By Mohamed Basyouni

The assassination of Jordanian writer Nahed Hattar on September 25, 2016, was no exceptional event in the history of the Arab region, which has reeled under profound decades-long crises that had an equally significant impact on societies and their way of managing their affairs.

On the one hand, the political environment became more prone to violence where parties within the political scene in the region developed an inability to settle political conflicts through peaceful means, especially due to the decline in democratic values and the culture of co-existence. On the other hand, closed-minded individuals, which do not accept others openly, were as quick to generate more extremist elements that have a tendency to utilize violence against others who uphold different opinions.

Context of States in Crises

To explain the phenomenon of assassinating writers and intellectuals in the Middle East, one needs to refer to the societal and political contexts which took shape in the region over the past few decades and, in a way or another, established the crises of nation states in the post-independence era.

The evolution of nation states was associated with the establishment of a pattern of social and economic relations revolving around the state which dominates all elements of the public space including the religious element. However, the legitimacy of the institutionalization of the modern state in this region was soon struck by profound shocks, in particular with the rise of political Islam, which was introduced as an alternative for political and ideological concepts adopted by successive regimes.

While rivalries sparked between the ruling regimes and political Islamist movements, time revealed the multiple structural crises riddling the state and constituting the foundation for violence and assassination as a pattern. Overall, these crises can be outlined into the following two manifestations.

FIRST: Status of Religion

To date, the issue of the status and the role of religion in the Arab modern state after the decline of the Islamic Caliphate remains controversial. Moreover, the state pursued a hesitant approach to address religious matters and the scope of freedom given to intellectuals and writers discussing these issues. The confusion of the state was evidenced by the fact that it, at times, would provide more freedom to writers to discuss religion publicly without restrictions, and, on other occasions, would adopt the slogan of defending religion, an approach which was closely associated with political calculations, the dynamics of political conflict with the political Islamist movements and the vying for religious legitimacy.

It is not possible to overlook the fact that this variant – the vying for legitimacy –  was present in the case of Jordanian writer, Nahed Hattar. After Hattar posted a cartoon entitled “The God of ISIS” on his Facebook account, a conflict between the state and the Islamists seems to have emerged. Either party tried to capitalize on the issue to make gains. The Muslim Brotherhood, for example, issued a statement calling the Jordanian authorities to punish the writer for insulting Islam. On the other hand, the Jordanian authorities decided to open an investigation with Hattar and issued statements stressing that they would not allow the crossing of red lines when it came to holy issues.

SECOND: Primitive Affiliations

Influential Moroccan thinker and professor of Islamic thought Mohammed Abed Al Jabri, in his Critique of the Arab Mind, said the concept of the tribe, in terms of material and moral dimensions, represents one of the primary determinants of Arab political thought. His statement explains one aspect of the crisis in Arab states which have failed to establish a political form that can be a melting pot for all ingredients of society. Amid this failure, primitive affiliations with the tribe, clan or group grew and established entities that, in some communities, became an alternative to the state itself.

Tribal affiliations boosted the propensity to violence and assassination of others. This pattern of political assassinations, which were far from being purely religiously-motivated, is more rampant in states such as Libya and Lebanon known historically for being the scene of the killing of many thinkers and writers.

Explanatory Introductions

The facts mentioned above represent an intellectual reservoir that extremists in the region resorted to legitimize violence and assassinate opposing intellectuals and writers. Moreover, the existing societal and political contexts converged with the psychological and intellectual ingredients of all extremist elements, including the religiously-motivated, to form a system promoting motives for killing. The system can be explained by the following:

1- Defending Religion:

A large percentage of the religiously-motivated assassins of intellectuals and writers have a built-in conviction that their perpetration of the assassinations is the holy mission of defending religion against religiously outlawed people associated with several attributes that dehumanize them and justify their murder. 

