Jordan may look, to the outside world, like a placid melting pot that is 95 percent Arab and 97 percent Muslim.
But at least since the 1967 Arab–Israeli War, the country has experienced profound tensions between tribal “East Bankers,” who consider themselves the country’s original—and in their view, rightful—citizens, and the Palestinians, who are relative newcomers. The tribal East Bank Jordanians have long held disproportionate power through set-asides in the civil service and a dominant role in Jordan’s intelligence and security services.
Today, there is evidence that the tensions between East Bank Jordanians and Jordanians of Palestinian descent are as strong as ever, and may even be getting worse. And as seems to be the case around the world, the most extreme voices have gained a profile on social media. Anti-Palestinian views that might have been held privately, or considered fringe, are increasingly entering mainstream, “respectable” discourse.
It is difficult to know how much social media is expanding the reach of these views, how much it is merely hardening the feelings of Jordanian right-wingers, or how much it has simply made anti-Palestinian discourse more visible. What is clear is that ethnocentric demagoguery in Jordan can no longer be ignored. It’s impossible to compare today’s public discourse online about Palestinians to the private conversations in the past; but it’s clear that today’s inflammatory social media campaigns represent an effort to marshal public opinion against Palestinians and to reserve some amount of national power for non-Palestinian Jordanians.
Hate speech only rises to the level of incitement when it actually triggers violence; and it can be difficult to ascertain the impact and reach of a xenophobic campaign. But the level and content of the anti-Palestinian speech in Jordan is noteworthy, and suggests that Jordan has yet to find a formula to overcome ethnic and identity divides.
Ascendant Right-Wing Populism
The ascent of nationalist populism has had real-world consequences both for Palestinians and Jordanian politics in general.
An ugly incident in 2021 is illustrative. That year, a member of parliament, Osama al-Ajarmeh, who is an East Bank Jordanian, rallied support from his tribal base with fiery rhetoric directed at the monarchy. Among his antics, Ajarmeh accused the monarchy of deliberately causing power outages to stifle pro-Palestine marches; when his statements came to light, the parliament suspended him. (Ironically, revelations about these accusations came out at about the same time that Ajarmeh allegedly tried to intimidate a Palestinian-heritage factory owner in his district into hiring more staff from Ajarmeh’s tribe.) After the suspension, Ajarmeh’s supporters took to the streets again, and he appeared at a rally with a sword and a gun, criticizing King Abdullah II; the parliament then voted to expel him. Ajarmeh in turn called for a “radical Jordanian right wing” which would “purify Amman of the liberal elite.” The state security services subsequently arrested Ajarmeh and sentenced him to twelve years of hard labor in prison for insulting Abdullah (more videos had emerged of Ajarmeh at the rally calling the king a “pig” and describing his readiness to shoot him “between the eyes”).
But for many Jordanians, what might have seemed like a showdown between the monarchy and an unhinged politician was actually a contest between two different visions of Jordanian society. One vision is of a “comprehensive identity” for Jordan, with equal political representation and employment rights for all citizens, regardless of their origin or heritage. The other vision—for which Ajarmeh is an avatar—is of a Jordan in which “original citizens” continue to enjoy state-sanctioned privileges. (Supporters of the latter vision, of course, maintain that it is urban elites—including those of Palestinian origin—who are currently the “privileged” class in Jordan.) Street protests in support of Ajarmeh have subsided, but his movement has continued online, with notable media figures continuing to lionize him.
Jordan’s Complicated Palestinian Relationship
The rise of of Ajarmeh’s brand of nativist populism is intimately tied to another trend: the sharpening of decades of tension between East Bank Jordanians and Jordanians of Palestinian origin. Those tensions, in turn, have their origins in events that occurred soon after the founding of modern Jordan.
Constituted from a series of tribal lands and ancient cities, Jordan (originally Transjordan) went from an Ottoman province (1516–1916), to a British mandate (1916–46), to an independent kingdom, largely under the governing structure of Hashemite leadership, tribal authority, and a focus on internal security and regional stability. Modern Jordan was founded with a technocratic bureaucracy, created with agreements between the royal family and local elite families—and not on a national identity.
Shortly after its founding in 1946, the modern state of Jordan became integrally connected to Palestinian issues, as refugees fled the 1948 war that led to the creation of Israel. A dramatic shift in borders occurred after the 1967 war. In that war, Jordan lost its West Bank lands, and approximately 440,000 Palestinians fled to Jordan. However, even after 1967, the Hashemite throne maintained “custodianship” over Muslim and Christian holy sites in Jerusalem—funding and tending their upkeep, even after the kingdom lost control of the territory on which they sit. These sites remain an important symbol of both Jordanian influence and Palestinian identity. The monarchy was also exceptionally welcoming to Palestinian refugees.
