mayor in the municipality of Moab in Karak.
While both Jordanian and Moroccan youth feel disenchanted with the electoral process, we see Jordanian youth going to the ballots more than their Moroccan counterparts. At face-value, this can be explained by the discrepancy in the level of the democratic process in the two kingdoms, whereby Morocco has had a longer history of elections that Jordan, thus its young voters are likely to be more disenchanted and turn to alternative forms of participation. In Fact, Moroccan youth are always leading social and political movements that spring up every now and then. They favor the alternative form “politics from below”, mainly through voicing their opinions on the internet, and especially, in political demonstrations and protests. Saloua Zerhouni illustrates that youth activism in Morocco is not defined primarily by the formal spaces of participation but by the degree of influence they can achieve through other venues.
Many countries in the MENA region are going through what is known as a youth bulge, which tends to dominate rhetoric associated with youth. Lin defines youth bulge as a demographic pattern where a large share of the population is comprised of children and young adults. He adds that youth bulge is often associated with developing or least developed countries. As a phenomenon, it is a result of a success in reducing infant mortality coupled with high fertility rates. Inayatullah seconds Lin and illustrates that a youth bulge can be seen through three scenarios: either leading to civil conflicts, creating social conditions to ensure their employment, or can help in national or global peace building or development, as these scenarios fit within the wider narrative of youth as either perpetrators or victims, or as demographic dividend or a time bomb.
Lin explains that if countries facing a youth bulge manage to incorporate young adults into the workforce, dependency ratio will decline and the level of average income per capita would normally increase, turning youth bulge into a demographic dividend. On the other hand, if states do not manage to capture the opportunity and youth are unable to find employment and income, it would turn into a demographic bomb, and with that, a youth bulge would become a large group of disenchanted young people likely to become a source of sociopolitical instability. If we were to apply this concept onto youth engagement in decision making, we find similar results. The more engaged they are, a state’s policymaking would benefit from a dividend. If a state chooses to alienate this group, it would likely face unstable consequences.
Enter the 2011 Arab Spring movements; with a large mass of politically alienated and socioeconomically disenchanted youth. It did not take long for states in the region to start promoting a message that supports youth inclusion in decision making. Perhaps the most essential of which was the United Nations Security Council Resolution 2250 on Youth Peace and Security, which called on member states to engage youth meaningfully in the decision-making process. This resolution was the culmination point following a series of historic events calling for youth inclusion, including the World Programme of Action for Youth; the Guiding Principles on Young People’s Participation in Peacebuilding; the Global Forum on Youth, Peace and Security; the Amman Declaration on Youth, Peace and Security; and the Global Youth Summit against Violent Extremism and the Action Agenda to Prevent Violent Extremism and Promote Peace. These global efforts were met by many local similar efforts and positive messages.
While Morocco and Jordan are among the countries of the MENA region that are engaged in this kind of rhetorical messaging promoting policies supporting youth inclusion, many reports create the feeling of disappointment and disenfranchisement of youth in these two countries. These zigzags in narrative are perplexing for youth, especially that the resolution was ironically drafted in Jordan with heavy presence from Morocco. To that end, this paper studies the extent to which the policies promoted by Morocco and Jordan are serious in dealing with the inclusion of youth in the decision-making process. Through the various disciplines examined, we find that Morocco and Jordan are lacking in terms of youth political inclusion despite the rhetoric in support of it.
Importance of Research
The importance of the question asked is manifold. The demographic weight of the youth populations is hard to miss. In morocco, the median age is 29, persons aged 15-29 comprise for nearly 25% along with over 26% aged under 14. In Jordan, the median age is 22.4, persons aged 15-29 comprise for 28% of the total population, and over 70% of the Jordanian population is under the age of 30. In terms of the working force, Moroccan Youth represent 28.7% of the workforce but have an unemployment rate of 26.7%, four percentage points higher than last year. Furthermore, 80% of the nation’s unemployed people are aged 15-34. As for Jordan, youth unemployment rate stands at 36.7%. While youth labor force participation rate for Jordanian youth is outdated with around 27% in 2010, it is estimated to be lower than the average of the same indicator for the same age group in Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa.
