Recently, I took part in a forum organized by Jordan’s Politics and Society Institute, whose director is Mohammed Abu Rumman, on democratic transition in Jordan. The event—aimed at young activists, including members of political parties—examined the obstacles blocking such a transition and hobbling political reform in the country. I came away with the impression that some young participants, albeit a minority, shared certain preoccupations with many older people—concerns that have played a big role in the slow pace of such a transition. This demonstrates the complexity of any democratic transformation in Jordan, in addition to reflecting some persistent fears of change in the country.

The questions of nationality and national identity are key issues for Jordanians, and the country sorely needs a frank public conversation about them. Oddly, although modern Jordan was founded in 1921 and the current constitution was ratified in 1952, many still feel that Jordanian identity needs defining. A lack of clarity over identity, largely due to political factors relating to geographical origins as well as gender, remains a key obstacle to political, economic, and social development that we desperately need to ensure a stable and prosperous future.

To be explicit, many Jordanians with roots east of the Jordan River believe the country should build its identity purely on that geographical basis. This is despite the fact that a large sector of the population is of Palestinian origin, even if it is guaranteed full citizenship under Article 6 of the constitution. Those East Bankers who hold such a belief interpret the article as granting civil rights to Jordanians of Palestinian origin but as blocking any demand for full political rights, pending a resolution of the Arab-Israeli conflict and the Palestinian refugee issue, which would allow large numbers of those citizens to return to Palestine. Until that happens, the argument goes, equality between all Jordanians risks eliminating Jordanian national identity as well as fulfilling Israel’s longstanding dream of turning Jordan into an alternative home for Palestinians.

This logic ignores several issues, not least the fact that the Jordanian constitution does not make full citizenship conditional on a resolution of the Arab-Israeli conflict. The argument also ignores that such a resolution and the return to Palestine of significant numbers of Jordanians of Palestinian origin is unlikely at best. Nor do proponents of this logic recognize how Jordanian identity has developed over more than 70 years—seven decades of intermarriage, as well as social and political interaction between those from the East Bank and Palestinians. This raises vital questions: Does it make sense to link Jordan’s much-needed development to a resolution of the Arab-Israeli conflict, which could take decades, if it happens at all? And can Jordan cope with the consequences of delaying reform indefinitely?

In contrast, many Jordanians of Palestinian origin hold the view, publicly or privately, that they should be unfailingly loyal to the Jordanian state, despite their lack of representation in parliament, government, the army, or the security services. They believe that they are required to play down their legitimate sympathies for the Palestinian cause, on the grounds that their aspirations as Jordanians of Palestinian origin could clash with Jordan’s interests.

Another complicating factor is the patriarchal nature of Jordanian society, which works against legal equality between men and women. Much legislation, including labor, retirement, personal status, and citizenship laws discriminate against women, despite various official documents that affirm gender equality, such as the Jordanian National Charter and the National Agenda.

These texts appear to have fallen short of promoting a comprehensive Jordanian national identity. The National Charter describes Jordanians as “men and women equal before the law, without discrimination in terms of rights or duties, even if they differ in ethnicity, language, or religion.” The National Agenda calls for “equality for women and the removal of all forms of discrimination against them in Jordanian laws.” Article 6 of the Jordanian constitution, known for its clarity except when it deals with gender issues, says Jordanians “are equal before the law, and there is no discrimination between them in rights or duties, even if they differ in ethnicity, language, or religion.”

However, there appears to be confusion, deliberate or otherwise, between citizenship and naturalization. Equal citizenship is necessary to strengthen Jordan (or any country). Equality is explicitly stipulated in Jordan’s constitution, which gives full citizenship to every holder of a Jordanian national registration number. This also strengthens the country against outside attempts to undermine its much-prized stability. Equal citizenship is a guarantee against Israeli attempts to neutralize the Palestinian cause at Jordan’s expense, by strengthening and developing a solid national front against outside threats.

Naturalization is a totally different concept. In the case of Palestinians who do not hold Jordanian citizenship, giving them Jordanian nationality effectively would mean eroding their Palestinian identity. Ultimately, this could facilitate Israel’s efforts to prevent the emergence of an independent Palestinian state, leaving Jerusalem under Israeli control. Israel would find it easier to reduce the number of Palestinians under its authority, who are seen as an existential threat to the Zionist project. Their displacement would serve the interests of Israel alone and harms Jordanian interests as much as it does those of the Palestinians.

Promoting the concept of equal citizenship, as well as a comprehensive national identity that applies to all sons and daughters of Jordan, is vital. For the sake of Jordan’s stability and strength, this can no longer be delayed. Jordan is not Palestine, and every Jordanian will fight against any attempt to make it so. Jordan belongs to each one of its citizens, not to one sector of society at the expense of the other. This concept of the country should be built on a comprehensive, inclusive Jordanian national identity.

A number of articles have been published recently criticizing such a view of Jordanian identity, portraying it as an attack on Jordan’s heritage—albeit without presenting alternatives. Are these criticisms attempts to promote a subnational identity? Are the writers unaware of the constitution, or are they assailing it? Are these preoccupations legitimate if expressed by one group but illegitimate if another voices them or even remains silent about them?

There is a need to address the preoccupations of all parts of Jordanian society equally, because only equality will guarantee sustainable development for the benefit of all. One example that has impaired the development of fair representative systems is the question of equality in the election law, where a strict application of the equality principle has scared many East Jordanians that their “identity” would be greatly diluted. Equality in this sense is not limited to the narrow question of an electoral law. Demographic representation is not the only factor that needs to be taken into account when laws are updated. Geographical factors are also important, as is fair representation.

It is possible to reform the electoral law to address all three factors—equality, geographical distribution, and fair representation. Other laws governing political life could also be updated within the framework of a comprehensive Jordanian national identity and on the basis of equal citizenship, two goals that must be reached in a gradual and serious manner.

Jordan does not have the luxury of unlimited time to carry out reforms that address these questions, which affect all parts of society and beyond. History has shown us that no country can achieve sustainable political and economic development benefitting all parts of society without ensuring legal equality for all citizens before the law. This must be the broader framework for dealing with other obstacles to progress, such as corruption and nepotism.

Reform in Jordan cannot simply deal with issues such as corruption and nepotism within the framework of a subnational identity, regardless of which groups the latter encompasses. Such reform would not take the country forward, enhance living standards, tackle unemployment, or lead to better distribution of the gains from development to the whole population. Rather, it would lead to one group winning at the expense of another.

We have an opportunity to tackle the preoccupations of all parts of Jordanian society, and to do so within the framework of a comprehensive national identity. This has to be done soon. Giving in to the status quo and allowing it to persist would pose grave threats to Jordan’s future. Let us not waste this chance.