Courthouse Murder of Secular Writer Hattar Gives Jordan Taste of Islamic Terror

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Relatives and activists hold pictures of the Jordanian writer Nahed Hattar, who was shot dead, and shout slogans during a sit-in in front of the prime minister's building in Amman, Jordan, September 26, 2016.
Relatives and activists hold pictures of the Jordanian writer Nahed Hattar, and shout slogans during a sit-in in front of the prime minister's building in Amman, Jordan, Sept. 26, 2016.Credit: Muhammad Hamed, Reuters

The family of slain Jordanian writer Nahed Hattar has said they blame the government for allowing his death by failing to protect him from reported threats.

“We hold the government responsible for killing Nahed Hattar by ignoring all his complaints, all his requests for his protection,” said brother Majed Hattar, 53. 

“The killer was someone we filed a complaint against, but the government completely neglected the complaint. They let this man loose and he committed this crime,” he said.

The cartoon shared by Nahed Hattar, seen by Jordanian authorities as insulting Islam.Credit: Social media

Hattar, 56, an outspoken secularist from a prominent Christian family, was shot in the head three times on the steps of Amman’s main courthouse Sunday morning. He was to face charges of insulting religion after posting to Facebook a cartoon depicting an ISIS jihadi in bed with two women, ordering God to bring him cashews and a glass of wine.

Former imam Riyad Ismail Abdullah, 49, was arrested at the scene. Bystanders described him as having a long beard and wearing traditional Islamic robes, in the style of some ultra-conservative Muslims.

Jordanian police corner off the area where Hattar was shot dead on Sept. 25, 2016 in Amman, Jordan. Credit: Ahmad Alameen

In the hours after the killing, Hattar’s family called for the government’s resignation. They blamed a lapse in security for allowing Abdullah to get so close to Hattar, and said the Minister of Interior was responsible.

Around 6:30 Sunday night, Jordan’s caretaker prime minister, Hani Mulki, tendered his government’s resignation, a formality in the weeks after an election and something the government did not connect to Hattar’s killing. An hour later, King Abdullah charged Mulki with creating a new government.

Jamal Hattar, a cousin of the deceased, said the family had been approached by the Prime Minister through “informal channels” but had refused. The family would not rest, he said, until the government “took responsibility.”

At a midday demonstration in central Amman on Monday, brother Majed Hattar explained what the family wanted, over the din of demonstrators calling for Jordanian unity, Muslims and Christians alike.

“We’re asking the government to resign, and the Prime Minister, the Minister of Interior and the Governor of Amman to be tried as accomplices,” he said. 

The government had not responded to these demands, though its spokesman Mohammad Momani called the killing a “heinous crime” and said the law would be “strictly enforced” on the culprit. Late Monday afternoon, Jordanian authorities issued a gag order, silencing any further reporting on the case.

The circumstances of the vigilante killing have threatened to upset the social balance of the perennially fragile kingdom of Jordan. In the aftermath, the rift is not between the country’s majority Muslim population and its tiny Christian minority, but between those willing to address the issue of rising extremism, and those who are not.

In recent years, Jordanian society has become increasingly conservative. National conversations have reflected this shift. Several weeks ago, social media channels hosted a controversial debate over whether Muslims should mourn the death of a Christian youth killed in a car accident. More recently, teachers and administrators are battling over whether it is acceptable to feature unveiled women in school textbooks.

In parliamentary elections last week, the Muslim Brotherhood won the largest bloc of seats after boycotting elections for nearly a decade. While Brotherhood officials condemned Hattar’s killing, the rank and file offered a different reaction: MP Dima Tahboub tweeted, “Secularists are driving society towards the abyss”.

Despite his own controversial reputation, Hattar’s death could force a conversation on the issue of how conservative Jordanians wish their society to be. But by Monday afternoon, momentum seemed to be slowing.

Although thousands of people flocked to the town of Fuheis to support the Hattar family Sunday night, just 400 or so attended the demonstration in Amman. The crowd was predominantly Christian, a disappointment to the family who had hoped for a more mixed statement against extremism.

One of two or three hijab-wearing women there said she was concerned about Jordan remaining a place where Muslims and Christians could live alongside each other in peace.

 “I didn’t think it was a problem, Salafism, until yesterday. I hope it’s not a problem. But maybe” she said, her voice trailing off. The woman asked not to give her name: she didn’t want any problems with her community.

Amongst chants about the “martyr Nahed” and calls for unity, there were calls-and-responses referring to Salafi ideology as “poisonous”. Jordan has a large Salafi population, and experts estimate at least 8,000 members of the broader Salafi community are jihadists.

Majed Hattar said he believed this ideology was a threat to Jordan, and one the authorities were failing to appropriately address.

“Da’esh and Jabhat al-Nusra ideology is readily available in Jordan. They did the killings in Baqaa and the explosion in Ruqban, and now this is the third letter they have sent the government saying ‘we are in control, you are not. We can kill people without taking them to trials, we are controlling everything,’” he said.

Jordan has long been seen as perhaps the last stable place in the region, with credit due to its all-seeing, all-knowing security services. But a string of lapses in security over the past year have taken some of the shine off a sterling reputation.

Social and cultural shifts haven’t taken Jordan only in one direction: even as the Islamic Action Front, the Brotherhood’s political arm, won seats, so did a record number of women and a new list called Together, which calls for a separation of religion and politics. 

As conflict has engulfed the region, Jordan has fared better than most. The security services have been quick to catch those behind security incidents, and the country has thus far avoided the nightmare situation of a mass-casualty terror event. But for the Hattar family and many more liberal Jordanians, terror struck Sunday morning.

 “They kept telling us that Jordan is isolated, a place of peace,” said Majed Hattar.

 “But now we see, Jordan is not isolated, and we should be active in countering this ideology.”

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