MAAN, Jordan — Hanging from the facade of a shuttered bank on a bustling market street in this sunbaked town were two large, white banners emblazoned with black letters.
“We congratulate the Islamic nation for its epic conquests,” one read. “Granted by Allah to the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.”
The banners went up last month after about 100 local residents carried them through downtown, waving the black flags of jihad and praising the extremist group that has seized territory in two neighboring countries. But while ISIS, which now calls itself the Islamic State, appears to have no active presence in this desert town south of the capital, Amman, the event demonstrated how its image is growing, its ideology gaining traction and its appeal extending beyond those who would take up arms and don suicide vests.
“People were happy about the victories of the Sunnis in Iraq, so they went out to congratulate them,” said Ahed Abu Darwish, whose brother, Essam, organized the pro-ISIS march. “It’s like raising the flag of Barcelona or Argentina after they win a soccer match.”
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Across the Arab world, the drive for democratic change has stalled, for the moment at least, and in its place has been a resurgence of strongmen and Islamic militants, both selling the promise of stability and order as counterpoints to the tumult that followed the Arab Spring.
For many here, the radical Sunni jihadis of ISIS are seen as a force battling oppression, an unsettling prospect for Sunni rulers, like the king of Jordan, as much as for Shiites, like the prime minister of Iraq.
Breaking the Ramadan fast in Maan, Jordan. Some residents cite unemployment and police brutality as causes of increasing ISIS support among young people.
As other Arab nations have fallen prey to protests, wars and Islamist insurgencies, Jordan has maintained its reputation as a pro-American bastion of stability better known for hosting refugees than for civil unrest.
But Maan has long challenged that image with a mixture of poverty, Islamism, criminality and neglect that has fueled recurrent clashes between the government and the town’s heavily armed populace.
“There is no ISIS here, but there could be because there is oppression, frustration, high prices and unemployment,” said the mayor, Majid Sharari. “All that could lead to chaos.”
Around the region, marginalized communities in Yemen, Lebanon and Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula have also embraced the ISIS brand to add leverage to their local grievances.
In Jordan, while some saw the march last month as a sign that extremists had established a foothold that could threaten the state, local residents said it was an expression of their greater concerns — unemployment and the heavy-handed tactics of the police, who frequently carry out raids to arrest criminals, setting off clashes that have killed and wounded residents.
“We have no ISIS here, we have never had ISIS here, and we would never accept its presence,” said Ahmad al-Bazia, who works for the local governor’s office. “What we have are young men who see themselves as outcasts from their own government because of how it treats them.”
But some worried that the group’s appeal would grow if local grievances were not addressed. As it is, residents acknowledge a strong Islamist presence in the town and say about 100 men have left Maan to join the rebels in Syria. More than two dozen have been killed, their status as “martyrs” publicly celebrated.
Around town, it appeared that some of the young people reveled in the power and impact of invoking ISIS. One evening as sunset approached, a crowd collected at a colorful tent put up by a local Islamic association that offered free meals to anyone wishing to break the Ramadan fast.
Spotting a visitor, a group of teenagers gathered, and a boy with black fuzz on his upper lip pointed to his friends one by one.
“I am ISIS, he is ISIS and he is ISIS,” he said, his friends laughing mischievously.
Evidence of Maan’s dysfunctional relationship with the government was clear around town. Billboards had been shredded during clashes, and main streets bore the circular scars of tires burned to keep out the police. A number of buildings had also been burned.
No police officers directed traffic at intersections, making the only visible security presence the fleet of imposing armored vehicles parked around town. The police had stopped entering Maan in regular cars because residents often shot at them.
The local governor, Ghalib al-Shumaili, dismissed the idea that poverty caused Maan’s problems, blaming instead criminals hiding among the population.
“They are very dangerous; they have guns, and they fire at everyone: police, citizens, anyone walking down the road,” he said.
He said the situation was getting worse.
Earlier this year, the government named 19 wanted men in Maan, he said. Five have since been arrested, but the number had risen to 26 after new gunfights between residents and the police.
Mr. Shumaili said that he did not consider ISIS a threat in Maan, but he added that it was difficult to gauge such threats.
“Northern Iraq fell in 24 hours,” he said.
Maan’s residents resent the characterization of their town as a den of militants and criminals, saying that decades of neglect have left few prospects for young men.
They also say the tribes that form the town’s social fabric hesitate to hand over wanted men because they fear the police will mistreat them. Many residents carry a video on their cellphones showing security forces dropping a dead body on the street. Others mentioned a photo of a shirtless local man with blood on his face that appeared on social media after he was detained.
Still, few consider ISIS proper an immediate threat to Jordan. The government arrested only one person after last month’s pro-ISIS rally, and the town’s most notorious jihadi, Muhammad al-Chalabi, lives openly and often speaks to the news media.
“If we really had ISIS in Maan, how many explosions do you think we would have had?” said Abdullah al-Hossan, a local activist.
But that does not stop angry residents from embracing the idea of ISIS to express displeasure and to provoke the government.
Three black flags adorned a wall near the home of Suleiman al-Imami, an employee of the Maan city hall whose son Qusai was killed in April during a police raid meant to arrest someone else. Other black flags fly from the nearby traffic circle and the roof of Mr. Imami’s house.
“It is a flag for Islam,” Mr. Imami said, denying that it implied support for ISIS. “We fly it because we are proud that we are Muslims and because we are mourning my son.”
One young man, hanging around the colorful Ramadan tent, delivered a dramatic statement in formal Arabic about how ISIS had come to sweep away the region’s corrupt governments and bring justice. His speech elicited giggles from his friends.
When asked his name, he gave an obviously fake nom de guerre like those adopted by foreign jihadis leaving to fight in Syria: Abu Waleed al-Muhajir.
Once his friends had wandered off, however, he grew more serious, saying he had finished school, but had no job and no idea how to get one. He volunteered a photo on his phone of a man in black holding a machine gun, saying it was his friend who had gone to fight jihad in Syria. Then he showed a video of armored vehicles in the streets of Maan, firing tear gas.
“Sometimes, the police bug people here,” he said, pointing to an armored vehicle down the street. “Don’t you see where they’re parked?”
Having overheard the conversation, a teacher at a local college intervened.
“These kids have no idea what ISIS is,” said the teacher, Emad al-Khattab. “But they’ll say anything to annoy the government.”