One year after Obama promised to degrade and ultimately destroy ISIS, Jordan’s fight against the militant group is heating up. Jordan’s commitment to rout ISIS is rooted in the brutal execution of Jordanian pilot Mu‘ath al-Kasasbeh in January 2014. After ISIS burned Kasasbeh to death in a video that went viral around the world, the people of Jordan rallied to become “more united than ever.” King Abdullah II vowed a “relentless” war, and government spokesman Mohamed al-Momani promised to “finish” ISIS.
Despite the promises, the country’s military operations against ISIS have been muted thanks to ambiguous support from the United States. Though the U.S. government approved Israel’s sale of Cobra attack helicopters to Jordan in June 2015, Washington is reluctant for the Jordanians to commit to ground operations in Syria. The United States likewise refused to support Jordan both in creating a buffer zone on Syrian and Iraqi territory bordering Jordan and establishing a forward base in Syrian or Iraqi territory to fight ISIS directly.
As journalists Sam Jones and Erika Solomon reported two weeks ago in The Financial Times, Jordan is “itching to intervene” in Iraq and Syria. From their positions on the border, Jordanian soldiers can see ISIS convoy and troop movements in and out of Iraq and southern Syria almost every day.
While Israel is sealing its southeastern border with Jordan, the security vacuum to Jordan’s north and east is a constant source of tension for the kingdom. To address this issue, Jordan has been arming tribes in southern Syria and western Iraq in order to stop ISIS’s advance toward Jordan’s borders. The Jordanians also provided the tribes with Hashemite flags, a symbolic move that raised eyebrows about possible Jordanian expansion into Iraq and Syria, parts of whose territories the British promised the Hashemites after World War I.
Jordan has also considered following Turkey’s lead in establishing a “safe zone” on neighboring Syrian territory. Nevertheless, Jordan has decided against it for lack of a UN Security Council mandate.
A War of Words
After Kasasbeh’s death, hundreds of Jordanians poured into the streets in protest against his execution, and the hashtag #كلنا_معاذ, or “We’re all Mu‘ath” took over Jordanian Twitter accounts.
Nothing embodied this moment of national unity more than a poem by Muhammad Fanatil al-Hajaya, a Bedouin poet from southern Jordan, who elegized Kasasbeh and extolled the virtues of the pilot and his tribe, the Bararsheh, located in and around the city of Karak.
In the poem he wrote for Kasasbeh, titled “Fight Fire with Fire,” Hajaya employs traditional Bedouin tropes, calling for blood-revenge and comparing Kasasbeh to a falcon and his Bararsheh tribesmen to lions for the virtues they embody: bravery, fearlessness, strength, manliness, generosity, and self-possession. Reclaiming the brutal method of the pilot’s execution, Hajaya compares Kasasbeh to a candle, a lighthouse, and one who “brightened our Jordan.”
As if to delegitimize ISIS by not mentioning the organization directly, Hajaya only refers to the group as “the wicked ones,” “those who’ve lost their reason,” or with the impersonal, third-person “they.”
Most of “Fight Fire with Fire” is spent comforting Safi al-Kasasbeh, Mu‘ath’s father (called Abu Jawad in the poem), and praising his son for choosing to fight ISIS, which continues to threaten Jordan and distort the image of Islam. My translation of the poem appears below.
“Fight Fire with Fire”
Oh Safi, entrust what happened to God
For God is Almighty, and decision rests in His hands.
Oh Abu Jawad, death comes only once, and God’s decrees
Unfold day and night throughout His creation.
Oh Abu Jawad, you’ve become a symbol of pride:
Mu‘ath left and so sat you on a pedestal.
Mu‘ath left, and all of us, young and old,
Are Mu‘ath’s men—we’re proud of his decision.
Oh father of the martyr, we’re your sons and supporters.
Raise our morale so we can take his blood-revenge.
Mu‘ath is alive! It’s the wicked ones who’ll burn.
In the field of men’s glories, his light shines bright.
A candle of pride that brightened our Jordan,
He showed us the path of self-sacrifice.
Like a lion did he greet death and fire,
A true Jordanian—proud and fearless.
His falcon’s eyes demanded blood-revenge—I saw them!
And as for those who don’t demand it—damn them!
It’s true—his departure shook us like trees,
But we’ve stood firm despite the storm’s strength.
Yes, we cried, for crying’s the mark of the free.
We cry for a falcon who flew high in the skies.
A falcon high up, who soon descended:
They injured his wing—those who’ve lost their reason.
Crying’s not weakness or submission to the wicked.
No! Not by He who sent Muhammad the good news.
We cry for a hero whose composure shook nations,
A model of strength whose dignity we pride.
Never cowed, shamed or broken, his head always raised,
Only to God did he submit,
For he’s the son of free men who don’t accept disgrace,
From a tradition of strength, pride and daring.
He’s the son of men endowed with all the manly virtues—
The homeland’s reserve when it calls up its falcons.
Bararsheh! There for the perilous battles,
Like lions whenever the war’s fire’s blazing.
Kasasbeh! Praiseworthy men no matter the scene,
Brave, generous men—no, brave tigers!
For our homeland we’re all walls and fences,
And we’ll die for its sake before they touch its walls.
Under a leader who lights our way to the heights,
Abdullah II, scion of pure blood.
We’re his loyal soldiers, always on guard,
We’re lions of war when war breaks out.
Call on our strength, oh king, and we’ll choose
The path of dignity, loud and clear.
The people are with you—fight fire with fire!
The army is with you, and brave men are its falcons.
Oh Safi, entrust to God what happened.
Mu‘ath left and so sat you on a pedestal.
A pedestal of pride, among the best of men,
In whom lie Jordan’s strength and pride.
A pedestal for the Jordanian, our source of pride,
Earned by Safi’s son, the worthy Mu‘ath.
King Abdullah II Lights the Way
In the last few lines of “Fight Fire with Fire,” Hajaya addresses King Abdullah II. For Hajaya, the Jordanian people’s strength lies in the Hashemite monarchy, and, likewise, the Hashemites’ strength lies in the people.
This marriage of king and tribes—the Hashemite Compact—is the foundation of the Jordanian state. Hajaya supports the Compact (al-‘Ahd), as he believes Abdullah II is an enlightened monarch, “lighting [the people’s] way to the heights” of progress, development, and reform.
Hajaya is a controversial figure in Jordan’s poetic circles. He has written mock-serious love poems to former U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Israeli MK Tzipi Livni. He’s also written poems from the perspectives of George W. Bush, Ariel Sharon, and Saddam Hussein. Despite his strong opinions and unsparing treatment of Arab regimes he regards as lackeys of the West, Hajaya is proud to be a Jordanian and fiercely loyal to his country.