But although Jordanians and Palestinians shared an interest in these sites and history, divisions grew after 1967, as Yasser Arafat’s Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) used Jordanian territory to launch attacks on Israel, and King Hussein cracked down on Arafat and other Palestinian groups. The ensuing battles and plots, which began in earnest in September 1970—and included two assassination attempts on King Hussein—came to be known as Black September.
Twin feelings of resentment and entitlement have long energized East Bank Jordanian anxiety about Palestinians in the country.
Black September might have mainly been the result of political disagreements between Arafat and Hussein, but it caused popular anxiety in Jordan over Palestinian identity and loyalty to the kingdom—anxiety that remains, although it has latched onto new issues, especially the economy.
Nativist Economic Angst
Today, nearly 60 percent of Jordan’s population of 10 million trace their origins to Palestine. Not only are Palestinians generally well integrated into Jordanian society—more so than in other regional countries that host large numbers of Palestinian refugees, including Lebanon and Syria—but they also tend to be well-educated city dwellers who are employed in the more dynamic sectors of Jordan’s economy. The majority of Palestinians in Jordan hold Jordanian citizenship.
In contrast, East Bank Jordanians tend to be employed in the public sector. While the public sector is praised for its stability, labor rights, and control of governance, the salaries are a fraction of those in the private sector. When Jordan committed to a widespread privatization of state assets about a decade ago, public sector assets were sold off—diminishing the sector’s powers—without building a resilient private sector or developing rural tribal areas.
On the other hand, East Bank Jordanians also enjoy certain privileges: military and security sectors have historically been reserved for East Bank Jordanians, and parliamentary gerrymandering favors them.
Complicating the picture, East Bank Jordanians tend to live in rural areas, which have experienced weaker economic and infrastructure development. And while political representation favors rural districts, twenty-eight of Jordan’s thirty named “poverty pockets” are in areas mostly populated by Eastern tribes.
All of these factors mean that twin feelings of resentment and entitlement have long energized East Bank Jordanian anxiety about Palestinians in the country.
Against this backdrop of increased rural–urban disparities, a widening divide between the public and private sectors, and contentious privatization, Jordan is also in an economic slump. Modest headline economic indicators (a growing economy, and relatively low inflation) disguise a country under strain, with an estimated 24.4 percent unemployment rate in 2021, and youth unemployment nearing 50 percent. What economic growth exists has come at the expense of cuts to the social safety net. Further, the population has nearly doubled in the last two decades, as waves of refugees have poured in from war-torn neighbors. Many people in the country are economically desperate, and the popular perception is that of decline and scarcity. Worryingly, Jordanians do not attribute this decline to global or local forces, but rather to systemic unfairness and a sense that the economy is a zero-sum game. Nationalist populists have leveraged this fear and anger over economic inequalities to drive identity-based movements against supposedly privileged Palestinians.
It is clear that the rise of right-wing nativism in Jordan is, to a degree, the result of economic angst and social upheaval in a country that has been known, for decades, for its stability. Still, Jordan has experienced many crises in the past, and the strength of the current wave of right-wing populism—and the pointed rise of resentment against Jordanians of Palestinian heritage—demands more of an explanation.
Social Media Amplification
It can be difficult to prove a causal link between social media trends and real-world events. But examples of nativist social media campaigns in and about Jordan dovetail with the rise in right-wing populism in a way that is impossible to ignore.
Jordanian nationalists have utilized the power of social media to reach a wider audience, particularly tapping into the anger of disconnected, frustrated, and economically marginalized youth. Many notable actors in these movements are previous government officials who seek to stay relevant. They have not only exploited the economic situation, but also amplified grievances that exist in society, particularly rural–urban and East Banker–West Banker.
One example is Abdul Fattah Touqan, a Jordanian writer residing in Canada, who frequently discusses questions of nationality and scarcity of resources. He has written articles demonizing Jordanians of Palestinian heritage, accusing them of advancing anti-tribal narratives and acting as tools of security and intelligence forces against “true Jordanian” identity. He also stirs up fears with a Jordanian version of the “replacement theory,” warning that Jordan could become an alternative homeland to Palestinians, effectively erasing East Bank Jordanian identity and privilege.
In Touqan’s dog-whistle nomenclature, Jordanians of Palestinian heritage are “naturalized,” while East Bank Jordanians are “true Jordanians.”
