In a first for Middle East politics, Christians and Islamists stump together

A major Islamist party in Jordan is fielding four Christians among its list of candidates for Tuesday's parliamentary election. Muslim candidates – and voters – are coming out to support them.

Muhammad Hamed/Reuters
Supporters of the National Alliance for Reform candidates of the Islamic Front Action party hold Jordanian national flags and flags with the logo representing the candidates, during a rally announcing their candidacy for the upcoming elections, in Amman, Jordan.

Akef Smeirat is doing something no other Christian candidate in Jordan has done: he’s running with Islamists.

“Today we need to stop talking about divisions, Islamist and leftist, tribe versus tribe,” Mr. Smeirat told residents of this Christian village who gathered recently in a tent overlooking rolling olive orchards on the outskirts of Amman. “We need the efforts of all Jordanians, Muslims and Christians, hand-in-hand, to build a better Jordan.”

Ismael Abu Rumman, a Muslim candidate from the nearby town of Salt, chimed in.

“We are one team, one message and one voice – we want to reform Jordan,” said Mr. Abu Rumman, as he campaigned in Fuheis alongside Smeirat. The two men are among 130 candidates that the Islamic Action Front (IAF) is fielding in Tuesday’s parliamentary election; four, including Smeirat, are Christian.

The unusual campaign, which is a first for 21st-century Middle East politics, has not only brought Islamist candidates to Christian communities; it has also brought Christian candidates to the refugee camps and working-class neighborhoods that are the heartland of Islamist supporters.

Such crossover is noteworthy not only in the Middle East, where Christians have been under attack from Iraq to Syria to Egypt, but even in the increasingly polarized political environments of the United States and some European countries, where other sorts of tribalism are taking hold.  

Indeed, the IAF, the political branch of Jordan’s Muslim Brotherhood, is not signing up token candidates; its Christian candidates are pillars of their communities, and it has involved them in decisions ranging from electoral strategy to campaign slogans.

But some pundits remain skeptical about whether the move marks a new era in post-sectarian politics, or is simply a shrewd electoral strategy by Islamists to build a majority coalition. Jordan reserves nine of its 130 parliamentary seats for Christians, which make up 3 to 4 percent of Jordan’s population.

While the Brotherhood’s slogans and campaign agenda has changed, the movement’s core tenets and founding principles – which call for an Islamization of society – have not.

“If you look deeply within the movement, you see these changes are only on the surface,” says Musa Shteiwi, director of the Center for Strategic Studies at the University of Jordan. “The Brotherhood manifesto does not call for a civil state or protection of minorities – which truly matter to Christians – making these changes merely cosmetic.”

Why Islamists are reaching out

Jordan’s new electoral law, which requires candidates to run on a list of several candidates rather than individuals, has encouraged cross-tribal, cross-party, and cross-religious alliances.

But the IAF says its outreach to Christians, which began in January of this year, was part of a deep overhaul of the movement, rather than an alliance of convenience.

“In Jordan and across the Arab world, the political situation has changed, the demands of the people have changed, and we have changed,” says Zaki Bani Rsheid, deputy leader of the Brotherhood and election strategist.

In a bid to reach beyond the Islamists’ conservative base and become a national movement, Mr. Bani Rsheid formed the National Alliance for Reform (Islah), a network of like-minded reformist leftists, nationalists, tribalists, Islamists, and Christians.

The coalition aims to be a force in Jordan’s parliament to push for political and economic reform, and an end to what many perceive as rampant corruption. Bani Rsheid and others see Islah, rather than the Brotherhood, as the future direction of the Islamist movement.

Bani Rsheid and the IAF look to Tunisia’s Ennahda or Turkey’s AKP as models of centrist Islamist movements. But neither of those have attempted a high-profile coalition with religious minorities.

Though independent Christians chose to join the IAF’s parliamentary bloc in 1989, this year’s election marks the first time Islamists have openly drafted and campaigned alongside Christian candidates.

“We are no longer a religious movement, but a wider, national movement to provide a voice for all Jordanians – particularly our Christian brothers and sisters.”

