Several days ago, it was reported that Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi, the Jordanian radical Islamist ideologue and former mentor of Abu Mus’ab al-Zarqawi, had been arrested again on 17 September. The news was quickly confirmed on his website and also picked up by Jordanian newspapers (see here, for example). It seems that the Jordanian Security Services had asked him to come to their offices, from which he apparently did not return. While this description of how it happened may well be correct (al-Maqdisi is said to have been summoned to their offices before without returning), the obvious question is why he was re-arrested.
Several newspaper articles mention that the Saudi authorities were angry about al-Maqdisi’s book Millat Ibrahim and that this somehow led to his arrest. Although this book was a clear indictment of Muslim governments for their perceived failure to apply Islamic law and Saudi Arabia is indeed mentioned a few times in the book, it seems unlikely that Millat Ibrahim caused al-Maqdisi’s arrest since that book was written in 1984 (and not 1982, as some articles state). Moreover, I doubt whether the Jordanian Security Services are at Riyadh’s beck and call and would simply arrest al-Maqdisi if they don’t have a reason of their own to do so.
The mentioning of Millat Ibrahim (The Religion of Abraham) in several articles may actually be a misunderstanding. While the original book by that title is more than twenty-five years old, al-Maqdisi recently released a document called Millat Ibrahim: Limadha Tukhifuhum? (Millat Ibrahim: Why does it Frighten Them?). In this treatise, al-Maqdisi compares the leaders of Saudi Arabia with the literary antihero Don Quixote, who keeps failing in his quest and always blames outside factors but never himself. This is similar to what Saudi rulers do, al-Maqdisi claims, when they criticise his book Millat Ibrahim while failing to realise what their real problem is, namely that the book merely cites Saudi Wahhabi scholars without saying anything new. If Saudi rulers really object to the book Millat Ibrahim, al-Maqdisi states, they actually object to their own Wahhabi tradition, which clearly shows that the state has deviated from the teachings of Muhammad b. ‘Abd al-Wahhab and his followers. This unwillingness to face the facts and admit that they are infidels according to the religious underpinnings of their own state, al-Maqdisi maintains, is the real reason the Saudis are frightened by his book Millat Ibrahim.
One can argue over whether al-Maqdisi has really simply quoted the (Wahhabi) sources or has added and introduced ideas of his own that are not necessarily supported by the Wahhabi tradition, a topic I have discussed elsewhere. Al-Maqdisi nevertheless hits a sore point by referring to this subject since his writings (and particularly his book Millat Ibrahim) are indeed full of references to Saudi Wahhabi authors and he certainly makes it look as if the greatest adherents to Saudi Arabia’s own religious tradition would surely accuse the country of apostasy if they were still alive. If Saudi Arabia is indeed in any way involved in al-Maqdisi’s arrest, it is much more likely it was this recent reminder of the Kingdom’s alleged hypocrisy, not the original Millat Ibrahim, which precipitated his incarceration.
Whatever the actual involvement of Saudi Arabia may be, al-Maqdisi’s recent arrest is probably best understood through the prism of Jordanian politics. As a radical scholar who has enjoyed a relatively free existence for the past two years, al-Maqdisi must be something of an irritant to the country’s security services. The fact that he has not been in prison for a long time and that his website is as accessible as ever obviously raises the question whether he might possibly be used by the Jordanian authorities for some purpose. Considering the fact that al-Maqdisi wrote several books and treatises in which he criticised what he calls “extremist” expressions of jihad and takfir (excommunication), one would be justified in thinking that the Jordanian authorities are quietly grooming him as a tool to deradicalise jihadist youngsters. While one cannot be 100% sure about these things, I believe this is probably not the case.
Firstly, al-Maqdisi has continued to write radical treatises even while criticising others who were even more radical. He has never stopped calling the leaders of the Muslim world “infidels” and “apostates”, for instance, and one may wonder whether the Jordanian authorities would want a man who holds these views to “deradicalise” their youngsters. Secondly, al-Maqdisi has spent considerable time in prison but was released every time because no evidence linking him directly to any crime or terrorist activity could be presented against him. In fact, human rights organisations such as Human Rights Watch have frequently and explicitly protested the treatment al-Maqdisi received in Jordanian prison (see here, for example). The fact that Jordan has kept al-Maqdisi imprisoned for longer periods of time on several occassions but has encountered international protests every time, which in the end also caused him to be released again each time, may mean that the Jordanian authorities feel they have more or less exhausted the option of simply keeping al-Maqdisi permanently locked up for no reason. This could explain why al-Maqdisi has mostly lived in relative freedom for the past two years. Thirdly, it is not entirely correct to state that al-Maqdisi has been completely free since his release from prison in March 2008. Since then, he has reportedly been under house arrest (though certainly not all the time) and was even arrested for a traffic violation some time ago. This suggests that the Jordanian authorities may not have him imprisoned but are nevertheless keeping him in their sights.
All of this means that al-Maqdisi’s recent arrest was most probably not, as reports have suggested, caused by sudden Saudi ire over Millat Ibrahim but – if Saudi Arabia was indeed involved – more likely over his sarcastic reminder that “the land of the two holy places” supposedly cannot even live up to its own Wahhabi credentials. In any case, the Jordanian authorities are probably keeping al-Maqdisi on a tight leash and may have used the release of his recent treatise as an excuse to arrest him in order to show him who’s boss again. As it’s been two years since al-Maqdisi’s latest long-time incarceration, the security services may well have felt that it was about time to arrest him again. All the better if it pleased a powerful neighbour in the process.