The prosecution reflects concern in the kingdom about the growing support for Islamic militant groups such as Hizbollah and Hamas.
Jordanian trial sends message to Iran
AMMAN // Jordan has put six citizens on trial for fomenting religious sectarianism in a case analysts said was prompted more by concerns about the growing influence of Iran and its allies in the Sunni kingdom than battling religious ideology. "We do not have a problem with religion. But what concerns us is when there is mixing of religion and politics and the receiver is unaware of that," said a senior government official who requested anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue.
The six men were arrested more than a month ago and have been tried behind closed doors by a state security court. It is the first time Jordan has tried anyone for promoting their faith. Practising Shia Islam is not a crime and the constitution guarantees freedom of religion. "Having six on trial does not have any significance as much as it is a political message," said Fouad Hussein, an analyst specialised in Islamic movements. "It coincides with Egypt's campaign against Hizbollah."
Last month, Egypt's prosecutor general charged 26 suspects with spying for Hizbollah and plotting attacks against tourists in Egypt. The six Jordanians are accused of promoting Shia ideology and fomenting religious divisions through missionary work; holding meetings in which they encouraged others to embrace the Shiite faith; and handing out leaflets and books. They also bought and sold IDs and certificates issued by the World Council of the Descendants of Ahl AlBayt in Syria, that would show a direct lineage to Imam Ali Bin Abi Taleb, the cousin and son-in-law of the Prophet, according to the indictment published in the local press this week.
But Ibrahim abu Gharbiyyeh, a Jordanian lawyer defending one of the six men, said his client, Abdul Qader, and the other defendants were all Sunnis and not Shiites, and denied that they were trying to incite sectarianism. "They are all Sunni who are descendants of the Prophet. They traced their lineage back to Hussein Bin Ali Bin Abi Taleb and verified it at the World Council of the Descendants of Ahl AlBayt in Syria," he said. "This has a sentimental value."
The council is an officially recognised independent research centre based in Damascus that seeks to investigate and then validate people's lineage to Ahl AlBayt, or the family of the Prophet, through issuing certificates and Ids. It has both Sunni and Shiite members. "They just wanted to document their lineage to the Prophet and they were not promoting the Shiite ideology," said Mr abu Gharbiyyeh, who is one of three lawyers handling the case.
For Shiites, the Prophet's household is limited to five people: Mohammed, his daughter Fatimah, her husband Ali and their two sons, Hassan bin Ali and Hussein bin Ali. For Sunnis, it includes the Prophet's blood relatives such as Bani Hashim or Bani Muttaleb, whom the royal family are descendants of. Mr abu Gharbiyyeh showed a document signed by a Jerusalem Mufti in 1940 which belonged to his client, Abdul Qader, and which traced his family's lineage to Ahl AlBayt.
The six defendants are from four families living in Amman. Three of the defendants are brothers and are Mr Qader's nephews. He also said a relative of Mr Qader published a book nearly four years ago about the family tree which proves their lineage to Hussein Bin Ali, the prophet's grandson. The book was authorised by the press and publication department, the government body that sanctions books. "One of the defendants even wrote the introduction of the book saying that their lineage to Ahl AlBayt is continuous."
Another defendant, according to the lawyer, informed Mr Qader and the others that he could verify their lineage through the World Council in Syria in return for US$31 (Dh115). Mr Qader subsequently received an official document from the council, while the others had sent their photos and papers. "My client is 67 years old, diabetic and has high blood pressure. He was imprisoned for 35 days. He is a retired maths teacher. None of the defendants is in the business of preaching."
"Many prominent Jordanian families trace their ancestry to Al Hassan and Hussein, sons of Imam Ali and the grandsons of the Prophet. This does not mean that they belong to the Shiite school of thought," said Moneef Zoubi, the director general of the Islamic World Academy of Sciences, an international NGO based in Amman. There are only a few hundred Shiite Jordanians in the kingdom, mostly in the north. However, since the US-led war in 2003, there has been a growing number of Iraqi Shiites entering the country.
While officially, the government has said it does not believe there is any religious tension in the kingdom, there are concerns about the growing support for Islamic militant groups such as Hizbollah and Hamas since the Iraq war and Israel's war on Gaza. Jordan is also worried that the sectarian violence deepening in Iraq could spill across its border. A few years ago, the government rejected a request for an influential Iraqi Shiite businessman to build a Shiite mosque in Amman.
Muhamad Abu Rumman, an analyst with Alghad newspaper, said US ally Jordan should be duly worried and pointed to growing ties between Damascus-based Hamas and the Jordanian Brotherhood, the presence of thousands of Iraqi Shiites and public support for Hizbollah in the war against Israel. Four years ago, King Abdullah II warned against a Shia crescent in reference to Iranian influence in the region, though he later said that his statements were either misinterpreted or exaggerated.
"In Jordan, there is support for Hizbollah, but as a resistance group and not as Shiites. Jordanians sympathise with anyone who is against Israel," said Mr Hussein, the analyst. "Iran uses this momentum for political motives under a religious cover." @Email:firstname.lastname@example.org