Jordan Plans Crackdown on Unauthorized Mosques to Combat Radical Islam

20-09-2014 01:55 PM

Ammon News - AMMONNEWS - In a new push to combat radical Islam, Jordanian authorities are developing plans to crack down on the construction of thousands of unauthorized mosques and to place government-appointed preachers in their pulpits.

Of 8,600 mosques in U.S.-allied Jordan—most of them illegally built, 4,500 are led by preachers, or imams, who aren't appointed by the government, according to official figures.

Imams at legal mosques are selected and paid by the government, one of the ways religious life in Jordan is heavily controlled by the state. As government employees, they are expected to renounce jihadist ideology and rally support for the monarchy during Friday prayers, imams said. The government monitors and disseminates suggested weekly sermons to imams on its payroll and instructs them on what to talk to congregations about, and what not to talk about.

With public spaces scarce and also tightly controlled by authorities, mosques are the main gathering places for communities across the small kingdom of about eight million people. But Jamal al-Batayneh, who administers the province of Zarqa for the Ministry of Religious Affairs, said they can also become incubators of radicalism.

Authorities allege that some unsanctioned imams espouse violence.

To pre-empt construction of unauthorized mosques, officials are hoping to persuade neighborhood leaders to build schools, orphanages or gardens instead. They also want to replace the thousands of unauthorized imams with government-appointed preachers, something officials acknowledge will be difficult to do, in part because of a lack of funds.

The country's intelligence network can't keep up with the estimated 400 to 500 illegal mosques that are built each year with self-appointed imams the government deems unqualified.

Jordan's latest effort to combat radical Muslims coincides with a regional accord reached last week at a meeting in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. Jordan, Lebanon, Egypt, Iraq and representatives of the Persian Gulf bloc of Sunni states, after meeting with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, promised to take military measures against extremist group Islamic State and tackle its "hateful ideology."

Mr. Kerry is leading diplomatic efforts to build an international coalition against Islamic State, which has captured large tracts of land in both Iraq and neighboring Syria since June.

Hayil Abdelhafeez Dawoud, Jordan's minister of religious affairs, said the agreement reached in Saudi Arabia was long overdue.

"We shouldn't have waited for the situation to escalate to this point to a plan," he said in an interview this week, adding that the answer to the threat posed by Islamic State militants wasn't airstrikes.

"To fight terrorism, we need to fight its ideology. It can't be solved militarily. The U.S. couldn't solve this problem in Iraq or in Afghanistan and it can't solve the problem in Syria," he said.

The Jordanian government's plan to regulate mosques is just the latest attempt to stem radical Islam. The kingdom has long relied on an extensive intelligence network to identify and quash suspected extremists.

Efforts by authorities to control the messages disseminated in mosques are focused on poverty-stricken areas outside Amman, such as the northern city of Zarqa, a longtime extremist stronghold. The city is the birthplace of the late Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who founded al Qaeda in Iraq—a precursor of Islamic State—before he was killed by U.S. forces in 2006.

Zarqa was a popular jumping-off point for militants going to fight American forces in Iraq after their invasion in 2003 and it has contributed fighters to the Syrian civil war. The city teems with mosques—an estimated 300, about 80% of them illegally built—that compete for the attention and loyalty of the city's estimated 700,000 people. The number of mosques is almost double the number of public schools, making them the center of community life.

Heading off the construction of unauthorized mosques has proved a daunting and delicate challenge. Once they are built, it is difficult to impossible to remove them, Mr. Batayneh said.

"If a citizen builds an apartment, the municipality will stop them. But when they build a mosque, you can't say no. And if the government bulldozed a mosque, there would be an uproar," he said.

One imam in the capital Amman, who was barred in 2008 from preaching for two years after delivering a sermon against Jordan's alliance with Israel, said he and other unauthorized preachers don't take the Ministry of Religious Affairs seriously.

"They are the mouthpiece of the government, which isn't upholding true Islamic principles," said the imam, adding that he opposed Islamic State's ideology of violence.

The Ministry of Religious Affairs also faces problems in funding the anti-radicalization program, which Mr. Batayneh estimates will need $70 million to be effective. The government is about $27 billion in debt and a freeze on hiring public-sector employees has been in place since 2010.

The program to combat radicalism was approved in August. But after the Jeddah meeting, Jordanian officials are hoping to expand it and get funding from the U.S. or Saudi.

Some see the attempts to regulate unauthorized mosques and other anti-radicalization efforts as too little too late. They say measures should have been put in place after three hotels were bombed in downtown Amman in 2005—coordinated attacks believed to have been masterminded by Mr. Zarqawi.

In April, Jordan tightened its antiterrorism laws out of concern for the swelling numbers of Jordanians and foreigners making their way to neighboring Syria's civil war. Government media reported this week that eight Jordanians would stand trial for joining Islamic State and for spreading radical ideology on the Internet.

One senior official in Amman estimated 1,500 Jordanians have gone to fight in Syria since the start of the uprising against President Bashar al-Assad in March 2011.

The government, for its part, is deeply involved in the civil war, helping train and arm moderate anti-Assad rebels in close cooperation with the U.S.

Western officials in Amman don't see an imminent risk of the kind of upheaval that echoes the turmoil in neighboring Iraq and Syria. These officials caution, however, that it may be only a matter of time.

As he awaits government funds to fight radicalization, Mr. Batayneh holds workshops in Zarqa to promote moderate Islam and drives around the city keeping records of mosques under construction. He spends his monthly government stipend for gas in days and pays for it himself after that.

"Jordan is the leading moderate country in the Middle East and it must remain this way," he said. "The wall is collapsing, and we are all struggling to hold it upright."

*Wall Street Journal

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