Meeting with King Abdullah II in Jordan last Friday, President Obama was gracious enough to mention the monarch’s great-grandfather, King Abdullah I, who “gave his life in the name of peace.” To Western ears, that sounded like a tribute. To Arab and Muslim ears, it may have sounded like a warning.
To understand why, it’s necessary to dip into the history that Westerners seldom learn and Middle Easterners seldom forget. What we now call Jordan was for centuries a backwater of the Ottoman Empire, the last of the great Islamic caliphates. Ottoman forces made the mistake of fighting on the losing side in World War I. Defeat precipitated the collapse of the empire and the dissolution of the caliphate. Ottoman lands were divided between the British and the French. The territory east of the Jordan River, referred to as Transjordan, became part of the British Mandate of Palestine.
Farther east, in Arabia, fierce warriors of the Saudi clan overthrew the Hashemite clan, whose members are said to be descended from the prophet Mohammed and who had long ruled the Hejaz, which includes the holy cities of Mecca and Medina. Displaced Hashemites were installed by the British in Transjordan. Abdullah — who had fought against the Ottomans and alongside T. E. Lawrence — was named Emir of Transjordan in 1921.
A quarter century later, when the Palestinian Mandate was dissolved, a fully independent Hashemite Kingdom of Transjordan was founded, with Abdullah on the throne. He opposed the establishment of Israel, and his Arab Legion was among the five armies that attempted to crush the fledgling Jewish state in 1948. That effort failed, of course, but the king’s men did cross the Jordan River and seize Judea and Samaria (subsequently renamed the West Bank), including sections of Jerusalem. Interesting to note: At that time, no Arab leader proposed establishing an independent Palestinian state in the West Bank and east Jerusalem, nor in Gaza, then under Egyptian control.
In April of 1949, Abdullah changed his country’s name to what it is today: the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan. Officially, it remained at war with Israel. Unofficially, Abdullah recognized that a long and bloody conflict with his western neighbor would benefit no one. In 1951, as he was leaving the al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem, he was assassinated by Mustafa Ashu, a member of the Jihad al-Muqaddas, the Army of the Holy War. Winston Churchill said: “I deeply regret the murder of this wise and faithful Arab ruler, who never deserted the cause of Britain and held out the hand of reconciliation to Israel.”