by Massimo Ramaioli, PhD Candidate, Political Science

On  February  4th,  around  7pm,  TVs  around  downtown  Amman  were  set  as  usual  on  Al-Jazeera, when breaking news appeared on the screen: “Jordanian pilot Mu’adh Al-Kasesbeh, taken hostage by the Islamic State, was burned alive in an iron cage on January 3rd. The video was released today.”

The downing of Al-Kasesbeh’s plane occurred in the midst of the fighting against the Is-lamic State (IS), the by now infamous organization operating across the territories of Iraq and Syria. Following the attack, Jordan’s armed forces joined an international coalition headed by the US to carry out air strikes against IS positions and training camps.

The brutal execution of Mu’adh Al-Kasesbeh reverberated vividly for the next few days all over Jordan. When I first landed in Amman, in August of last year, there were news and rumors about Daesh (the Arabic acronym for Islamic State) supporters or sympathizers waving the notori-ous black flag outside mosques, especially in the more conservative and poorer southern regions of the kingdom (by no means many people, and duly under the watchful eye of the security services). By  the  time  the  video  was  released,  however,  no  one  would  publicly  express  anything  but  the  strongest condemnation for the Islamic State.

Political scientists often talk about the ‘rally around the flag syndrome.’ In those days of early Febru-ary, it manifested blatantly as the regime attempted to capitalize on it. On February 6th, a major government-sponsored demonstration swept downtown Amman – with Queen Rania notably at the forefront. Placards and  slogans  condemned  Daesh,  supported  the  monarchy  (the  king  in  particular),  and  elected  Mu’adh  as  the  emblem  of  national  unity  (Kulluna  Mu’adh,  ‘We  are  all  Mu’adh’),  a  shahid  (‘martyr’),  a  batal  arabiyy  waqiyy (‘true Arab hero’). Much to my surprise, even a two-hundred-strong rally organized by the Jordanian Communist Party was held the same day in the neighborhood of Jabal al-Webdeh, where many expats live. Pictures of the pilot started popping up in bars and restaurants, inside shops, theatres; his image was painted on walls; cars had bumper stickers featuring praises and prayers to him; and a multitude of Jordanian flags waved in the air everywhere.

The state run TV broadcast non-stop clips and videos exalting the value and strength of the armed forces; in one of these videos, the king himself boarded a plane in full military gear to assist paratroopers in their drills. The Jordanian regime also went on the offensive in more explicit military terms: strikes against the IS were carried out in the next five days, with jet fighters flying low and storming over the skies of the capital around noon each of those days while heading north towards Syria.

However, a certain ambivalence could be noticed while overhearing and participating in conversations with Jordanians. Rage against Daesh was certainly there, but also incredulity and astonishment: How could an entity named the ‘Islamic State’ commit such atrocities? To the vast majority of Jordanians, by and large pious Sunni Muslims with little, if anything, in the way of open Islamist militancy, Daesh’s incomprehensible and astonishing practices could not easily be reconciled with the prevailing understanding of Islam. The contention that IS militants are not ‘real Muslims’ gave rise to all sorts of conspiracy theories about its origins and purposes. Daesh has been routinely described as masterminded by the CIA, or the MI6, or the Mossad, or a combination thereof: “That kind of thinking will lead us nowhere,” a Jordanian-Palestinian friend told me, “but people need something to explain what remains to them inexplicable – and lying a mere 100 miles from here.”