A Yarmulke Grows in Jordan and the Hypocrisy of Moderation

By Nehemia Stern

Anthropologists love to harp on 19th century sociological principles. Contemporary anthropology has taken aim at everything from cultural evolution to biological plasticity. In this esteemed scholastic tradition, I’d like to offer my own two cents on another principle known as the Scala Naturae or The Great Chain of Being.  This was a medieval concept (though with roots in antiquity) that categorized the world into a hierarchical scale.  At the bottom rested the lowliest of objects such as minerals or plants, at the top of the ladder resided the loftiest of creatures, such as the angels and of course God himself. Humanity rested somewhere between the animals and the angels. The key to social theory, however, was that humanity was also divided into a hierarchy, most infamously with primitive Savages at the bottom, and civilized Europeans at the top.

Not surprisingly, anthropology with its current brand of cultural relativism has had a grand old time critiquing this conception of social reality. In truth, this is not without good cause.  Popular media continues to make the mistake of organizing the world into hierarchies of worth. This is particularly true with popular understandings of the Middle East that are regularly advocated in the news media, and even at times, by those in academia. In this view, Middle Eastern states are placed on a spectrum, with extremists on one end, and moderates on the other.

The goal for many would be to strengthen the moderates, thereby weakening the extremists. No less than the great luminary Queen Rania of Jordan has advocated for this idea. In a postmodern vein, I would like to complicate this perspective. The moderates may not be all that moderate and this should force us to rethink who the extremists might be.

Queen Rania

A good example would be that haven of moderation, Queen Rania’s Jordan. An article recently appeared in Yedioth Achronot English which reported on the confiscation of Jewish religious articles by Jordanian border authorities. The Jordanian authorities had nothing but altruistic intentions in mind. Apparently, it’s simply safer for a Jew not to look Jewish in Jordan. While Queen Rania is lambasting her neighbor state of Israel over its war in Gaza, a few yarmulkes east of the Jordan River is simply taboo.

The irony here would be worthy of a sitcom if it wasn’t so serious. The late King Hussein of Jordan killed thousands of Palestinians in one day of Black September. One wonders how he would have dealt with Hamas in Gaza. Queen Rania (a Palestinian herself) is his daughter in-law. Abdullah, the current King of Jordan, has suspended the parliament for the past year. If you thought November 2nd in America was a cliffhanger, elections in Jordan are to be held on November 9th , with the consent of his Highness of course.  

We tend to think of certain states in the Middle East as being wonderfully ‘moderate’. Of course it helps when their first families are young and attractive. We think of other states as being ‘extremists’. Of course their construction of secret nuclear facilities (Syria), or genocidal rants (Iran), aids us in making this determination.

We should pause for a moment to consider the meaning of ‘moderation’ in the Middle East.  A Jewish looking Jew is such an unpleasant site for this ‘model of interfaith dialogue’ that it confiscates Yarmulkes at its border, its king arbitrarily suspends legislation, and it massacres its own refugee population. If this is our bar for moderation, then Middle Eastern extremism is truly frightening.  Unlike most anthropologists, I am not arguing for cultural relativism, but rather for critical thinking (which is a much more useful concept). Rather than constructing a political ‘Great Chain of Being’, we should give an unforgiving look at actions. If a Jew cannot walk down a street in Amman in religious dress, the term ‘moderation’ loses its meaning, and extremism becomes the norm.  

We find ourselves in a political era where liberal well intentioned moderates are apologizing, and offering excuses for Islamic extremism. There are a plethora of excuses, from capitalism and imperialism, to Israeli settlements and the Jewish Lobby. In fact for Queen Rania the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is one excuse that fuels extremism in the entire region (the entire region!).  Good people need to stand up, and look beyond the thin veneer of relativism, political correctness, and even the look of attractive royal first families. Good people need to point out hypocrisy, and unmask the masquerading ‘moderates’.  If they don’t, the few Yarmulke clad Jews walking down a street in Amman will be only the first ones to suffer.

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