From the Editors
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For over a decade now, a diverse array of English-language publications have emerged in Jordan, which in turn have reflected and facilitated discussions amongst the country’s liberal elite circles. Despite a diversity of specializations as well as differences in readership, these publications, which include magazines and blogs, have coalesced around a dominant narrative about contemporary dynamics in Jordan. This narrative, which I refer to as the liberal elite discourse, positions Jordan (its government and society) as moving towards modernity through the implementation of neo-liberal economic reforms and the expansion of the parameters of permissible speech. In addition, parliamentary elections are presented as a particular instance of the many opportunities to further such alleged progress.
In the aftermath of the November 2010 parliamentary elections, several discussions within liberal elite circles have centered on what some of its members see as the problematic dominance of “Islamist” and “Palestinian” issues in the various campaigns. The problem, according to some, is that these issues detract from the “real issues” facing Jordanians. I have already discussed the efficacy of elections as a form of political practice in Jordan and how limited the current parliamentary system is for transforming Jordan’s political economy. What I am more interested in, for the purposes of this post, is how these limits (and the larger contexts that produces them) are ignored by many of the publications that claim to explore the dynamics animating the elections. Instead of attending to such limits and contexts, many writers vilify the majority of candidates, voters, and, consequently, the general public for squandering the alleged opportunities presented by the elections. Such an indictment sets up the liberal elite as vanguards of progress and modernity while at the same time casting the majority of the population as ignorant and/or obstinate in the face of such developments.
Thus, whereas many of Jordan’s liberal elite tend to accuse those who boycotted the elections of political apathy, some also (or alternatively) tend to criticize the majority of those who participated in the elections for their alleged political ignorance (i.e., prioritizing the wrong issues or voting the wrong way). Such allegations are articulated with little to no reference to the broader context of an authoritarian system rule or one of its particular manifestations in the form of managed (as opposed to open) electoral and legislative processes. Consequently, these charges serve to: (1) further the notion that the current electoral system is a legitimate channel for representative change and thus renders as democratic that which is otherwise undemocratic; (2) frames the realities of poverty, unemployment, and other socio-economic problems as phenomena external to the development strategy and political economy of Jordan, rather than as inherent structural features of it; and (3) dehistoricizes the emergence of Islamist and Palestinian politics as dominant themes in Jordanian politics, presenting their manifestations as escapist tendencies on the part of the electorate and a missed opportunity (if not an obstacle) in the ongoing drive towards progress and modernity.
My claim is not that liberal elite institutions produce this narrative framework through intentional omissions and misrepresentations (though some do). Rather, such a framing is a logical byproduct of viewing contemporary politics in Jordan as part of a teleology of progress and modernity led by an enlightened and benevolent elite. Certainly, Jordan’s liberal elite (their economic basis, political constitution, and self-representations) has for the most part been constituted by the neo-liberal reforms and the expansion of the boundaries of permissible speech that have defined the last two decades of developments in Jordan. The problem is that many members of this liberal elite attempt to explain contemporary developments in Jordan by referring to (and then generalizing) their own experiences/visions of these alleged hallmarks of progress and modernity. In doing so, much of the liberal elite discourse has the following effects: (1) it renders invisible the power relations that define Jordan’s political economy (i.e., an authoritarian system of rule and an economic development strategy that increase disparities in interest representation and wealth distribution); (2) it highlights and thus legitimates supposed indicators of progress (i.e., free markets, managed elections, and the mushrooming of publications that champion both); and (3) it casts the general population as obstacles to such progress (for their alleged apathy, ignorance, and/or parochialism) . . . all the while claiming to accurately portray developments in Jordan and genuinely care about the lower classes. In addition to setting themselves up as vanguards of the progressive march towards modernity, these members of the liberal elite mask the ways in which they are implicated in the maintenance (if not the deepening) of the status quo in Jordan, which is ultimately defined by increasing authoritarianism, widening wealth disparities, and many other dynamics.
To illustrate my point, I will focus on one specific manifestation of such discussions. On November 12th, 2010, Immortal Entertainment published a photo essay entitled “The Jordanian Elections: The Search for Zion,” which was subsequently circulated throughout the blogosphere (Jordanian and non-Jordanian). This blog is significant due to its claim that “the basis on which [their] platform was built was that [they] will seek to work on projects that deal with the realities of problems and issues in the Arab world.” Thus, the post serves to highlight the workings of the dominant liberal elite narrative in the majority of publications and institutions that claim to genuinely address, analyze, change, and/or improve specific dynamics in Jordan.
