Journey to Jordan, November 2006

I recently returned from Jordan, where, at the invitation of Jordanian political sociologist Ibtesam Al-Atiyat and the United Nations University, with whom Ibtesam is a program officer, I participated in the program, Youth Leadership, the Politicization of Religion, and the Future of Democracy in the Middle East, held in Amman and sponsored by the Konrad Adenauer Foundation and United Nations University International Leadership Institute (UNU/ILI). There, I lectured on the subject of Christian neo-fundamentalism and US foreign policy, chaired a panel on resistance and terrorism, and worked with young people from around the world to develop declarations regarding the hopes of democratization and the problems of politicization of religion I did other things in Jordan, as well, including shopping in downtown Amman and spending a day in the ancient city of Petra among the Bedouin and tourists. I made many friends during my travels and developed a love for a country about which I knew very little before traveling there (aside from research in preparation for the trip, which I have since learned is always inadequate).

Me surrounded by participants in the United Nations University program Youth Leadership, the Politicization of Religion, and the Future of Democracy in the Middle East, Amman, Jordan, 2006

My lecture, titled “Christian Neo-fundamentalism, Democracy Promotion, and US Foreign Policy” [based on an article I published with Political Research Associates, “Faith Matters: George Bush and Providence” — but delivered in much less polemical tones to the UNU/ILI], was well received, generating discussion throughout the week-long program. The thesis of my talk was provocative: Assuming that a significant change in foreign policy direction in a democracy requires some degree of popular support, the facts of economic imperative (principally, the need for cheap fossil fuels to power industry) and dedicated hardline Zionists (US neoconservatives and the Israel Lobby) shaping and influencing US foreign policy are insufficient for understanding the direction of US imperialism over the past forty years. What an account of this period requires is a grasp of how the Republican Party, neoconservatives, and rightwing Jewish nationalists have joined with influential conservative Christian leaders to fashion an ideology — Christian Zionism — that has secured the support of tens of millions of Americans for an expansion of the US Empire. This development represents a historic shift from antisemitic fundamentalist Christian culture to pro-Zionist neofundamentalist Christian politics.

To militate against the pessimism that such a thesis might engender, I emphasized throughout the program that not all Christians locate themselves on the political right. Tens of millions of Christians are moderate, liberal, and even socialist. In addition, not all “born again” Christians are Republicans or rightwing Zionists. Black Americans who identify themselves as “born again” are in overwhelming numbers registered Democrats. I relayed to the audience that Jimmy Carter’s recent book, Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid, represents the views of some (albeit a minority of) evangelical Christians, and that with committed and organized efforts progressive forces may recapture the moral discourse and push the United States towards a rational foreign policy. The problem is not Christianity per se, I argued, but rather the power and influence of neo-fundamentalist Christians, their views embraced and pushed by the Republican Party and the current regime in Washington. The religious problem in America stems from extremist politicizations of Christianity, paralleling the struggle over religion occurring in the Islamic world between Muslims and Islamists, the latter representing extremist politicizations of Islam.

My lecture was part of the opening session, “The Politicization of Religions and the Middle East.” I shared the stage with some weighty figures, most notably His Excellency Dr. Abdel Salam Majali, current Minister of Awqaf and Islamic Affairs and former Prime Minister. Majali was one of the principal negotiators in the 1994 Jordanian-Israeli peace treaty. Also on stage was Dr. Amr El Choubaki, of the Al-Ahram Center for Strategic Studies, and Dr. Shlomo Avineri, professor of political science at Hebrew University of Jerusalem. I had asked Noam Chomsky and Norman Finkelstein beforehand to tell me what Avineri’s politics were because I was an admirer of his scholarship on Hegel and Marx, which has been published many year earlier, but knew little of his politics. Both Chomsky and Finkelstein told me he was dug in on the question of Palestine and the occupation.

Shlomo Avineri, second from the left

I kept an open mind. One of Avineri’s books, The Social and Political Thought of Karl Marx, has, more than any other work on Marx, influenced my understanding of historical materialism. However, Avineri’s lecture disappointed me. Given the title of the session and the issue I raised concerning Christian Zionism’s close association with the philosophy of Jewish Restorationism — the ideology justifying a larger Israel that animates such rightwing parties as the Likud — I had expected to draw some response from him. Not only did he neglect to engage the question of the politicization of Judaism in Zionism, but he continually stressed that Zionism was more or less a purely political ideology and movement. The relatively atheistic character of Zionism may have been true decades ago (at least a strain of it), say when a young Noam Chomsky was in the movement, but this is no longer the case. Avineri’s only remark concerning religion — beyond his standard position that religion is not inherently anti-democratic, a point on which we agree — was that Christian Zionism is one of the reasons Jews have a problem with Christians. Obviously, he wasn’t speaking for all Jews.

