The timing of the execution of Saddam Hussein on the first morning of Eid al-Adha, the video clips officially released by the Iraqi government and those from the cell phones documenting the execution, triggered a wave of anger and provoked anti-Shia and anti-Iranian sentiment in Jordan. Jordanians interpreted the event as an act of Iranian-Shia revenge against Sunnis in Iraq and throughout the Arab world. Jordanians expressed their outrage and protest in different ways, ranging from declining to offer sweets during Adha to restraining wedding celebrations and hanging posters praising Saddam as a martyr. Some dedicated their Adha rituals to him and opened houses of mourning. Demonstrations organized in some cities generated calls for revenge. However, despite the anger, there were no reported reprisals against the 200,000 or so Iraqi Shia refugees in Jordan – thanks both to measures taken by the security services and precautions taken by some Iraqis to avoid certain areas of Amman for a few days following the execution. Opinion writers in newspapers of different political and cultural leanings, including the Islamic Action Front, expressed anger and dismay and concluded that the execution itself demonstrated the sectarian, militant nature of the Iraqi government, and revealed its servitude to American, Iranian and Israeli interests in the region. Not surprisingly, the execution led to an upsurge in feelings against Iraqi Shias in particular, Shias at-large, and Iran as a Shia and Persian state determined to undermine both Sunni and Arab beliefs and aspirations. Twenty-two Jordanian parliamentarians called for a severing of diplomatic relations with Iran. The Shia question does not assume the same level of importance in Jordan as in some Arab countries, where there are significant Shia communities. The overwhelming majority of Jordanian Muslims are Sunni; Shias number fewer than 4,000 according to the most generous estimate. The Jordanian public’s lack of awareness of this minority that has been part of Jordanian society for around 100 years signifies its assimilation. It has never been a focus of public debate. The Shia question becomes relevant to the Jordanian public and Jordanian elites only as a consequence of the American occupation of Iraq. It is political developments in Iraq and the region and the impact of Iraqi refugees in Jordan that have heavily influenced the formation of attitudes toward Shias in recent times. Those attitudes, at least during the first 18 months after the war, were only one facet of Jordanians’ approach to Iraqis. The general Jordanian attitude was shaped by two widely held perceptions. The first was that Iraqis at large and Shias in particular determined the outcome of the war by facilitating and welcoming the American occupation. The second was that Iraqi refugees entering Jordan in the wake of the war were mainly from the affluent middle class and skilled laborers, and that they contributed to an overall price surge, especially in the real estate sector.
The Iraqis therefore became the focus of Jordanian grievances about increased traffic, prices and fuel costs. Friction between Jordanians and Palestinians receded as mutual resentment of the newcomers emerged. The new refugees from the 2003 Iraq war were not a homogenous community, but rather a transparent reflection of the complex ethnic, religious and sectarian composition of contemporary Iraqi society. The collapse of Saddam Hussein’s regime and subsequent political developments encouraged Iraqis to be open about their sectarian background. Books about Shiism, its history and its martyrs found a place in downtown Amman bookstalls. Jordanians became familiar with Shia symbols, with the result that differences between Shia and Sunni Islam were both underlined and exacerbated. Religious lessons given at mosques and Friday sermons emphasized differences between the Sunni and Shia schools of thought, thereby alerting the Jordanian public to the “correctness of Sunni interpretations of Islam. Jordanians observed the new political developments within Iraq that signaled the rise of Shia power at the expense of the Sunnis. The formation of the new Iraqi government, the elections and the drafting of a constitution all generated heated debate and uneasy feelings toward Iraqi Shias. These anxieties deepened as a result of the intensified mutual attacks between the two communities in Iraq. Iraqi Shias were thought by Jordanians to have established political hegemony through their collaboration with US occupying forces, and to have marginalized the political role of the Sunnis. Southern and central Iraq came to be viewed as Iranian outposts, and the perception evolved that many Shia militias and politicians constituted an anti-Sunni camp serving an anti-Arab agenda – be it Iranian, American or both. King Abdullah’s well-known warning of the emergence of a Shia crescent two years ago deepened Jordanian society’s concerns about a possible Iranian threat, creating a corresponding unease over Shia politics in Iraq. The Jordanian establishment warned frequently of the conversion of some Jordanians to Shiism.
While the number of such converts is extremely limited and does not exceed hundreds by even the most generous estimate, the Jordanian state has followed a zero-tolerance policy toward the public practice of Shiism. Since the main concern of the Iraqi Shias in Jordan right now is to keep their residency rights valid and intact, they practice their religious rituals in private. In fact, the threat to the Jordanian state is not conversion to Shiism as such, but what may be termed political Shiism: support for Shia political organizations and acceptance of their political paradigms. For example, the sweeping support for Hezbollah during the war in Lebanon last summer was a clear manifestation of political Shiism. As much as events in Iraq and interaction with Iraqi communities within Jordan lead to Jordanian antipathy toward Iraqi Shias and Iran, the Israeli factor and potential conflict between Israel and Hezbollah still encourage support for Hezbollah-style Shia organizations.
Therefore it might be misleading to assume that new anti-Iranian feelings in Jordan are sustainable, when the Israel factor in regional developments could undermine them.
Mohammed al-Masri is a researcher at the Center for Strategic Studies, University of Jordan. This commentary first appeared at bitterlemons-international.org, an online newsletter.