Immortal Entertainment is alarmed both by the fact that Islamism and the Palestine Question were the dominant themes in the campaigns of a majority of the candidates in the 2010 parliamentary elections in Jordan, as well as that such candidates garnered more votes that those who did not have platforms based on these issues. The author contrasts candidates running on slogans such as “Islam Is the Solution” and “Right of Return” (or derivatives thereof) with those dealing with “real life agendas.” He argues that such platforms are a waste of the opportunity offered by the elections because they represent escapist tendencies that only promise a “better tomorrow” by “exporting them to dreamlands elsewhere [sic].” The author further underscores the economic status of these voters, indicating that they come from the “lower income part of the capital where issues of poverty, sanitation, unemployment, and public services are very serious issues.” Consequently, the author indicts both the candidates and the voters for squandering the elections on empty and/or irrelevant slogans, issues, and platforms.
As mentioned above, for many members of Jordan’s liberal elite circles, the problem with the political economy of Jordan is the people themselves. With respect to the elections, they argue that candidates are running on empty platforms that do not deal with real issues, the media is failing to scrutinize such platforms and push candidates to present better ones, and the voters are simply taking the opportunity to escape from their daily realities through dreams of heaven and Palestine rather than reserve their votes for more worthy candidates. With respect to broader developments in Jordan, they argue that bureaucrats are inefficient, the private sector needs to do more, and the general public needs to rid itself of its parochialism (described variously as social conservatism, tribalism, and/or apathy). These lines of argumentation highlight a central framing device deployed by many of the liberal elite in Jordan: labeling the people (for their practices, their habits, their mentalities . . . basically, their alleged ignorance) as obstacles to progress and modernity while obfuscating the role of those at the commanding heights of ruling institutions (and both their active and passive supporters) in the production of the status quo.
It is as if the recent elections were an open contest between conservative and progressive social forces, the present outcome of which is a function of a false consciousness on the part of voters and ineffective strategic choices on the part of progressive candidates. No mention is made of the ways in which the institutions of governance are underpinned by the regime’s alliance with specific social forces and how such an alliance structures the nature of electoral contestation. Furthermore, the economic development strategy underway in Jordan (and its attendant political economy) is presented as something open to critical questioning when in fact it is a highly censored topic both in public and private forums of discussion. Poverty and unemployment are rendered as vestiges of underdevelopment (i.e., they are naturally given) and thus in need of being targeted by neo-liberal development policies. Rarely, if ever, is there a discussion (let alone acknowledgement) of how the existing development model being institutionalized in Jordan produces poverty and unemployment. Put differently, my point is that the dynamics of poverty and unemployment are not external to Jordan’s development strategy, but rather internal to its logic of "prioritizing markets over communities" (for a regionally comparative perspective on this dynamic, see Bassam Haddad's series entitled "Neoliberal Pregnancy and Zero-Sum Elitism in the Arab World," especially Part 3) This fact, in and of itself, affects the boundaries of permissible speech (even election slogans and platforms) when it comes to “real issues.”
This is not to say that arguments made by some members of the liberal elite are completely without merit. For example, the author at Immortal Entertainment makes an important interjection into one of the photographs, showing how an Islamist campaign banner was placed in front of a church. However, it is as if such conduct on the part of candidates and voters are the central dynamics of the Jordanian elections. In other words, absent any significant discussion of the broader political, economic, and social contexts, such problematic actions are portrayed as the politics of the elections. The broader contexts are either rendered invisible or presented as inconsequential, which by its nature is a political act given that such (mis)representations serve particular interests within Jordan, irrespective of the intention of the author. Furthermore, such decontextualization contributes to the “ever-growing body of sensationalist representations of Islam [and the Middle East]” (see this post for quotation source and more on this dynamic with respect to temporary marriages in Lebanon).
The author does claim that “the government in Jordan has a huge role to play” in alleviating this situation and proceeds to provide a two-sentence reference to the “very strict controls and restrictions on the activities of political and social activists.” Even more so, in one of several responses to readers’ comments, the author states that his argument is actually as follows: “because of [the government of Jordan and its civil society] failures in providing for these [lower income voters] what is logically expected from us, they have given up on [Jordan] and thus the appeal of a better future in this country sounds foreign to them.” Such statements, however, serve more as disclaimers rather than as central features of the post. This is typical of the broader pattern of liberal elite representations of politics in Jordan: the underlying logics and broader contexts of developments in Jordan are marginally incorporated into the dominant liberal elite narrative as disclaimers rather than bases of analysis.
