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THE MIDDLE EAST: Putting The Mecca Back In Mecca Street

THE MIDDLE EAST: Putting The Mecca Back In Mecca Street

While broader civil unrest spreads across the region, Jordan's Islamists focus on fighting "desecration" on a pair of Amman boulevards with the most holy of names.

Amman by night (gr33ndata)


Like their counterparts in Tunisia and Egypt, more and more young Jordanians are taking to the streets in unauthorized protests over high prices, unemployment and political repression. This week, Jordan's King Abdullah II dismissed the ruling government cabinet, calling on a new Prime Minister to carry out speedy political reforms and stamp out corruption.

But the protests in Jordan have featured a notable Islamist bent alongside a shared disgust at corruption and unemployment. In particular, Islamist activists and political leaders have been waging a campaign to close down nightclubs on two streets in West Amman named after the two holiest cities in the Muslim world.

A column last month called "Sexual Abnormalities on the Holy Street of Mecca," published in Jordanian daily A-Doustor, called for the closure of nightclubs and stores selling alcohol on Mecca and Medina Streets, the two Saudi Arabian cities sacred to all Muslims.

Dozens of reader comments on an online version of the article(Arabic)have applauded opposition to such "perversions' in an Arab and Muslim country, and called on Jordan to restore its purity and honor. A reader calling himself Dr. Faisal called for "the names of the sinners and their fathers to be revealed, with all brought to trial."

Soon after the article appeared, an Islamist member of Parliament raised the issue on the floor of the lower chamber, turning the fate of the capital's Mecca and Medina Streets into a nationwide debate. An Islamist radio station in Amman, Hayat FM, announced that it was launching a public campaign to lobby for the closure of nightclubs and liquor stores on the two streets, which are both major thoroughfares. The station says it acted after receiving complaints from listeners. "Nightclubs first affect families, then neighborhoods and eventually society will collapse," manager Samir Shemayleh told The Jordan Times.

More than half of the 120 members of the Jordanian Parliament have signed (Arabic) a memorandum demanding the government take action. "These clubs desecrate the two holiest cities in Islam," said Abdullah Dweirej, an MP from the conservative southern city of Maan.

Jordan's Chief Islamic Justice Ahmed Hilayel agreed. "Islam calls for purity and chastity and strongly warns against causes of deviance, immoral places and temptations." Last Tuesday, dozens of protesters led by the Islamist-dominated Engineers' Association gathered(Arabic) in Amman to press for the nightclubs' closure. "The great Jordanian people are with closing nightclubs," read one banner. Others hailed: "Yes to a Jordan of virtue and purity," "Do not follow in the steps of the devil," and in an allusion to the economic resentment as well: "reduce prices, not the punishment of adultery." The demonstrators then raised the stakes, demanding the closure of nightclubs and liquor stores across the entire country.

The Islamic Action Front, the Muslim Brotherhood's political party and by far the most powerful opposition movement in Jordan, has long been stifled by gerrymandering in parliamentary election districts and a complex voting system that favors tribal leaders allied with the government. But the mounting unrest is forcing King Abdullah to acknowledge the opposition; and on Thursday, in its first meeting with the Jordanian monarch in a decade, the Brotherhood pushed its demand for a reform of the electoral law. If that happens, the IAF might very well command a majority in parliament, replacing the king's allies currently dominating the lower house.

In Mecca and Medina streets, the Islamists found a politically safe issue to show the government they can command moral authority with the public, knowing that no official can possibly defend the dark, windowless nightclubs with their wide selection of alcohol and prostitutes, often brought into Jordan from places as far away as the Ukraine. For the government, growing wary of the same kind of resentment currently shaking the status quo in Egypt and Tunisia, cracking down on smaller dens of vice may help to distract from demands to dismantle larger dens of official corruption. Perhaps most importantly, this campaign offers a glimpse of the IAF's vision for society, one that given the growing pressure on the government, might soon become a reality.

Kristen Gillespie


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Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi at the G20 Summit in New Delhi on Sept. 9

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