Public Piety and Nationalist Sentiment in Jordan

By Sarah Tobin, Brown University

*This memo was prepared for the “Evolving Methodologies in the Study of Islamist Politics” workshop, January 29, 2016.

During the 20th century, Amman, Jordan developed quickly into a globally-connected capital city, as millions of Muslims obtained access to literacy and education,[1] heightened levels and types of consumer practices,[2] new and profoundly different media technologies,[3] and a religiously-justified, market-friendly “Islamic capitalism.”[4] The visual impacts of these changes were profound: urban landscapes were filled with satellite dishes on rooftops while Ramadan soap operas and Saudi Arabian preachers broadcast inside living rooms; hijab fashion redefined Islamic headcoverings; and global and transnational middle-class ethics of life and lifestyle – regional and international travel, leisure culture, entertainment industries, and visible consumption – became marked as both modern and authentically Islamic. In 20th c. Amman, heightened commodification of cultural forms and spaces increasingly mediated what was understood as authenticate Islamic knowledge, performance and practice, identities, and piety.[5] It is a description of what Jillian Schwedler has termed “Islamistness” (this volume). Public piety, in these cultural forms, has shaped what is understood today as modern, authentic, and Islamic. It has also shaped the contours of nationalism in contemporary Jordan.

Public piety in Amman today carries, in a very bottom-up fashion, a distinctly nationalist tenor, which the Hashemites have attempted to coopt and utilize in “branding” Jordan as a place for stability, security, and inter-religious tolerance while surrounded by countries in intense conflict. Benedict Anderson asserted that imagined communities are understood “not by their falsity/genuineness, but by the style in which they are to be imagined.”[6] As a result, we see that a stylized middle-class Islam is a key to a modern national identity in Jordan. This is because public piety in Amman crosses ethnic divides and solidifies a class-based form of socialization and affiliation, thus enabling a national identity. As Nathan Brown points out (this volume), “The political—broadly, not narrowly, understood—still matters.” It is not the case, as Anderson argued, that national communities supplant “traditional” religious communities.[7] Rather, the case of urban Amman demonstrates that Muslim modernity and cosmopolitanism here are not necessarily the antithesis of national identity but are a constitutive component of it.

Public Piety as a Political Tool

There is a political immediacy for the Hashemites to coopt and utilize such public piety. Beyond empty propaganda campaigns of “We are all Jordan” and “Jordan First,” as well as attempts at popular cultural schemes of song and dance to Jaishna (“Our Army”), the Hashemites have attempted to sustain legitimacy by emphasizing the King’s genealogical decent from guardianship of the Holy Places as well as his contemporary commitment to the welfare of the populace. King `Abdullah, the Hashemite ruling family asserts, embodies both an inheritance and a benevolence. This highly individualized construction of monarchal power “obscures both the monarchy’s debt to British colonial powers in establishing its rule and the fact that, as a unified entity, Jordan has no historical memory before the twentieth century.”[8] The shallow state-sponsored historical-nationalist narratives of tribe and natal geography, and popular cultural references, have resonated with less than half of the population who identify as ethnic Jordanians.[9] These narrow nation-building attempts have left a large portion of Jordanian residents still seeking legitimate inclusion in the state, especially Palestinians.

The Hashemites have worked to direct the attempts to fill the void of these nationalist sentiments with more universally agreeable messages about Islam in Kingdom. The Friday khutbas that broadcast throughout Amman reflect the state-endorsed content for an acceptable public piety. In November 2014, the Jordanian government laid down new and expanded laws for some 5,000 Muslim clerics in the country. Hayel Dawood, minister for Islamic affairs, indicated that clerics are “the ground forces against the extremists.” He then made himself clear: encourage moderation or you are out – “Once you cross the red line, you will not be let back in.” Those who preach extremism or praise ISIS can be tried in the state’s new Security Court to face terrorism charges. Specifically, Jordan is demanding that preachers refrain from any speech against King Abdullah II and the royal family, slander against leaders of neighboring Arab States, incitement against the United States and Europe, and “sectarianism and support for jihad and extremist thought.” The clerics are Jordanian government employees, earning a higher-than-average $600 per month, along with other perks such as social security and preferred access to government facilities. The government’s Facebook page gives suggestions for Friday sermons, such as “Security and Stability: The Need for Unity in a Time of Crisis,” “The Hijra New Year – Lessons Derived from the Prophet’s Flight from Mecca,” and “The Beginning of the Rainy Season – Safety Measures.” The government enforces palatable, dispassionate messages that do not contradict the ethics of middle-class public piety, and may serve to reinforce it.

Middle Class Islamic Life in Jordan

However, such attempts at directing religious life are not sufficient to promote meaningful nationalist sentiment amongst all residents. As a result, residents of Jordan have sought legitimate inclusion in the state through middle class consumption practices that are socially and culturally rendered authentic and modern, as well as Islamic and pious. A sense of belonging and subjectivities of moral and moderate in Jordan are now sought through economic means rather than strictly political. The insertion of Islamic ethics and norms into economic practices has seen tremendous increase and plurality in recent times. Islamic banking and finance is an industry that has grown from one marginal bank (the Jordan Islamic Bank) in the mid-1980s to three Jordanian Islamic banks and one foreign Islamic bank. Jordan’s Postal Savings System (Al-Sanduq Tawfir Al-Bareed) has been fully Islamized, and a large portion of formal and informal microfinance schemes now operate by Islamic principles.