Touqan uses dog-whistle language to attack prominent Jordanians of Palestinian heritage—calling them “naturalized,” while East Bank Jordanians are “true Jordanians”—and questions their loyalties. He also attributes all economic woes that rural areas suffer to “the Palestinians in power.”
It is somewhat difficult to assess Touqan’s reach on social media, because he doesn’t currently have a known Twitter handle or Facebook page. Instead, the primary way that his articles are shared is via WhatsApp messages and cut-and-paste Facebook status updates; each status update may only get a few dozen likes and shares, but the cumulative effect is that he appears to be highly quoted. Titles of two popular pieces are typical: “Oh Palestinians, Do Not Provoke the Jordanian Tribes!” (published in 2019) and “A Royal Apology Is Required: The Kingdom is Jordanian and Will Remain Jordanian” (published in 2018). The “Do Not Provoke the Jordanian Tribes” piece reminds Jordanians of Palestinian heritage who demand equal rights of “their place” in society and the need to avoid the wrath of tribes that were generous to “host” them. The “Royal Apology” piece criticizes Abdullah for using the phrase “Hashemite Kingdom” in a speech; nationalists believe that their leaders should focus on an ethnically exclusive Jordanian identity rather than the monarchical identity. Touqan writes that “if the King gave this speech in Ma’an or Irbid or Salt or Kerak, or any other town where there are ‘people of this good land’ [meaning East Bank Jordanians], he would have been interrupted immediately… unlike what happened in Zarqa, which has a Palestinian majority—maybe they didn’t pay attention or maybe it isn’t in their priorities.”
Another Jordanian expatriate media figure, Alaa Alfazaa, spouts nationalist vitriol from his perch in Sweden—albeit in a more covert and coded fashion. A former journalist, Alfazaa has a following of a quarter of a million on Facebook and almost 76,000 subscribers on YouTube. Since 2018, Alfazaa has been highlighting and exaggerating not only social fissures but also the state’s treatment of East Bank Jordanians.
Alfazaa has narrowed his content to focus on three themes: denigrating Hashemite authority and leadership, exacerbating the divide between East Bank Jordanians and Jordanians of Palestinian descent, and tying himself to trending figures who advance his agenda, most notably Ajarmeh and Hamzah bin Hussein. (Hussein is Abdullah’s half-brother and a frequent critic, who renounced the title of “prince” earlier this year, was implicated in a 2021 sedition plot, and is widely seen as an ally of East Bank Jordanians.)
Alfazaa cleverly amplifies the voices of much more aggressive personalities while covering himself in a mantle of “just asking questions” or “giving the real history.” He has repeatedly replayed and praised Ajarmeh’s “purify Amman” speech, without himself using such strident language. This technique makes Ajarmeh’s xenophobic venom more digestible, and helps him argue that the firebrand former politician has simply been misunderstood. “We all know Osama has made a few mistakes, but they were merely a slip of the tongue out of anger and passion,” Alfazaa says in one video with more than 24,000 views. As for the infamous incident in which Ajarmeh was captured on video assaulting a factory owner, allegedly for not employing members of his tribe, Alfazaa explains it away: It is “a new and old story of capital and local communities,” he says in a video on his YouTube channel. “Osama was of the belief that investors and capital holders have a social responsibility toward the local communities they’re in and must employ its members.” Alfazaa saturates all his rants with warnings that “authentic” Jordanian narratives are being wiped out, and has helped turn Ajarmeh into something of a folk hero for inward-looking communities.
Sometimes, nationalists’ online campaigns spill over into real-life action. Such was the case with the #Expel_Asma’a hashtag, a campaign that trended on Twitter for three days in January. The campaign targeted Asma’a Naserallah, a Jordanian university student of Palestinian heritage, who wrote on her social media channels (in posts that have since been deleted) that she didn’t feel a sense of belonging in Jordan, and that she felt uncomfortable with Jordan’s diplomatic relations with Israel. This rather personal post was widely shared and quickly became a viral example of “Palestinian ingratitude.” In reaction to Asma’a’s post, a group of Jordanian activists organized a campaign around the hashtag #طرد_اسماء (#Expel_Asma’a), and demanded “the withdrawal of Jordanian citizenship from her, her dismissal from her university, and her expulsion from the country.” Social media users rallied around the hashtag, claiming that it showed how “naturalized” Jordanians are a threat to Jordan. They called Naserallah “ungrateful” and said that, by accepting a Jordanian scholarship, she was denying that same opportunity to “real” Jordanians.
