Perfect Assassination of a Jordanian Writer

A Jordanian writer, accused of sharing a cartoon considered offensive to Islam, was killed two weeks after his release from prison on bail. Hakim Khatib explores why.

A perfect assassination starts with the demonisation of a person and ends with a condemnation of the assassin.

On 25 September 2016, the prominent Jordanian writer Nahed Hattar, 56, was shot dead ahead of a trial on the steps of the courthouse in Jordan’s capital Amman. He was accused of sharing a caricature deemed offensive to Islam on his Facebook page. Hattar was an outspoken leftist, secular writer and a self-described Christian atheist, known for his controversial views on issues regarding refugees, his support of Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad and his hostility to movements of political Islam.

According to the Jordanian state news agency, Petra, an armed man fired three shots at the writer at close range in front of the courthouse ahead of a hearing.

The long-bearded shooter, who was wearing a long grey robe characteristic of ultra-conservative Muslims, was identified as the 49-year-old Jordanian imam Riad Ismail Ahmed Abdullah, from one of Amman’s poorer neighbourhoods – Hashmi. The perpetrator, Abdullah, was referred to the state security court on terrorism-related charges and might face the death penalty.

Contempt of Religion

Hatter was arrested on 13 August 2016 on charges of insulting Islam by sharing a cartoon on his Facebook page. The writer removed the post thereafter and wrote that the cartoon “mocks terrorists and their concept of God and heaven. It does not infringe God’s divinity in any way”.

This is not the first time Hattar’s life has been endangered, but it was the last. Hattar’s family said: “The writer was given no protection by authorities” despite him receiving hundreds of death threats since sharing the cartoon. Although Hattar’s family filed 200 names of people who had threatened the writer (including that of the assassin) and handed them over to the governor of Amman, Khaled Abu Zeid, protection was denied because there was, as estimated by the governor, “no real threat”.

Upon sharing that cartoon on social media, a storm of hysteria blew against Hattar, led by lawyers and media organisations, such as Al-Jazeera, and well-known officials, including the Jordanian Prime Minister Hani Mulqi, who ordered an investigation into the issue, resulting in multiple charges against Hattar.

Hattar was charged with “inciting sectarian strife” and publishing material that offends “other people’s religious feelings” under articles 150 and 278 of Jordan’s penal code. In addition to these accusations, Hattar has been painted as the anti-Islamic devil, who purposely causes offence to Jordanian Muslims.

On 13 August when Hattar was arrested, Al-Jazeera reported that: “Jordan’s Muslim Brotherhood issued a statement in response to Hattar’s comments that called on the government to take strong measures against those who publish seditious material that undermined national unity”.

Noting that freedom of expression is protected for all but within the constitutional and legal limitations, Mulqi said a few weeks ago that he will not tolerate crossing the red lines of the sacred, and that the laws will be firmly applied to all those who commit such intrusive practices in the religious and conservative Jordanian society, which always defends the sanctity of religion.

Hattar denied the charges and commented before closing his Facebook account: “Those who were offended by the drawing are of two types: Good-intentioned people, who didn’t understand that the intended irony of the cartoon mocks terrorist Daesh militants and the Muslim brotherhood vision of God and heaven. I respect and appreciate those people.” The second type, he continued, represents “Islamists and Daesh sympathizers, who hold a pathological imagination of man’s relationship with the divine. They took advantage of the caricature to settle political issues that have nothing to do with what they claim.”

After all, Hattar shared the cartoon. He didn’t draw it.

Heaven in a Jihadist Mind

The cartoon is offensive simply because it is cynical. The cartoon depicts Allah opening the flap of a tent and having a conversation with a bearded man, who is smoking in bed with two women, asking Allah to serve him wine and take empty plates with him.

While the cartoon portrays heaven, there are three sarcastic captions beside the drawing and they read as follows:

Allah: “May your evening be joyous, Abu Saleh, are you in need of anything?”

Jihadist: “Yes Lord, bring me a glass of wine from over there and tell Angel Gabriel to bring me some cashews. Afterwards, send me an eternal servant to clean the floor, and take the empty plates with you.”

Jihadist continues: “Don’t forget to install a door for the tent so that you knock before you enter next time. You are glorious!”

Parody involving Islam has inspired violence in various countries across the world and is still one of the most sensitive and dangerous forms of expression.

Persistent Controversy

Although many journalists and human rights activists condemned the assassination of Hattar and considered the attack a staggering assault against humanity, there are some who celebrated the assassination and considered the attack a victory against blasphemy.

While social media accounts of prominent conservatives were celebrating Hattar’s death, saying he got what he deserved for committing blasphemy, official response of the Jordanian government was condemnation. This, however, wasn’t the case before the murder.

Upon sharing the cartoon, a backlash lambasting Hattar swept conservative and non-conservative social media alike, calling on the government to arrest him. He was even attacked for being Christian and a secularist.

There are further reports that question the government’s role of creating a hostile atmosphere that incites violence, especially that the judiciary, the Jordanian government, and several writers, lawyers and journalists, had demonized Hattar over the past weeks, making him a target for extremism.

The creation of a climate which encourages violence in Arab countries is not novel. There are other examples of which writers have been criminalized or even put to death; Farag Foda, Islam Al-Buhairi, Sayed Al-Qemany, Naguib Mahfouz, Nasr Abu Zayd, Haidar Haidar, Mohammad Wild Imkheter, Fatima Naoot, Ashraf Fayyad, Karam Saber and many others.

Contrary to previous governmental accusations of Hattar, a government spokesman Mohammad Momani described the shooting as a “heinous act” and commented that: “The law will be strictly enforced on the culprit who did this criminal act.”

Calling on the people of the Jordanian society of all faiths and backgrounds to stand united behind the leadership of the Hashemite family against terrorism and troublemakers, the General Dar Al-Iftaa (the house of religious regulations) denounced the killing of Hatter, stressing that “the religion of Islam is innocent of this heinous crime.”

The Muslim Brotherhood in Jordan also spoke out against killing Hatter. Badi Rafayeh, spokesman of Muslim Brotherhood in Jordan, said that the group “condemns this heinous attack”.

“We warn against inciting communal strife and invite everyone to maintain security and stability in our beloved country,” he added.

These statements remain controversial because they are exactly the opposite to what was said by these groups before the writer’s death. The problem doesn’t lie in a so-called divide between secularists and the Muslim brotherhood in Jordanian society, as has been suggested by Western media. Jordanian authorities, considered secular by Western standards, have been instrumental in the creation of such a hostile atmosphere against free thinkers. Suffice to say that streamlining laws to criminalise writers on the grounds of insulting religion seem to be profoundly divisive. Condemnation of the attack inside Jordan was loud after Hattar’s death and equally so was the demonization of him before his death. Is this a perfect assassination?

Hakim Khatib works as a lecturer in politics and culture of the Middle East, intercultural communication and journalism at Fulda and Darmstadt Universities of Applied Sciences and Phillips University Marburg. Hakim is a PhD candidate in political science on struggle over ideological power in the Middle East and the link thereof to democracy at the University of Duisburg-Essen and the editor-in-chief of the Mashreq Politics and Culture Journal (MPC Journal), a member of the International Globalist network.

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