By Lawrence Wright
January 9, 2019
On Thursday, I will be joining the
documentarian Alex Gibney and the former F.B.I. special agent Ali Soufan, along
with lawmakers, journalists, human-rights advocates, and friends, at the U.S.
Capitol, in Washington, D.C., to honour Jamal Khashoggi, who has become a
symbol of freedom of speech around the world. The date will mark a hundred days
since his murder. We will remember his humanity and his courage.
I met Jamal sixteen years ago, in Jeddah,
Saudi Arabia. He was the deputy editor of the Arab News; I was mentoring young
reporters at that newspaper’s English-language competitor, the Saudi Gazette.
The rules of the press in Saudi Arabia were that you couldn’t write about the
government, the royal family, or religion, which didn’t leave much on the
plate. In any case, the press outlets were largely owned or controlled by
members of the royal family, Al Saud. The Gazette was then closely identified
with Prince Nayef bin Abdul Aziz, the Minister of the Interior, so I was
teaching my wards skills that they couldn’t actually use.
Khashoggi was a tall man, with a large, round
face. He was genial and humorous and spoke in a deep voice, and he was already
a singular figure in the tame world of Saudi journalism. As a young reporter,
he had covered the jihad against the Soviets in Afghanistan, where he
interviewed Osama bin Laden. When they were younger, both men had been involved
with the Muslim Brothers, which was at that time a port of call for dissidents.
“We were hoping to establish an Islamic state anywhere,” Jamal told me. Each of
them drifted away from the Brotherhood; bin Laden becoming far more radical and
Jamal far less. Jamal was always a believing Muslim, but he rejected the
Islamist movement when it turned to violence. In 1995, bin Laden’s family sent
Khashoggi to Sudan, where bin Laden had taken refuge and was nurturing his
terror organization. Khashoggi’s mission was to persuade him to publicly
renounce violence. But bin Laden refused to make any such statement.
By the time I met Jamal, in 2003, he had
denounced bin Laden and written a column in the Arab News, placing the
responsibility for 9/11 on the cultural failures of Saudi Arabia, especially
Wahhabism, the kingdom’s unyielding state religion. “Despite the enormity of
what happened, we are still in denial,” he wrote. “We still cling to unlikely
conspiracy theories and eye the truth with suspicion. The most pressing issue
now is to ensure that our children can never be influenced by extremist
ideas—like those fifteen Saudis who were misled into hijacking four planes on
that fine September day, piloting them, and us, straight into the jaws of
hell.” When I wrote about my experience in Saudi Arabia for the January 5,
2004, issue of this magazine, I called the piece “The Kingdom of Silence”
because of the caution I encountered everywhere I went. Jamal was incisive and
courageous, but he could not have been so open if he had not had the support of
some senior princes at the time.
He spoke of the “schizophrenia” that many
Saudis experience, by which he meant the contradiction between what he called
the “real” and the “virtual” kingdom. He gave the example of satellite dishes,
which were nominally against the law. “In reality, we are the biggest consumers
of satellite television in the Middle East,” he said.
A month after we met, Jamal was hired to
run Al Watan, one of the most influential papers in the kingdom. I visited him
in his office in Abha, a city in the south, not far from the border with Yemen.
It was April 7, 2003. American and coalition troops had just occupied Baghdad.
“This will change everything,” he said. “The whole Arab world will turn in a
For good or bad? I asked.
“For good. We cannot go in a worse
direction than we already are. Bad for us means Somalia.” Total anarchy, in
Jamal was the only Saudi I met who was in
favour of the war in Iraq. I think this was because he had developed a strong
belief in the example of American democracy and in the nation’s ability to
spread this ideal around the world. As it happens, he misjudged both our
intentions and our abilities. He had a dream of the Arab world being free of
tyranny and oppression. He thought that America could do for the Arabs what
they could not do for themselves. In this, he was in line with the neocons in
the Administration of George W. Bush. A few days later, during the celebrations
in Baghdad, which were mixed with looting, Jamal exulted, “It’s happening. It’s
But it didn’t happen. When I got back to
Jeddah, one of the editors at the Saudi Gazette predicted that Jamal would be
killed, because there was so much anger at his pro-war comments. In any case,
less than two months later, Jamal was fired as the editor of Al Watan. He had
been too outspoken about religious extremists. He had even published a cartoon
of a cleric wearing a suicide vest; instead of dynamite in the pockets, there
This was the first time that Jamal went
into self-imposed exile. While he was still in the kingdom, we spoke about
trying to find him a teaching position at an American university. A number of
prestigious schools were interested, including Columbia, but then he was
appointed as an aide to Prince Turki al-Faisal, who was at that time the Saudi
Ambassador to the United Kingdom. I interviewed Jamal extensively in London for
my book on Al Qaeda, “The Looming Tower.” After that, Prince Turki became the
Ambassador to the United States, and Jamal went with him to Washington, D.C. He
seemed to warm to the city. One day, he would make it his home.
