Several hundred robed Muslim clerics recently packed themselves into an auditorium to hear the minister of Islamic affairs issue their new marching orders. The meeting was mandatory.
“You clerics are our ground forces against the extremists,” Hayel Dawood told them.
Then he made himself clear: Preach moderate Islam — or else.
“Once you cross the red line,” Dawood intoned, “you will not be let back in.”
Stunned by the rapid advance of the Islamic State in neighboring Syria and Iraq, Jordan has fortified its borders and put its air force and intelligence service to work in the U.S.-led alliance against the self-declared caliphate in Syria and Iraq. To counter the low thrum of support for extremist movements on the home front, the kingdom is not only prosecuting Islamic State recruiters and cracking down on anyone waving an Islamic State banner, but it has turned its attention to the nation’s 7,000 mosques.
Jordanian authorities have begun a campaign to coax — and, when necessary, pressure — Muslim clerics to preach messages of peaceful Islam from their pulpits. The main targets are Jordan’s more than 5,000 imams, including lay clerics and those on the government dole, who give the traditional sermon that follows Friday prayers.
Jordan’s security apparatus has always kept a close eye on known radicals and has pursued a policy in the past of allowing even prominent al-Qaeda-affiliated clerics to preach as long as they watched what they said. The idea: It was best to grant opposition figures a sliver of political space, to better monitor, co-opt and control them.
But with the sudden rise of the Islamic State, Jordan’s religious authorities are taking a more active stance. The Islamic affairs minister is touring the kingdom to announce new rules in a remarkable series of meetings for anyone who wants access to the Friday flock.
Specifically, Jordan is demanding that preachers refrain from any speech against King Abdullah II and the royal family, slander against leaders of neighboring Arab states, incitement against the United States and Europe, and sectarianism and support for jihad and extremist thought.
Dawood also suggests that clerics keep sermons brief.
“Fifteen minutes is okay,” he told the crowd in Zarqa. He reminded them that the prophet Muhammad “was short and to the point — often 10 minutes, no more.”
For those who adhere to the new guidelines, there are government salaries of about $600 a month, religious workshops, travel assistance for pilgrimages to Mecca, and weekly guidance.
The ministry is providing suggested topics for Friday sermons, available for download from the government’s Facebook page. Recent suggestions included:
• Oct. 17 — “Security and Stability: the Need for Unity in a Time of Crisis.”
• Oct. 24 — “The Hijjra New Year — Lessons Derived From the Prophet’s Flight From Mecca.”
• Oct. 31 — “The Beginning of the Rainy Season — Safety Measures in Preparation for Winter.”
For those who stray? Banishment from the pulpit for life.
The worst offenders, those who openly praise the Islamic State, might be hauled into the newly empowered State Security Court to face charges under the country’s enhanced anti-terrorism law.
Jordan’s soft-power press for moderate Islam, a personal project of Abdullah, has been applauded by U.S. officials for its proactive approach and its emphasis on Islam’s positive messages of charity, respect and tolerance.
Some clerics, though, bristle at being told what to preach. What some see as “moderate Islam,” others decry as “state Islam,” foisted on them by a pro-Western monarchy kowtowing to foreign powers.
“They’ve left no space for us in the mosques,” said Mohammed al-Shalabi, a senior leader of ultraconservative Muslims known as Jihadi Salafis in Jordan. “They’re not even allowing anyone to use the words ‘Islamic State.’ ”
Shalabi complained that the mosques were filled with informants from the Jordanian intelligence agency. “They write down everything you say,” he said.
That is probably an exaggeration. Currently, Jordan employs 60 “monitors” to listen in at the country’s 5,500 mosques that regularly host Friday sermons. Dawood told the meeting in Zarqa that he was planning for 200 monitors but thought he needed 400 to do the job right.
In an interview, Dawood said he was “limited by budgetary and logistical constraints that is making policing the mosques that much more difficult.”
State control of religious life is nothing new in the Middle East. Close monitoring of sermons is common in the oil-rich states in the Persian Gulf. Likewise, many of the region’s current and former despots, in Libya, Algeria and Syria, were obsessed with imprinting their message on Islam.
But message control has grown in the wake of the Arab revolutions and the rise of the Islamic State. Recently, state-sponsored clerics in Jordan — long at the forefront of promoting religious moderation — and throughout the region have been especially vocal in denouncing the Islamic State.
Arab media report the Saudi Interior Ministry may require clerics to pass a security screening before they can preach. Egyptian authorities havebanned tens of thousands of unlicensed clerics, especially imams linked to the Muslim Brotherhood.
“Centralized Islam is not a new policy,” said Omar Ashour, a senior lecturer in Middle East politics at the University of Exeter. But, he added: “It has been tried before, with mixed results.”
“You have a segment of society that will seek out other messages, other voices,” he said, perhaps in underground settings with outlaw imams. In an earlier age, extremist messages on cassette tapes were passed hand to hand; now, all it takes is typing a few search terms on YouTube.
Jordan employs about 3,400 Muslim preachers — about 2,000 clerics and 1,400 caretakers — to staff the country’s 7,000 mosques. The deficit has forced the Ministry of Islamic Affairs to grant more than 2,200 permissions for sermons to “unofficial clerics” — educators, tribal sheiks and ordinary citizens.
Those wishing to ascend the pulpit are supposed to register with the ministry’s directorate. Applicants are subject to a security check and must receive approval from the intelligence service. Even so, Jordanian officials say dangerous preachers have slipped through their filters.
“We have preachers using the pulpit for political means, to launch attacks on private individuals and the state,” Dawood said. “This will not be tolerated.”
Jordan has barred 30 preachers from delivering sermons so far this year. The ministry banned six clerics in October for allegedly denouncing Jordan’s participation in the U.S.-led coalition against the Islamic State, referring four to the State Security Court for attempting to “disseminate terrorist ideology” and “gathering support for the Islamic State.”
Ahmed Abu Omar was among them. The Amman cleric, who declined to use his full name out of concern for his safety, said he delivered a Friday sermon on Oct. 3 denouncing coalition airstrikes he feared were targeting Syrian and Iraqi civilians.
“I was only speaking the truth, that Jordan should not participate in the killing of civilians, which is forbidden in Islam,” he said. “I was told later that this was ‘inciting terrorism.’ ”
According to people who attended the sermon, Abu Omar went on to call on Jordanians to “show solidarity with the Islamic State,” which was “defending Islam against the United States and the crusaders.”
The meeting outlining the do’s and don’ts appeared to be welcomed in Zarqa, long a bastion of al-Qaeda supporters, including an eclectic mix of salafists, sufis and jihadists who, some state-supported clerics said, have posed a challenge. (Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the al-Qaeda in Iraq leader who was killed in an American airstrike in 2006, hailed from the city.)
“We have extremists come to our mosques. We know who they are, and they make their presence known,” said Mohammed Mushagbeh, 70, a cleric in the village of Hashmiyeh, outside Zarqa. “But our words can only go so far; we cannot just be in the defensive, we must go on the offensive.”
According to Mushagbeh, a ministry-employed cleric for more than a decade, extremist preachers in Zarqa have also used the pulpit to attack Jordanian authorities.
“It is up to all of us to root them out,” he said.