Opinion: Given Distrust of Government, Discussion on 'Civil State' in Jordan is Critical

Published April 1st, 2018 - 01:23 GMT
Praying should be an extension of an emerging civil society (AFP File Photo)
Praying should be an extension of an emerging civil society (AFP File Photo)

By Dr Neven Bondokji

- Debate around the concept of the civil state in Jordan has been minimal and cautious
- The current levels of distrust in the government and parliament are unprecedented
- The discourse generally pits secularists and Islamists on opposite sides of this divide

Debate around the concept of the civil state in Jordan has been minimal and cautious, despite the depth of academic literature about the Arab social contract. Apart from scattered media articles, the most significant effort has perhaps been the platform of the Ma’an (‘together’) electoral list in the lead up to the 2016 parliamentary elections.

A healthy debate on the civil state in Jordan should be capitalised on. The current levels of distrust in the government and parliament are unprecedented, and political apathy and socio-economic discontent are widespread. The latest protests across the country underscore the need for a structural reorientation of the social contract and a political overhaul.

While supporters see the civil state as an icon for rule of law, accountability and meritocracy, sceptics question the secular implications. The discourse generally pits secularists and Islamists on opposite sides of this divide. However, recent transformations within the Islamist parties demonstrate that even Islamists — traditionally staunch opponents of the civil state — now embrace the concept, and that the youth generation does not necessarily reflect this polarisation.

Towards creating an acceptable civil society of different social stratas (AFP File Photo)

Islamist Youth and the Civil State

While conducting research for our forthcoming book, my colleague Dr Mohamad Abu Ruman and I met with young members of the Islamic Action Front (IAF), the National Congress Party–Zamzam, and the Partnership and Rescue Party (PRP). Both Zamzam and the PRP splintered from the Muslim Brotherhood (MB), and have developed their own political agenda.

A predictable point of agreement was that the civil state concept is vague and needs to be further defined to reflect the Jordanian political and cultural context — a concern they share with the leftist and secular advocates for a civil state in Jordan. What was more surprising was that interviewees had strong opinions on the role of the civil state in Jordan, and were generally quite embracing of this.

Members of the IAF stressed that democratic power transfers should be a key feature of a civil state. This may reflect the widely held perception that election laws have previously been used to prevent the rise of Islamic parties.  

PRP members emphasised the importance of the rule of law and constitution authority, whereas Zamzam members prioritised accountability. They called for strict transparency and anti-corruption measures, appointments governed by a doctrine of meritocracy, and safeguards to identify under-performers and transgressors and hold them accountable.

Role of Religion and Civil State

The group pushed back on the notion that the governance model Islamists aspire towards cannot be reconciled with, or does not protect, individual civic rights or transfers of power. IAF members pointed to legal equality, consultative governance (whether in the form of shura or democracy), and transparency as foundational principals shared by both proponents of secular governance and Islamists. They referred to the Madina Constitution written by Prophet Mohammad, which set out the rights of Jews, Christians, and Muslims, as an example.

PRP members were more critical about the concept of an ‘Islamic’ state. Some admitted that their romanticised image of an ideal state had been replaced with a more pragmatic model. The outcomes of the Arab Spring, reading more diversified literature, and their experiences during the 2012 protests in Jordan, had led them to push for a civil state. They want to work with non-Muslims, secularists, nationalists, and leftists to create a shared sense of Jordanian citizenship.

The role of religion is part of building a civil society (AFP, File Photo)

Within the broader Islamist political establishment, a key objection is that a civil state might undermine the role of religion. The group we spoke to did not share this concern, however. They opined that Jordanians — Muslims and Christians alike — tend to embrace conservative social norms. In a representative parliament, they argued, legislation will reflect the views of the populace. Even if a law did not conform to their individual interpretation of Islam, it would be accepted and respected if it emerged through a democratic process.  

About the Author

Dr Neven Bondokji is an expert in peace studies and conflict transformation with special emphasis on the nexus between Islam, violence, and peacebuilding.

The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect those of Al Bawaba News.

 

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