We Westerners like to believe we care a lot about the Christians of the Middle East. Their exodus is one of the epic tragedies of our times, one of the three great monotheist religions effectively torn from the soil of the Holy Land in which it was born; Egyptian Copts, Syrian Maronites, Iraqi Orthodox Christians, ripped apart, quite literally, in the attacks of the Islamists who treat them as crusaders, collaborators, apostates. We welcome Christian refugees in the West because we feel they are “our” people, perhaps because we also suspect – the notion is ridiculous, of course – that Christianity is now a “Western” rather than an Eastern religion. Hence I often find myself confronted by Armenian bishops or Catholic priests who beg the West to stop encouraging their flock to leave the Middle East – since they will only drown in a “sea of secularism” in Europe and America.
But we have a selective memory. Almost exactly a year ago, the 56-year-old Jordanian Arab Christian journalist Nahed Hattar was assassinated in the very centre of Amman by an Islamist “well known” to the security authorities (as we like to say in Britain) as Hattar prepared to defend himself against Jordanian government charges of “incitement”. Hands up those readers who remember this feisty, eloquent, provocative and brilliant writer’s death?
Alas, so many massacres and eviscerations now shake the Middle East, so many “sauvageries” are committed against Muslims as well as Christians, that I make an admission. I, too, had quite forgotten that a year ago I turned up at the door of his grieving widow and son and uncle in Amman to pester them with questions about the end of Nahed Hattar’s life a few days earlier. Had his family not contacted me this week, I also would have let the first year’s anniversary of his murder pass unnoticed.
The Jordanian authorities have refused to allow Hattar’s family to commemorate his death – although the relatives plan to do just that in the next few days at the Christian cemetery where he is buried. The family also intend, they say, to take the case of his murder to the International Court, for they claim that the government itself was involved in his killing. And they fear that even the promise of King Abdullah – who paid a personal visit of condolence to the family after Hattar’s murder and said that he would set up a commission of enquiry into the killing – has not been kept by the government.
Certainly, the killer, Riyad Ismail, a computer engineer working for the Jordanian ministry of education, has no more to say. He was swiftly charged, sentenced to death last December, and hanged in March along with 14 other “terrorists” and criminals sentenced for rape and murder. Ismail, bearded and wearing brown prison clothes, had little to say when he appeared before the court. And presumably nothing more to say when he was hanged at the Suaqa prison. Justice, traditionally a slow process in the Middle East, appears to have moved at surprising speed in Jordan. The man who supplied Ismail with the gun to shoot Hattar was sentenced to a year in jail.
But that’s not what concerns Nahed Hattar’s family. They took very seriously the king’s promise to set up an official enquiry into Hattar’s murder. They were incensed that prior to his killing, the government had accused him of incitement for reposting a cartoon on his Facebook page which showed a Muslim jihadist admonishing God. Almost at once, the Muslim Brotherhood reran a truncated version of the cartoon and deleted Hattar’s explanation that the “God” in the cartoon represented Isis’ version of the Almighty – not the God revered by Islam.
It did no good. The government arrested Hattar – not the Muslim Brotherhood officials responsible for the corruption of his message – for incitement. Security officials then assured the writer that he was safe – when he was clearly still at great risk. And then, within hours, his blood was running down the steps of the Amman court. His family do not accuse the king of breaking his promise. They accuse the government of not carrying it through.
“I saw the minister of justice twice,” Hattar’s widow Randa told me this week. “He said: ‘We did an internal investigation’. But he didn’t even call us to tell us anything.” So did the government, fearful of arousing the Muslim Brotherhood and anxious to distance itself from a provocative writer who paid for his life for his journalistic “transgressions”, simply ignore the king’s command? Certainly, Nahed Hattar was a tough guy to have around. He supported Bashar al-Assad in Syria – his Jordanian murderer had been fighting Assad’s forces before he returned to Amman and killed Hattar – and he was a critic of Saudi Arabia and managed to offend the extreme elements of all religions. Jordanians, aware no doubt that Westerners now use Twitter and Facebook for death threats, used social media to abuse Hattar after his cartoon reposting, offering cash for his body parts. The verbal abusers were clearly identifiable.
But the government did nothing about them. Locked up for 26 days before his hearing – which would never be held, since the defendant was already lying dead on the steps of the court – Hattar was refused bail, even though he was not on a criminal charge. His brother Khaled says the authorities leaked the date of his court hearing. Nahed had, among his various journalistic campaigns, criticised his government for allowing Jordanians to fight for the Syrian opposition. Around 2,500 Jordanians joined Isis. The group killed 11 Jordanian soldiers and intelligence officers last year – as well as Nahed Hattar. But whose hand lay behind his killing?
Hattar had been several times arrested by the cops; in 1978, 1979, 1996 and then again before his murder. He was forbidden from writing in the Jordanian press. But he supported the Palestinian cause and he was a Jordanian nationalist. His family put out a statement this week, alleging that the Jordanian government’s accusation of incitement against him, their refusal to offer him protection and to abide by the King’s order for an enquiry “confirms to us that the government had been involved in his assassination”.
Only six per cent of Jordanians are Christians. Some say two per cent. And the king and his father Hussein always prided themselves on the protected status of all their people, including their minorities. But it was not enough for Nahed Hattar. Or for his family.