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To bin Laden and Back: How one man’s journey offers a window into the absence of Arab secularism

Ibrahim Gharaibeh, intellectual and journalist, sits comfortably in the plush velour living room chairs of his Amman home, traditional Arabic sweets (and several bottles of less traditional wine) spread in front of us in an offering of hospitality for our interview. Between deep slow drags of his cigarette, he speaks with calm conviction: “Now my war is to dissolve all religious groups in the State and to destroy the political role of religion.” Once a close friend and personal adviser to Osama bin Laden, his vehement secularism is shocking. Gharaibeh’s journey through political Islam offers a window of insight into the strength and preeminence of Islamism, and the longstanding challenges to the development of secular political thought leadership in Jordan, and the region.

Gharaibeh grew up finding comfort for his early existential ponderings in Muslim Brotherhood (MB) ideology. He accessed a sense of purpose in Quranic studies, fasting and worship. Particularly in weak states, the Brotherhood operates extensively in the social sphere. His colleague, Manar Rachwani, who has never considered himself part of a religious group, admitted that he too used to participate in social activities, mainly football, organized by the MB and their corollaries: “This is very important, because it tells you how Islamists attract young men in a very smart way.”

After the Iranian and Afghan Revolutions, in the late 70s and early 80s, Gharaibeh travelled to meet his university peer and close friend, Osama bin Laden, in Afghanistan to undertake what they called the “Islamic Project”. While he is quick to note he disagreed politically with bin Laden, he nonetheless defends his personal character – a dissonance which left him feeling unable to write critically about bin Laden for fear of betraying their friendship. In this crucial historical moment, he joined the Brotherhood’s ‘Institute of Policy Studies’. They aimed to “prepare for an Islamic state” and flexed the Brotherhood’s intellectual muscle, developing extensive public policy on all sectors, from education, agriculture, and economics, to elections. Yet, the key underlying pursuit was to understand the compatibility of Islam and democracy, and the role of Islam in state-building.

In 1989 Jordan shook with the April Uprisings, after which political parties were legalized for the first time since 1953. With existing resources and experienced leaders (including Gharaibeh) flooding in, there was no real competition: by the next elections in 1991, the Brotherhood’s political wing, the Islamic Action Front, won the largest bloc in the House of Representatives.

Outsiders may look to political openings, and despond the absence of Arab secularists. In many post-Arab Spring countries, secularists emerged disorganized and lacking leadership, while Islamists – often MB offshoots – proved resilient and triumphant in the power vacuum. Similar to the pre-April Uprising conditions, Islamist groups, unlike secular political organizations, were able to develop under most oppressive regimes and political bans, navigating as religious institutions, while incubating political thought leadership.

For Gharaibeh, the question of Islam and democracy become clear as the Brotherhood debated boycotting the elections: their arguments for electoral participation contradicted their supposedly religiously ordained power. He published an article calling for the dissolution of religious political parties, and split from the Brotherhood.

From the ’91 elections onward, Jordanian electoral law has been hotly contested and infamous for stifling political parties. Jordanians have struggled, and even died dissenting against the Monarchy, and for many, the fear of retribution is a sufficient deterrent.

It may seem bizarre given the oppression of secular thought leadership and organization, there is not more of an outcry and motivation for dissent — but few are as hell-bent on reform and secularization as Gharaibeh.

Rachwani stressed a gratitude for ‘relative’ freedom in Jordan. He is all too familiar with Jordan’s more oppressive neighbors, having fled Syria in the 1982 Hamma massacre. Now he serves as the managing editor for the opinion section of Al Ghad newspaper, unperturbed by his role to monitor and censor content. “I am so lucky to be in Jordan. Relatively, at least, it’s an open society…we know exactly where the red lines [are].” This sense has a pacifying effect on an increasingly apathetic Jordanian society, who, given recent affairs and the region’s history, seem happy to settle for relative freedom.

Jordanians also resist greater pluralism for its implication on tribal power – deeply structurally entrenched within the state. For example, the 2011-2012 Hirak movement witnessed the emergence of many new (albeit short-lived) political parties, including the Political Gathering of the Bani Hassan Tribes. Fellow Bani Hassan tribesmen repressed the group, physically attacking Gathering participants for their dissent against tribal authority. Most tribesmen continue to vote for their tribes, who in some cases have pre-arranged to alternate between entering in Municipal versus Parliamentary elections, so as to not compete with each other. Even if political thought were highly developed, and leadership prepared, attempting secular reform requires not only dissent against the regime but also against tribal society.

The sustained grip of Islamist ideology comes at an increasing cost. Jordanian youth seeking the same sense of community and structure Gharaibeh did some fifty years ago, may now find it in more radicalized schools of thought. After his early years observing MB-offshoot Takfir wa Hijra, Gharaibeh suggests a concerning ideological proximity, between Brotherhood and violent extremists: “There is no difference between Daesh and Islamist groups here (in Jordan). They [Daesh] are just bolder… Daesh is the graduation of Brotherhood from thought to action.”

The lack of secular political thought in the region should not be a surprise. It took the Western world more than a century, during the Age of Enlightenment, to promote secularism — an issue that is not always as settled as we would like to think. It will take more than Arab Spring pro-democracy banners for secular thought leadership to develop, and for bona-fide political parties to emerge, let alone successfully compete with Islamists. Challenging the current state, Islamists, and the authority of sheikhs requires a deeper, broader philosophical movement — one that cannot be rushed, forced, or imported — but rather must develop organically, garner popular support, and be ready to indefinitely sustain its efforts.


Lily Lousada is based in Amman, Jordan where she works on conflict mitigation, socio-political stability, and governance development. She also serves as a Middle East Fellow at Young Professionals in Foreign Policy.

Originally published in The Huffington Post.

Image Credit: Lily Lousada

Charged Affairs is a publication of Young Professionals in Foreign Policy, a non-partisan, non-profit organization. Views of the authors do not necessarily represent the views of the organization. All rights reserved.


Lily Lousada

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