Later, Avineri took issue with my observation that the major US media and mainstream politicians are rarely critical of Israel and that critics of Israel in America are routinely dismissed as “anti-Semitic,” two what I regarded as rather obvious facts of which Avineri, who closely follows the US media, must certainly have been aware. Indeed, criticism of Israel approaches levels of zero in mainstream American political discourse. (Just ask President Carter what happens when you try to criticize Israel.) Avineri promised publicly that a deeper criticism of my views awaited me in private; however, this confrontation never occurred, even though Avineri and I dined together that evening (we had a wonderful time). I felt let down a little because I so admire Avineri. However, his chauvinism notwithstanding, my respect for Avineri as a scholar of Hegel and Marx remains unshaken, and I found him to be extremely knowledgeable on the affairs and history of the Middle East, a subject which I admit I am not an expert. He is a warm, personally decent, and humorous individual. It was truly an honor to have spent time with such an outstanding scholar and unique person.

The next morning, I chaired the session “Resistance, Terrorism, and State Building: Islamists in Conflict Areas and Countries in Transition,” featuring Dr. Nadir Said, a sociology professor at Birzeit University in Palestine who spoke about the conditions of Palestinians, and Evans Wafula, a journalist writing for African Week Magazine, who spoke on the subject of the Islamic Courts of Somalia. Dr. Said came armed with slides concerning the empirical situation of the Palestinians which, because of the short time given, he unloaded in rapid fire succession, having to skip over several. Nonetheless, he managed to paint a depressingly detailed portrait of the Palestinian situation. Mr. Wafula argued that the reason so many Somalis were supportive of the Islamic courts was because they brought order out of the chaos that had reigned since the devolution of Somali society into a loose network of warlords. However, the Islamic courts, once having established jurisdiction over the legal system, began a political conquest of Somalia. Therein resides the problem. Both presentations were excellent.

The session became contentious when a young Israeli man offered neither a question nor his opinion but instead gave the official Israeli position on the so-called security fence. For those who don’t know the facts, the government of Israel is building a wall through Palestine which Israeli propagandists describe as a temporary “security fence.” The Israeli government claims that fences reduce the number of suicide attacks. The structure, or more accurately a system of structures, is in fact a very high and very permanent wall that separates families from families and individuals from the services they desperately need for survival. Furthermore, the structure does not reduce suicide attacks. Dr. Said argued that only one thing will reduce the incidence of suicide attacks — ending the occupation. This observation is not meant to justify suicide bombings, he stressed, which every reasonable person agrees are a tragedy for victim and perpetrator, but rather to explain them.

The situation of the Palestinians was brought home to me just before I left for Jordan when a student of mine, who had a short time earlier spent two weeks in Palestine, showed me pictures of the wall and described to me the daily existence of the people surrounded by these walls. His experience in Palestine radically changed his perspective on the conflict. With these images and stories fresh in my mind, and with the new ones Said had just given me, I momentarily forgot my moderator duties — the antagonism of the young Israeli man continued, rebutting Said and provoking one of the assistants in the conference, a young British-Palestinian woman, to avail herself of the microphone she was holding to tear into him, speaking so eloquently about the condition of Palestine that I hesitated before interrupting her so that Said could answer the question. Said expressed disappointment in the fact that, rather than sending an independent thinker to participate in the session, Israel had sent an official spokesperson. (Many suspected he was from IDF).

Then, when Said stated that the Israelis never intended to make peace with the Palestinians, Avineri walked out of the session, shaking his head. This protest disturbed many of the western students. Afterwards, Dr. Avineri wanted to make sure I understood that he had not walked out of the session to go to the bathroom, but that he could not stand to once more hear a Palestinian talk about the conflict. I assured him that not a person in the room had misunderstood his actions. He told me how beautiful are the structures of Jerusalem at sunset. A rose color, he said. I tried to comfort the students at the break, but it took a clarification during the following morning student session — with Al-Atiyat announcing that the broad discussion of democracy and the politicization of religion intended by the programmers should not dissolve into a debate about the fate of Palestine — before the tension subsided.

However, the fate of Palestine being the major point of discussion among Arabs, who see Israel as an extension of European colonization, the critics would not remain silent for long. Indeed, on day two, during the session “Political Religion in National and Foreign Policy,” the US Embassy’s Counselor for Press and Cultural Affairs, Philip Frayne, encountered fierce interrogation by the audience concerning the Palestinian situation. His attitude was dismissive and his manner entirely political. He was a buffoon, frankly, sent by the State Department as a gesture and instructed to dissemble. Before the session, Mr. Frayne questioned me about the substance of my talk the previous day, which he apologized for having missed. I painted for him in broad strokes what I had said, which caused him to ask, “So you explained to everybody why the United States is so committed to supporting Israel?” Yes, I responded. He then said, “I am here to tell America’s side of the story.” The substance of his talk told me he was aware of the substance of mine.

