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State Power and the Regulation of Islam in Jordan.
Journal of Church & State
By Wiktorowicz, Quintan
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Magazine: Journal of Church & State, Autumn 1999



Throughout the Middle East, both political movements and governments straggle to control Islamic discourse and practice. Like other religions, Islam can be interpreted in a variety of ways, leading to a process Dale Eickelman and James Piscatori term "Muslim politics"--"the competition and contest over both the interpretation of symbols and the control of the institutions, both formal and informal, that produce and sustain them."(n1) While numerous studies elucidate Islamic movement dynamics in Muslim politics, few detail the state's role in the straggle to define Islam. This article addresses this lacuna by examining the role of the Jordanian state in the regulation of Islam.

The Jordanian state is actively involved in "Muslim politics" because the regime relies upon Islam to some extent for political legitimacy. It has a vested interest in determining which interpretations of Islam prevail in contests over religious discourse. Understandings that contradict or challenge state policy or legitimacy are prevented from mobilizing through central Islamic institutions in society. As a result, the state utilizes the administrative apparatus to exclude particular Islamic voices from public Islamic space. In particular, the state carefully regulates access to the mosque, the most important site of Islamic practice and ritual, to prevent the production, articulation, and dissemination of alternative religious perspectives that could undermine regime interests. This article argues that the patterns of administrative practice in the regulation of Islam are designed to produce a depoliticized and unthreatening interpretation of Islam that reifies state power.


Throughout the Middle East, regimes have been afflicted by a "crisis of legitimacy." As a result, they have experimented with a variety of legitimating ideologies, including socialism, nationalism, pan-Arabism, and especially Islam,(n2) which every regime in the region has used to justify its fight to rule. While skeptics often argue that this recourse to religion is a superficial facade--a veneer of religiosity intended to legitimate secular policies or authoritarian rule--it underscores the importance of Islamic appearances for governance. Charles Tripp argues that Islam has been mobilized by states in the Middle East primarily for two reasons, both linked to legitimation:

First, Islamic themes and symbols have been used to shore up patrimonial, authoritarian systems of rule, supposedly lending them a coloration that augments their authority among predominantly Muslim members of the associated societies. Second, Islam, variously interpreted, has been used by these regimes to give a distinctive character to the identity of the state in order to correspond to the notion that the state represents and speaks for a distinct ethical community.(n3)

This instrumental use of Islam has been especially pervasive during the modern period. Beginning in the late eighteenth century, the Middle East suffered from various forms of colonization by Western powers. As a result, leaders in the movements for independence used Islam to assert a unique Arab culture and to mobilize communities under a common framework of identity.(n4) Following independence, Islam was incorporated into the process of state development to claim legitimacy for the new regimes and policies. In other countries not afflicted by colonialism, such as Saudi Arabia, regimes successfully used ijtihad (independent reasoning), selected legal opinions, administrative discretion, and sovereign prerogatives to successfully adapt Islam to the demands of modernization and economic development.(n5) Many countries in the Middle East experimented with socialist agendas, and leaders used particular interpretations of Islam to equate the socialist emphasis on socioeconomic equality with Islamic notions of justice.(n6) Jean-Claude Vatin has referred to all these developments as a kind of "political spirituality" in which "religion is used by the state, and by the political elite, who tend to rely on the sacred sources (texts and traditions) in order to obtain the consensus necessary for secular undertakings."(n7) Regardless of whether one believes these different states or ruling regimes are Islamic, those in power believe it is necessary to incorporate Islam into legitimation strategies.

In Jordan, the Islamic sources of legitimacy are of particular importance because of the challenge posed by other ideological groups, both inside and outside the kingdom. Over the years, Arab nationalists, Nasserists, Ba'thists, communists, Islamists, and Palestinian groups have challenged the sovereignty of the state and the prerogatives of the ruling family. Vulnerability to these challenges is due to the history of state formation in Jordan. The kingdom, less than a century old, was carved from British mandate territory following the defeat of the Ottoman Empire in World War I. In exchange for Hashemite support against the Ottomans, the British gave Abdullah, grandfather of King Hussein, the Transjordan territory, what is now contemporary Jordan. At the time of its "creation" as a political entity, Jordan was dominated by a multitude of independent tribes with little or no loyalty to their new ruler. The Jordanian state was an artificial entity imposed upon tribes by an external force, the British, which armed King Abdullah I with the military capacity to quell tribal independence.(n8) Hashemite power was thus initially supported by a British--therefore non-Islamic--military and administrative presence. Even after independence, the British supported the regime through subsidies for political and economic development. As a result, both national identity and the legitimacy of the state were weak and susceptible to attacks by ideological challenges.

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