A Free-Speech Fatality

Supporters of the Jordanian writer Nahed Hattar protesting his death in Amman, Jordan, this month. Credit Raad Adayleh/Associated Press
Supporters of the Jordanian writer Nahed Hattar protesting his death in Amman, Jordan, this month. Credit Raad Adayleh/Associated Press

In January 2015, King Abdullah and Queen Rania of Jordan marched in Paris with other world leaders to pay tribute to the murdered cartoonists of Charlie Hebdo and to stand up for freedom of expression. Less than two years later, when Nahed Hattar, a 56-year-old Jordanian writer from a Christian family, shared a cartoon on his Facebook page that some perceived to be mocking God, the Jordanian government swiftly ordered his arrest and charged him with “insulting religious belief and sentiment.”

Mr. Hattar deleted the cartoon and clarified that he meant to mock only how the Islamic State’s followers viewed God. When the police went to arrest him and did not find him at home, the governor of Amman called him a “fugitive from justice” before he turned himself in. He was detained for 25 days before being released on bail in early September.

Knowingly or not, the government contributed to a wave of incitement and public outrage against Mr. Hattar. That culminated on Sunday, when he was shot dead in front of a courthouse here in Amman, in an unprecedented assassination that sent shock waves throughout a kingdom that boasts about its security and stability above all else.

But perhaps people shouldn’t be surprised. Public death threats against Mr. Hattar — including calls for his execution — had spread across social media since his arrest. The charges against him gave further legitimacy to the public anger. Some wrote that if the judiciary was lenient with Mr. Hattar, they would take matters into their own hands. None of this prompted the government to take action against those making the threats. The suspect in the killing is a 49-year-old man who preached at a neighborhood mosque and, in 2011, was arrested for beating up a 15-year-old boy who insulted God.

The incongruity between the king and queen’s support for the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists and the government’s willingness to help incite against dissidents here is symptomatic. The Jordanian government has always handled anything related to religion this way: On one hand, officials claim to fight radicalization and violent extremism; on the other, they appease fundamentalist Islamists by banning books or censoring films and by claiming to be defenders of Islam.

Jordan’s Hashemite monarchy has historically derived legitimacy from its direct lineage to the Prophet Muhammad, and it has always presented itself as a custodian of moderate Islam. While Jordan’s population comprises a mix of Jordanians and Palestinians — and increasingly Syrian and Iraqi refugees — the country is more homogeneous when it comes to religion: More than 97 percent of people are Sunni Muslim.

According to a 2015 study by the Doha-based Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies, 81 percent of Jordanians identify as “somewhat religious” and 15 percent identify as “very religious.” The Muslim Brotherhood’s political wing remains the most potent force in the parliamentary opposition.

In June, months before Mr. Hattar’s arrest, Jordanian authorities detained Amjad Qourshah, a popular Islamic scholar and preacher, ostensibly over his criticism of Jordan’s role in the coalition against the Islamic State. In a video published in 2014, Mr. Qourshah questioned the coalition’s targeting of civilians and Nusra Front fighters. The State Security Court, a special military court, denied him bail for almost three months before approving his release. Many religiously conservative Jordanians were outraged.

Mr. Hattar’s arrest came while Mr. Qourshah was still in jail. Many believe that the Jordanian authorities were attempting a balancing act, demonstrating that even if they were willing to detain a popular, conservative preacher they were still vigilant about protecting Islam from mockery.

This isn’t a new trend. Jordan’s penal code and its press and publication law include numerous articles that prohibit and criminalize speech that insults “the divine entity” and religious symbols, or “incites sectarian strife.” These crimes are punishable by up to three years in prison. And the laws are vaguely worded, allowing them to be used arbitrarily and selectively.

Every year, Jordan’s Media Commission bans dozens of books and poetry collections for reasons that vary from offending the Hashemites and other Arab rulers to insulting Islam to “contradicting public morals.” In 2014, for example, the commission banned a book of philosophy by a professor of comparative literature at the University of Jordan because it included the phrase “God is not a good scriptwriter.”

The Media Commission routinely consults religious authorities, both Muslim and Christian, to determine if a book, movie or other work of art should be banned. It has banned films like “Noah” for its depiction of prophets and “Mary of Nazareth” for its “misrepresentation of the Christian faith.”

In a statement after Mr. Hattar’s assassination, the government said it would bring the killer to justice and vowed to “respond with an iron fist to anyone who uses this incident as an opportunity to spread hate speech in society.” But this is meaningless as long as the government continues to prosecute free expression on the grounds that it offends one group or another.

Tension is high in Jordan today. As authorities claim to press charges against anyone who publishes hate speech after the assassination, hundreds of comments online are either celebrating Mr. Hattar’s killing, or justifying it.

If Jordan is going to fight radicalization and violent extremism, it needs to start by upholding the right to free speech. It is not a question of “rule of law” when the law is used to restrict freedoms. Mr. Hattar’s assassination may be the first time someone was killed for expressing an opinion in Jordan, but if speech continues to be criminalized and vilified the way it is today, it might not be the last.

Lina Ejeilat is a founder and the executive editor of 7iber.com, an online magazine based in Amman, Jordan.

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