% of population aged 15-29
% of population aged under 14
Labor force participate rate
The magnitude of youth populations in Morocco and Jordan makes an investigation of their roles in decision making even more important. A look at the available data from these two countries on the number of elected offices led by youth reveals an under-representation of youth in multiple levels of the decision-making apparatus. Looking at the Jordanian context, none of the MPs are under the age of 30. This is the direct result of stipulations in the constitution that members of parliament must be at least 30 years old. A large proportion of young voters are therefore prevented from being able to run for the parliament. Candidates for local elections (Municipalities and Governorate Councils) must be at least 25 years. People under the age of 30 are unrepresented in the Jordanian Parliament. In fact, the youngest MP is Zainab Al Zubaidi at 30 years of age, with the median age of an MP in the Parliament is 51 years of age. For local elections, about 6% of all candidates were under the age of 30, which inspired young voters to achieve some 46% voter turnout, about 12 points higher than the national average. In Morocco, a mere 1.5% are under the age of 30 in the Parliament, with Yassine Radi being the youngest at 24 years old. It is also worthy to mention that Moroccan youth have a reserved quota of 30 seats in the parliament though it extends the definition of youth in parliament to encompass those aged up to 40. This quota was also adopted following the 2011 Arab Spring.
Candidacy age (Parliament)
Candidacy age (local councils)
Number of Youth MPs under 30
% of MPs under 30
The disparity between the youth demographic data in Morocco and Jordan and their political representation leads to question the policy choices and political rhetoric of these states in official and public conversation. Representation is vital for democracy, especially when it incorporates true plurality, which means that all groups of society get equal representation in decision making. This seems to exclude women and youth. According to International Parliamentary Union, of the 45,000 parliamentarians around the world, only 2.2% is under the age of 30, and over 30% of world elected lower houses have no representation under 30 while over 76% of world upper house have no representatives under the age of 30. It is worthy of mention that more than 40 countries have none. These numbers illustrate the true magnitude of this trend globally.
As was clear from our attempt to back our paper with demographic data on youth populations, this age group is very elusive and hard to define. In fact, while youth in the Moroccan Parliament are those aged 23-40, in the Jordanian context they are generally identified as those who are under 35 in an attempt to highlight minor successes, albeit, the general consensus remain that the age is 30. As such, these discrepancies, whether between the two countries or even within each country individually, illustrate the absence of an agreed upon definition for youth in decision-making on one hand, and in general on the other hand.
On the whole, the United Nations has two overlapping age group definitions: adolescents who are those aged between 10 and 19, and youth who are those aged between 15 and 24. UNDP’s Youth Strategy illustrates that they focus on youth aged 15-24, the range may extend to incorporate those aged up to 30 or even 35. This is designed, purposefully flexible, to ensure that the strategy can be applicable within the national context and to be responsive to the diverse needs to youth in each country. As for the Arab league, it has its own definition of who are youth. It considers youth as those aged between the ages of 15 to 29. In Jordan, youth were defined as those aged 12-30 in its National Youth Strategy of 2005-2009, before it was amended to divide youth into two groups: those aged 10-17 and those aged 18-30 in its Implementation of the National Youth Strategy Project 2017-2019. In Morocco, on the other hand, people who are between the ages of 18 and 35 are all considered youth.
To continue with our attempt to clarify the concepts that are approached in this paper, the concept of youth political inclusion and youth engagement is important to define here. youth participation, according to the UNGA, is defined as “economic participation, relating to work and development; political participation, relating to decision-making processes; social participation, relating to community involvement; and cultural participation, relating to the arts, cultural values and expression.”
This definition was altered to incorporate a more serious definition, as to enable them to be actively engaged in shaping lasting peace and contributing to justice and reconciliation, as they represent a unique demographic dividend that can contribute to lasting peace and prosperity if inclusive policies were put in place. Furthermore, definitions of youth participation include “creating opportunities for young people to be involved in influencing, shaping, designing and contributing to policy and the development of services and program. Youth engagement is often associate with labels such as “meaningful” and “effective”. As such, it identifies youth engagement as a participatory process in which their ideas, expertise, and perspectives are integrated within a program, policy, and institutional decision-making structure, especially when they affect their lives directly.
