Slander, Blasphemy & Censorship

Jordanian Freethinker’s Murder is a Symptom of A Greater Problem

Millions of Muslims the world over still believe in the mainstream Islamic teaching that those who slander against Islam should be killed.

BY Immanuel Al-Manteeqi · @Al_Manteeqi | October 1, 2016

Hundreds of people gathered last Wednesday in Fuheis, a city about twenty kilometers to the northwest of Amman, and the hometown of Nahed Hatter, in order to mourn and bury the Jordanian writer who was brutally murdered in broad daylight. The progressive fifty-six-year-old Jordanian writer Nahed Hattar was gunned down Sunday, September 25th by a local Muslim named Riad Abdullah, a reportedly forty-nine-year-old devout Muslim and former imam  who had recently returned from the Hajj pilgrimage in Saudi Arabia.

Riad Abdullah was apparently upset that Hattar had shared a cartoon on his Facebook page showing a bearded Muslim in bed with two houris in paradise, instructing a white-bearded Allah to bring him food and wine. (Great virgins, food, and wine, have been promised to the Muslim faithful in heaven by the Qur’ān) .

Abdullah, who Al-Jazeera reports fought against the Assad government in the early years of the civil war, admitted to the killing and was not remorseful, stating that “any person [who] misrepresents the Divine Entity must be killed.” This seems to be an allusion to God being represented as an old bearded man in the cartoon that Hattar shared on Facebook.

Unfortunately, it seems that many news outlets have been careful to write on this story without sharing a picture of the cartoon, the mere sharing of which led an Islamic fundamentalist to murder Hattar. For example, neither the BBC, the WallStreet Journal, CNN, the New York Times, The Washington Post, nor Fox News shared the cartoon in their stories on the brutal murder.

This is the usual media response to drawings or cartoons of Muhammad—even if they are relatively innocuous. For example, in the May 2015 “Draw Muhammad” contest that Pamella Gellar had hosted in Garland, Texas, which witnessed a failed jihadi attempt, the media did not publish the winning cartoon drawn by cartoonist Bosch Fawstin.

This despite the fact that the cartoon was a relatively innocuous one that made a point about censorship—it depicted Muhammad, with his sword drawn, saying, “you cannot draw me,” and a hand stating “that is why I draw you.” It is a brilliant cartoon with a powerful message.

In any case, the relevant cartoon that Hattar only shared on Facebook, but did not draw, does not even depict Muhammad, but God. And it does not contain anything that is crude or inappropriate, but actually makes a valid point, like many political cartoons. So it is important to actually share the picture that led a Muslim cleric to kill Hattar, for to do otherwise would be to capitulate to Muslim fundamentalists.

Indeed, for news outlets to not post a relatively innocuous cartoon such as this one because it would offend Muslims, and possibly lead to other such attacks, is nothing more than to patronize Muslims. It is a paradigm case of what is now widely called “the soft bigotry of low expectations.” Anyway, here is the relevant cartoon Hattar had shared on his personal Facebook page:[1]




As Hattar stated, his sharing this cartoon, along with his Facebook caption, “the Lord of ISIS,” was meant as a critique of ISIS and, ostensibly, similar jihadi groups. Indeed, the photo is an accurate representation of the conception of God that is shared by all Islamic fundamentalists—viz., one who prepares for them an eternal brothel in paradise, and creates dark-eyed and full-breasted virgins or houris for their pleasure (cf. Q 56:22, Q 78:33).

The scene, one of the captions states, is taking place in paradise, supposedly the abode of the jihadi warriors in the afterlife. In this Islamic paradigm, God seems to be in the business of creating machine-like female virgins to have pre-programmed sex with faithful Muslim men for eternity.[2]

Abdullah took Hattar’s posting and sharing this photo to be an insult to his beloved religion of Islam, and like all Islamic fundamentalists, his only answer to being offended at what he considered to be an insult to his religion was to resort to violence. This is despite the fact that Hattar had apologized on social media for any potential offense, emphasizing that his post was meant to mock ISIS and its twisted views, according to Randa Habib, Amnesty International’s regional director for the Middle East and North Africa.

However, it is important to remember that such an attack is not an isolated occurrence in the Islamic world. One could cite many examples of writers and thinkers being imprisoned, harassed, or killed, for allegedly insulting Islam. And there are far too many in the Islamic world who would turn a blind eye to the freedoms that people should have to disagree with or criticize the Islamic religion.

