Foreign Affairs: A BC Student’s Impressions Amid Middle East Tension

Pulling into Logan Airport, I was nervous for my flight across the globe to begin my study abroad adventure. I said goodbye to my family and set off through security. 24 travel hours later, I arrived in Amman, Jordan and knew that this was going to be a different study abroad experience. After stepping out of Queen Alia Airport into a cloud of smoke, walking past Muslims praying in the street, and zipping down the highways with seemingly no road rules, we arrived at a local hotel to begin orientation.

During this introduction to Jordan, we were warned not only about the taxi drivers who will attempt to swindle more dinars out of unknowing Americans, but also about the intense sexual harassment women may encounter. Culture shock was setting in quickly and we hadn’t even left the hotel. I was afraid I had made a mistake coming to the Middle East. In addition to adjusting to life in Jordan, I also was meeting all the people in my program for the first time because I am the only student from Boston College here for this semester.

On Jan. 23, King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia died. Saudi Arabia is a powerful country in the region, and every television station in Jordan was discussing his death since the Jordanian royal family is originally from the area of the holy cities in Saudi Arabia. King Salman was named as Abdullah’s successor, and life was beginning to go back to normal. But then came the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

On Feb. 3, ISIS released a video showcasing the Jordanian pilot, who was taken hostage in December of 2014 after his plane went down in Syria during an airstrike, being burned alive. ISIS will stop at nothing to achieve its goal of establishing an Islamic caliphate. Typically, jihadists, as ISIS members are usually labeled, do not kill other Muslims to proselytize Islam, and killing Lt. Moath al-Kasasbeh has made it clear to Muslims, especially Jordanians, that ISIS is a much bigger threat to Islam. Jordan had been negotiating with ISIS since his capture and was willing to trade the Jordanian hotel bomber, Sajida al-Rishawi, for him, but the country wanted definitive proof that he was alive before making the trade. Instead, the Jordanian public received a gruesome video of his death, and in response, Jordan executed Sajida along with two other captured members of al-Qaeda.

Unsure how ISIS was going to respond, I began to feel truly afraid for the first time here. Angered by the murder, Jordanians began to protest. Middle Eastern protests have a tendency to become violent, and both our program and the U.S. Embassy warned us not to go near protests and not to go out unnecessarily. There was a large protest in Amman on Friday after evening prayers, and many more across the country, which, fortunately, were primarily peaceful and directed against ISIS.

This event has been a large discussion point domestically, as every channel has been broadcasting Lt. al-Kasasbeh’s life, and also internationally, as President Barack Obama asked Congress for the use of force against ISIS. Even though this terrible event has occurred, however, I have not felt unsafe. There has been a heightened police presence, and people have become united against ISIS. From my experience of daily life, Jordanians have been extremely welcoming and willing to help, even when our Arabic is less than stellar. They are passionate about who they are and want to see security in their nation.

Anyone who has studied the Middle East can tell you that identity politics is a major issue in the region. Ethnicity is one of people’s main identities, and many are discriminated against—particularly Palestinians. From what I have learned from these protests, however, no matter where a person is originally from, everyone can rally around the idea that ISIS needs to be finished. Queen Rania, a Palestinian, made this idea clear when she led the main protest holding a picture of Lt. al-Kasasbeh. Even though the Queen is Palestinian, and the pilot was from an influential tribe in Karak, she knew that this event affected all Arabs, not just Jordanians. Banners that hang throughout the city read, “We are all Jordanian,” and for the next three months, I am too.