Menu
Share
Share this story
Close X
 
Switch to Desktop Site

In Jordan, a cleric on the run gains notoriety

In Maan, radical Abu Sayyaf and followers battle government-endorsed Islam and the Army.

One month after an American aid official, Lawrence Foley, was shot dead in West Amman, Jordan is struggling to suppress a tribal and Islamist uprising in the southern town of Maan. The government is also fighting to reestablish its reputation as the Middle East example of pro-Western religious moderation.

As part of an attempt to curb the growing lure of extremism, Jordanian Minister of Religious Affairs Ahmed Hilayel has chosen the Muslim holy month of Ramadan to launch a national mission to instill wasatiya, or moderation, and paint extremism as heretical.

About these ads

The authorities say they are fighting a brand of Islam known as takfir, which condemns as apostates Muslims - from King Abdullah down - who work for the state or miss their five daily prayers. The spiritual mentor for the movement is Mohammed Shalabi, also known as Abu Sayyaf. A former official in the Maan branch of the religious ministry, police say he opened fire on them when they tried to question him as part of their investigation into Mr. Foley's killing. In the subsequent shoot-out, Abu Sayyaf was injured, but escaped back to Maan, where his masked followers led an Islamist resistance. The Army sent in tanks, but despite seven days of fighting and 130 arrests, Abu Sayyaf escaped the dragnet. He is said to have reached the mountains near Jordan's prime tourist spot, the rose-red cave city of Petra.

Abu Sayyaf is hailed by his followers as a fierce but upright critic of the Amman authorities. But the authorities portray him as a brigand who uses God as a cover for gunrunning to Saudi Arabia, the proceeds of which paid for his three-story villa. Jordanian officials accuse him of seeking to create a state within state, and claim to have uncovered a cache of rocket-propelled grenades, chemicals, and bombmaking equipment.

As part of the government's initiative, a string of preachers has been dispatched south to follow the army's tanks into Maan, where violence flared again Sunday night, raising the official death toll since the start of the fighting to seven. "Since the events in Maan, we've sent our officials into the town's mosques to preach wasatiya," Mr. Hilayel says. "The people embrace it as the only correct form of Islam."

But analysts contrast the government's appeal to a gentle faith with its iron-fisted policy in Maan, and ask whether the Islamists are the symptom or the cause of the unrest.

"Jordan is not an exception to the region," says Hani Hourani, director of the New Jordan think tank. "You will find anti-American anger everywhere. Low-level government officials and Islamists now talk the same language."

In the alleys of the densely populated suburb of Zarqa, a secondary-school religious teacher says he celebrated with his friends after hearing news of the US aid official's death. "He was a symbol of America," says the teacher. "America is our enemy. It is starving Muslim children in Iraq and is paying the Jews to kill our brothers in Palestine."

He and his friends hail suicide bombers as martyrs, and last year held a memorial service for the Jordanian suicide bomber who killed 25 revelers in the Dolphinarium Disco in Tel Aviv.

About these ads

Islamists say they are forsaking establishment Islam, preferring to pray in their homes and colleges, which despite tight control have also been centers of radical theology. A former lecturer at the faculty, Abdullah Azzam, was the first to establish a hostel in Peshawar to recruit thousands of Arabs, including Osama bin Laden, to wage war against the Soviets in Afghanistan.

Religious voices preaching personal salvation are fainter. As night descends, an imam in a disheveled Amman mosque recalls how the Prophet Muhammed endured 13 years of blows and harassment from Meccan pagans without resorting to violence. "We have to reform our hearts before the hearts of others," he says, skirting round questions of politics. Asked how to regain Muslim land from occupation, he tells his flock not to kill, but to pray to God to melt the heart of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.