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January 28, 2003

Anger, Islam rise in Jordan
BAQAA CAMP, Jordan, Jan. 28 — In this warren of cinder blocks, cement and corrugated tin roofs where 120,000 of Jordan’s Palestinian refugees live, the slogans speak to the converted. Whitewashed graffiti along a muddy alley declare, “Islam is the solution,” and signs overhead exhort residents of the Middle East’s largest refugee camp to remember God.

FATHI BARAKAT, glum, disillusioned and once again without work, says he is listening.


Standing along Jerusalem Street, near a five-room shack that houses his family of 13, Barakat directs his anger at the United States and Israel. And in a reflection of sentiments heard more and more often across the Middle East, he expresses thinly veiled disgust at what he sees as impotence among the Arab world’s own rulers in the face of U.S. and Israeli actions.

“The people drifted away from religion, and that’s why we’re in this mess now,” he says. “You have to go back to God.”
Long a wild card in the politics of one of the Arab world’s most stable nations, Palestinian refugees in Jordan are increasingly funneling their frustrations through the politics of Islamic parties, according to Jordanian officials, analysts and camp residents. The shift away from secular nationalism has accelerated in recent years and is evident in the streets of Baqaa and Jordan’s other bleak refugee camps, where symbols of piety — the veil and the beard — have accompanied the growing prominence of Islamic activists in the teachers union and political organizing.

Disenchantment in the camps, residents here say, flows not from a clash of civilizations or resentment over Western values and lifestyles, but from frustration over U.S., Israeli and official Arab policies in the Middle East and the broader Muslim world. To residents, those policies seem at best callous to their plight. At worst, the policies seem to perpetuate their limbo and what they see as injustices in Iraq, Israel and elsewhere.

Jordanian officials, long wary of Palestinian dissent, acknowledge the Islamic militants’ influence. They insist, however, that they can maintain control of the camps if protests erupt in the event of a U.S. attack on Iraq. But the rise of Islam-based politics represents a challenge for King Abdullah, who is struggling to balance both his alliance with Washington and a peace treaty with Israel with popular sentiments among Palestinians and other Jordanians that run the other way.

The officials say the biggest test of Abdullah’s nearly four-year reign lies ahead. In addition to the possibility of a looming war in Iraq, long-delayed parliamentary elections here, expected to be held in June, will almost assuredly give voice to the rising discontent of Islamic activists.