An alternative to extremism

Christians in Jordan are better off than many of their co-religionists elsewhere in the Middle East. Many enjoy an exalted status, serving in the military, the royal court, and as cabinet ministers.

But in July, a controversy erupted in Jordan after a young Christian musician died in an automobile accident, igniting a debate on social media whether it was proper for Muslims to offer their condolences to a Christian. The controversy led the country’s fatwa authority, the Iftaa Department, to issue a statement declaring it not only permissible, but encouraged.

Weeks later, Nahed Hattar, a prominent Christian columnist and commentator, published a cartoon on social media deemed so insulting to Islam that Jordan’s prime minister called for his subsequent arrest.

As Mr. Hattar was entering an Amman courthouse on Sept. 25, a gunman assassinated him in retribution for the cartoon.

Candidates say they are offering a voice in line with the tone of interfaith harmony set by Jordan’s King Abdullah and the Hashemite royal family, which spearhead several interfaith initiatives. They have encouraged church construction along the banks of the Jordan River, welcomed church leaders from around the world, and also sponsored the United Nations World Interfaith Harmony Week earlier this year.

“There are extremists in society on both ends of the spectrum that try to use religion to create tensions and undermine security,” says Audeh Quawas, a former Orthodox Church official and Islah candidate. “We are the alternative voice to confront them.”

Why Christians think Islamists can help them

In the Islamists’ electoral agenda, Christians say they find many points of common concern to their constituency: lifting up Jordan’s struggling middle class, lowering university tuition fees, price control on basic commodities, and an end to corruption.

They also might actually be able to get things done.

For over 20 years, tribal candidates have dominated Jordan’s parliament – yielding a politically weak legislature more concerned with securing jobs and benefits for relatives than discussing issues of concern to everyday Jordanians. With the Islamists, the only organized and nationally relevant political party, candidates see a way to break the cycle.

“Some people ask me – how can a Christian defend Christian rights under an Islamist list?” says Dr. Quawas. “I have one simple answer: Have the last 20 years of tribal MPs done anything for us Christians? No, and it is time for a change.”

Christian and other minority candidates see their participation as a chance to further moderate the Brotherhood, which is attempting to evolve from a social conservative movement to a diverse, centrist political party.

“In the 1980s and '90s the Islamic Action Front’s slogan was ‘Islam is the solution,’ ” says Quawas. “Now their campaign slogan is ‘Renaissance for the homeland, dignity for the citizens.’ We are changing them and their outlook – and that is only going to be good for the country.”

Muslims at a Christian's campaign tent

The message of cross-religious politics is already having an impact. Islah election banners strewn across Amman and Fuheis call for a “Jordan for all segments of society” and “no to sectarianism.”

“We don’t see it as a Christian going after Christian votes or a Muslim going after Muslim votes – that would be another backwards form of tribalism,” says Abu Rumman.

“We are Jordanians going after the vote of the Jordanian people.”

On the Day of Arafah, a holy day marking the Hajj pilgrimage and the eve of the Eid holiday sacred to Muslims, Muslim candidates and voters lined up at Smeirat’s election tent in a show of support and to extend holiday greetings.

“Today we have fasted, we have prayed and now we want to pray for your success,” said Salman Massaeed, Islah candidate and Smeirat supporter.

“May this Eid, and all your days be blessed,” said voter Mohammed Massaed.

Lasting change?

Observers are divided whether Islamists’ change in tone and cross-sectarian appeal will continue beyond election day.

The Brotherhood’s past gives some Christians pause.

The Brotherhood’s only experience in governance – a brief stint in 1991 where the Islamist movement held five cabinet posts in a coalition government – was marred by controversy and sectarian overtones.

Popular backlash across the country, particularly among concerned minorities, erupted after the Brotherhood attempted to pass a series of conservative social measures including banning alcohol, barring fathers from watching their daughters in sporting events, and segregating men and women at ministries, universities, and schools across the kingdom.

But many Christian voters say they will not be scared off by the divisive politics of the past.

“We are raised as Jordanians who put our Jordanian identity first,” says Jeryes Munir, a university student and voter from Fuheis. “We want to vote for a better Jordan, not a divided one.”

(This story was updated to reflect the assassination of Christian columnist Nahed Hattar.)

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