Let us not forget that Hattar was murdered by ʿAbdullah outside of a Jordanian courthouse, where he was slated to stand trial for allegedly insulting Islam. To this end, he had already been jailed by Jordanian authorities for two weeks then released on bail prior to being gunned down; as al-Arabiya reports, “the authorities said he violated the law by sharing the caricature.”

The Jordanian Petra news service, as cited by CNN, states that the Amman Governor Khaled Abu Zeid ordered that the writer be detained for the “blasphemous” Facebook post. It is important to underscore that Hattar was detained for this faux crime by  a “moderate” Jordanian government, and not by the Saudi or Iranian governments, or some sort of Islamist group like the Muslim Brotherhood (which the Jordanian government has actually worked to clamp down on).

In the wake of the attack, Jordan’s Minister of Information Muhammad al-Momani said in a statement that his government “will use all legal measures against those who spread extremism and hatred in Jordan.” But one wonders how serious such a proclamation is, given that Hattar had been arrested by Jordanian authorities for “blasphemy.”

The ethos in the greater Islamic society either directly or indirectly promotes the curtailing of the freedoms of those who are perceived to insult Islam. This is not something that arose in the Islamic world only in the last century or so, for it has roots very early in Islamic history. For example, from our earliest biography of Muhammad, Sirat Rasūl Allah, by Ibn Isḥāq, we learn that Muhammad killed one ʿAbdullah ibn Saʿd ibn Abī Sarh, who used to write down Qur’ānic revelation, for either blaspheming or apostatizing from Islam (probably both) when Muhammad  conquered Mecca without much opposition.[3]

There is also the case of Āsima bint Marwan, which is recounted in Ibn Isḥāq’s Sirā.[4] Ibn Isḥāq recounts how Āsima bint Marwan wrote a poem speaking out against Muhammad for what she perceived to be the murder of one Abū Afak, and, in the poem, seems to incite violence against Muhammad by wondering “is there no man of pride who would attack him by surprise?” Muhammad, upon hearing about the poem, asks, “Who will rid me of Marwan’s daughter?”

One Umayr b. Adiy al-Khatmi heard Muhammad state this, and went and killed Āsima bint Marwan, a mother of five sons, at her house that very night. The next morning Umayr approached Muhammad and told him what he had done. Muhammad replied by telling him that he had “helped God and His apostle!”

When Umayr asked if he would have to bear any evil consequences, the apostle said, “Two goats won’t butt their heads about her.” So here we see Muhammad depicted in his earliest biography as killing someone for composing a poem against him. It is doubtful that Āsima, a poetess, posed any significant threat to Muhammad, who had by that time already secured a victory against the Quraysh in the battle of Badr (624 A.D.).

This intolerance for opposing viewpoints has never ceased along Islamic history. For example, Ibn Taymiyyah (1263 – 1328), a darling of Islamists the world over, vociferously voiced his opinion that a Christian in his resident Mamluk empire should have been given the death penalty for insulting Muhammad, which the local authorities seem to have disagreed with.

Indeed, Ibn Taymiyyah wrote a whole treatise called al-Ṣārim al-Maslūl ʿala’ Shātimī al-Rasūl (trans. the Unsheathed Sword to Those Who Insult the Prophet) wherein he delineates, as the title suggests, the punishments that should be meted out to those who insult the prophet of Islam, and hence the Islamic religion.

In more recent times, we have  witnessed the persecution of those who do not tow the mainstream Islamic line. Of course, non-Muslim dhimmis have been viciously persecuted throughout Islamic history, as is well documented by the scholar Bat Ye’or’s multiple books on the issue.

The demeaning attitude towards Jews, Christians, and non-Muslim in general that is found in the early sources of Islam need not be rehashed here, for it is quite extensive. However, briefly, the view can be summed up in the following ḥadīth that is found in Sahih al-Bukhari, the most trusted collection  of hadiths:

Allah ‘s Apostle said, ” I have been ordered to fight with the people till they say, ‘There is no deity but Allah,’ and whoever says, ”There is no deity but Allah,’ his life and property will be saved by me except for Islamic law, and his accounts will be with Allah.”[5]

As a non-Muslim writer born to a Christian family, who, by some accounts was an atheist, it is  not surprising that Hattar would be on the receiving end of such brutal violence for his views. This violence against the non-Muslim “Other,” and the idea that non-Muslims should be treated with contempt, is found in the early Islamic source texts.

Hattar’s death is a symptom of a larger problem of intolerance of “the Other” that is deeply enmeshed in Islamic civilization.  Muslim reformists who dare to question the religion or the history of Islam are also not free from the ire of Islamists. The following are just a few recent  examples of the intolerant attitude against Muslim reformists that is prevalent in much of the Islamic world.

