The arrest of a gunman directly after the assassination of writer Nahed Hattar in Amman on Sunday is no consolation to an increasingly troubled country that now must come to terms with its own extremism.
Hattar was shot on the steps of the Palace of Justice before a session of his trial for allegedly insulting Islam. He had posted on Facebook a cartoon of a bearded man from ISIS in bed with two women ordering God – shown as a kindly looking white-bearded man – to bring him wine and cashews. The cartoon flew in the face of the Muslim belief that God is not to be depicted.
After an uproar on social media, Hattar removed the cartoon and clarified that it was against ISIS, not against God. But the Jordanian government, in an apparent nod to the outcry, arrested him.
He was released on bail, and despite what relatives say were numerous threats against his life, the government did not offer him protection.
Until the shooting, Jordanians could perhaps still take some comfort in the fact that their country is a relative island of stability in a tumultuous region, which is punctuated by civil wars in neighboring Iraq and Syria.
Social problems and tensions could be blamed, among other things, on the strain of absorbing more than 630,000 registered refugees from Syria.
In the wake of the shooting, however, Jordanian commentators are stressing that it points to a larger problem of extremism, as seen in the calls for killing Hattar on social media before the assassination and the resounding applause for it after the fact.
“Sure, not everyone is hardened enough to pick up a gun, but a great number of people support the attack and its motives on some spectrum of justification,” wrote Naseem Tarawnah, author of the progressive blog, The Black Iris.
The government-aligned ad-Dustour newspaper condemned the assassination as “an open war against the rule of law” and called for punishment of “all those who incited against him, who are fundamental partners in this crime.”
“It is not only the murderous criminal who opened fire, but every person who incited and vied in the language of hate,” it added. But Tarawnah pointed the finger at the government itself, arguing it had played an enabling role in the killing.
“The way the government handled his posting of a caricature on Facebook they deemed to be offensive has been a blunder from start to tragic finish,” he wrote. “By detaining him and taking him to court, they criminalized his action, put him in the crosshairs and legitimized the space needed for the crazies to respond. And they did.”
Political analyst Rakan al-Saaida told Al Jazeera television from Amman on Sunday night that the incident “reveals a crisis related to the infiltration and presence of extremist Salafi ideas.
“There is a state of denial, but we have an extremist Daeshi mood,” he added, using the Arabic acronym for ISIS. “If you follow social media precisely you see it. This is the language and [these are] the ideas. It’s a great danger, [and] it could spread.”
Saaida added that the danger represented by the assassination is that, in expressing one’s religious and political positions, one can become targeted for murder.
“Today we face extremist thought that totally rejects the other,” he said.
Among the wave of support on social media for the assassin were posts saying Hattar “deserved it.” Others praised the killer as a “courageous person,” and said that “everyone who abuses God should be killed the same way Nahed Hattar was killed.”
Journalist Lamis Andoni told Al Jazeera that the shooting “was the result of broad incitement against [Hattar’s] life, incitement to kill on Facebook and on Twitter. We all read this and knew of it.”
While the assassination was condemned by all political parties, the fact that it was welcomed on social media signifies that “there is a flaw in Jordanian society that must be faced,” she said.
Hattar came from a Christian family. Andoni said there is now fear among Christians that they too will become targets, although she said she didn’t think Hattar was killed for being Christian.
The Saudi-owned pan-Arab daily al-Hayat reported that the Muslim Brotherhood in Jordan had issued a condemnation of the killing and warned against “the beginning of sectarian strife.”
Amal Abu Jeries, program manager for the Jordan office of Friedrich Ebert Stiftung, a German political foundation that promotes democracy and pluralism, told The Jerusalem Post from Amman that: “People are divided. Some people support the assassination and killing. The people who are more liberal and moderate are totally against the death of a human being, regardless of opinion.”
“Religiously committed people have a concern that [Hattar] should be killed because he abused God. For them, it wasn’t enough that he be in court. They supported the gunman and applauded him.
On the other hand, the majority of civil society organizations are totally against this.”
Abu Jeries said that human rights activists are circulating a petition that accuses the government itself of responsibility for the killing, and says that Prime Minister Hani Mulki was the first to call for Hattar’s arrest. “People who are concerned with stopping the spread of hate crimes signed,” she said.
The government-aligned media is calling for national unity in the face of the assassination. “The unity of the Jordanians is the only preventive dam in the face of what is happening, and [it] is the salvation from violence and criminality,” ad-Dustour wrote. “All of Jordan must be more aware [in order] to face the filthy hands of criminality and thwart them. The response to this despicable crime and those like it is to fortify national unity and thwart all conspiracies and civil strife.”
However, Tarawnah, wrote that calling for national unity won’t solve the problem.
“While the sentiments of a ‘unified Jordan’ are nice, they are as meaningless as their memes. Without proactive and aggressive inquiry into all the factors fueling extremism, these acts will continue to erode us.”
“With the rise of Daesh, many of us have called attention to these factors repeatedly,” Tarawnah added. “Whether it’s reforming the educational curriculum, a genuine addressing of unemployment and economic and political marginalization, free speech and on and on, the state has moved undeniably slowly on all these issues and is outpaced by extremism’s raging fires.”