Writer's murder has sent chill through already tense Jordan
Published 01/10/2016 | 02:30
The tiny desert kingdom of Jordan rarely makes headlines but it did briefly this week with the killing of a prominent writer gunned down as he showed up at court to face charges of insulting Islam. With Jordanians already anxious about the spill-over effect from the five-year war that rages over the border in Syria, the murder was an uneasy reminder of radical elements within.
Nahed Hattar (56) - an activist from the country's Christian minority who wrote columns for a Lebanese newspaper reflecting his secular, leftist views - had received numerous death threats in recent weeks after he shared a satirical cartoon on Facebook with the caption "God of Daesh" - an Arabic acronym for Isil considered by its militants as derogatory. The controversial caricature shows a bearded man in heaven who summons God to bring him wine and snacks as he lies in bed with two women. After the cartoon prompted a storm of protest on social media, Hattar quickly deleted it, shut down his Facebook account, and apologised, saying he did not mean to offend anyone.
As many accused him of insulting Islam - a crime punishable under Jordan's anti-blasphemy laws - Hattar countered that his intention was not to insult Islam but to highlight the hypocrisy of Isil. He argued that the cartoon "mocks Isil terrorists and their concept of heaven."
Just two days after he posted the caricature, Hattar was arrested for insulting Islam and inciting sectarian strife, a serious charge in a country with a sizeable Christian population. As his trial date approached, the case became a lightning rod for Jordan's extremist current.
Among those who publicly denounced Hattar was Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi, a key Al-Qa'ida ideologue who has spent years in Jordan's prisons but is now free. "The apology and clarification from Hattar make him no less of an infidel than his caricature," Maqdisi wrote on Twitter.
Hattar was targeted last Sunday as he entered Jordan's Palace of Justice in the capital, Amman. A 49-year-old man described as a former imam walked up and shot Hattar three times. Local media reported the gunman confessed after the shooting, saying he had targeted the writer for sharing the cartoon.
While Jordan's government condemned the killing as a "heinous crime", Hattar's family has accused the authorities of not doing enough to guarantee his safety after so many explicit death threats.
Amnesty International deplored the attack as "an alarming message about the state of freedom of expression in Jordan today," and the organisation urged the government to do more to protect individual freedom of expression, regardless of the subject matter.
The gunman has been charged with premeditated murder and committing a terrorist attack. He could face the death penalty if convicted.
Hattar's murder - and the audacious manner of it, carried out in broad daylight right in the centre of Amman - has sent a chill through a country already pulled in several directions.
As Jordanians often note, theirs is a small nation in the middle of a tough neighbourhood. Bordering Syria, Iraq and the West Bank. Jordan, a key US ally, has a large Palestinian population, a strong tribal dynamic and a decades-old jihadist current which has grown in recent years.
Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the now dead leader of the Iraq-based militant group that later evolved into Isil, was from the town of Zarqa, north of Amman, and drew several fellow Jordanians into his ranks. Zarqawi and his associates tried to target Jordan several times. When I lived there, between 2005 and 2007, the country's security forces were on high alert. In 2005, Zarqawi's acolytes carried out simultaneous suicide bombings at three Amman hotels one night, killings scores, including guests at a wedding.
Since the uprising against Syrian president Bashar al-Assad began in 2011, later tipping into a vicious, multi-faceted war, Jordan has found itself faced with new challenges, including more than 650,000 Syrian refugees and the threat posed by homegrown militants sympathetic to Isil and its expansion next door in Syria and Iraq.
A string of attacks in recent months have jangled nerves. Last November, a Jordanian police officer shot dead two American trainers, one South African and two Jordanians at the country's sprawling international police training centre on the outskirts of Amman, where thousands of Iraqi police have been trained.
In June, six people were killed when a car bomb exploded near a refugee camp and army post in the country's northeastern flank.
The killing of Hattar, unprecedented in its brazenness, has made some Jordanians wonder if indigenous extremists are growing not just in number, but also assertiveness.
"We are worried that the war next door may become the war within," one friend in Amman observed this week.