In such situations, extremists identify themselves according to religion and religious paradigms, which, in their view, should not be insulted because it would be an insult to themselves, according to the Humiliation – Revenge Theory. That is to say, when Riyad Ismail Abdullah assassinated Nahed Hattar, he thought that he killed a Christian writer who was already stigmatized by extremists for insulting Islam by publishing cartoons. Consequently, killing this author is revenge against him for insulting religion and, by extension, Ismail himself.

2- Legitimacy of the Fatwa:

A Fatwa, or a religious decree, is of central importance for assassinations that took place over the past few decades and helped to legitimatize their behavior. That is, a fatwa depicts the other (victim) as a ‘kafir’; disbeliever and apostate who deserves to be killed. This centrality was manifested in several assassinations in the Arab region. Namely, the 1992 assassination of Egyptian writer and human rights activist, Farag Foda, by Abdul-Shafi Ahmad Ramadan and Ashraf al-Sayyid Ibrahim Saleh who indicated during investigations that the killing was authorized by and based on religious fatwas stating that he was an extremist secularist who attacked Islam.

3- Closed Minds:

This phenomenon is associated with two essential trends. First, the perpetrator’s inability to think independently and waiting for instructions and guidance to be issued from other followers of the same religion and “madhab” (sect or school of thought). For instance, Mohammad Nagi Mustafa who attempted to assassinate prominent Egyptian writer Naguib Mahfouz did not read his controversial novel Children of Our Alley. It was all about receiving fatwas from the Al-Gama’a al-Islamiyya condemning Mahfouz “who attacked Islam in his writings.” The second trend relates to zero tolerance and acceptance of an apology from the other. The murderer of Nahed Hattar did not give himself a chance to re-think about what Hattar wrote during the controversy stirred about the caricatures. Hattar denied that he was intending to insult God that he was against the type of God that the terrorists worship and that the cartoon was satirizing how terrorists perceive God and heaven.

4- Identity Threats:

Numerous extremist racial, religious and even political groups resort to its perception of a unique shared identity to consolidate cohesion between its members and to ensure their superiority to other groups. Within this context, identity plays an adverse role, especially because the concept of a unique identity should negate other identities seen as sources of threats. This issue was addressed by Nobel laureate Amartya Sen in his book on human frailty, Identity and Violence – The Illusion of Destiny, in which he observed that “many of the conflicts and barbarities in the world are sustained through the illusion of a unique and choiceless identity. The art of constructing hatred takes the form of invoking the magical power of some allegedly predominant identity that drowns other affiliations.”

This sense of having a unique identity makes the involved group feel threatened by others who stigmatize the group’s rhetoric with negative and unethical descriptions. Within this context, an individual would develop motives for killing others, including thinkers and writers, justifying this act by the belief that their writings and in particular their criticism of the group, threatens the very existence and interests of the group and therefore neutralizing them is legal.

This model had a greater opportunity to emerge in societies that uphold deeper political sectarianism and tribalism such as Libya and Lebanon where several prominent writers were assassinated, including the assassination of Samir Kassir in 2005.

Future Outlook

The possibility of undermining political assassinations in the Arab region is not likely to be achieved in the near future. This projection is supported by current trends in the region where Arab states have experienced violent shocks in the aftermath of revolutions, leading to its status regressing given many individuals who began establishing their mini-states. However, terrorist organizations are not alone in this, people too, though to a lesser extent, are involved. The individual who killed Jordanian writer Nahed Hattar outside the Palace of Justice, home to Jordan’s Supreme Court, reflected the corrosion of the concept of state and the active bid of every individual, and primarily a group, to enforce their own judicial system away from that of the existing state.

Another issue that Arab states have to address is related to the expanding roles of violent non-state actors, such as terrorist and criminal organizations. Such actors, in one way or another, are promoting violence and political assassination, based on their self-proclaimed belief that they are, first and foremost, highly rational and wise and make their decisions based on calculations of gains and losses. As a result, these organizations may resort to assassination to spread fear among their opponents and eliminate opposing ideologies.


Mohamed BasyouniResearcher of political Science


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