The remains of that empire — from Morocco to Albania to Bangladesh to Indonesia — constitute what we today call “the Muslim world,” more than 50 countries, the vast majority of them not free, and less than tolerant of their surviving minority populations.
The king calls himself a reformer, a believer in constitutional monarchy, representative democracy, and meritocracy. The evidence, I think, supports that claim. But he also understands that democratic institutions and habits must evolve — they cannot be imposed overnight in cultures where the power of ancient tribal allegiances trumps the power of new ideas.
In any case, it is the civil war in neighboring Syria that most concerns Jordan at present. Officials say they are not taking sides. They have denied media reports that the CIA and U.S. special operations forces are training Syrian rebels on Jordanian soil.
Assad does not believe them. On a day when I’m meeting with Jordanian officials, a controversy erupts over Syria’s ambassador, Bahjat Suleiman, using his Facebook page to call Bassam Manasir, an important member of Jordan’s parliament, “a servant of the enemies of Syria and Jordan” (you can guess who those are). In response, Manasir demands Suleiman’s expulsion.
Whatever the outcome in Syria, it will be problematic for Jordan. Should Assad survive, he will be more beholden than ever to Iran and its proxy, Hezbollah. A new Pew poll finds the Iranian regime disliked by 81 percent of Jordanians. On the other hand, should the rebels succeed in toppling the dictatorship — in recent days, President Obama has pledged to assist the nationalist factions — Jordan could find itself tangling with the bin Ladenist groups that have been the most effective anti-regime fighting forces.
Jihad does not appear to be catching on in Jordan — but neither is the kingdom immune to the virus. Recall that it was a Jordanian, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who led the al-Qaeda affiliate in Iraq after the toppling of Saddam Hussein, dispatching numerous suicide bombers against both Shiite and American targets. In 2005, Zarqawi also was responsible for a series of bombings at upscale Amman hotels that killed 60 people. He achieved what he saw as martyrdom the following year when U.S forces dropped a 500-pound bomb on what he thought was a safe house.
There also was “triple agent” Humam Khalil al-Balawi, a Jordanian physician and online jihadist recruited by Jordanian intelligence to serve as a mole inside al-Qaeda. In December 2009, he strapped a 30-pound bomb vest to his chest and detonated it at a CIA outpost in Afghanistan, killing seven senior CIA operatives as well as Ali bin Zeid, his Jordanian handler, himself a member of the royal family.
The Muslim world is not a monolith. But it could become one — if Americans, out of fatigue and frustration, abandon the realm to the tender mercies of jihadists and Islamists, terms the king’s advisers do not avoid as do so many politically correct American and European officials. Jordanians see with their own eyes that the “tide” of war is not “receding.” On the contrary, without America’s continuing support, they and other moderate Muslims — resilient though they may be — are in danger of being inundated by the encroaching waters of terrorism and theocratic imperialism.
— Clifford D. May is president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a policy institute focusing on national security.