Protests and condemnation over the killing of Jordanian writer Nahed Hattar have been largely directed at the government, which is accused of not providing him with adequate security despite his reportedly receiving death threats.
There is also continuing anger over Hattar’s arrest and trial on charges relating to defamation of religion. Hattar was killed outside an Amman courthouse on September 25th.
He was facing charges over a Facebook post of a caricature of a bearded man in bed with women asking God to bring him food and wine.
Hattar’s supporters are calling for the resignation of Prime Minister Hani Mulki, the suspension of prosecutions for defamation of religion, the law’s removal from the penal code and wider reforms on freedom of expression.
Hattar’s relatives said he did not receive protection by the authorities despite receiving death threats over the cartoon. “We handed over 200 names [of people who had threatened the writer] to the governor [of Amman], including that of the assassin, and demanded protection,” Hattar’s brother, Khaled, said, adding that authorities said they did not believe Nahed Hattar was under threat.
One of the writer’s cousins, Mary Hattar, said: “He asked for protection but when he was released from prison he was asked to sign a document [stating] that he was responsible for his own safety.”
Three days after Hattar’s assassination, King Abdullah II swore in a new government headed by Mulki, who had ordered the investigation into Hattar that led to his arrest.
Hattar’s killing was condemned by government spokesman Mohammad Momani as a “heinous crime”. “The government will strike with an iron hand all those who exploit this crime to broadcast speeches of hatred to our community,” Momani told the Petra news agency.
Dropping defamation of religion from the penal code could alienate the conservative, tribal bedrock of the monarchy’s support base, play into the hands of the opposition Muslim Brotherhood and lead to accusations that authorities were caving in to terrorism.
There are concerns shared by authorities and large segments of the public that going soft on defamation of religion could exacerbate sectarianism and extremism, both of which Jordan has avoided relative to much of the region. However, human rights organisations say these laws contribute to the extremism and violence they are supposed to curtail.
“Arbitrary prosecutions for defamation of religion stigmatise individuals and make them targets for vigilante reprisals,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at the New York-based Human Rights Watch. “Jordanian authorities should recognise that ‘defamation of religion’ laws and prosecutions effectively contribute to violent extremism.” The government should “allow citizens to engage in peaceful debate even of ‘taboo’ subjects”, she added.
“The Jordanian authorities must make it clear that attacks against people who peacefully express their views, however unpopular, will not be tolerated,” said Philip Luther, research and advocacy director for the Middle East and North Africa at Amnesty International.
Refusing to heed calls for wider reforms may be seen by some as callous and provocative at a sensitive time for the country. However, the monarchy will privately want to avoid Hattar’s death being used as a call for reforms that may dilute its power. As with most Arab monarchies, reforms over the years have been slow and limited in Jordan.
Jordanian authorities said the alleged killer has reportedly confessed and could be put to death. They will also now likely crack down on disseminators of extremist sentiment.
However, while this may be cheered on by Hattar’s supporters, it could, depending on how narrowly the state defines extremism, contradict calls for greater freedom of expression and lead to more radicalism. This is of particular concern given the recent string of violent incidents in Jordan.
Previous promises of reform have not been followed by drastic or swift changes and the aftermath of Hattar’s assassination is likely to be no different. In this respect, the monarchy may be banking on three things.
First, Jordanians are too wary of post-“Arab spring” regional conflict to form a national protest movement that could destabilise the country. Second, protests that have occurred have been aimed at the government rather than the monarchy and there is no reason to expect a change in that regard. Third, Hattar’s outspoken views upset Islamists, conservatives, monarchists (he had faced charges of insulting the king), Jordanians of Palestinian descent and supporters of Syria’s revolution by backing President Bashar Assad. According to a Pew Research Center poll, 86% of Jordanian respondents, whose country is shouldering a massive Syrian refugee burden, said Assad should step down.
That is a very wide spectrum of society for one person to have offended, thus the pressure on the government may be less than it might be under different circumstances.
This article by Sharif Nashashibi was originally published in the Beirut-based The Arab Weekly