There is now a self-defined middle class in Jordan that is pushing for contemporary, modern, market-friendly enterprises, which dominate public religious life, civil society, and nationalist inclusions. This middle class is made up a relatively wide swath of Jordanian society, which undermines attempts at normative Islamist political life and emphasizes consistency in practice instead, which is resonant with both Ahmed Khanani and Stacey Philbrick Yadav’s memos in this volume. The economically poorer East Ammanis participate in wealthier West Ammani public culture; the new economic development Boulevard does not sell alcohol, but displays the largest Christmas tree in the country; Turkey has become the new preferred – and both Islamic and soap opera enticing – honeymoon destination; fashion that resembles religious conservatism is mocked and dismissed as “not-modern” and “not really Islamic;” Twitter and Facebook promote news stories of regional and international interest rather than state-sponsored television or even local newspapers. An inclusive, “moderate” Islamic nationalism in Jordan is, therefore, contingent on economic practices that speak to a local understanding of a middle-class Islamic life and lifestyle.

Religious Inclusivity and Jordan

It seems the Hashemites have begun to catch on and attempt to capitalize on these popular trends. In December 2015, Christmas and the Prophet Mohammed’s birthday fell at nearly the same time. King `Abdullah took the opportunity to send a video message. Sitting on a sofa in his apparent living room, King `Abdullah begins the message with the familial language of “brothers and sisters” and “sons and daughters.” The Prophet Mohammed is discussed as “our great-grandfather,” as the message turns from holiday greetings to an endorsement of interreligious tolerance, peace, and the “true” message of Islam and Christianity – the former as a religion of compassion that brings together Christians and Muslims against the “outlaws” of Islam in “our shared common values.” The video ends with a reminder that Jordan has “never witnessed division” with “equal citizenship that binds us together,” stressing that Arab Christians are a vital part of Jordanian identity that makes “us proud of our model of religious harmony.” While the political emphasis (and amnesia) is overt, the video attempts to also amplify the celebratory function of the two holidays that also serve as public holidays off of work and localized days of heightened consumption, with gift exchanges and extensive family gatherings. This model of the “true Jordan” is one the content of the holiday matters less than the middle-class structure and formation for how it is celebrated.

The seeming contradiction is that it is through these conditions of religious plurality that the nation is generated and national sentiment is constituted, rather than the processes of exclusion. If Islamism and political Islamism were “the Muslim middle class way of saying no to what they considered their excluders—their national elites, secular governments, and those governments’ Western allies,”[10] then Jordanians are saying “yes” to living in a nation defined by diversity and plurality and in some cases more so than their counterparts in neighboring countries. This is not unanticipated because “since the 1990s, against the backdrop of intensifying religious sentiment in the Muslim world, a nascent post-Islamist trend has begun to accommodate aspects of democratization, pluralism, women’s rights, youth concerns, and social development with adherence to religion.”[11] Multi-religious frameworks are necessary for life in any contemporary, global society. However, diversity in contemporary Amman is not simply defined in terms of Muslims and Christians. It is also defined by the varying practices of Muslims. Perhaps, however, “branding” an Islamic diversity is the future of state inclusion for urban Jordan.

Sarah Tobin is the associate director of Middle East Studies for the Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs at Brown University. Her work focuses on Islam, economic anthropology, and gender in the Middle East. Tobin’s latest book is Everyday Piety: Islam and Economy in Jordan (Cornell University Press).


[1] Robinson, F. (February 1993). Technology and Religious Change: Islam and the Impact of Print. Modern Asian Studies, Vol. 27, No. 1, Special Issue: How Social, Political and Cultural Information Is Collected, Defined, Used and Analyzed, pp. 229-251.

[2] Starrett, G. (1995). The Political Economy of Religious Commodities in Cairo. American Anthropologist, New Series, Vol. 97, No. 1, 51-68

[3] Eickelman, Dale F. & Jon W. Anderson, eds. (1999). New Media in the Muslim World: The Emerging Public Sphere.  Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

[4] Saeed, M., Ahmed, Z. U., & Mukhtar, S.-M. (July 2001). International Marketing Ethics from an Islamic Perspective: A Value-Maximization Approach. Journal of Business Ethics, Vol. 32, No. 2 , 127-142

[5] Coşgel, M. M., & Minkler, L. (September 2004). Religious Identity and Consumption. Review of Social Economy, Vol. 62, No. 3 , 339-350. Gökarıksel, B., & Secor, A. J. (October 21, 2008). New transnational geographies of Islamism, capitalism and subjectivity: the veiling-fashion industry in Turkey.

[6] Anderson, B. (2006). Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism. Verso, Pg. 6.

[7] Anderson, B. (2006). Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism. Verso, Pg. 7.

[8] Schwedler, J. (2006). Faith in Moderation: Islamist Parties in Jordan and Yemen. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pg. 134

[9] Shryock, A. 1997. Nationalism and the Genealogical Imagination: Oral History and Textual Authority in Tribal Jordan. Berkeley: University of California Press.

[10] Bayat, A. (2007). Making Islam democratic: Social movements and the post-Islamist turn. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, Pp. 6.

[11] Bayat, A. (2007). Making Islam democratic: Social movements and the post-Islamist turn. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, Pp. 188-9.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *