The assassination of Christian author Nahed Hattar in Amman, in September 2016, sparked intense reactions across Jordanian society, highlighting the growing influence of radical Islam and Jordan's precarious position adjacent war-torn Syria and Iraq.
“Do you remember telling me about the author who was the subject of the last Friday prayer?” I ask my translator Mohammad, without taking my eyes off the phone. He nods and races his small Kia through the backstreets of the Jordanian capital. I tell him the news: “He was shot this morning.”
Mohammad brakes, his hands clinging to the steering wheel. “Son of a…!”
Mohammad and I have a mutual friend, a family member of author Nahed Hattar, who has informed us of his assassination. In the early evening of a black day for Jordan, people will light candles for the dead author.
In August 2016, Hattar shared a cartoon on Facebook, a caricature mocking the Islamic State’s concept of God. There are blasphemy laws in Jordan which could have caused Hattar to be arrested for his social media activity. Instead, on the stairs of the Palace of Justice courthouse, where he was being tried over the cartoon, Hattar was shot dead by a jihadist on Sunday, September 25.
A major breakdown in justice and security
“Until this day, my brother believed in our government. He said nothing is going to happen, because we live in a country that has justice.” Hatter’s sister, Kawkab Hattar, struggles with tears as she speaks shortly after the murder. “This is my blood. This is my brother.” She can’t understand how the Jordanian government could allow her brother’s arrest in the first place, as Amman is part of a coalition fighting Islamic State, alongside 64 other countries.
While Jordan is considered one of the most stable countries in the region, Islamists are increasing their power in the country’s parliament. An activist attending Hattar’s mourning ceremony points to the growing issue of radicalisation. “We gave them [Islamists] the opportunity to grow and spread their thoughts because we were afraid of being accused of being anti-Islam,” she says, going on to explain that Islamists have been able to establish influential parties. Today, she and the others who have gathered in public to demonstrate in memory of Hattar are demanding a secular state with neutral judges. What happened to Nahed Hattar, they feel, points to a major breakdown in justice and security.
A failing Parliament?
In the Jordanian parliamentary elections on 20 September, the Islamic Action Front (IAF), an affiliate of the Muslim Brotherhood, won 16 out of 130 parliamentary seats to emerge as the main opposition party. A contributing factor in their strong showing was a low voter turnout of just 37%. Many Jordanians believe their parliament simply can’t make major changes and are weary of corruption and nepotism. (There are rumours that in this election, votes were being sold for up to 250 euros.)
With the country beset by economic problems such as high youth unemployment and the recent influx of Syrian refugees, Islamist powers in opposition are gaining momentum. And although the IAF immediately disassociated itself from Hattar’s murder, Islamists are deeply mistrusted. It is they, after all, who are actively campaigning for stricter blasphemy laws and whose predecessors mobilised crowds ten years ago to protest the infamous Danish cartoons of the Prophet.
Yet despite this, Hattar’s supporters don’t see the peaceful coexistence of religions – on which Jordan prides itself – to be in jeopardy. They stand shoulder to shoulder, comforting each other. “Long live Jordan – independent, free, Arabic!” they cry.
Collectively, verses from the Bible and Quran are quoted. Everybody who wants is allowed to speak.
A question of guilt
What started as an emotional and intimate gathering slowly turns into a political event. Hundreds of people have gathered in front of the Palace of Justice. They chorus against Daesh (the Arabic acronym for ISIS), al-Nusra Front and the Salafists, demanding the resignation of the government. For the crowd, the question of guilt is easy to answer. Although Hattar alerted authorities several times that he was receiving regular death threats, the government did not offer any security arrangements. Hattar was shot three times in the head, in front of his family and the police. His supporters want the death sentence for the assassin, Riad Abdallah, who was known to authorities as an extremist who preached in two mosques in Amman from time to time.
Muslims who didn’t support Hattar but vocally oppose his arrest and assassination are also at the demonstration, reflecting the deep impact the murder has had across many sectors of society here. Ilyas Shahin, a member of the Communist Party, stands in the midst of the crowd, addressing the gathering with his megaphone. “His assassination has nothing to do with Islam but with the Daesh mentality which is established in our country. We Jordanians, we don’t blame Islam, we blame Daesh.”
But while Hatter’s family and supporters are protesting in public, across social media a multitude of voices are making themselves heard, sympathising with the assassin. My contact with the Hattar family later tells me that he loved Jordan and its people until the novelist’s death. But after his cousin was murdered he composed a tribute to him on Facebook which was followed by numerous negative reactions: “May the sinner rot in hell”, “God bless the assassin”, “Everybody who is insulting Prophet Mohammad should be punished the same way”.
These are comments filled with hate from people he doesn’t know. A lot of comments came from profiles with fake names. But, he says: “My Muslim friends, though, they all called me to express their condolences.”