In June of 1992 prominent Egyptian thinker, professor, and writer Faraj Fawda was murdered for his ideas by members of the Islamist group al-Jamāʿa al-Islāmīya. This was a result of a campaign of influential Muslim clerics against him. For example, the Egyptian newspaper of al-Nūr published a piece where al-Azhari clerics denounced Fawda as an apostate and called for his blood. Notably, Muhammad al-Ghazali, one of the most prominent Muslim thinkers at the time, explained a sentiment that was and remains not so uncommon in the Muslim world—viz., that it was wrong for the vigilantes to take it upon themselves to kill a blasphemer like Faraj Fawda, since they should have let the Egyptian state itself  mete out the punishment.[6] He said, however, that Faraj Fawda was an apostate and so was deserving of  death; moreover, he stated that there is no punishment in Islamic law for vigilantes who take matters into their own hands.

The Egyptian Nobel laureate Naghuib Mahfouz, a Muslim himself, was a victim, in his old age,  of a failed assassination attempt by Islamic extremists in 1994, when he was stabbed in the neck. What motivated the Islamists was apparently how Mahfouz allegorized God in his book, “Awlād Ḥārituna.” Notably, Mahfouz’s book was condemned by Omar Abd al-Rahman, “the blind sheikh” and orchestrator of the 1993 World Trade Center bombings.

Then there is also the case of Nasir Hamid Abu Zayd (1943 – 2010), a reformist Muslim and Professor in the Department of Arabic Language and Literature at Cairo University. Abu Zayd was sued by Islamic fundamentalists and found guilty of blasphemy by an Egyptian court.

A Muslim court of appeals subsequently declared him an apostate and religiously annulled the marriage to his Muslim wife since under Islamic law it is not permissible for a non-Muslim man to marry a Muslim woman. Because of this, he was essentially forced to leave Egypt.

Muhammad Mahmūd Taha (1909 – 1985) was a reformist Muslim thinker and religious figure who believed in the idiosyncratic view that the Meccan verses should actually take precedence over the later Medinan verses. His views apparently did not sit well with the Muslim authorities, and he was summarily executed on blasphemy charges, his old age notwithstanding.

More recently,  last year Islam al-Buhayri, a young reformist Muslim lawyer who rose to prominence for his forthright and vociferous critiques of the violence that is found in the earliest Islamic source texts, was sentenced to a five-year prison sentence for insulting Islam.

And still more recently, within the past few months, Sayyid al-Qumni, one of the most prominent intellectuals, who appears to be either a reformist Muslim or a secularist, was detained in Egypt on account of blasphemy charges. And both Islam al-Buhayri and Sayyid al-Qumni’s cases occurred under the watch of ʿAbd al-Fatāh al-Sisī, whose government is supposed to be moderately secular.

So there can be no doubt: the Islamic world has a problem with tolerance. When an estimated crowd of more than 100,000 people in Pakistan amass to mourn the death of a murderer who brutally killed Salmaan Taseer, the governor of Punjab province, because the latter “had called for the pardoning of a poor Christian woman who had been convicted [most probably falsely accused] under blasphemy laws,” then there is a societal problem—a very deep societal problem.

When the anonymous 36-year old secular Egyptian author of the cartoon that Hattar shared shies away from interviews because he does not want the interviewees who write about the story to be violently targeted, there is a deep societal problem.

When thousands of people on Arab social media are supporting the murder of Nahid Hattar, you have a deep societal problem. It’s not just a few extremists, it’s the intolerant attitude in the Islamic world that enables such barbarity. Here a few pictures from Al-Jazeera’s public post on Hattar’s murder. All of the comments displayed below, which are the most popular ones, are in support of Hattar’s murder. Such examples of vitriolic hatred and support for Hattar are found all over the Arabic interwebs.

n a somewhat different note, it is important to point out that Hattar’s case is evidence against the common apologetic claim that the more knowledgeable one is about Islam, the less likely that one is to resort to violence against infidels or non-Muslims. For Hattar’s killer Riad Abdullah was no young man untutored in the ways of Islam. No, Abdullah is a forty-nine year old fluent Arabic speaker, and, as Al-Arabīya reports, an imam at “one of Amman mosques six years ago before being dismissed by the Ministry of Religious affairs.” He probably is well versed in Islam and knows Islam better than many Muslims.