Youth engagement in academia, whether in the decision-making apparatus or in socioeconomic life, appears to be a mere response to an issue, often perceived to be faced by youth, and only youth. Such a thought can also be seen in, and perhaps adopted from, the idea of engaging students in school/university activities as a means to prevent them from falling in problematic patterns. Moreover, it comes as a response to the perception that youth are always at risk. Youth engagement is often associated with the approval and incentives to be given by adults, such as certifications and grades. Fletcher indicates that there is an apparent confusion between “youth engagement” and “youth inclusion”. He adds that engaged youth are those experiencing sustained connections in ways adults approve of and acknowledge, particularly in schools, youth specific programs, and athletic programs. Disengaged youth are those who are not engaged in such connections which adults approve of. Such definitions imply a protective narrative and an active control of youth in order to ensure they do not harm themselves or their societies. As such, youth inclusion and even engagement has served to respond to those at risk, which includes school dropouts, drug abusers, and adolescents with personality disorders.
Other negative approaches that feature in literature include an emphasis on deeming youth “uninterested”, “indifferent”, and “apathetic” to engagement in decision making. Boyte cites that youth are perceived in mainstream literature to have a universal hatred towards public affairs, disgusted with adult hypocrisy, furious with their apparent inaction towards social issues, cynical about older styles of protests, and seem disenchanted with mainstream means. He adds that education does not have a positive impact on changing these perceptions.
There are many voices and schools of thoughts that make youth participation a cornerstone of a healthy state. Proponents of sustainable human development posit that development requires the participation of all members of society, from the framing of the priorities to the implementation of development projects. Amartya Sen in his seminal book Development as Freedomargues that the role of the state is to expand the capacities and choices of all members of the community, including its youth. Youth capacity building includes including them in decision making and mentoring them to take the lead in the future. This is the more important since all types of societal decisions will affect youth for a longer term than older people, since youth will stay on this earth for longer times. For instance, decisions related to climate change and the environment in general will affect the youth for longer, and therefore, their inclusion is primordial to create participatory and inclusive decisions.
Another dynamic that is participatory and requires the inclusion of all members of society is democracy. Democracy is based on creating the space for all people to voice their opinions in public decision making, to participate and compete within a liberal setting. Therefore, there would not be any democracy if the largest demographic group is excluded from participating in political and other forms of decision making. The political implications of youth exclusions from decision making create the need to posit this issue within disciplinary frameworks.
Research tackling youth engagement in decision making also highlights a number of advantages to the overall political process and the quality of decisions made with their inclusion on the table. Zeldin, McDaniel, Topitzes, and Calvert argue that when youth and adults contribute, they can ultimately produce an effective combination of power and energy, which ultimately improves decision making in an innovative and productive way. The authors add that with youth engagement, not only does decision making improve, but adults in decision making improve too. In fact, they tend to impact adults positively. Adults would thrive under the role of “visionary leaders”.
As stated above, the issue of youth engagement has political implications. Therefore, questioning whether states would benefit from engaging youth as opposed to disengaging them is needed. With the events of the Arab Spring, Morocco and Jordan were cheered by the international community for dodging the winds of the Arab Spring and being a model for how to engage with the streets, coopting some, and coercing others. Nevertheless, what is not discussed are the underlying structural problems that linger in both countries, such as unemployment and inequality. Therefore, these states might have an incentive to ‘control’ youth and not allow them to play a role in public life.
Jordanian and Moroccan youth do have a sense of government control over them to disable them from playing a meaningful role in the decision-making process. The Arab Barometer reports that about 57% of Jordanian youth and a staggering 80.1% of Moroccan youth either have very little trust or do not trust their respective governments and council of ministers. Moreover, about 55% of Jordanian youth and 51% of Moroccan youth feel a limited guarantee or no guarantee at all to participate in protests and demonstrations. Additionally, some of government policies appear perplexing for youth in Jordan and in Morocco with about 79% and 70%, respectively, feel that “sometimes, politics are so complicated that they cannot understand what is happening.”
A look at youth’s place in decision making in Jordan and Morocco would not be complete without looking at their place in society. Some of the most significant concepts in human geography are the concepts of place and space. John Agnew outlines that “space refers to the location where and place refers to the occupation of that location.” He cites scholars such as Tuan, who indicates that space is general and place is particular and Taylor who indicates that space is commanded/controlled while place is lived or experienced.
