There is a saying among Jordan’s Bedouin tribesmen that “prison is loss”. Victims of violence in rural Jordan have told me that they do not want the perpetrator to face prison – but rather the truces, blood money payments, feasts and reconciliations of traditional Bedouin justice. They tell me that while Bedouin justice can bring revenge, it also brings restitution, and ultimately, new relationships.
From a certain Bedouin perspective then, concepts of the state, “civilization” and “modernity” are not technical or humanitarian advances. Instead they are considered as mere decadence – at odds with a wholly rational and principled tradition.
Of course, these sentiments are not completely consistent with developments on the ground. The Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan is, if anything, a net exporter of cutting-edge expertise in policing and security. It produces highly sought after trainers and peacekeepers who work around the globe.
Indeed, Jordan’s security services are well-equipped and relatively well-remunerated. So for many well-educated urbanites, the existence of tribes and a parallel system of justice is a source of embarrassment – if not outrage.
Yet when it comes to some of the most serious crimes – murder, rape, and the breaking of tribal truces (crimes known respectively as “blood”, “honour”, and “cutting the face”) – many people in Jordan prefer the old oral code, known as “customs and traditions”. A recent survey found that only 12% of Jordanians thought that murders should be handled exclusively by the formal court system without recourse to tribal custom.
And it seems as if the two systems can indeed work side by side. Security professionals are often effusive about the role that tribes and their “customs and traditions” play in strengthening Jordan’s peace and stability. One senior officer told me enthusiastically that his work with tribal leaders was merely an extension of community policing.
Historians and anthropologists have long argued that “customs and traditions” can be quite malleable and adaptable after centuries of accommodation. For instance, elders spoke of attempts to limit the number of people banished following a homicide to three generations rather than five after the arrival of cars led to an increase in unintentional homicides. And, in a new twist, social media is increasingly part of the architecture of Bedouin justice – a process I have recently written about.
By far the biggest concern among people I spoke to was that social media is upending generational and gendered hierarchies. There is a widely held fear that “tribal” discourse is slipping out of formal meeting spaces (and the hands of the senior men who control them) and into the online world – allowing anyone to express their opinions freely and anonymously. The older generation complained bitterly about online attempts to humiliate elders and disrupt existing lines of hierarchy within families.
Of course, these same tools also offer a critical platform to women and younger men. Indeed, the senior men I spoke to were most concerned with young men whipping up fresh conflict on social media over “old blood” (supposedly long settled homicides). The consequences of these new online interventions, many of which I have seen first hand, include physical injury, property destruction and even death.
With its inherent tendency to do away with physical distance, social media further exacerbates conflicts by working against one of the most basic principles of Bedouin justice. This is the idea that the opposing sides should be separated – and out of contact – during an initial period (often associated with what is termed “boiling blood”) until cooler heads can prevail. This usually involves the banishment of the perpetrator’s whole family from their homes.
The determined reporting of local journalists such as Dana Gibreel has revealed that Jordan’s security apparatus has increasingly allowed or enabled the mass-banishment of alleged criminals’ families in the name of public order since 2011.
Such practices raise troubling questions about the line between preventative security measures and collective punishment. Activists point out that such banishments interfere with the rights of family members to education, employment – and even the right to vote.
But a new generation of Jordanian tribal leaders is making the most of the opportunities that social media can bring. They use it to show off their successful work in reconciliation and advertise their services all the more widely.
Even if increased publicity has the potential to backfire by inflaming tensions and upsetting fragile truces, that’s not always the case. One such “Facebook sheikh” claimed that people from as far away as Saudi Arabia were learning about tribal disagreements and offering to contribute to blood money payments to earn religious merit and reanimate old bonds of kinship.
For its part, the Jordanian government has long denied that it encourages tribal justice in any official capacity. Many commentators both from inside and outside Jordan would disagree, pointing to the obvious ways in which tribal law promotes social control by strengthening hierarchies of gender, generation, class and lineage.
However, Bedouin justice also offers avenues for upending those hierarchies and revealing the weakness of supposedly powerful leaders – most dramatically in cases of “cutting the face” where their truces are flagrantly violated. In this way, social media feuds are no rupture with tradition at all. They are better seen as a modern continuation of a dynamism that accompanies “tradition” in many of its contemporary guises.