Irrespective of the intention, the effect of such emphases and omissions is an indictment of the Jordanian population as politically ignorant and naïve. This is not to say that writers should refrain from commenting on individual or group behavior. Rather, the problem is that many authors are claiming that such behavior represents the central dynamics of the elections while at the same time ignoring the political, economic, and social contexts that frame such behavior. Despite a claim to have intended to highlight a failure on the part of the Jordanian government, no where in the post does the author actually name the nature of these failures, how central they are to the power relations of Jordan, and who is culpable in them. Instead, the author focuses on the decontextualized conduct of candidates throughout their campaigns as well as that of the voters at the ballot box. In turn, readers are left with the impression that legitimate elections were held in Jordan, that candidates chose to run on empty slogans, and ignorant masses went along without questioning the lack of “real issues.” Again, the problem, according to such a narrative lies with the people.
Such representations are not only patronizing towards the majority of the Jordanian population, but are analytically flawed as well. Despite Immortal Entertainment’s claim that the problem is not the existence of Islamist and Palestinian issues in and of themselves, but rather their primacy throughout the elections, we must question the characterization of Islamist and Palestinian issues as not “real” or simply empty platforms designed to facilitate escapism on the part of candidates and voters alike. Such issues are central to the “real issues” of the Jordanian political economy.
One of the major omissions in the author’s post is the fact that the Islamic Action Front (IAF), who chose to boycott the election along with other Islamist and secular groups, represents the largest opposition group in Jordan. The IAF’s ability to successfully mobilize a significant part of the population is largely based on their criticism of the economic problems facing Jordan. Rather than discuss the boycott issue and the absence of the most organized of political opposition groups from the elections, the author chooses to focus on the allegedly “considerable number of Islamists and clerics [who] had declared the participation in elections as a forbidden act in Islam.” Such a selective choice in a post that seeks to describe the dynamics animating the elections serves only to demonize the Jordanian population as politically ignorant. Alternatively, the author could have highlighted how the alleged absence of “real issues” was partly a function of the absence of “real opposition,” who boycotted the elections not on religious or ideological grounds but rather on strategic grounds given that the current electoral system is designed to handicap any opposition and empower regime supporters. To do so, however, would have required the author to engage in questioning the efficacy of the current electoral system as a form of political practice; something completely absent given the framing of parliamentary elections within a telos of progress.
The author also problematically implies that the socio-economic problems facing the Jordanian population are epiphenomenal to the development strategy well underway in the country. This is part of a broader phenomenon wherein many amongst liberal elite circles in Amman simultaneously argue for the deepening of market-oriented reforms as well as the alleviation of poverty and unemployment. Lost within this idea is the way in which deepening poverty, expanding unemployment, and decreasing purchasing power are structural features of the unraveling of Jordan’s state-centered economy and the institutionalization of a neo-liberal economic development strategy. The reality is that any significant challenge to current opportunities of wealth creation and patterns of income distribution inevitably leads to direct criticism and confrontation with the regime, its supporters, and the entrenched interests of both. Contrary to the claims of many, the alleged absence of such criticism and confrontation is not the product of political ignorance. Rather, it is a function of a series of repressive measures that silence any opposition that links poverty and unemployment (or any other problem) to the existing development policies. It is also a function of survival strategies on the part of opposition groups and the general public within a larger context of an authoritarian system of rule. A genuinely critical concern with documenting “the conditions and realities of those who are less fortunate,” as Immortal Entertainment and many other liberal institutions profess they possess, would have made such dynamics central to the discussion of the alleged absence of “real issues.” Instead, poverty and unemployment are characterized as circumstantial phenomena and the alleged lack of attending to such phenomena, on the part of the general public, as manifestations of false consciousness or escapism.
While there is certainly much to criticize in Islamist mobilizations and Palestinian (not to mention Jordanian) nationalist rhetoric, it is problematic to suggest that the dominance of political Islam and Palestinian nationalism in Jordanian elections is the product of a lower-income experience which causes people to seek escapism through idealist (yet imprecise and empty) slogans. Islamism and the Question of Palestine can certainly be understood as dynamics within ongoing identity politics in Jordan. But such identity politics are neither void of meaning nor escapist.
