The fate of the Jordanian pilot Muath al-Kasasbeh – captured by the Islamic State in late December 2014, after his fighter plane had crashed close to the Syrian city of Raqqa – came to occupy Jordanian media anew from late last week onwards. On Wednesday, 27 January, the Jordanian government announced its preparedness to negotiate for Kasasbeh’s safe return – in exchange for releasing Sajida al-Rishawi, an Iraqi national involved in the 2005 terrorist attacks in Amman (the so-called “hotel bombings”), and in Jordanian custody since then. IS responded by setting a Thursday night deadline by which the exchange should take place; otherwise the hostages would be killed. Cue much posturing by government and media figures, and what seemed to be a resurgence of solidarity for the pilot among Jordanians active on the Internet.
Kasasbeh’s story is, in some respects, a strange one. There had been little news or information on his status since December, and continued doubts as to whether he was in fact still alive. The Jordanian government wanted assurances, which IS refused to give; instead all information about Kasasbeh and his possible exchange for Rishawi was conveyed through the words of another hostage, the Japanese journalist Kenji Goto.
All this was hardly reassuring. Protests took place in Kasasbeh’s home governorate of Kerak, demanding that every effort be expended for the pilot’s release. Social media were overcome with messages of solidarity, with hashtags such as #Muath and #كلنا معاذ (= “We are all Muath”) dominating tweets by Jordanians and Japanese alike. Media outlets joined in as well, including radio stations – again, in ways that went beyond their core ‘duties’ of broadcasting sound. So the Twitter-friendly Bliss tried to draw its listeners into a conversation on the topic, with at least some success:
And Sawt al-Ghad – a radio station which prides itself on its ‘contemporary’ image and heavily promotes its Lebanese-colloquial-speaking broadcasters – put up the following impeccably patriotic image:
WE ARE ALL MUATH KASASBEH
#We are all Muath
Join us in these crucial hours
The solidarity which reveals the ties that bind the Jordanian people together in these moments
Join us in this solidarity
The airwaves themselves didn’t go unaffected either. Live broadcast hosts checked in regularly to inform of any news regarding the pilot. Young children called in to morning shows, asking His Majesty the King to help “free Muath.” The most brazen example was probably a minute-and-a-half long ad that combined declamations in formal Arabic with dramatic sound accompaniment – orchestral music, along with sound effects of a fighter jet flying by. Here’s an extract from the text:
لأنّ تراب الوطن غالٍ
لأنّك من صقور الأردن
ولأنّ أقدار الأبطال الدفاعُ عن أوطانهم
الى النشمي البطل معاذ الكساسبة
أعادك الله سالماََ غانماََ معافاََ الى بلدك الأردن
Because the soil of the homeland is precious
Because you are one of Jordan’s falcons
And because it is the fate of all heroes to defend their homelands
We are with you
To the heroic našmi [champion], Muath al-Kasasbeh
May God return you safe and sound and healthy to Jordan, your country
(Source: Sawt al-muwaaTin programme recording, JBC Radio, 26 January 2015)
“To all the falcons of the homeland. To all our intrepid soldiers.” Fear not.
“Jordanians,” the ad concludes, “will never abandon you.”
(“We are all Muath.” Source: al-Wakeel al-Ikhbaarii, 31 January 2015 – link)
One could be forgiven for feeling that there’s something altogether artificial about this overflowing compassion. What solidarity there is needs to be constantly reaffirmed – through social media contributions; through patriotic clips eating time away from commercial ad blocks – in order to give the impression of a ‘nation breathing as one.’
Kasasbeh was publicly framed as a قضية وطنية، a “national issue” – not surprising, given that he comes from a family with some prominence in the Jordanian army. If Jordan is to appear unified, everyone, indeed, has to “be Muath”; and none more so than private media outlets – who, with their morning shows punctuated by patriotic songs, simply have too much invested in this narrative not to join in.
This much, at least, a look at local Arabic media can tell us. Knowing whether all Jordanians actually feel this way, though, is another thing entirely.
The excitement fizzled out, gradually, over the weekend, with no news regarding Kasasbeh’s well-being. Late on Saturday, 31 January, a video was released showing the execution of the Japanese hostage (Goto). As the new working week began, this prompted a new round of doubts and questioning. What was IS planning? Were they ever even sincere in their calls for exchanging Kasasbeh for Rishawi? Has the deadline now passed, for real? Have the authorities dithered too much – could it be that Kasasbeh is now dead, too?
Perhaps it was all just psychological warfare, a provocation to “stir up the Jordanian street,” as some callers on Radio al-Balad’s Rainbow programme commented Sunday. Given there was still no firm information about Muath, the reply made by his brother Jawad – when asked (on the same programme) how the pilot’s family felt during these moments – was laconic but telling.
“We have a lot of faith in God.”
UPDATE – 3 February (19:45 PM EET) – News are just coming in that Kasasbeh had been burnt alive by IS already at the beginning of last month. Horrific news, needless to say.
I’ll try to put up some updates on local responses as the story develops. I think Rana Sweis put it succinctly enough on Twitter: