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To counter the risk of social fragmentation

Dec 16,2018 - Last updated at Dec 16,2018

In 2012, I published an academic paper titled “Between Sanctity and Liberty”, which explored the conflicts and contradictions between the concepts of liberty and religious taboos and their potential impact on individuals and social stability. Following the assassination of Jordanian writer Nahed Hattar in September 2016, this issue became particularly sensitive and required a change in the way the authorities approached it.

Nahed Hattar was assassinated for sharing a cartoon considered offensive to Islamic values on social media. The government’s approach was to charge Hattar with the crime of inciting "sectarian strife and racism" in violation of Article 150 of the Jordanian Penal Code, which punishes any form of speech that drives sectarian or racial prejudices or incites conflict between different sects. He was also charged for violating Article 278 of the Jordanian Penal Code, which prohibits the publication of any printed material, image or drawing intended to offend religious beliefs. Hattar was detained for a week following the criminal charges. Given that Hattar was a Christian, this approach framed the whole affair as a conflict between Christians and Muslims.

More recently, we have seen a similar case where a website published a cartoon offensive to Christian values and the publisher and the owner of the website were similarly detained. These incidents are likely to continue to occur. Therefore, we need a new approach that does not negatively impact the fabric of society. We need a new approach that promotes interfaith peace and stability in Jordan.

Given that the current approach promotes the fragmentation of society, we need a new approach to national laws and norms that promotes a national identity so that Jordanians have a shared framework with laws that promote shared cultural norms. As long as Jordanians feel they are represented within their own society through their religious identity, our society will remain fragmented. We must take a look back in our history to understand how we arrived here in order to understand it and build a new path.

A weak national identity has pushed people to identify under other banners, including religious, sectarian and geographic. The national identity is the major unifying identity of any society and is fundamental to stability and harmony in a society. Psychologically, humans have a need to identify with a group in order to understand themselves and their place in the world. A strong national identity taps into that desire and brings people together under shared values, becoming the foundation of a strong society. A lack of national identity will push people to find other alternative features to identify under, and often cause conflict in a society, as people identify their identity in groups as opposed to others. This is the risk we face today with religious identity becoming the strongest identifier of people in Jordan, which will inevitably drive fragmentation and conflict, especially when one group feels that an individual from another group is criticising its identifier group.

It is important to recognise the importance of providing people with the feeling of safety and security as one of the key roles of the state through its laws and legal system. Otherwise, people will seek alternatives for that feeling of security, whether through tribal, religious or geographic identity groups. This fragmentation will rapidly weaken the state and create vulnerabilities.

Jordan needs to reconsider how to create and encourage its national identity through shared values and cultural similarities in order to avoid the risk of social fragmentation. A progressive approach would be based on enlightenment as the key element on which a national identity should be built. What our society needs is a recipe of enlightenment and secularism for people to understand clearly the meaning of these concepts in practice, for the law to provide a guarantee for the safety of citizens and for diversity to become respected and pluralism appreciated, as part of the cultural identity of a nation with a rich history.

The risk of increasingly fragmented identities should be concerning enough to policymakers to consider the importance of rebuilding the national identity with a long term vision and immediate implementation.

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