x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Jordan detains poet for religious crime

The case against Islam Samhan underscores the issues of freedom of expression in the kingdom.

Islam Samhan holds his first book
Islam Samhan holds his first book "In a Slim Shadow" while working in his office.

AMMAN // A Jordanian poet, whose writings have drawn the ire of the country's religious establishment over the interpretation of Quranic verses cited in his book, was detained by the general prosecutor for two weeks on charges of defaming and insulting religion. Islam Samhan, 27, who is also a journalist, said he was innocent during his court session on Sunday. The case was brought by the state-run Press and Publication Department (PDD) against Mr Samhan because he had violated laws that ban insulting the prophets, according to its director, Nabil Momani.

Zeina Karadsheh, Mr Samhan's lawyer, said the general prosecutor was expected to summon him today to tell him he will also be charged under the Penal Code. "If tomorrow they listen to his statements, hopefully his case will be referred to the court of First Instance," she said. Eight months ago, Mr Samhan published his first book, In a Slim Shadow, a collection of his best poems over the past decade. But it stirred controversy last month when a news report on a popular Jordanian website alleged his book insulted Islam.

Noah Alqdah, Jordan's grand mufti, the kingdom's highest religious authority, called the poet an apostate and enemy of religion for his poetry, some of which included lines comparing his loneliness to that of the prophet Yusuf in the Quran. Apostasy carries the death sentence in the Islamic world. Mr Samhan said last week all copies of his book were removed from bookshops. He also dismissed claims he defamed or insulted the prophet or the Islamic religion with his poems. He said his lines were used metaphorically.

"He explained in court that there were verses from the Quran because it was in Arabic, which is the language of the Quran? and when he used the word 'gods' in his lines, it was a reference to the Greek mythology because the word God cannot be plural in Arabic," said Abdullah Hammoudeh, the head of the freedoms committee at the Jordanian Writers Association, who attended Sunday's court session. Mr Hammoudeh criticised how the PPD dealt with Mr Samhan's book. "The problem is with the PPD because it could not file a lawsuit in the first place.

"It has first consulted the ministry of religious affairs, while the book is a collection of poems and not a religious one. The PDD, which represents the state, did not seek the opinion of the writers associations or that of literary critics," he said. "This indicates that the PDD wants to stifle the freedom of expression." Mr Samhan's case has also brought to the forefront issues of freedom of expression in the country. Since King Abdullah assumed the throne in Feb 1999, he has repeatedly said: "The sky is the limit for press freedom in Jordan."

The Jordanian Writers Association criticised the PDD in a press release for what it called its systemised policy to ban and confiscate books. For some religious conservatives, the case against Mr Samhan was expected because he deliberately wrote his poems to make a name for himself. "It is unfortunate that there are some in Jordan and in other countries who have deliberately harmed religious symbols to become famous," said Atef Joulani, the editor-in-chief of the Islamic weekly Al Sabeel. "They use the campaigns that are waged against Islamic circles to market themselves. This is wrong. They knew beforehand that this will cause a reaction. And this is what they wanted."

An editor at the daily newspaper Arab Elyawm, where Mr Samhan works, said the paper had terminated his contract. Mr Samhan supports his pregnant wife, Nadia, and their two-year-old son, Ward. "I was surprised that Islam was detained. The court case did not do him justice," Mrs Samhan said. "Ward keeps asking about his dad." Just before he was detained, Mr Samhan rang his wife on her mobile. "They are sending me to prison. This is humiliating," he said, his voice heard on the loud speaker.

But his ordeal will not stop him from writing."I will continue to write poems about my love for life," he said. @Email:smaayeh@thenational.ae