AMMAN—Jordan’s “holy war against dogs” began in late October, after a two-year-old girl, Malak al-Qaraan, died from a rabid dog’s bite. Malak was outside with her family when a stray dog appeared and bit her face, according to her uncle, 23-year-old Abdullah Rawashdeh. When they got to the hospital, the doctor stitched up her wound without treating or checking her for rabies, Rawashdeh said. Three weeks later, Malak was dead.

Shortly after the death, Jordan’s grand mufti—the country’s top religious scholar—said on a radio show that it’s permissible to kill a dog that’s attacking you, your children or your livestock. Human life is more valuable than animal life, the mufti said. Listeners took his words as a fatwa, an Islamic legal ruling, kicking off a dog hunt that swept the Hashemite Kingdom. The radio show’s host, a Jordanian journalist named Mohammad al-Wakeel, started a hashtag in Arabic: #together_to_eliminate_stray_dogs. Within days, Jordanian municipalities were poisoning or shooting hundreds of stray dogs across the country.

On November 8, Jordanian media reported that more than 800 stray dogs had been killed in the city of Karak alone. On Facebook, a video circulated of pre-dawn snipers in the city of Zarqa, driving around in the early morning to shoot stray dogs out of the backs of their trucks. More than 1,400 comments quickly accumulated, many of them praising the snipers for destroying the dogs who were threatening Jordan’s children.

Others protested the killings, circulating homemade videos and petitions bearing grisly images: rows of dog carcasses lined up on the street or piled in the back of a truck, blood smeared across their fur; dogs writhing on the ground, twitching from poison or glassy-eyed in a pool of blood; a bullet-ridden pup with several toes missing, limping across a tile floor to nuzzle at a bowl of food.

Foreigners began to criticize Jordan’s policies, with dog-lovers in Colorado and Michigan sharing a counter-hashtag: #stop_killing_them_jo. “Dogs are being hunted down and shot because the country’s religious leader has declared a holy war on dogs,” declared one U.S. organization’s petition, calling for an end to the “unprecedented massacre” of street animals in the Hashemite Kingdom. “I encourage you NOT to travel to Jordan and spend your hard-earned money there,” wrote one American woman on Facebook. “America is the 4th largest group of tourists in Jordan. If we hurt their tourism sector, they will be forced to reconsider.”

Jordan generally presents itself to the West as a moderate and progressive country—the week that the dog killings began, Jordan was hosting an international science forum at the Dead Sea, calling for research collaboration as a pathway to conflict resolution—but it is also more socially conservative than many of its Middle Eastern neighbors, especially in terms of religious attitudes. There have been extremist attacks in the country, most recently in December 2016, when 19 people were killed, including a Canadian tourist, in a shooting at the Karak castle, a popular tourist site. Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the founder of al-Qaeda in Iraq, which evolved into ISIS, was Jordanian. Jordan is also one of the top sources of foreign fighters for ISIS in Iraq and Syria. These realities may help explain why some Westerners, hearing about the canine catastrophe, took it for granted that religion was to blame for the killing spree.  

But the peculiar thing about Jordan’s “holy war on dogs” is that it doesn’t exist, according to Jordan’s Dar al-Iftaa, the institution that issues religious rulings. The mufti’s words were never intended as a command to kill, said Ahmad al-Hasanat, secretary general of Dar al-Iftaa. “It is forbidden to kill dogs like this,” said al-Hasanat. Contrary to portrayals of the fatwa as a brutal imperative to kill, the original fatwa only allowed killing of a dog that is threatening one’s life, al-Hasanat said. “If there are dogs living on the streets, no one is saying to kill them.”

The potential issue with fatwas is not that they are strict religious commands, but the opposite: They are non-binding religious opinions, only sometimes put in writing, that are left open to the individual’s interpretation and choice of whom he wants to obey. Typically given as answers to individuals’ specific questions, fatwas are based on deliberation and analysis by qualified religious scholars called muftis. The difference between fatwas and court rulings is that no one is obligated to follow a fatwa; it’s not a law, and ignoring it incurs no penalty.

“Religious authority is not forced,” al-Hasanat said. “We only give advice. If someone takes it, great. If not, what can we do? I give him a fatwa, and he decides.”

It’s not unusual for a fatwa to cause conflict, said Jenny Berglund, a religion professor at Södertörn University in Sweden. “When there was an Iranian fatwa saying it was okay to kill Salman Rushdie, for example, a lot of people went around trying to kill him,” Berglund said.

The lack of force in Jordan’s fatwa system is what enabled Jordanians to misinterpret the grand mufti’s words, even as they acknowledge the importance of having religious approval for killing. “In Islam, if you want to kill animals, it’s not easy. But if the animal is a threat to humans, you can kill it,” said Rawashdeh, uncle of the girl who died. “It would be forbidden to kill dogs if the mufti didn’t speak this way.” The girl’s death had been caused equally by the dog and by the doctor’s mistake of not treating her for rabies, he said. Still, he supported the supposed fatwa. “Any stray dog should be killed, because they hurt people,” he said.

Dogs have long been considered unclean in most schools of Islamic law, said Berglund, who published a paper on the status of dogs in Islam. But there is no basis in the Koran or hadith for mass killings of dogs—nor is there an imperative to do so in the fatwa. The driving force behind Jordan’s dog shootings is not Islamic government, it seems, but Jordanian people’s preexisting irritation with an uncontrolled stray dog problem. In 2014, for example, local media reported that residents were asking the municipality of Zarqa to get rid of strays after dogs attacked an elderly woman and several children, but that the officials refused, saying that killing dogs was forbidden and against Islamic law.

“Probably a lot of people in Jordan are just fed up with stray dogs. It’s a very human thing. You pick up this fatwa to get rid of the dogs harassing your family and stealing food,” Berglund said. “If this mufti had said it’s permissible to kill horses or donkeys, people wouldn’t have started to kill horses or donkeys. There are plenty of fatwas on helping the poor, too, but look how many people do nothing for the poor.”

In this case, religion may be serving people’s social aims, not the other way around. Whereas foreigners assumed the “war on dogs” was coming from the demands of strict religious authority, it may actually be the opposite: Jordan’s religious flexibility has allowed space for dog-haters to use a fatwa as an excuse to kill them.

On November 12, Jordan’s Dar al-Iftaa issued a new fatwa, quoting the Koran’s call for mercy toward animals and clarifying that animals should only be killed in self-defense, and even then, only humanely. Yet the killings have continued, and will go on unless legal and social solutions are found.

“It’s forbidden to kill dogs like this. It’s outside the fatwa,” al-Hasanat said. “But this is just my advice.”