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 new direction.”
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 other words.
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 finally happening.”
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 were Fatwas.
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 was shrinking.
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.