After all, the majority of Muslims do not know their religion very well, and have hardly read the historical works of the early Muslim historians like Ibn Ishaq, al-Shaybānī, al-Wāqidī, al-Ṭabarī, etc; and the majority of Muslims are not and were never imams at the capital of an Arab country.[7]

It is necessary that people rid themselves of the illusion that only disgruntled Muslims who have no understanding of Islam resort to violence. Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of ISIS and the self-proclaimed Caliph of the Islamic State, has a PhD in Islamic Studies from Saddam University, with a dissertation on Qur’ānic recitation.[8]

Grand Ayatollah Khomeini, someone who said that he “spits on those who say that Islam is peaceful,” was profoundly learned in Islamic thought—indeed, one cannot become a Grand Ayatollah without having garnered a well-earned reputation for  scholarship.

Many of us in the West no doubt think that it is madness to murder someone over a cartoon that one finds offensive, no matter how offensive it is. But we need to understand that this rational mentality is not shared by many Muslims in the Islamic world, many of whom decidedly do not believe in the freedom of religion.

For example, millions of Muslims the world over still believe in the mainstream Islamic teaching that if one deconverts from Islam then one should be killed.  There are also regressive blasphemy laws in place in much of the Islamic world, including Egypt, Jordan, Pakistan, Iran, and Saudi Arabia.

Hattar’s case is unfortunately not the only case in the Islamic world where writers are murdered for expressing their opinions. It is not the first case and it will not be the last. This is a problem that is endemic throughout the Muslim world, which consistently exemplifies policies on the freedom of speech that fall significantly short of their counterparts in the West.

May Hattar rest in peace, and may the Islamic world witness the rise of more freethinkers like Hattar. Hattar’s martyrdom, and the martyrdom of other freethinkers in the Islamic world, is a powerful reminder of the war against Islamism that Western civilization is in today. This clash of civilizations and cultures that is truly the great war of our time. We cannot become complacent in the face of such threats to our cherished values of liberty and way of live.

The proper response by Westerners to such tragic events like the killing of Hattar and other free thinkers  should not be to impute moral blame for those who draw or share such cartoons. On the contrary, Westerners should defend people’s  rights to express themselves, regardless of whether individuals or groups, Muslims or otherwise, may find them offensive.

Hattar’s death is truly sickening, and one of the reasons why the CounterJihad movement is necessary. The Islamofascists cannot be allowed to have their way. The freedom of religion and the freedom of speech are awesome liberties that are worth fighting for, even if these freedoms grossly contradict certain mainstream interpretations of Islam.

Hatter would not have wanted his death to go in vain. So let us not let it go in vain but defend the freedom of free thinkers in the Islamic world, regardless of whether they be secular, Muslim, Jewish, Christian, or otherwise.

[1] The original cartoon contained writing in Arabic. The cartoon depicted above contains an English translation of the original Arabic.

[2] It is sometimes said that the idea that there will be virgins in paradise is not a Qur’ānic idea, but is only a later interpolation of Islamic tradition. This idea is sometimes advanced by self-proclaimed reformist Muslims in an effort to distance Islam from virgins in paradise. For example, Irshād Manjī, a self-proclaimed Muslim reformer who believes that homosexual acts are Islamically permissible and that there are some errors in the Qur’ān, advances the idea that the word houris in the Qur’ān doesn’t in fact denote female virgins, but white raisins. This is a bogus interpretation, and is based on the psuedonymous Christopher Luxenberg’s controversial work: “The Syrio-Aramaic Reading of the Qur’ān.” Suffice it to say that Luxenberg’s interpretation has not garnered much support among Islamicists. After all, “wide-eyed raisins” that are “wed” (Q 44:54) to men does not make any sense. Furthermore, Luxenberg’s idea contradicts every major work of Muslim exegesis (from al-Tabari, to Razi, to al-Zamakhshari, to Ibn Kathir), all of whom took the word houri to mean virgin.

[3] ʻAbd al-Malik Ibn Hishām, Muḥammad Ibn Isḥāq, and Alfred Guillaume, The Life of Muhammad: A Translation of Isḥāq’s Sīrat Rasūl Allāh (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1955), 550.

[4] Ibid., 675-6

[5] Islamic scholars debate whether this should apply to the “People of the Book,” i.e., Jews and Christians, or if it just applies to non-Muslim non-dhimmis.

[6] In Islamic law, the Islamically ordained punishments should be carried out by a caliphate or a state, not by individuals.

[7] It should be said, however, that this ignorance about religion is not just something that is peculiar to Muslims, for   the majority of religious people in general do not know their religion very well.

[8] William F. McCants, The ISIS Apocalypse: The History, Strategy, and Doomsday Vision of the Islamic State, First edition (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2015), 74, 117.


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