Jordan's Ambiguous Honors to Prominent Muslims
by Stephen Schwartz
The kingdom of Jordan is widely acknowledged for its internal contradictions. It accepts peace with Israel, and its intelligence service has been praised for its work against al Qaeda. But as disclosed by CIA director Leon Panetta and described in the Washington Post this week, a Jordanian terrorist, Humam al-Balawi, succeeded at the end of last year in circumventing U.S. and Jordanian safeguards against infiltration of antiterror operations, with devastating effect. Promising he could lead U.S. agents to Ayman al-Zawahiri, Osama bin Laden's chief deputy, al-Balawi got inside the CIA's secure facility in Khost, Afghanistan, where he blew himself up along with five agency officers, two contractors, his Jordanian contact, and a driver. The attack was the worst suffered by the CIA in a quarter century.
Jordan also tolerates a powerful branch of the radical Muslim Brotherhood. So where does the country's monarchy finally stand in the conflict with Islamist extremism?
A dismaying indicator of Jordanian vacillation came recently when the Royal Ahl al Bayt Institute for Islamic Thought, named for the Hashemite dynasty that traces its line to the clan of Muhammad himself, held its 15th General Conference in Amman. Jordanian king Abdullah II handed out medals to a group of Muslim figures representing retrograde or ambiguous positions toward radical Islam.
These included Ingrid Mattson, former president of the fundamentalist Islamic Society of North America (ISNA), who spoke at the inauguration of President Barack Obama and was featured in other Democratic party and Obama administration consultations on Islam. Mattson has defended Saudi Wahhabism as an "Islamic reform movement," and denied the possibility of terrorist sleeper cells operating in the United States. (Mohamed Magid, imam of the All Dulles Area Muslim Society in Sterling, Va., was elected to succeed Mattson in ISNA's top post last month.)
According to the Jordan Times, King Abdullah II also presented a medal to Yusuf al-Qaradawi, the Qatar-based ideologue associated with the Muslim Brotherhood. He is known for supporting, then condemning Muslim participation in the war against al Qaeda following 9/11. Qaradawi has also offered theological opinions legitimizing Hamas terror against Israel and similar atrocities against the U.S.-led coalition in Iraq. He supports female genital mutilation, execution of homosexuals, wife-beating, and other reprehensible practices. Qaradawi has been barred from entry to the United States since 1999 because of his support for Hamas.
Another on the list of Jordanian honorees was Mustafa Cerić, head of the Islamic Community of Bosnia-Herzegovina, who presents himself as a moderate, European Muslim leader while traveling in the West but is blamed by Bosnian Muslim intellectuals for helping introduce Wahhabi preachers from Saudi Arabia into the Balkans. Cerić, whose clerical leadership now calls the Wahhabis "new Muslims" and traditional believers "old Muslims," is a satellite of Qaradawi, serving as the only indigenous European Muslim on Qaradawi's European Council for Fatwas and Research (ECFR). The Jordanian monarch additionally decorated Rusmir Mahmutčehajić, a prolific Bosnian Muslim author widely resented in his country as a pretentious accomplice in Cerić's promotion of the "new" Wahhabi Islam.
But King Abdullah II also hung a medal on a more ambiguous figure, Ahmad Al-Tayeb, the top cleric at Al-Azhar University in Cairo, considered the main Sunni theological institution in the world. Al-Tayeb delivered an opinion supporting suicide terror in Israel in 2002, but he also dealt harshly with Brotherhood supporters at the school in 2006. Earlier this year, Al-Tayeb surprised Muslims around the world by banning the face-veil (niqab) for female students.
And a Jordanian token of distinction also went to Amr Khalid, an enormously popular Egyptian Islamic televangelist, who had been criticized by Qaradawi for insufficient commitment to "revenge and rage" during the Danish Muhammad cartoons controversy in 2006.
Playing all sides is an old, old game in the Arab East. But Jordan's simultaneous honors to backward-looking fundamentalists like Qaradawi and weak "modernizers" like Amr Khalid poses the question anew: In Amman, which side will prevail?