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Brief Reflections on Assassinations and Intolerance in Jordan

On the morning of Sunday 25 September 2016, a gunman shot Jordanian writer and opposition figure Nahed Hattar outside of the Jordanian Palace of Justice. At the request of Prime Minister Hani al-Mulki, the government accused Hattar of “inciting sectarian strife” and “insulting religion” and issued an arrest warrant for him on 12 August. Hattar turned himself in the following day and was subsequently released on bail on 8 September. The evidence presented was his posting to social media of a cartoon depicting an Islamic State fighter in heaven, bedding two women, drinking wine, and giving derogatory orders to God. Shortly after the assassination, police had a man they allege is the shooter in custody. Initial reports indicate that it was members of the public that apprehended the alleged shooter and turned him over to police. Since then, a polarizing debate has characterized social media, private conversations, and very few public spaces in Jordan.

What precisely Hattar’s politics were is a subject of concern to some at this point. Such a topic is certainly worthy of consideration, given both his stature as a well-known public activist-intellectual in Jordan and someone who was varyingly counted as part of the Arab left. Yet it is the politics surrounding Hattar’s arrest, prosecution, and assassination that concern me more at this juncture.

There has been great polarization around Hattar’s killing. Some are celebrating Hattar’s murder as just punishment for his blasphemy, others are pointing to his assassination as yet another example of “Islamic extremism” in Jordan and the ways in which it serves as an obstacle to reform. Many people with a basic commitment to free speech and due process can easily dismiss his killing and its celebration as deplorable acts. They are also supportive of an objective and transparent investigation and prosecution of the alleged assailant. Yet where does the government, and the authoritarian political system, fit into the picture?

Officials and their spokespersons have both condemned the killing of Hattar and promised the fullest application of the law in prosecuting the alleged gunman. Soon, others will undoubtedly connect this incident to the ongoing debate on government attempts at “reforming” the educational curriculum as a means of curtailing “extremism.” Ultimately, regime figures, state media, and foreign journalists will portray dynamics in Jordan as such: a regime-led modernizing and democratizing process stymied by the ignorant impulses, conservative ideologies, and extremist views of a not-so-insignificant portion of the population.

There is no doubt that there are individuals and groups of citizens in Jordan who seek to impose (or keep in place) policies that restrict certain types of speech and affiliation, among other policies. There is also no doubt that some of those would turn to acts of violence to encourage or ensure that imposition. But lost in this representation—or rather, covered up by it—is the complicity of political elites in Jordan in creating the general context of Hattar’s assassination and its specificities as well. There will be ample time to elaborate on these points in the coming weeks. None of the below is original in that much of it has been researched, studied, and critiqued by a small but brave group of individuals in Jordan. For example, see the work of the 7iber collective. For now, a brief listing should suffice, if only to help serve as a framework for filtering official statements, news reports, and social media commentary: 

  1. Hattar was killed in front of the courthouse, with the government’s full knowledge that several substantiated death threats were made against him. Why was he not given the type of protection that such threats merit.
  2. There are several individuals that openly called for Hattar’s murder via social media and other communication means. Why were these individuals not investigated, put under surveillance, or prosecuted for inciting violence?
  3. The government’s prosecution of Hattar was based on a Facebook post that satirized the Islamic State. Why was that act a prosecutable offense in the first place, and what message about freedom of speech does the government send by initiating such a case against him?
  4. The laws regulating political speech, debates about religion, and public gatherings are numerous, and the punishments for their violation can be severe. What role do these very laws play in creating an atmosphere in which genuine public debate, productive discussions, and critical thinking are absent? 

Reporting and analysis on Jordan is in no short supply. Most of it is unfortunately celebratory, including much of what passes as research-based or scholarly. Few, however, effectively narrate and analyze the efforts of people with a very different vision of Jordan than that espoused by Hattar’s murderer. It is not a vision shared by the regime, given the latter’s role in repressing and marginalizing those people and their views. Whether it is through laws of association, laws of publication, or laws limiting what people are allowed and not allowed to say, brave activists, journalists, and laypersons in Jordan have struggled against repeated attempts to prevent an effective and alternative form of political affiliation and mobilization.

Yesterday, someone murdered Nahed Hattar because a cartoon Hattar shared on Facebook offended that person. Yes, there are those in society who would kill others for expressing different views. But there are those who do not allow different views to be aired in the first place. They give weight to the idea that speech should be regulated, criminalized, and silenced. How many people has the regime harassed, arrested, or imprisoned over the past decades for making statements it did not agree with or were critical of Jordanian official policy? How many student organizations did it disband, publications did it block, and individuals did it refer to the State Security Court for merely engaging in critical debate?

But why dwell on these issues? Let us instead join the media chorus of celebrating the elections for a parliament with no power, the endless reform initiatives without structural change, and the wonderful PR machine of stable Jordan. Let us champion the path that has been announced, without looking at the road that was paved by the very same people.


Update: As of 2:27pm (Amman time) on Monday 26 August 2016, the murder case against Nahed Hattar's alleged killer has been transferred from the Criminal Court to the State Security Court. In addition, at the request of the State Security Court Prosecutor, the state Media Commission has imposed a gag order on all news and information related to Hattar's murder, which includes sattelite television and radio channels, print media, websites, and social media. This means that the government has warned Jordanians and Jordanian media outlets against sharing any statements or information that are not directly issued by the State Security Court Prosecutor, with the risk of facing prosecution. More of the same!

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