Then came a shift in the power structure of
the royal family, and Jamal was reappointed as the editor of Al Watan, in 2007.
That lasted just three years; he was still too progressive and unwilling to toe
the line. Prince al-Waleed bin Talal, perhaps the richest of the Saudi princes,
who is also a progressive, hired him to launch a satellite news channel in
Bahrain, called Al Arab. That lasted only eleven hours before the Bahraini
government, a close ally of Saudi Arabia, shut it down.
In the summer of 2017, Jamal called me from
the kingdom. For the first time, I detected real anxiety in his voice. The
government had forbidden him to publish (he wrote a regular column for Al
Arabiya) or to appear on television (he was a political commentator for Al
Jazeera, the BBC, and other international channels). “They even forbid me to
tweet,” he said. “They want to silence me totally.” A December, 2016, report in
the British paper the Independent said that the ban was triggered by
Khashoggi’s criticism of President Trump’s Middle East policy, which he
described as “contradictory” and “wishful thinking.” At the time, Mohammed bin
Salman, then the deputy crown prince and the minister of defense, was leading
the war in Yemen. Jamal already sensed that the space of freedom in the kingdom
In June of 2017, in a family coup, Mohammed
bin Salman became crown prince. In November, hundreds of businessmen, many of
them members of the royal family, were arrested and locked up in the Riyadh
Ritz-Carlton, on his orders. They were reportedly shaken down for billions of
dollars. Some were said to have been mistreated. The Times reported that one
man, a military officer, died; apparently his neck had been broken. Those
arrests were followed by others, including of women’s-rights activists,
intellectuals, and bloggers. They caused little outcry, because of the
liberalizing reforms that the crown prince promoted—allowing women to drive,
opening movie theatres, and restricting the powers of the religious police. I
was among those who supported these reforms without protesting the dark side of
the crown prince’s authoritarian rule.
But there was no doubt in Jamal’s mind that
he would be arrested, too. So he went into exile a second time. Fortunately, he
found a publishing home at the Washington Post. “With young Crown Prince
Mohammed bin Salman’s rise to power, he promised an embrace of social and
economic reform,” he wrote last September, in his first column for the Post.
“But all I see now is the recent wave of arrests. . . . Some of the arrested
are good friends of mine, and the effort represents the public shaming of
intellectuals and religious leaders who dare to express opinions contrary to
those of my country’s leadership.”
The last time I saw Jamal was in March, in
Austin, where I live. I had invited him to join me to give a talk on reporting
in the Middle East at the University of Texas. We disagreed on some things: he
still hoped that America would provide a firm hand in the Middle East; I had
long since become disillusioned with the idea of American constancy. In some
ways, Jamal believed in my country more than I did.
Life as an exile was hard for him. He
continued to profess his love for his homeland. But at last he was free. “I
have left my home, my family and my job, and I am raising my voice,” he wrote
in one of his Post columns. “To do otherwise would betray those who languish in
prison. I can speak when so many cannot.”
Jamal can no longer speak. His death has
rightly shocked the world, but he was by no means alone. Many reporters around
the world have been murdered, dozens in the past year alone. Hundreds more have
been imprisoned. The Committee to Protect Journalists has spoken of a crisis of
press freedom. Suppressing freedom of speech allows tyranny to enlarge its hold
on power. Indeed, there is no other reason for it.
We will gather in Washington on Thursday to
once again assert that America’s main role in the world is to champion liberty
and human rights. We will stand up for journalists who have the courage to
expose wrongdoing by the powerful, whether the interests they confront be those
of our enemies, our allies, or our own government. Jamal Khashoggi was such a
journalist. He embodied the qualities of truth and justice that America, at its
best, represents. And we will thank him for reminding us.