To be a writer, journalist, or artist in the Middle East requires a tremendous amount of courage these days. Sharing and publicizing controversial opinions in novels, articles, or on social media, in a region rife with political instability and arbitrary laws dictating who and what can or cannot be criticized, comes with serious, sometimes fatal, consequences.
Such was the case for Nahed Hattar, a prominent Jordanian writer who was gunned down on Sunday, September 25 on the steps of a courthouse in the Jordanian capital, Amman. Hattar, who was fifty-six-years-old, was at the courthouse to face charges of “offending religion” and “inflaming religious feelings” for sharing a political cartoon that was deemed to violate the country’s blasphemy laws.
Hattar, who is Christian, was arrested on August 13, after posting a satirical cartoon on Facebook that depicted a bearded man smoking in bed with two women and demanding that God serve him wine and cashews. The cartoon was entitled “God of Daesh,” the Arabic acronym for ISIS. Hattar deleted the post the following day after it caused outrage on social media, writing that the cartoon “mocks terrorists and their concept of God and heaven. It does not infringe God’s divinity in any way.” Hatter was released on bail in early September.
Initially, some speculated Hattar had been killed for his support of Syrian dictator Bashar Al-Assad. But, as reported by the Jordan Times, Hattar’s alleged killer, who has been identified as forty-nine-year-old Riad Ismaeel Abdullah, is a “known extremist” and has confessed to having shot the writer over the offensive cartoon.
Hattar’s family and supporters have blamed the Jordanian government for his murder, accusing Prime Minister Hani Al-Malki “of creating a hostile atmosphere that encouraged violence against the writer,” as Al-Jazeera reports. Nahed’s cousin, Saad Hattar, told Al-Jazeera, “The prime minister was the first one who incited against Nahed when he ordered his arrest and put him on trial for sharing the cartoon, and that ignited the public against him and led to his killing.”
Amnesty International also condemned Hattar’s killing, calling on the government to repeal blasphemy laws that violate freedom of expression and chastising the Interior Ministry for failing to protect the writer:
Nahed Hattar’s lawyer had also raised fears of possible demonstrations and riots outside the courthouse on the day of the trial. Nahed Hattar’s family had requested protection for his day in court, but it appears none was provided.
Journalists and NGOs have expressed shock and horror over how this tragedy will affect free speech in Jordan. Award-winning journalist Daoud Kuttab told Al-Jazeera that the killing underscores a “scary situation where people with opinions we don’t like or the government doesn’t like become susceptible to assassination.”
“It’s a clear case of intellectual terror,” said Kuttab. “The omen is that many people are now going to be worried about what they say … It’s a scary situation for people who believe in the freedom of thought and opinion and the right of expressing their opinion.”
Hattar’s assassination is far from the first of its kind – as we saw with the murder of Charlie Hebdo cartoonists in France in 2015 – nor is his arrest unique.
In Jordan, Professor Eyad Qunaibi received a one-year sentence in 2015 for a Facebook post in which he criticized Jordan’s relations with Israel and the Jordanian government’s treatment of religious citizens. In Egypt, there have been more religiously-based convictions under President Abdul Fattah el-Sisi’s secular government than under the Islamist government that preceded it. In January of this year, Egyptian poet Fatma Naoot was sentenced to three years in jail for a Facebook post that was deemed insulting to Islam, while novelist Ahmed Naji was sentenced in February to two years for including sexually explicit content in one of his books, which was ruled to have “violated public modesty.”
In Saudi Arabia, blogger Raif Badawi was sentenced in 2014 to ten years in prison, 1,000 lashes and a fine of 1 million Saudi Riyals, as was feminist writer and human rights activist, Souad al-Shammary, before being released in early 2015. Both were found guilty of the vague and nebulous charge of “insulting Islam.”
Hattar’s case is doubly tragic, for he was betrayed both by the state, which created harmful laws, made him into a public enemy, and failed to protect him, as well as by the public, some of whom celebrated and justified his murder, creating a toxic and dangerous environment supporting intolerance and suppression of dissent. His murder will undoubtedly add to the stultifying atmosphere in the region, and help further neutralize critical voices that threaten state and religious authorities.