Nahed Hattar, Charlie Hebdo and the Disingenuous Production of “Free Speech” Heroes

Monday 24 October 201609:31 am
Following the assassination of Jordanian writer Nahed Hattar on the steps of an Amman court, Lebanese newspaper Al-Akhbar took it upon itself to unambiguously dub the incident an act of martyrdom. Considering the region’s questionable habit of forcing the “martyr” signifier upon any victim of governmental or terrorist belligerence, the fact that Al-Akhbar’s editorial board chose to attribute such a heavily connoted term to a slain polemicist seems quite predictable. What may strike some as odd, though, isn’t the attribution itself but rather the mention of Syria alongside it. While most Arab and Western newspapers, political parties and commentators hailed Hattar as a hero of free speech, Al-Akhbar instead tied his fate to that of Syria and its ongoing revolution. If I were to reproduce the narrative being used to paint a heroic picture of Hattar, I’d have to mention his incisive and often provocative writings that have targeted the Jordanian royal family and the worrying infusion of Salafism into Jordan’s dominant state ideology – but I would probably need to stop at that. For many in the Arab world, especially among circles that identify as left-leaning, his death came as a confirmation of Jordan’s intolerance vis-à-vis secularism, and King Abdullah II’s mounting authoritarianism. The rhetoric concocted by the Euro-American right has predictably adopted Hattar’s assassination as a tool of legitimization of institutional Islamophobia. This is similar to the one employed massively in response to the assassination of 11 Charlie Hebdo staff cartoonists and writers in Paris earlier this year, and the fatwa raised against British-Indian postmodernist writer Salman Rushdie. After all, the Jordanian writer had been sentenced with “inciting sectarian strife” by his country’s legal apparatus for sharing an anti-ISIS cartoon on Facebook featuring a depiction of God as a jihadist’s servant. Add to that his assassination by a Salafist preacher, and you get, if framed properly, a readily assembled trope that could prove useful to the survival of the right’s compulsion to reduce the region’s complex power dynamics to a secular-Islamist dichotomy.

Who's afraid of the Muslim other?

When 11 members of the Charlie Hebdo staff were gunned down by alleged Al-Qaeda members, it reawakened a once dormant form of defensive Catholicism within the French middle class – what sociologist Emmanuel Todd came to call “zombie Catholicism” in his 2015 essay “Who is Charlie?”.  Todd’s thesis was built upon the assumption that the heroization of the Charlie Hebdo staff was inherently tied to repressed Islamophobia and anti-Arab sentiment among white, secular French citizens, who await such incidents as triggers to vocalize their bigotry without having to face backlash. France’s ensuing bombing campaign in Syria, the systemic policing and demonization of second-generation Muslim immigrants in Europe, as well as the espousing of policies once supported by fringe alt-right European parties have all been recognized as inevitable, at times even necessary components of a “war on terror”. This was a war that had been transferred from post-9/11 US onto the post-colonial Old Continent. The social production of Muslim subjectivities, through negative signification, is entirely dependent on the historical production of free speech heroes such as the Charlie Hebdo staff or slain Dutch filmmaker Theo Van Gogh, perceived as martyrs of the fight against Muslim “others” (read: invaders) first and foremost. As the “Je suis Charlie” hashtag tranquilly morphed from trend to a more politicized form of support to the sacrosanct “freedom of speech”, an impressive amount of intellectuals and activists began to see the cracks in the rhetoric that accompanied it. When the powerful PEN American Center, an all-star association that works on advancing literature and defending freedom of expression, decided to grant an award to Charlie Hebdo, more than 204 writers, including Junot Diaz, Teju Cole, and Susan Eisenberg, signed a petition protesting PEN’s choice of “valorizing selectively offensive material: material that intensifies the anti-Islamic, anti-Maghreb, anti-Arab sentiments already prevalent in the Western world.” shutterstock_243352237 The tide eventually turned: liberals’ insistence on containing “speech” inside a vacuum was countered, due in large part to the positive influence of militant intellectual and human rights organizations. “Je suis Charlie” was effectively – even if on a non-wide scale – revoked of its disingenuous “secular humanist” connotations and shown its disastrous consequential aims.