Controversy continued when, on day three, the Islamic Action Front refused to participate in the session “Political Religions and the State: The Islamists in Jordan,” because, to quote from their message delivered by Dr. Jairam Reddy, director of the UNU/ILI and moderator for the period, “of the presence of Israelis in the room.” The IAF protest struck me as a missed opportunity for the party to reach young people with their message, which I gathered from discussing their position with others is a positive one. And while I understand that the IAF has a policy against engaging Israelis in dialogue until Israel withdraws from the territory it occupies, it was a United Nations event in which all are welcome, even US-labeled terrorist organizations Hamas and Hezbollah. In any case, the extra time was taken up by the Islamic Centrist Party, whose positions on various issues, especially on the subject of women in politics (of which there were two representatives on stage, one a member of the parliament) generated a very interesting question-and-answer session.

The highpoint of day three for most people was the appearance of Her Majesty Queen Noor, who sat and listened intently for much of the two-and-half hour session that Dr. Reddy moderated, and, afterwards, stood outside the room for group photos. It must have taken some courage for the IAF to refuse to participate in protest knowing the Queen of Jordan was present. I wanted to thank her personally for attending and for the good work she does sitting on the board of the United Nations University, but there were many important people in the room and security was tight (and intimidating). Besides, the young people wanted very much to meet with her and time was short. By the time I got close, she was on her way out. At least these were the things I was telling myself. There was something else stopping me: I did not believe I could bring myself to genuflect to a monarch.

The students were on the whole outstanding, and I was extremely impressed with several of them, who showed themselves to quite sophisticated in their understanding of complex issues. Students from places such as Algeria, Lebanon, Iraq, and Sudan were most interested in my arguments. I was disappointed with the more vocal students from the United States; they were robotic in their recitations of standard political science rhetoric. One young woman in particular exhibited deep and unyielding indoctrination in neoliberal ideology. When I asked the students as a whole to consider opening up their conception of democracy to more than the limited rhetoric of liberal-pluralism, for example by considering matters of industrial democracy and collective control over resources, this young woman accused me of communism. F.A. Hayek would have been so proud. When I explained that capitalism was one of the causes of unemployment and poverty around the world, and that the more unfettered capitalism is the more brutal are its effects, citing the Gilded Age as an example, she responded that nineteenth century was not pure capitalism. I couldn’t respond to this point, of course, as it is actually more of a slogan than an argument (can capitalism be any more pure than it was in the nineteenth century?) When I explained the logic of inequality among the nations, she argued that capitalism liberated Europe from its previous third world status! My response to this absurd claim was drowned out by retorts aimed at her from the third worlders. “Europe? The third world?” It took some work to calm the room.

In another student session, with the slogan “one’s politics is not determined by her genitalia,” a young American man objected to a young Israeli woman’s suggestion that some of the time be spent in groups sorted by gender. The Israeli student lamented that she hadn’t time to educate the young man in the sociological distinction between sex and gender. During the exchange, Avineri leaned over to me and informed me that the young woman had announced to him and others her intent to push a feminist agenda during the conference. She had informed others in my company of her agenda, as well, I told him.

The framework used by many of the students was also used by many of the older participants, and, at its worst, was clearly and most unfortunately the rhetoric of the political science school of modernization. The blatant exhibition of neoliberal and liberal-pluralist ideologies worked in my favor, however, since most of the students were yearning for a more expansive way of thinking about the problems of their country — which are, in my view, largely the problems of global capitalism — and the range of possible solutions.

Here I want to offer a sociological observation: Because eastern elites and political actors encounter the ideas of western powers by reading the literature and entertaining the arguments of official diplomats and intellectuals advancing the hegemonic theoretical framework, and because the West is the prevailing intellectual power on the world stage, the peripheral subject parrots the conceptual and theoretical framework of the core. I heard repeatedly discussions using terms and phrases such as “modernization,” “clash of civilizations,” and “democracy promotion.” Democracy was narrowly defined as a list of basic procedures — suffrage, peaceful transition, equality before the law — and not as a substantive understanding of the social being achieving control over her collective existence and destiny. During group discussions I explained that liberal-pluralist ideology not only constrains practical possibility, it also limits the cognitive framework in which the ideas of the possible are generated.

Amman was a beautiful city. Of course, I was not taken to the poorer sections, but instead driven through the wealthy districts where the embassies and Konrad Adenauer Stiftung institute were located, as well as through middle class districts inhabited by affluent Jordanians and Iraqis (wealthy Iraqis fled Iraq with the US invasion, bringing the money and talents to Jordan and other Middle Eastern countries). Perhaps this wasn’t done to hide anything, but rather reflected my purpose there. Nonetheless, I saw some of the signs of poverty we know exist in Jordan when I strolled through the upscale market district in Amman, for example people with disabilities begging for money.