Applying these concepts onto youth engagement in decision making, we can articulate that space is the avenue where youth can be engaged such as government councils, parliament, and local councils, whereas place refers to the experiences (or lack thereof) of youth in such spaces. In essence and in a cyclical manner, place questions youth’s place in the decision-making apparatus. While governments in these two states, through their rhetoric, assert openness and willingness to enhance youth’s place in spaces of decision-making, in reality, the extent to which youth are offered the opportunity to experience these spaces politically, socially, and artistically are either stagnant or diminishing. In both states, youth centers and particularly public parks are a great example for this. Such “free” spaces where youth can gather, discuss, exchange ideas, and perhaps engage politically are either highly restricted or nonexistent, thus limiting youth’s chance to engage.
The absence of these spaces can be explained through cultural desertification phenomenon, which refers to the “the absence of social, public spaces and projects that build an intellectual or recreational identity.” It also refers to the absence of community identity and belonging and a dearth of spaces for open, productive dialogue. NAMA Strategic Intelligence Solutions, in a study conducted in partnership with the LSE Enterprise, articulated that cultural desertification is the absence of social public spaces and projects, which leaves youth with nowhere to turn except the increasing number of mosques, or highly organized and well-funded religious groups, that seem to offer such venues. The phenomenon is ever present in Jordan where a mix of poverty with the lack of necessary infrastructure whereby youth can build their own alternative culture is exacerbated with the lack of environmental beauty, unsatisfactory management of public parks, and the absence of cultural institutions that can build a culture of discourse and openness. NAMA and Harper outline that these factors, not only disable youth from fulfilling their place in the decision-making apparatus, but also increase their susceptibility to violent extremism.
Neoliberal state policies have allowed a flow of foreign direct investment that is reshaping the image of Amman. Multiple new malls and developments are rising around Amman without any regard to the symbolic value that many places hold for Jordanian youth, such as public parks. This situation is further worsened when these newly developed avenues such as malls and the Abdali Boulevard are exclusive to foreigners and couples, and thus, are not inclusive of the general Jordanian youth. Similarly, in Morocco, Konrad Bogaert in his book on the impact of globalization on the authoritarian structure in Morocco and the power of displacement and gentrification in shutting down public spaces of which youth used to take advantage. In examples from Casablanca, Rabat, and Tangier, the author provides testimonies from youth who complain about the replacement of public spaces by megaprojects that are too exclusive for them to patronize. Speaking to a Moroccan rapper who is known for his criticism of the political establishment, he confirmed that he actually had a political upbringing within a political party, but when he saw that his prospects of finding his place and to make his voice heard, he moved to rap, which landed him in jail in 2014 for “offending a state institution… [and] harming public morality”.
In Morocco and Jordan, an argument can be made of the transfer of political engagement of youth into other spaces. The most important alternative spaces for youth in Morocco and Jordan for expression and coalition are the arts and the digital sphere. The Arab Spring could not have been sparked without the support and the anonymity that digital platforms provide. The penetration of social media platforms in Morocco and Jordan is remarkable, with an average of 25% of youth in both states have an account on Facebook or other social media platforms and an average of 34.4% of Jordanian youth and 37.7% of Moroccan youth spend an average of 2-5 hours daily on such platforms. Youth in Morocco and Jordan are using artforms to express themselves. The ultras and rap in Morocco, and comedy and music in Jordan have played an important role in keeping youth connected in terms of ideas and groups in the midst of the absence of traditional public spaces and governments’ practical indifference towards meaningful youth inclusion in decision making.
Youth How? Policy Analysis
Conversations about inclusion of youth in decision making are happening globally, and these conversations have public policy implications. Morocco and Jordan have crafted youth strategies that came as an answer to these global conversations around youth inclusion. These strategies are all but effective. In fact, the latest Jordanian National Youth Strategy dates back to 2005-2009 in which the last stipulation indicated a review to occur in 2009 in order for the successive strategy to follow in 2010. 10 years later, the zigzag between the Ministry of Youth and Sports and the Higher Council for Youth in addition to the UNDP’s inefficiency resulted in an absence for a strategy document. Instead, the three institutions are engaging in an implementation project, for a strategy that was never drafted. Furthermore, this specific zigzag between the two public youth institutions in Jordan (the Ministry and the Council) is the direct result of the government’s indifference towards youth-specific strategy. When the government seeks to cut its public spending, the Ministry of Youth and Sports would be discontinued.