The campaign to expel her appeared to be a spontaneous eruption of nationalist anger. However, the movement against Naserallah turned out to be the brainchild of a Clubhouse group, outed in a leaked conversation, which planned a social media strategy to hold up Naserallah as a symbol of ungrateful “newcomers.” They shared content on multiple social media platforms. As they shaped their campaign, they suggested adding more anti-Israel content in order to deter accusations that they were supporting Israel by denigrating Palestinians. Their aim, they wanted to show, was not to demean Palestine, but rather to preserve “authentic” Jordanian citizenship.
The Clubhouse group that organized the “Expel Asma’a” campaign is only one of many such nativist groups on social media. Another is a Facebook group called “Jordanians since Time Immemorial.” The group, which has more than 21,000 followers, highlights what it perceives as official actions to demean Jordan’s “authentic” heritage.
In the end, the “Expel Asma’a” campaign did not succeed in its goals of getting the authorities to punish Naserallah. After a three-day period in which it trended on Jordanian Twitter, it died down. Like many such social media episodes, it created a short-lived furor—though it could be said that it contributed to a wider popular sentiment of “Palestinian ingratitude,” even if the specific incident has faded away. Still, it stands as an example of the dangerous ways that social media can be abused to amplify extremist views, and to create a digital mob—a phenomenon that the world is already familiar with, but which is being deployed in Jordan in new, nativist ways.
The Stakes for Jordan
Last year, Jordan celebrated one hundred years of statehood—a century during which it enjoyed a reputation for security, diplomacy, and stability. Much of these successes stem from a generous social contract, the kingdom’s respected role as a moderator in the region, and a populace focused on negotiated stability rather than on revolutionary politics. While this model has largely held, key events, mostly within the last decade, have shaken it. Numerous economic shocks have challenged the social contract, and have aggravated popular resentment against the authorities over inequality.
But with the surge of nativism, given an unprecedented boost by online platforms, Jordan finds itself at a crossroads.
On the one hand, Abdullah appointed a committee to modernize the country’s political system. The committee’s findings were submitted in October 2021, and included a recommendation to eventually create a hybrid parliament split between majoritarian and proportional seats, redistricting of certain electoral districts, increased quotas for youth and women, and a revamping of the entire political party system. Notably, in five areas of its 240-page report, the committee controversially noted its goal of creating a “comprehensive identity,” though without defining what that would be. But just the concept of the king’s vision of inclusion of all Jordanians, regardless of origin or religion, was enough to attract criticism, even without a clear definition.
On the other hand, the rise of figures like Ajarmeh and their apologists risks creating a much darker, fragmented future for Jordan. And popular support for the committee’s reforms may have an expiration date—a date that could be moving closer. If state and representative institutions do not swiftly reach out to vulnerable populations and address some of their needs, distrust in government initiatives and institutions will increase.
Jordan’s best bet is to couple its remedies for underlying material problems with a more robust pursuit of a comprehensive identity.
But the rise of nativist and even violent rhetoric on social media must also be addressed. The first step is to acknowledge the problem. This commentary has presented a few examples whose impact is most easily trackable. Countless other conversations may be occurring on newer or more opaque platforms such as WhatsApp, Telegram, or TikTok. The consequence for Jordan is that pockets of bitterness now have platforms of thousands of subscribers and are national conversations at a time of increasing challenges.
Repressing the social media content may prove difficult. It’s been a year since the “Facebook Files” articles by Wired, the Washington Post, CNN, and The Wall Street Journal showed that Facebook knew of its disinformation crisis for years without addressing it, nor releasing its data on the crisis to lawmakers. In particular, the Facebook Files showed that the company paid especially little heed to content moderation in the Global South. It is beyond the remit of this commentary to evaluate Facebook’s or other Big Tech companies’ policies for content moderation in Jordan, but recent history does not inspire confidence, and suggests that there is much more that can be done.
Still, dog-whistle bigotry may evade even the best moderation, and it is possible to swing too far to the other side of censorship, as well. Yet multiple states, such as Germany, have wrestled with this balance and developed solutions that are suitable, even if they are still evolving.
Jordan’s best bet is to couple its remedies for underlying material problems with a more robust pursuit of a comprehensive identity. Codifying equality for all Jordanian citizens regardless of gender, religion, or heritage clearly must be part of a long-term solution to the scourge of right-wing nativism.
Header photo: A nostalgic image shared to “Jordanians since Time Immemorial,” a nativist Facebook group, celebrates the country’s war veterans. Source: Jordanians since Time Immemorial Facebook page (https://www.facebook.com/Jord4Ever/), status update, February 15, 2022.