September 30, 2016

Egyptian TV host goes on air to defend murder of Jordanian writer



Nahed Hattar. Via Twitter.

The report on Tuesday that an Egyptian TV host publicly supported the murder of Jordanian writer Nahed Hattar is only the latest in an ongoing story about extremism and limits to free speech in the region.

For those who haven’t been following the story, Al Jazeeras Ali Younes reports that Hattar, a secular Christian, was “shot dead outside a court on his way to face charges of insulting Islam” in Amman, Jordan, after he’d posted a cartoon considered to be blasphemous on his Facebook page. The alleged shooter was a forty-nine-year-old man locally “known as an ultraconservative.” Hattar had removed the cartoon, which depicted an Islamic martyr in heaven demanding rewards from God, but the authorities had nevertheless decided to prosecute.

On Monday, Agence France-Press reported, hundreds of protesters gathered outside Jordanian prime minister Hani al-Mulki’s office demanding his resignation for “fail[ing] to act” in spite of warnings about Hattar’s safety. In response, the government, which had condemned the assassination, imposed a media gag forbidding all coverage of it.

Then on Tuesday, further outrage erupted when a TV host in neighboring Egypt expressed support for the killing on air, according to the Washington Post’s Ishaan Tharoor. In a largely illuminating article contextualizing the events titled “Arab TV host cheers secular writer’s assassination on television,” Tharoor cites Hani Nahhas of Alhadas Elyoum TV saying that “‘blasphemy’ did not count as free speech and that he deserved to ‘now stand trial in God’s court.’”

Certainly the comments are unsettling, though it’s misleading to identify Nahhas as an “Arab.” Is there not such thing as a Christian Arab? In any case, the headline sets up a false antagonism in a region where antagonisms abound.

Tharoor also notes an apparent “irony” that the murder would be celebrated by a media figure in a country where the Muslim Brotherhood is outlawed, although, given that the Egyptian government has also cracked down on writers deemed to offend Islam, irony may not be the right word. All of which points to how difficult it can be to untangle the various factions involved in these conflicts. After all, Western readers may be dismayed to learn that Hattar was a supporter of Bashar al-Assad in Syria, who, while inflicting a bloodbath upon large swaths of his popular, is generally seen as the only protector of Christians in Syria.



Kait Howard was a publicist at Melville House.