A similar situation is featured in the Moroccan context. The Ministry of Youth and Sports, supported by the World Bank and The Council of Europe have failed to produce the long-sought National Integrated Youth Strategy, which has been in the process of formulation since 2012. In both states, the allure of the amendments in their last published strategies are all but realized. They fail to tackle what is deemed sensitive for youth. Their emphasis on radicalization is limited to bullying and domestic abuse, and their emphasis on inclusion remains within the realm of community engagement and voluntary work. The lack of depth in the discussion of these strategies can be also attributed to the lack of political will.
One attempt to overcome the very low number of young people in pollical office, Morocco has since the 2011 parliamentary elections began implementing a quota for youth in parliament: at least 10% or 30 seats will be allotted exclusively to people below the age of 45. Many youth organizations have campaigned for more representation in public office, and some of them raised the pressure during the Arab Spring. With the Moroccan regime faced with the potential of a youth burst in the same way it happened in neighboring countries, it found itself forced to make concessions and spread resources beyond its traditional networks of privilege.
Another policy tool that is used by different countries including Jordan and Morocco is mock institutions. In Jordan, youth are encouraged and guided into creating a mock parliament to provide them with an opportunity to learn the work of representatives, with student councils and multiple inter-university Module United Nations (MUN) conferences. In Morocco, the state helped youth to create a parallel government that will shadow the work of ministers in the actual government. This is done to allow youth to familiarize themselves with public office and prepare them to take the lead in the future. It is worth noting here that these mock institutions have no real power whatsoever, and their role is purely symbolic, and in face, nonexistent. Mock governments provide an opportunity for regimes to channel youth’s energy and an opportunity for recruitment. They also remain exclusive for young people with privileged backgrounds, as the type of education institution they attend play a significant role for them to be exposed to these spaces. Furthermore, it is precisely these institutions that exemplify the lack of seriousness for governments to engage youth in decision-making. While their narratives promote inclusiveness, their actions scream exclusivity. It communicates to young members of society that politics is not for youth, but should they want a voice, they are given a podium without a microphone.
There are a number of other policies and political circumstances that have disabled youth engagement in the decision-making process. In both Jordan and Morocco, the economic hardships endured by the people, and especially by youth, in the face of high unemployment rates have shifted the attention towards economic policy and economic inclusion rather than political. Badly planned economic policies, including tax laws, have centered youth’s involvement in the public sphere towards calling for economic reform rather than political reform that can enable them from realizing their true place on the table. Emphasis on the World Bank and the IMF and the impact of their policies on the two states have shifted young voices towards calling for better economic planning. Similarly, the multiple changes to the political scene in both states, such as successive government changes and parliamentary underperformance have created an unattractive image for youth, even when it comes to student councils in public universities, which has become associated with student violence.
Jordan and Morocco’s exclusion of young voters from having the opportunity to be elected to decision-making is in contrast to international efforts aimed at ensuring inclusivity of youth. UN Security Council Resolution 2250, which was sponsored and championed by Jordan, called for “Member States to consider ways to increase inclusive representation of youth in decision-making at all levels in local, national, regional and international institutions.” Both states have also been a strong advocate for the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which aims to “ensure responsive, inclusive, participatory and representative decision-making at all levels”.
Furthermore, increased participation of youth in government reflects positively on the plurality of society, by definition improves decision making, and “ensures responsive, inclusive, participatory and representative decision-making at all levels”. The prevailing logic states that the more demographically versatile the legislature is, the wider its scope of interests becomes. It also facilitates empowerment amongst those who are represented.
As Jordan and Morocco strive to strengthen their democratic institutions and maintain their roles as models of peace and pragmatism in the region, a diverse range of voices must be empowered to create government institutions and decision-making apparatus that are built by many for the benefit of all. In order for the Jordanian and Moroccan governments to represent the social fabric of the nation, the serious and meaningful inclusion of young people in the political process is a prerequisite. Utilizing the intellectual value of youth and empowering young people to legislate a more just and equitable future is paramount to the success and sustainability of the nations. Youth deserve not only power in the voting booth, but meaningful participation as a stakeholder in the decision-making process. They ought to be involved in policy planning, design, discussion, formulation, execution, and evaluation. The current status falls short of providing the young with such means. The two states remain advocates internationally and locally, but their actions are far from their narratives.
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