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The Muslim Brotherhood in Jordan, Joas Wagemakers

Reviewed by Sean Yom


Joas Wagemakers has written an impressive treatise on the Muslim Brotherhood in Jordan. The Brotherhood is a Sunni Islamist organization that was founded nearly a century ago in Egypt and soon sprouted numerous branches across the Middle East. The Jordanian branch coalesced in 1946 and, until its crackdown in 2016, had a curious career. It emerged as a religious movement, seeking to Islamize its state and society. The Jordanian Brotherhood also grew as a social organization, providing public services and social capital to a well-mobilized base of followers bound by a sense of institutional solidarity. And it came of age as a political actor, one that broke from its traditionally pro-regime stance in the 1990s to become a leading face of democratic opposition against Jordan's royal autocracy.

Western policymakers see the Jordanian Brotherhood as a unified army of theocratic militants, not far removed from violent extremists like the Islamic State. Fortunately, political scientists have dug deeper. The best studies—such as work by Jillian Schwedler and Janine Clark—situate the Jordanian Brotherhood as a scrutable political force, with its strategies and even ideology adapting over time under changing constraints. This volume supplements such scholarship with a long-run narrative that provides historical and religious context to help readers appreciate the rise and repression of the Jordanian Brotherhood. Wagemakers combs through a rich volume of field-based data, including interviews with Brotherhood leaders and Arabic-language archives and publications, to deliver the following core points.

First, the Brotherhood plays an integral role in Jordan's political history. Whereas the 1946–1989 period was defined by mostly steady support of the ruling monarchy, the end of martial law provided a new opportunity to gain influence. Yet the Brotherhood found its pathway to representation stymied by legal manipulations, regime pressures, and authoritarian repression. Wagemakers plots how bellicose confrontations with the monarchy took a fatal turn during the Arab Spring, when authorities delicensed the movement in 2016 in favor of a tamer, regime-sanctioned group that, confusingly, also called itself the Muslim Brotherhood.

Second, the Brotherhood's politics cannot be divorced from its Islamist tenets. The group pursues a “moderate” platform, desiring not violent revolution but rather gradual Islamization through steady bottom-up pressures conveyed with participation and protests (p. 9). Such moderation draws upon a particular interpretation of Islamic political thought, stretching from Islam's genesis to the reformist philosophies in the late 1800s that gave birth to modern Islamism. Wagemakers shows, though, that these principles have never been ossified. Brotherhood activists have never reached consensus on fundamental matters, such as the nature of state power and the scope of social freedom, because such issues remain unresolved within the heart of Islamic law.

Finally, this ideological diversity means that the Jordanian Brotherhood is no monolith. Wagemakers reveals how Brotherhood members have creatively drawn upon an enormous corpus of religious ideas to advance different positions. Often, that creativity has spawned internal factionalism, such as disagreement over whether Jordan should be governed by secular versus religious laws, or whether women could ascend to state offices. Yet here, Wagemakers presents a counterintuitive finding. When the Jordanian regime suffocated a fractured Brotherhood in the 2010s, its core membership did not radicalize. Exclusion did not presage radicalization, bucking a long-standing hypothesis, because internal contention within moderate religious discourse foreclosed a unitary turn toward revolutionary violence.

Unfamiliar readers might stumble over the book's deep dive into Islamic political thought wrapped in Arabic terminology. Yet this is necessary for the powerful conclusion: religion and politics exist in constant, productive tension within a sprawling organization too often studied through only one of these optics. With this, Wagemakers has done a great service for the field of Middle East politics. Analytically incisive and theoretically nuanced, this illuminating volume will be an enduring reference for future researchers studying Jordan in particular or Islamist movements more generally.

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