Four Jordanian members of Parliament from the Islamic Action Front were arrested after publicly mourning Abu Musab al-Zarqawi's death and charged with inciting sectarianism. Their arrest has been widely celebrated in the liberal press (The liberal editor of al-Ghad, Ayman al-Safadi, wrote that "there is no justification for killing Jordanians") and by most Jordanian bloggers. Not by me. I think it's great that vocal parts of the Jordanian public met their support of Zarqawi with loud public scorn and anger. I do not think it's great that the government arrested the MPs for their political opinions. (For a similar argument, see al-Quds al-Arabi's lead editorial today; for a contrasting argument, see this typically thoughtful piece by Mishari Zaydi).
What did the IAF Parliamentarians do? One, Mohamed Abu Fares, attended prayers for Zarqawi in his home town and called him a martyr. The other three visited his family home to pay their condolences. The public responded furiously when these statements were reported, and they were arrested in response to the press coverage. While a military prosecutor is reportedly investigating their "ties" to Zarqawi, they are not currently being charged with material support for his network. Instead they are being charged with incitement - and being made the poster children for the regime's campaign against "takfiri thought" and what it describes as a culture of sympathizing with the jihad in the Jordanian media and public sphere. IAF head Zaki Bani Rusheid said that "These deputies should have parliamentary immunity and this shows how much the authorities have regard for democracy." He could have gone further and asked about the legitimacy of arresting them purely for the expression of offensive political or personal views.
The Jordanian government is fully justified in waging its own "war of ideas" against jihadism in its country. But such a "war on ideas" co-exists uneasily with democratic or liberal norms when it moves from arguments to arrests. Fighting jihadist ideas is necessary for Arab liberalism to succeed, but it should be obvious that one campaign against political enemies can easily slide into another and another... and the means used against one are available for the battles against the others. The public campaign against Zarqawi works well for the regime because most Jordanians - of all political stripes - were genuinely horrified by the Amman hotel bombings. But no matter how much they despise Zarqawi and takfirism, liberal-minded Jordanians (and outside observers who care about democratizing and liberalizing the Arab world) should be very careful about endorsing the escalation of state security powers to allow arrest and prosecution for the peaceful expression of unpopular political ideas.
To be clear, I am delighted to see a widespread public outcry against Zarqawi and against those who would support him. Shaming them, describing them as criminals and as political pariahs, campaigning against them in the next elections, writing angry op-eds and blog posts, holding protest marches - outstanding contributions to reshaping Jordan's political and normative context. Demanding that the Islamic Action Front repudiate them and affirm its commitment to peaceful political action - good idea. Arresting and prosecuting them - not so much. I think that the Jordanian government's active involvement prosecuting the IAF deputies does more harm than good: it may simply, as Ayman Safadi wrote, be enforcing the law against incitement, but Jordanian liberals should realize that this is a bad, dangerous law. The Jordanian government would have done better by standing out of the way, letting the public express its fury at the IAF MPs and demonstrate the illegitimacy of takfiri political views, while avowing its own commitment to civil and political rights even in difficult cases.