Who killed Nahed Hattar?

Sunday 02/10/2016

Jordanian journalist Nahed Hattar was assassinated outside a court in Amman. The reason behind both his shooting and his trial was that he had shared a cartoon on Facebook that was deemed offensive.

Hattar, an atheist of Christian origin, was charged with inciting sectarian strife and insulting Islam. He insisted that he was not mocking the Islamic faith but, rather, the way extremists “envision God and heaven”.

The cartoon shows a bearded man in bed with two women, appearing to be in heaven and ordering God to bring him alcohol and take away empty dishes he had finished.

The issue, however, is not connected solely to the cartoon posted on Hattar’s Facebook account. One can see in Hattar’s act was an idea he had wanted to express in a form he deemed appropriate. The form chosen, however, is nevertheless contro­versial given the immediate effect of visual media.

This particular aspect is particularly important to Salafist thinking. Had Hattar chosen to express his idea in a written article, it would have probably gone unnoticed because readers are scarce, especially those with a murderous bent.

The assassination was carried out because of the idea in the sense that the killer apparently believed that by eliminating the victim he would wipe out the writer’s legacy. That was utterly stupid.

Hattar’s killing is a first of this kind in Jordan, as documented by UNESCO’s list of countries having been the site of assassinations of journalists.

Hattar’s tragedy sets a prec­edent in Jordan for the elimina­tion of journalists for their opinions. He was, with his middle-aged body and large glasses, the first victim to fall in front of the Palace of Justice in Amman as he was completing procedures for his release on bail in the case. The cartoon he published on his Facebook page was judged offensive to the Divinity even though it simply depicted life in paradise as imagined by Salafist Jihadists.

Jordanian justice had found Hattar guilty and fined him but then let him go free on bail, which displeased some who then turned into assassins. The judicial system had confirmed the journalist’s guilt and that was enough for the extremists to condemn him to death.

We cannot blame the judge. We have to believe that he had tried his best to mitigate Hattar’s guilt. The real problem is that the case came under the umbrella of a heavy and complex web of laws and regulations that places writers at the mercy of a huge heritage of religious dogma and short-sighted narrow mentality.

The reason behind the killing of the Jordanian writer and journal­ist is the same as the ones behind the assassination of journalists, writers and intellectuals in Egypt, Lebanon, Iraq, Tunisia, and Algeria: It is freedom versus darkness.

From 1993-96, Islamic extrem­ists in Algeria killed 39 journal­ists. During a dark (or bloody) decade, the Algerian Islamic Salvation Front and its satellite groups have committed horrible crimes against hundreds of victims.

In Egypt, intellectuals, leftists, writers and journalists recall with amusement an incident in the trial of Egyptian intellectual Farag Foda’s assassin. The judge had asked the accused: “Why did you kill Farag Foda?” The man responded that the victim was a kafir. “How did you know he was a kafir?” asked the judge. “Did you read any of his writings?” “I’m illiterate” responded the accused. “I don’t know how to read and write.”

It would be a frightening prospect if Hattar’s assassin turned out to be illiterate as well. In fact, he must be because the killing of the writer can only be motivated by ignorance.

History, too, killed Hattar; that recurrent history that resurfaces every time the Arab Man goes through another one of his habitual crises.

Hattar’s case is but the latest link in a long chain of assassina­tions of ideas, dreams, visions and projects. The victim takes his place in a long line of those killed in the name of Allah, beginning with Ibn al-Muqaffa’ and the rationalists of the Mu’tazila movement and progressing to Ibn Rushd (Averroes) and many other luminaries.

Many people could disagree with Hattar’s views and many others would not. Judgments related to ideas and points of view are necessarily relative but to come to murder because of differences of opinion is patho­logical.

The disease threatens to propagate and we should never accept it. As we mourn the death of a fellow journalist, we have to deal with these nagging ques­tions: Where are our history and heritage taking us? Do we have to sever ourselves from them to be in tune with the times? What would happen if we declared for example that it was time to think about limiting the sphere of influence of religion in Arab societies and reappraise its role? Will we be shot, too?