With regards to political Islam, liberal elite discourse in Jordan intersects with Orientalist discourses as both frame the dominance of Islamism as an obstacle on the path to progress and modernity. While there is certainly much to criticize in Islamist principles and practices, one cannot, as many liberal elite Jordanians do, ignore the fact that the dominance of political Islam (a modern phenomenon in and of itself) is largely a historical product of the previous and existing policies. I am referring to the repression of secular and leftist opposition figures, groups, and parties throughout the 1950s, 1960s, 1970s, which continues today. There is a historical record of demobilizing the broader population through the episodic banning of political parties, the suspension of parliament, the violent suppression of free speech, and the never-ending imprisonment of opposition figures, most of which have historically been secular and/or leftist. While Islamist groups have formed a bastion of regime opposition in the contemporary period, their nascent forms were viewed as an instrumental counter-weight to the popularity of secular and leftist oppositional groups. Thus, any criticism of the dominance of political Islam needs to make central the role of policies in fostering such a dynamic; or at least not absolving the government of its role. However, such recognition would complicate the liberal telos of progress that frames political Islam as an obstacle and the regime as the benevolent shepherd.
The same is true of Palestine-related issues. While liberal discourse posits the dominance of Palestine in Jordanian politics as a function of an unresolved identity crisis, I would alternatively explain it as something much more complex given the historical legacies and contemporary policies of Jordan vis-à-vis the Question of Palestine. Immortal Entertainment writes that “[f]or these types of feelings and sentiments [i.e., Palestine-centric themes] to prevail so powerfully, is a worrying and troubling aspect. These candidates seem to seriously imply that such issues are in the control of the Jordanian Parliament.” The premise of such a statement is that Jordan is external to the Question of Palestine. While the larger trajectory of settler-colonialism in Palestine is certainly beyond the control of Jordan (its government or its people), the history and contemporary politics of Jordan are intimately tied to the history and contemporary politics of this project (and vice versa). Within such a context, demands for the right of return, or criticisms of Israeli and U.S. policies vis-à-vis Palestine, serves as legitimate examples of “real issues.” To acknowledge them as such, however, would require that one locate Jordan within a larger configuration of regional power relations, which in turn opens up a space to consider how the existing political economy in Jordan is tied to many projects, some of which are not exclusively contained within its borders.
It is true that, in response to readers’ comments, the author of the above-referenced post highlights many of Immortal Entertainment’s projects as a means of countering accusations of elitism and anti-Palestinianism. That is exactly the issue, however. In a similar manner to the way in which a liberal in the United States may profess to not be racist by virtue of having black friends (or being black themselves), many amongst Jordan’s liberal elite circles argue that they are neither elitist nor anti-Palestinian by virtue of their acknowledgement of poverty and support for the Palestinian cause. The fact that such activities are commonly part of a larger repertoire of relations and practices that are implicated in the Jordanian status quo is precisely the problem. Narratives about Jordan that mask the existing power relations, irrespective of intentions, are integral to the maintenance of the status quo. This is especially the case when they claim to report on or provide insight into the driving force of politics in Jordan.
There are those who justify such omissions as a strategic calculation. This idea is based on legitimate concerns given the censorship and risks to personal safety that accompany political speech in Jordan. Yet it is problematic that there is not even the slightest public acknowledgement that such limitations on freedom of speech exist. It is simply not possible to sincerely and accurately analyze contemporary dynamics (e.g., the dominance of Islamist and Palestinian issues) that are implicated in the broader contexts of authoritarian rule and uneven development without incorporating those contexts into the discussion. Such a phenomenon inevitably serves to perpetuate the status quo by rendering invisible the ways in which power operates in Jordan.
I do not doubt the sincerity of those who are seeking to engage in the issues that animate the present Jordanian political economy and their desire for a better future for Jordan. I do, however, take issue with the lack of public reflexivity on the part of many liberal elites, who have refused to implicate themselves, their families, or their institutions in the production and maintenance of such a political economy; one in which they are the primary beneficiaries. To obfuscate their roles and that of the regime in the production and maintenance of existing conditions, while simultaneously claiming to provide insight into the phenomena animating politics in Jordan, ultimately serves as an exercise in self-congratulatory political speech with little to no accountability. Instead of viewing the population as obstacles to Jordan's alleged progress towards modernity, we would do better to consider their words and actions (contrary as they may be to some of our desires and political logics) as the traces of a disjuncture between the liberal elite vision of Jordan and the reality that is Jordan.
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