King Abdullah II, Jordan's 42-year-old monarch, is one of the Arab leaders most actively championing reform. Although he agrees that economic liberalization must come first, he sees it as part of a comprehensive package that's applicable through- out the Middle East. "If we set the pace for democratic, political, social, and economic reform, then we're not only doing something for our people, we're doing something for the whole region," the king tells me.
Frankly, I'm a little surprised to be sitting with the king in the palace living room, surrounded by pictures of his father, King Hussein, and his great-grandfather, King Abdullah I. But he is affable, and at a time when Jordan needs friends (and tourist dollars) the king is eager to promote a friendly image.
Abdullah is a career military man and an accomplished athlete who had to give up some of his more extreme pursuits, such as parachuting, when he ascended to the throne. It turns out that he and I attended rival high schools, and he's still smarting over not placing as well as he wanted to in the New England wrestling championships. That kind of competitiveness is important in a king, especially one whose government has been targeted by extremist groups as an "apostate regime."
Osama Bin Laden and other radical Islamists think that Arab states like Jordan are illegitimate, partly because of their alliances with the United States. "You're not actually the target," the king says. "We are. The problem is that Islam has been hijacked by the loud minority, by the extremists, and we are coming out of our dark ages. If you look at history—the Spanish Inquisition, England before Cromwell—you see that Europe developed after these upheavals and episodes of religious extremism. Maybe sometimes it takes the shock of extremism to propel a new era of renaissance."
Many Jordanians have taken a firm stand against extremism. Weeks after a local terrorist cell was caught by the authorities, Abdullah's wife, Queen Rania, led a 150,000-person march in which participants burned photographs of Bin Laden and al-Zarqawi. It's not surprising that the royal family should take it personally, nor is it a coincidence that organizations including Al Qaeda are hostile to the Hashemite court. The Bani Hashem are part of the prophet Muhammad's family tree and therefore representatives of the Muslim faith. "We project the moderate Islamic way that the overwhelming majority of Muslims feel," the king says. "And as we come from the direct line of the Prophet, I think we know what we're talking about."
Ever since Abdullah's great-grandfather came to rule as the first leader of independent Jordan, it's been thought that the Hashemites' reign is precarious. Indeed, Abdullah I was assassinated by a Palestinian extremist, and there were numerous attempts on the life of Hussein—one of the most beloved heads of state in the modern Middle East. The region is, as King Abdullah II says, "a tough neighborhood," but Jordan is one of the few countries in it that has been blessed with good leadership, a tradition Jordanians expect to see continued.
Ali and I drive north of Amman into the countryside, a landscape of hills planted with olive groves, vineyards, and cypress trees that looks like Tuscany. When we stop for a pack of sheep crossing the road I remember that these sheep are counting their last days. At the end of the week is Eid al-Adha, a feast commemorating Abraham's willingness to sacrifice his son, and thousands of the animals will be slaughtered, cooked, and shared among the population, including the poor, who seldom eat meat during the rest of the year.
God has made so many demands on faith here, in the cradle of three monotheistic religions, that people should have turned hard. Instead, the trials of history seem to have made Jordanians willing to believe that the countless eruptions of the extraordinary—prophets, mad kings, miracles—are just a part of the world's regular cycles. The sheep are tended to be slaughtered. There is birth and death. Peace and war.
We head to Ajlun, which is home to a medieval Islamic castle built by a nephew of the great Saladin, who was famous for turning back the Crusaders and is still a model for ambitious Muslim leaders—usually the bad ones. As we walk through the damp stone living quarters where Muslim knights were compelled to wait out winter during sieges, Ali points out apertures from which Ajlun's inhabitants used to pour boiling oil on attackers. Islamic castles like Ajlun, of course, were meant to defend Muslim territories against further incursions, while Jordan's Crusader castles, like Karak in the central highlands, were built as outposts to reach deeper into the lands of Islam.
Ajlun (though not the castle itself) served as a battleground as recently as 1970, when a Palestinian uprising threatened King Hussein's reign. Although Jordan is the only Arab country to have granted refugees of the 1948 and 1967 Arab-Israeli wars and their offspring full citizenship, Palestinian radicals were frustrated with Hussein's moderation and unwillingness to continue the fight against Israel. When they turned against him, Jordan's army, known as the region's crack fighting force, put them down quickly and harshly.
Today there's little open hostility between Palestinians, who make up 43 percent of the country's population, and the various original inhabitants, including the bedouin, of the region that came to be known as Jordan. The Jordanians have traditionally dominated the government, military, and police, while Palestinians have been more active in the private sector. As one Palestinian journalist told me, his people are now something of a liberalizing force in the country. "Without land, we had to go get educations and learn how to succeed in business," he explained. "We've lived all over and come back here. The delicate trick is to keep the Palestinians and Jordanians in balance."
The site of Umm Qais is a short drive from Ajlun. Ali and I walk through the Roman and Byzantine ruins here and stop to take in the view. Israel is in front of us, Jordan mostly behind, and roughly 10 miles to the north is the Golan Heights. The Golan is a hotly contested piece of property, of course, that Syria has wanted to regain from Israel ever since losing it in the 1967 war. King Hussein had hesitated to enter the conflict, and when he did, Jordan's loss was dearer than the Golan was to Syria. Losing Jerusalem, where the third-holiest shrine in Islam is located, was symbolic, but having to give up the most important part of its share of the Holy Land has cost Jordan considerable tourism income over the years.