Jordan gags media on Hattar case, but should they be gagging extremism?

Published September 27th, 2016 - 01:52 GMT
Protesters at a vigil held Monday night for Nahed Hattar at the site of his murder (Al Bawaba/Bethan Staton)
Protesters at a vigil held Monday night for Nahed Hattar at the site of his murder (Al Bawaba/Bethan Staton)

Nahed Hattar was shot dead outside Jordan’s Palace of Justice Sunday. His suspected killer, one Riad Ismail Ahmed Abdullah, said he shot Hattar three times in the head because of an anti-Daesh (ISIS) cartoon the self-described non-believer from a Christian family shared on Facebook. The cartoon landed Hattar in hot water as he faced trial for sharing it, having been charged with insulting the divine. It also ultimately led to his death.

Jordan issued a gag order on the entire Hattar incident Monday, one day after the shooting. But given the killer’s actions, the praise he received for it, the fact that Hattar faced trial for his actions in the first place, and the plethora of threats he received preceding his death, many in the Hashemite Kingdom feel it is religious extremism – not the media –  that needs a gagging.

Islamic extremism exists in Jordan. The country is known to have a salafist (an ultra-conservative Islamic school of thought) presence, and even some home-grown jihadists. 4,000 Jordanians are believed to have fought in Syrian civil war until present. This includes over 2,000 Jordanians in Daesh (ISIS), making Jordanians their fourth largest group of foreigners in the militant group.

Extremist elements of many kinds showed themselves throughout the case. Al Bawaba reported that a disturbingly large number of Jordanians celebrated Hattar’s death on Twitter and Facebook Sunday. At the same time, a significant number condemned the killing on social media.

Similar sentiments were displayed in the lead up to the case, and some think Jordan could do more to counter extremist trends in society. The Jordanian news site 7iber noted that Hattar had been receiving death threats in the weeks leading up to his murder, and criticized a perceived lack of government action on this end. “This did not warrant ‘an order to investigate’ nor did it initiate any legal case against the instigators,” they wrote.

Also in a similar vein, conservative views have had traction in Jordan’s education system. When changes in 2016 to textbooks used in public schools removed lessons on the Quran, there were vocal objections by parents. Some further complained about the appearance of women without hijabs in said textbooks.

The aforementioned reforms were put in place after Jordanian textbooks had been criticized for forcing Christians to learn the Quran, for example, amidst other issues pertaining to religious freedom.

To some that knew Hattar, he was a bulwark against such values, including Wahhabism–a radical Islamist ideology most often associated with Saudi Arabia, and increasingly seen to be infecting the Kingdom masses.

Concerns about extremism in Jordan exist in the country’s blogosphere as well. “We tend to see these acts as lone wolf. But they are of a society gravitating more towards religious conservatism and that supports such acts, even if they don’t commit them themselves,” Naseem Tarawnah, a blogger better known as The Black Iris, told Al Bawaba.

Hattar is only one case, but his status as a secular writer who died in the custody of the state may be concerning for others with similar beliefs. His family, for one, blames the government for his murder. In a video message to CNN Arabic, Hattar’s brother Hamal said “We won’t accept the body of the martyr (Hattar) nor will we open a house of mourning for him until the resignation or dismissal of the one they call Hani Al-Mulki (the prime minister of Jordan).”

What Jordan has done successfully is defend the country from militancy. Although known to have a small Daesh (ISIS) presence, Jordan hasn’t witnessed a major attack on civilians since the 2005 Amman bombings. It is this record – in a region otherwise plagued by failed states and civil strife – that gives Jordan’s security apparatus its reputation. But while armed insurgency is not a phenomenon in the Kingdom, the Hattar incident demonstrates that religious extremism is; and it may be stifling the debate that progressives wish was louder.

As extremism apparently thrives on the Jordanian street and social media, the government has thus far chose to silence the media, and not the voices of Abdullah and his praisers. The gag order on the Hattar case is to include all reports on the matter “except official information and statements from the attorney general of the national security court,” according to the Jordan Media Commission.

This too has been criticized by some observers. “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,” wrote Ziad Abu Rish in Jadaliyya Monday. Abu Rish then noted the government’s crackdown on its critics.  

Much government action (against extremism) is framed as only a security narrative. I and others see it as a cultural and societal problem that penetrates all walks of life,” said Tarawnah.

There may be benefits to the government attempt to silence those seeking answers to Hattar’s murder. Any major controversy could lead to societal discord – the last thing Jordan needs as it struggles with the Syrian refugee crisis, economic woes, and the threat of Daesh. But as long as extremism is able to air its opinions, and hold sway in both government and public spheres, Jordan will continue to have its critics.

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