Nahed Hattar, a 56-year-old Christian Jordanian writer has been murdered. He was shot three times outside a court in Amman, where he was facing charges of sharing a cartoon deemed to be “offensive” to Islam. Hattar was arrested in August after posting a cartoon that mocked jihadists on his Facebook page. Mr. Hattar was charged with inciting sectarian strife and insulting Islam before being released on bail in early September. According to several reports, Mr. Hattar’s killer was arrested and police are investigating the murder.
The provocative cartoon depicts an Arab man enjoying himself in Paradise with two women and saying to God (who was checking on him): “Yes Lord, get me a glass of wine and tell Angel Gabriel to bring me some cashews. After that, send me an immortal servant to clean the floor and take the empty plates with you.”
Hattar’s murder is yet another tragic event in a long trail of intimidation and oppression against free thinkers in the Arab and Muslim worlds. In 1992, prominent Egyptian writer Farag Fouda was assassinated for daring to challenge the orthodox interpretation of Islam. In 1994, an Islamic extremist attacked the 82-year-old Egyptian Nobel Laureate Naguib Mahfouz, stabbing him in the neck outside his Cairo home. Mahfouz survived, but only just. The list goes on: Nasser Abu-Zeid, Islam Beheiry, and Fatima Naoot were also accused of insulting Islam and have had to face exile, jail, or legal cases against them. However, this is the first case in Jordan and that is alone is unsettling.
It is easy to portray the death of Hattar as the tragic result of the behavior of one radical criminal who decided to take the law into his own hands. In reality, however, Hattar’s murder sums up the sad state of affairs of religion and politics in our decaying region.
What struck me when I visited Jordan is the wide gap between the liberal Jordanian elite and the conservative communities mainly outside the capital, Amman. Although the Jordanian Royal Family has campaigned relentlessly for moderate Islam, and allows Jordan to serve as the principal base of operations for the U.S.-led military campaign against the Islamic State in Syria, their message of tolerance and moderation, however, has not been embraced in some corners of the Kingdom. It is well known that many Jordanians have joined the ranks of various terror groups. David Schenker, of the Washington Institute, wrote how cracks were starting to show in Jordan, and how endemic corruption has been among the ranks of the Jordanian security services over the past year. The murder of Hattar, a conspicuous target for radicals, outside a court in the heart of the capital is embarrassing, to say the least, for the Jordanian intelligence service.
Second, the region
It is well known that Hattar was an outspoken supporter of the Assad regime in Syria. This partly explains his motive behind publishing the provocative cartoon. Hattar wrote on his Facebook page (now shut down) that the God depicted in the cartoon is the ‘God of the Islamic State.” Hattar was right in his interpretation of the radical mindset, but was wrong in using it to justify the ruthless and murderous tactics of the Assad regime. Hattar was intellectually dishonest, but that should not be used as a reason to justify his murder. It is noteworthy that his stance is not an anomaly, and many Jordanians are either indifferent to, or open supporters of, Assad, especially after the influx of thousands of Syrian refugees into their tiny, fragile country.
Now Assad’s pundits are using Hattar’s murder to warn Jordanians about the futility of Jordan’s alliance with the United States and the increasing attacks by ISIS supporters inside the Kingdom. Assad hopes to neutralize Jordan, and to a certain extent, he has already succeeded. The southern Syrian front is almost quiet, unlike the northern one in Aleppo.
Third, and most important, religion:
Undoubtedly, it is easy to attribute Hattar’s murder to political and terror acts, while downplaying the religious aspect of it. That would be a simple act of cowardice. We have to admit that the portrayal of Paradise among Muslims is controversial and problematic.
Personally, I regularly read the Al-Rahman soura of the Quran (The Merciful), and have been doing so every Friday since I was 13. I used to find the description of Paradise unsettling and still do. I have learnt, however, that the literalistic interpretation is the core problem, more than the words themselves. This literalistic approach is prevalent in all mainstream Islamic schools and not just among radicals. Dreaming of an elusive paradise that sanctions sex and alcohol has become an escape route for Arabs and Muslims hoping to evade tough questions about the place of their faith in modern times. The literal interpretation of this Paradise has even prompted some people to kill in its defense.
In short, the murder of Nahed Hattar is a triumph of religious escapism, intellectual cowardice, and political manipulation in a region that has lost its moral compass and descended into a dark space where bad is fighting bad with bad, only to produce more ugliness and despair. We have to have the intellectual courage to admit all the above, and work together to stop more assaults against religious freedom and freedom of speech, otherwise we will be indirectly complicit in the murder of Hattar.