After the assassination of Jordanian political writer Nahed Hattar on Sunday as he was entering a court hearing for posting a cartoon that allegedly insulted God and religion, stains of his blood could still be seen on the steps of the courthouse in Amman, where a radical Muslim preacher fired three bullets into his head.
Much deeper and wider signs of political stress and fear inherent in the incident, however, were quickly felt across the country, even the entire Arab world, I would argue. This is because some key unresolved issues at play here include religiosity, the rule of law, free speech, sectarianism, minority/majority relations and the balance between the rights of citizens and the responsibilities of government.
The specifics of the incident and its personalities are almost incidental to these wider challenges, in an Arab world already reeling from the state collapse, social fragmentation, sectarian strife, religious extremism, and civil wars that have shattered or rocked half a dozen states.
Nahed Hattar was allegedly assassinated on Sunday by a hardline Islamist former preacher named Riad Ismaeel Abdullah, during the days of the government headed by Prime Minister Hani Mulki.
These and other protagonists in this tragic drama could easily be interchanged with hundreds of others like them in any of the 22 Arab countries, where many others in recent years have been arrested, tried, punished, or even banished or killed in some cases for their alleged crimes against both the laws of the land and the religious sentiments of society.
Critical issues in the Hattar murder include: religious sensibilities and how these are articulated in the rule of law; the role of the government in upholding the law and protecting citizen rights; how society defines and guarantees freedom of expression; the power of non-governmental forces such as religious or ideological hardliners; and the glue that should bind all these factors together but that remains substantially absent across the entire Arab world. A clear social contract allows a majority of citizens to achieve a consensus on the values and rules of society, the rights of minorities and all citizens are protected, and the rule of law manages the whole process.
Islamists, secularists, government officials, civil society activists and millions of private citizens all spoke their mind, usually blaming someone else for doing something dangerous that should be stopped ...
All these dimensions of Jordanian life and law were in play on Sunday, and they elicited sharp, instant responses from different quarters of society – who all spoke past one another, and thus only accentuated the tensions and contradictions in Jordanian and Arab society that have now burst into the open.
Islamists, secularists, government officials, civil society activists, and millions of private citizens all spoke their mind, usually blaming someone else for doing something dangerous that should be stopped – in their view, but not necessarily in the consensus perception of the country as a whole.
The family of the assassinated Nahed Hattar openly blamed the government and security services for his death, for arresting him on imprecise charges and then for not protecting him when they knew that his life was threatened.
The government condemned the crime and said it would bring the perpetrators to justice and work to prevent any further sectarian divisions.
Media activists who have worked of years in Jordan to bring clarity and precision to vaguely defined laws on blasphemy and incitement to sectarian violence heaped major abuse on the state for allowing this situation to occur.
Blunder from start to finish
The respected pioneer media freedom activist Naseem Tarawnah voiced a common theme on his blog “Black Iris” on Sunday morning, saying that, “the way the government handled [Hattar’s] posting of a caricature on Facebook they deemed to be offensive has been a blunder from start to tragic finish. By detaining him and taking him to court, they criminalised his action, putting him in the crosshairs, and legitimised the space needed for the crazies to respond. And they did.”
No Arab country has yet achieved a credible, clear social contract that has been freely negotiated among equal citizens.
The triple core of this modern Arab tragedy is that citizens like Hattar are accused of criminal actions based on laws that are never precise and are open to widely differing interpretations; armed elements in society often take the law into their own hands, sometimes without the state being able to control them; and, the lack of agreed free speech guidelines and democratic political institutions leaves us without a consensus, widely respected rule of law system.
So, many different sectarian, ideological, social, ethnic and other groups in society enforce the rules that they deem most appropriate to society, even assassinating others whose actions they dislike.
Syria, Libya, Iraq, Yemen, and Somalia are the most extreme examples of what this kind of polarised, militarised situation leads to. Jordan’s tragedy should remind us that such dangers are deeply entrenched across much of the Arab world that lacks negotiated social contracts, precise rules of law, and protected and equal rights for all citizens.
Rami G Khouri is a senior public policy fellow at the Issam Fares Institute at the American University of Beirut and a non-resident senior fellow at Harvard University Kennedy School.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.