The centrality of Islam in Middle East politics can be seen in laws and opinion polls, but that data fails to capture just how entwined Islam and state really are and the destructive effects that ensue. The persecution of a Jordanian writer who shared a cartoon on Facebook dramatizes the problem.
The story’s location is important. With the exception of Israel, the Middle East is thick with dictatorships, theocracies, and monarchies. Compared with Islamic State, Saudi Arabia, Iran, and many other Muslim regimes, Jordan is somewhat liberal and friendly (it is at least officially a U.S. ally).
By objective standards, however, the kingdom of Jordan is a paranoid authoritarian regime. The secret police, modeled after the Soviet’s KGB, are everywhere. “Insulting” the king is a serious crime (punishment: three years in jail). So is affronting Islam, the state religion.
Enter the protagonist: Nahed Hattar, a prominent Jordanian writer and political activist. Recently he posted a cartoon drawing on Facebook to satirize the barbarians of the Islamic State. The Washington Post reports that the image depicts
a bearded man, lying in bed under sheets, smoking contentedly beside two women in paradise and jabbing his finger toward God, who asks, ‘Do you need anything?’ The man replies, ‘Yes, Lord, bring me wine, cashews and an immortal servant to come clean the floor.’
In reaction was an “across-the-board” backlash as Jordanians took to Facebook and Twitter to harass him. The author’s cousin said “Many fanatics wrote on social media calling for his killing and lynching.” There were some 200 death threats.
Few listened to Hattar when he hastened to explain the cartoon’s meaning. The point was to skewer the warped beliefs of the jihadists of Islamic State. The cartoon was intended, he said, to mock “how they imagine God and heaven, and does not insult God in any way.”
Despite clarifying what the cartoon meant, Hattar decided to remove the image from Facebook, apologized for posting it, and then proceeded to shut down his Facebook account altogether. Never mind the apology, one of al-Qaeda’s leading ideologues tweeted, he’s still an infidel. The obvious implication: he should be killed for his blasphemy.
The Jordanian government came after Hattar. He was arrested and held for two weeks, then released on bail pending his trial. Almost certainly, he faced a jail sentence.
What makes the story doubly chilling is that a sizeable number of people thought even jail was not enough.
What happened at trial? The legal proceedings never got that far. When Hattar arrived at a courthouse in the capital city of Amman, someone was lying in wait for him. A bearded man — an imam — fired three shots. So, in broad daylight on the courthouse steps, a religious vigilante executed Hattar.
It’s bad enough that the Jordanian government arrested Hattar, charged him, and was about to throw the book at him for sharing a cartoon on Facebook (a cartoon, remember, that jabs the Islamic State). What makes the story doubly chilling is that a sizeable number of people thought even jail was not enough.
Many threatened Hattar’s life, and one imam murdered him, presumably because he deemed the Jordanian regime insufficiently pious to hand down a punishment fitting Hattar’s crime. Days later, an Egyptian TV commentator went on the air to declare his support — not for Hattar, but for his executioner. The blasphemer had it coming.
Consider just some of the implications here. Perhaps the TV commentator really believed Hattar deserved execution. Or perhaps he was posturing as virtuous by praising something he thinks his viewers and fans admire. Maybe his impetus was some combination of the two? None of those possibilities belong in a civilized society.
Hattar’s story provides a window into a region where Islam not only permeates cultural life, but is entwined with state power. Only when we fully grasp that reality can we begin to make sense of the region’s endemic conflicts, upheavals, and oppression.