False dichotomies

The same could not, at the moment, be said about Nahed Hattar, whose case has been adopted by the international community within a framework of unanimous condemnation. Since the differentialist logic of orientalism dictates that the fallacious secular-Islamist dichotomy be stripped of the complexity progressives ascribe it in a Western context, political discourse, regardless of its ideological roots, is bound to envision Hattar as a hero of “free speech” and/or an Arab poster boy for the Euro-American “war on terror.” Here, it is important to remind the reader of the traditional Arab left's instinctive feeding on said exceptionalization, which ultimately legitimizes the secular false consciousness it flags as a form of revolutionary reasoning. When the Western imaginary conceives the Arab region's fight for secularism as handicapped by a life-threatening firewall, the traditional Arab left discreetly cries victory. Its tenets can taunt the urgency of decolonization in the face of its followers, and this has surely proven necessary in the (very) distant past. However, the indisputable contradictions that emanate once one notices the traditional Arab left's libidinal dependency on orientalism should have rendered it defunct a long time ago. When it praises the Jordanian polemicist's legacy, it is in fact desperately clinging on to a martyred figure and the potential that figure has of heroizing the traditional Arab left itself. Hattar's tragic narrative is a particularly enticing one to exploit: a militant, secularist intellectual was murdered, in front of (intentionally?) passive Jordanian authorities, by a Salafist no less, for “daring” to question, through satire, the Jordanian state's official religion. It's quite difficult to imagine a better occasion for the Arab left to frame its battles as inherently counter-hegemonic to the region's dominant, institutionally-adopted ideology as this one, really. It's all the more difficult to produce space for contestation when facing such neatly narrated instances, too. Thankfully, the Al-Akhbar editorial board, by choosing to de-provincialize Hattar's legacy, tying it to the Syrian revolution, or “crisis” as the traditional Arab left likes to dub it, has unintentionally opened a door for those of us who'd like to deconstruct Hattar's “hero” status.

Deconstructing Hattar

Hattar wrote extensively for Al-Akhbar over the years, expressing his oblivious support for sectarian warlord Bashar al-Assad, exhibiting downright contempt for the Syrian revolution, accusing Syrian refugees of being “terrorist sympathizers”, demonizing Palestinians residing in Jordan, and explicitly deriding the traditional and independent Lebanese left for “refusing” to follow in the footsteps of Hezbollah and the Baathist machine's Lebanese counterpart, the Syrian Social Nationalist Party (SSNP). Not unlike Syrian poet Adonis, though, Hattar's most treacherous exercise has been the one in which he was utilizing disingenuous, pseudo-leftist criticism of Islam as a means of solidifying Syrian state propaganda. In other terms, Hattar, along with some other intellectuals, consciously participated in the rationalization of Assad's genocidal thought process. It would be a gruesome error to divorce the intellectual task of legitimizing expressions of Islamophobia in their Syrian context from the political task of  discrediting all forms of opposition to the Syrian regime as Islamist “terrorists”. Even when Hattar is sharing a seemingly vulgar and non-controversial anti-ISIS cartoon, he is implicitly inscribing it in a rationale that posits Assad as a reasoned, “enlightened”, political actor on a quest to ridding Syria of a barbaric, “loony” opposition, which he strategically reduces to ISIS. The Jordanian polemicist's rhetoric entirely hinges on a crucial distinction outlined by the secular-islamist dichotomy. On the one hand, there is the traditional Arab left, in which he includes the Syrian regime, and on the other there are the “terrorist sympathizers” he deems parasitic to the region, to the point where war crimes become background noise. Nearly two years after European elites ingeniously erected Fortress Europe 2.0 on the bodies of the slain Charlie Hebdo journalists, the blood-tainted, unsalvageable Arab left has orchestrated and found in the likely heroization of Nahed Hattar its counsel of despair. Al-Akhbar wanted to remind its readers, by labeling Hattar a “martyr of Syria”, that their staffer's legacy will be perpetually haunted by the specter of Syria. We are simply asked to hear them loud and clear.
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