On my last full day there, I traveled to the ancient city of Petra, which lies on the edge of the Wadi Araba, about four hours south of Amman and a couple of hours north of Jordan’s lone seaport Aqaba. Petra was established roughly twenty-six centuries ago by the Nabataean Arabs (a network of nomadic tribes that settled in southern Jordan, the Naqab desert in Palestine, and northern Arabia) and was the center of a trading commercial network extending as far north as modern Syria. (The area is even older than this, inhabited by the Edomites before the Nabataeans settled there and raised their civilization.) The Nabataeans found the geography conducive to the construction of a unique and durable civilization — sandstone mountains in which they carved buildings, temples, and mortuaries. Jordan is ninety percent desert, forcing the Nabataeans to develop their scientists as deft water engineers, irrigating the land by devising a marvelous system of aqueducts, canals, dams, and reservoirs. The rock is beautiful, with whirling and waving strata in vibrant colors ranging from white and yellows to deep reds and browns.

Many foreign powers tried to subjugate the Nabataeans — Seleucid king Antigonus, Roman emperor Pompey, and Herod the Great — but all failed. Finally, around the first century, the Romans overran Petra (by destroying their water system) and controlled the region into the Byzantine period. The Crusaders briefly occupied Petra in the twelfth century, but were forced to abandon the city by the Muslims. Petra is now inhabited by Bedouin peoples, settled nomadic tribes found throughout Middle East, who sell their wares and rent their transportation (camels, donkeys, and horses) to tourists. I cannot find the words to describe the way being in such a place makes one feel. It is a magical place.

Me at Petra

I made many friends in Amman, Jordan. I struck up a friendship with a thirty-year-old man from Kenya named Evans Wafula who writes for African Week Magazine. I feel that we became best of friends and we have promised to remain in touch and visit each others homes. I also befriended Murad Tangiev, a Chechnyan who moved all of us with his condemnation of terrorism in his country. As a program officer for the university, Tangiev has invited me back to Jordan in the spring to lecture on the history of democracy. I believe I shall accept his invitation. I also admired the person of Nadir Said, the Palestinian man who spoke so eloquently on the condition of the Palestinians. There are many more, many of them were among the students…

Evans Wafula, writer for African Week Magazine

This is getting long, so I will make two concluding remarks. First, an observation. In general, I found many of the Muslims with whom I interacted to be open minded. I expected to find Muslims critical of Israel, as well as Muslims who harbored dislike for Americans because of US financial and diplomatic support for Israel. My first expectation was confirmed. Muslims believe that Israeli occupation of Palestine is the driving source of conflict in the region. However, I found wherever I went a genuine love for Americans. No Muslim was shy about telling me of her or his great dislike for the US government and its policies in the Middle East, but nowhere did I feel anger or hatred directed towards me; I encountered only warm smiles and greetings. Everyone assumed I was Christian (I am an atheist and a secular humanist) and treated me with the utmost respect. On the other hand, I found the thinking of some of the Israelis in the program circumscribed by one or another form of Zionism, their morality shaped by their nationalism, treating with disdain those who asked them to consider the plight of Palestinians. It disappointed me to find young people lacking sympathy sufficient to have an impact on the overall authoritarian mentality that rationalizes occupation and oppression in terms of security and victimhood. It is the persistence of the authoritarian mentality that is the greatest barrier to peace in the Middle East.

This brings me to my closing point. Many of the participants told me that my presence at the program served to improve the image of America among them, since they had heretofore only heard the point of view given to them by the corporate-dominated press in the United States and in their own countries, many of which serve as client states for the global capitalists. Their own experience of authoritarian government told them that there must be Americans who disagreed with US policies. They were very pleased to have their suspicions confirmed, that there were indeed Americans who disagreed with their government, and they assured me that they would share with their friends back home my point of view and the optimistic fact that I possessed it.

(August 24, 2018) I forgot to record a moment in this report that I have since shared numerous times. There was a young Lebanese man who sat through a Jordanian politician’s speech (I do not recall either of their names). He was visibly perturbed the entire time and when he finally got the chance to speak his mind he said, “You referred to Jordanians throughout your speech as ‘citizens.’ Jordan has no citizens. It has subjects. Jordan has a king.”

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Andrew Austin

Andrew Austin is on the faculty of Democracy and Justice Studies and Sociology at the University of Wisconsin—Green Bay. He has published numerous articles, essays, and reviews in books, encyclopedia, journals, and newspapers.

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