Interviewing the Islamic Action Front
by Zach Smith | University of Nebraska
It’s good to be back at NextGen Journal. For the last two months, I studied Arabic in an intensive program in Amman, Jordan, which explains my lack of foreign policy columns in this space, given the relative lack of Internet access and extremely heavy homework load. However, I’ve come back with lots to share, including some (hopefully) interesting pieces on different aspects of the Jordan-U.S. relationship, the future of democracy in the “Arab world” and other related topics, like the Arab-Israeli conflict. One of my most interesting experiences in Jordan was an interview with Dr. Abdallah Farajallah, a member of the Islamic Action Front’s executive team.
The Islamic Action Front is the official political party of Jordan’s branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, or in Arabic, “ikhwan al-muslimeen.” Like the original Brotherhood, located in Egypt, the Brothers’ long-term goal in Jordan is to change society to reflect Islamic values, or to an “Islamic society,” broadly defined. What this means and the focus of their efforts is not exactly specified, but the Brotherhood pursues extensive social programs (including mass, affordable weddings, a serious monetary problem in Islamic and Jordanian culture) and significant political engagement.
The Jordanian monarchy’s official response to the Brothers differs significantly from other countries in the region: In Syria, the Brothers were officially banned in 1980 and massacred in 1982 in Hama; in Libya, Gadhafi brutally suppressed the Brotherhood; in Egypt, they were officially illegal but in practice found in all corners of society. In Jordan, the Islamic Action Front was founded in 1972 and found an immediate opening in the government, which allowed it to operate mostly freely. The IAF’s leaders differ from their Brotherhood counterparts, and the IAF is involved mainly in politics, while the Brothers writ large operate hospitals, anti-poverty programs and other social programs. In contrast to other branches of the Brotherhood, like Hamas in Gaza, the IAF has renounced violence, in part surely because its resistance is against a government that allows it to operate.
I do not mean to be overly sympathetic to the Ikhwan. While I pray in mosques on occasion and have fasted Ramadan for three years (Eid Mubarak, all!), I am Christian and Catholic, not a Muslim Brother. I remain skeptical of the long-term direction of the “Islamic society” the Brotherhood seeks to promote, and wonder at their political goals. Nevertheless, my interview (in Arabic) with Dr. Abdallah was quite illuminating.
Instead of summarizing every point, I want to highlight several interesting topics for Jordan, the region and the U.S.-Jordanian relationship. Dr. Abdallah is one of the nine executive members of the IAF, holding the office of Assistant General Secretary for Administrative Affairs. The IAF operates a 120-member “shura” or advisory council which holds responsibility for internal legislative decisions. In addition to this, it also comprises several committees, like the youth committee, political committee and women’s committee. Herein lies the first major point: what is the position of the Brothers, and the IAF, on women’s rights?
A common stereotype in the West, with significant justification at times, is that Islamists in the Middle East are opposed to women’s rights and want women to remain in the home in traditional roles. As such, I expected the women’s committee to, somewhat idiosyncratically, be composed solely of men, or at the least a majority of men.
I was wrong. The committee on women is comprised only of women, though women are found in the “shura” council, the political committee and the powerful youth committee as well.
My later questions continued in the same vein, focusing on the “hijab,” or veil covering a woman’s hair. Was the “hijab” a requirement for women in a Brotherhood-led society? (In many parts of my interview, the lines between “Brotherhood” and “IAF” blurred, as happens in reality). Dr. Abdallah was frustrated by my question, saying that “this is always the question from the West.” He stated unequivocally that the position of the IAF was that a woman has freedom of choice in her clothing, a very progressive step. However, he qualified this by saying that people should naturally be respectful, and certain things are inappropriate in Jordanian society, unlike American society. He at one point said, “I do not presume to tell Americans how to dress in their country. Americans should not tell Jordanians how to dress in ours” — a fair point.
Relatedly, minorities have full rights in a Brotherhood-led society, and the Brotherhood supports the equality guaranteed in the Jordanian constitution to Christians and Muslims. However, Jordan is a Muslim country, a fact found in the constitution’s declaration that Islam is the state religion, and the Brotherhood supports this inclusion, as well. Christians at one time were part of the IAF, as some are in the Freedom and Justice Party in Egypt (a campaign commercial in the parliamentary elections featured a Qur’an and a Bible). Today, there are no Christians, due to the choice of Christians (or so says Dr. Abdallah).
Lastly, the Islamic Action Front disavows any dialogue with “the Jews.” This troubling use of words reflects the general problem of conflating anti-Semitism, anti-Zionism and anti-Israeli sentiment among Arabs. Taking “the Jews” to mean “Israel,” the clear meaning of this context, Dr. Abdallah stated that the Brothers oppose the Jordan-Israel peace treaty, signed by the late King Hussein bin Talal in 1994. In addition, the IAF does not conduct any dialogue with official representatives of the United States (the exact word in Arabic translates as “responsible ones”) and has not since the war in Iraq in 2003. I mentioned that the United States is out of Iraq, officially; Dr. Abdallah recognized this and stated that he expects this situation to change in the near future, as it did for the United Kingdom recently.
After all this, Dr. Abdallah invited me to an “iftar,” a meal to break the fast in Ramadan. I was apprehensive, but then he told me the location: the Orthodox Club, as in the Orthodox Christian Church. Imagine: Muslims and Christians — conservative Christians and Muslim Brothers — breaking bread and eating together, the sound of the call to prayer echoing through the Orthodox Club without anyone blinking an eye.
Truly, this was an example of interfaith cooperation. It also shows, by extension, the obvious differences between the Brothers and their more radical Islamist colleagues.Zach Smith is a NGJ Voices Contributor and a MSc candidate in Middle East Politics at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London. In summer and fall 2010 and summer 2012, Zach studied Arabic and international relations in Amman, Jordan. He is a 2012 Marshall Scholar.