Sunday,22 October, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1313, (29 september - 5 October 2016)
Sunday,22 October, 2017
Issue 1313, (29 september - 5 October 2016)

Ahram Weekly

Jordan’s warning call

Jordan has been shaken by the assassination of a leftist writer who was on trial for insulting Islam. Amira Howeidy reports

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Al-Ahram Weekly

Nahed Hattar was on his way Sunday, 9am, to Qasr Al-Adl, or The Justice Palace — a complex for Amman’s main courts — to attend the first session of his trial for insulting Islam when a bearded man called his name, and then shot Hattar several times. He died at the foot of the stairs of the courthouse, never making it to the trial that was to take place inside.

The symbolism of the scene was self-evident. A death sentence issued and executed outside the law in broad daylight in front of this bastion of justice, wrought with the irony of the fact that the case was instigated not by a fanatic, but by Jordan’s secular Prime Minister Hani Al-Mukli.

Hattar, 56, who was Christian, was a prominent leftist Jordanian dissident writer and leader in Jordan’s nationalist movement. On 12 August, he shared a cartoon on his Facebook page depicting an Islamic State militant in heaven flanked by two women, talking to the face of God asking him for wine and nuts. The cartoon — which was also shared by other Facebook users — triggered a storm of attacks against Hattar who was accused of insulting Islam and blasphemy, prompting Jordan’s premier to order the interior minister to investigate him. Although Hattar quickly deleted the cartoon, denying any intention of insulting Islam, the saga would not end as it continued to snowball outside social media. After handing himself in to the police the following day, Hattar was arrested and charged with inciting civil strife and insulting Islam. A publishing gag was imposed by authorities soon after.

Hattar was held in Marka Prison until 8 September when he was released on bail. His trial was due to begin on Sunday in central Amman. Each of the two charges he faced are punishable by up to three years in prison.

According to Hattar’s family, he had continued to receive death threats since the cartoon incident and reported them to the police (including the names of those who made them), which took them lightly and didn’t offer security measures for his protection. “When he was released from prison, they told him his safety was his responsibility,” said his cousin Saad Hattar in a telephone interview. Nevertheless, Hattar went about his day-to-day activities normally and didn’t carry a gun or hire a bodyguard. “I don’t think we imagined he would get killed,” his cousin said.

The gunman was identiifed as 49-year-old Riyadh Ismail Abdullah a former Imam. Accocording to Hattar's cousin Abdullah is an engineer at the Ministry of Education.

The family initially refused to receive his body unless the government resigns and offers an apology,

The government did resign hours after the assassination but in connection with last week’s parliamentary elections, which saw a minor win for the opposition — mainly the Muslim Brotherhood after a decade’s long boycott of elections. Premier Al-Mukli, who was appointed in June, was tasked by the Jordanian monarch to form a new government.

But some observers argued that the move served to deflect from Hattar’s assassination, which has shaken the kingdom and provoked accusations against the government for its failure to protect the man and for its complicity for prosecuting him in the first place.

Human Rights Watch held the Jordanian government responsible for Hattar’s assassination. “Arbitrary prosecutions for defamation of religion stigmatise individuals and make them targets for vigilante reprisals,” it said in a statement.

The authorities imposed yet another gag on publishing press reports related to the assassination. The government’s position has further antagonised critics who say it has failed to address the issue at its roots.

“My concern now, beyond a public inquiry into the government’s failure to adequately protect Hattar, is that the regime will use this incident to its own advantage,” Ziad Abu Rish, a history professor at Ohio University who is specialised in Jordan said in an email response. “The only thing possibly worse than the killing of Hattar is the regime’s unfolding appropriation of the incident to claim itself a champion of reform and moderation.”

The Jordanian government is expected to take steps to mitigate public anger in the short term, said Abu Rish, "while it will only add to the list of grievances that those advocating a more transparent, accountable, and open society have against the status quo. But the very act of the assasination and the government's complicity has certainly scared many."

On Monday hundreds staged a protest near Al-Mukli’s office and called for his resignation. Up until Al-Ahram Weekly was going to press, the standoff between Hattar’s family and the government had not ended, though relatives said attempts were underway by the authorities to “contain” the situation in order to hand over his body to the family for burial.

On the surface, the Jordanian authorities appear unfazed by the assassination — the first of its kind against a writer in the kingdom’s history — with mainstream media barely giving it the attention it deserves. But beneath this façade is evidence of a shocked nation grappling with an already volatile political landscape.

A column by Jordanian writer Lamis Andoni in the Lebanese Assafir newspaper argued that the widespread condemnation of Hattar’s assassination, even from his staunchest critics, reflects fears of the spread of similar acts of violence and security disorder in a climate fuelled by hate speech.

Even before the cartoon, Hattar was a controversial figure in Jordanian politics for his staunch support for the Bashar Al-Assad regime and Hizbullah’s role in Syria. He also advocated depriving Jordanians of Palestinian origin (who constitute roughly half of the population, including Queen Rania) of their legal and civil rights.

He was vocal in his criticism of Jordan’s precarious policy on Syria: As a Saudi ally, it supports Riyadh’s anti-Iran policy (including in Syria), but it also part of the US-led coalition against the so-called Islamic State (IS) in Syria and Iraq.

Jordan shares borders with both Syria and Iraq and hosts close to 700,000 Syrian refugees. While enjoying relative stability compared to its neighbours, Jordan has been stung by the abutting wars.

In June, five Jordanian intelligence officers were killed near Al-Baqaa Palestinian refugee camp on the outskirts of the capital. In December 2014, a Jordanian pilot who was captured by IS militants in Syria was burned alive, militants releasing a video of the execution.

Hattar blamed official Jordanian policy for the attack at Al-Baqaa and accused the government of appeasing fanatics and creating a “takfiri climate” (those who deem others, including Muslims, apostates) in Jordan and advocating anti-Shia, anti-Syria propaganda.

Hizbullah mourned Hattar in a statement that described him as a “warrior against the Zionist project, a guardian of the Palestinian cause and the axis of resistance.”

Andoni said the repercussions of Hattar’s assassination extended beyond the realm of Islamist-secularist spats over a cartoon, because of Hattar’s explicit support for both the Syrian regime and Tehran, and categorical rejection of political Islam. He advocated an alliance between Jordan, Syria, Iran and Iran to counter Islamic fundamentalism.

Prior to the 2011 Syrian war, Hattar’s thoughts contributed to a narrow redefinition of Jordanian nationalism, which he thought necessary to protect the kingdom from being overwhelmed by regional shifts and mass Iraqi, Syrian and Palestinian migration waves. Writes Andoni: “This made his writings controversial, especially since they stoked the fears of Jordanians of Palestinian origin and contributed to deepening the regional divide.”

His assassination “could be a turning point for Jordan,” wrote Andoni. “It should be a warning call against sectarian or political strife, lawlessness and the influence of hate speech.”

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