The killing of a journalist in Jordan uncovers extremism in an otherwise stable kingdom

After Nahed Hattar was shot dead, moderates fear new laws against hate speech could further limit freedom of media and expression.

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It was a warm September morning when Nahed Hattar, a controversial Jordanian journalist, was shot dead. He was killed as he walked up the white stone steps of the capital Amman’s courthouse.

Police have arrested the suspected gunman. Local media said he had been upset by an offensive cartoon Hattar had shared on Facebook.

But this story is not one of an isolated vigilante. The Jordanian authorities had pursued Hattar for sharing the cartoon, which depicted a Jihadi surrounded by food and women in heaven, waited on by an obedient God. He was arrested in August under charges of insulting the faith and stoking sectarian divisions; he was on the way to his trial for these supposed crimes when he was shot.

In the weeks following, Jordan has struggled to come to terms with what the attack exposed: a simmering extremism and a government struggling to balance competing and contradictory interests to control it.

“We thought that in Jordan we had some peace here. But after my brother was killed we don’t have this kind of feeling,” Hattar’s sister Kawkab said. Hattar expressed atheist views but his family are Christian. “We don’t feel sure that our children are going to live in a peaceful situation.”

Kawkab may have good reason to be anxious. Jordan is relatively pluralist: its small Christian minority practise faith freely, and those fleeing neighbouring countries have found a safe haven there. But as extremist violence shatters the region, the shadow it casts is growing increasingly dark.

It’s estimated that more than 2,000 Jordanians have left to fight for Jihadist groups in Syria, and terror attacks in Jordan this summer struck military and intelligence targets. The trial of more than 1,000 people on terror-related charges this year indicates the strikes were not isolated events. In 2014, Islamic State flags were flown in the restive southern city of Ma'an, and, more recently, the banners of IS were reported closer to Amman, in Salt.

“I feel sad for our situation. We are going further and further to the right,” said Ashraf Asahb, who described himself as a “comrade” of Hattar, at one of several demonstrations for the writer. He also referred to a scandal that has increased concerns about conservatism in Jordan. Earlier this year, religious references were toned down in the kingdom’s school textbooks, with changes including drawings of uncovered women, clean-shaven men, fewer Quranic examples, and references to Christianity. The alterations caused an outrage that is still ongoing and causing moderates consternation: opponents, including teachers and parents, publicly burned many books.

The atmosphere surrounding Hattar’s arrest is also a worrying indicator of public mood. When he shared the cartoon, the outcry calling for his arrest and accusing him of mocking Muslims was furious and widespread, echoed by political figures, pundits and ordinary Jordanians.

In the run-up to his trial, the writer’s family said they documented 200 threats to his life, and when he was killed some of the reactions on social media were jubilant. Popular sentiments included “good riddance” and “god bless the shooter”.

Nidal Mansour, the Director of Amman’s Centre for Defending the Freedom of Journalists, believes the government may have arrested Hattar as a political manoeuvre: to prevent Islamist parties using anger at inaction to attract votes in September’s parliamentary elections. But in a milieu that had shifted towards reactionary, sometimes violent, conservatism, the charges became a dangerous public condemnation.

“Maybe nobody thought about the difference in society, after Daesh and social media,” he said, adding that hate speech that has always existed has now been given a more visible platform online. “What is here, living within us? A lot of things have changed. You will find a lot of extremists within our society.”

The government’s response also threatens to silence writers and activists. After Hattar died, the government issued a gag order forbidding reporting of the case; in the weeks that followed it, around 20 people were arrested for spreading hate speech online. Activists like Mansour fear new laws against hate speech could further limit freedom of media and expression.

The death of Hattar, in broad daylight and under scales meant to represent justice, was a shock in Jordan. But it was also a grim warning: of brewing extremism in a kingdom that clings tightly to stability in a region of chaos and war.