By Ishaan Tharoor* – The Washington Post
A year ago, Jamal Khashoggi — a Saudi commentator and dissident living in de facto exile — entered his nation’s consulate in Istanbul, never to return. The months since Khashoggi’s abduction and brutal killing by a Saudi hit squad have brought great uproar but insufficient justice. A handful of Saudi officials were indicted and punished by authorities in Riyadh for orchestrating a supposedly rogue operation. But U.S. intelligence officials believe Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman had direct knowledge of the mission targeting Khashoggi, a Washington Post contributor. The Saudi royal denies the allegation and, with the support of President Trump and his allies, has been mostly rehabilitated on the world stage.
But the memory of Khashoggi’s life and work endures. To honor the anniversary of his chilling death, my colleagues at The Post’s Opinions section commissioned pieces on Khashoggi, his political views and the regime that sought to snuff them out. They underscore the legacy of a writer whose quest for freedom, democracy and tolerance didn’t end in the torture chamber of a consulate.
Khashoggi was hardly a fringe figure. He was born into privilege and first became known to Western journalists as a prominent Saudi author and editor with connections to the kingdom’s princely elites. He was an insider, not a dissident.
Over time, though, he came to espouse beliefs at odds with the court in Riyadh and those in most of the Arab world’s other monarchies: an embrace of political liberalization, a hope for the opening of space for democratic rights and an interest in the ideas of political Islam. The upheavals of the pro-democracy uprisings in 2011 — and the crackdowns and conflicts that followed — created a new generation of Arab exiles. Khashoggi’s relative fame in Saudi Arabia and desire for reform ultimately led him to join their ranks.
“Jamal gave up on his government’s will to change later than many; but his insider knowledge of the Saudi regime made clear that speaking up required getting out,” wrote Tamara Cofman Wittes, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and a former State Department official.
Khashoggi’s semiregular column at The Post, which often took aim at Mohammed, made him a target. He opposed the Saudi-led intervention in Yemen, a pet project of the crown prince. And, while not rejecting outright the ambitious royal’s plans to modernize and reform Saudi Arabia, Khashoggi stood against the crown prince’s persecution of critics at home and attacks on Islamist political parties across the region.
“The Saudi monarchy might claim to be forward-thinking with its Vision 2030 modernization plan and efforts to court Western leaders,” wrote Hala Al-Dosari, a Saudi dissident and writer, who pointed also to the arrest of a number of female civil society activists under the crown prince’s watch. “In reality, however, it has simply institutionalized a centuries-old monarchic legacy of violence, disenfranchisement and repression. Jamal’s brutal murder and the torture of female activists have brought this all to light.”
But Khashoggi wasn’t exactly a revolutionary. “For the dissident Arab communities in exile and in the region, he offered an integral element that had been missing since the fall of the Arab Spring,” noted Mohamed Soltan, an Egyptian American activist. “Unlike many other dissidents, Jamal had experience championing reforms from within circles of power. He spoke often of the ways good people brought about positive change from within faulty systems.”
Khashoggi’s friends overseas, including those who disagreed with his Islamist sympathies, welcomed his rigorous support for democracy and pluralism, for the building of a tolerant political space in Arab societies that has proved all too elusive in recent history.
“Unless Islamists and liberals are able to agree on the relationship between majority rule and individual rights, we will never be able to coexist peacefully — and ultimately will achieve neither majority rule nor individual rights,” wrote Ezzedine C. Fishere, a visiting professor at Dartmouth College. “Dictators will be able to continue justifying their authoritarianism by arguing it is needed to maintain peace between two camps who can’t agree on the fundamentals of peaceful coexistence. And they will be right.”
In his gentle ripostes to the ruling authorities of his own country, Khashoggi hoped to prove the dictators wrong. Even in death, he has. In various Arab countries this year, people power movements have once more threatened the authoritarian status quo, no matter the powerful forces arrayed against them.
“The Saudis and the UAE gave billions to prop up Sudan’s military regime in the hope it would withstand a mass protest movement, only to see the generals strike a deal for a three-year transition to democracy,” noted a Post editorial. “Algeria, too, has seen the rise of a powerful democracy movement, and Tunisia is holding a robustly competitive presidential election. Recently, protests erupted in Egypt, where another military regime has received billions in Saudi subsidies, after a dissident businessman’s message went viral.”
Yet that’s a cold comfort. That Khashoggi, a figure with international clout and friends in high places, could be killed with such brazenness horrified onlookers and exiled dissidents elsewhere. Iyad el-Baghdadi, another Arab activist in exile, sees Riyadh’s silencing of Khashoggi as part of a broader squeezing of dissent, one that has extended deep into online networks as well.
“When Jamal chose exile in the summer of 2017, it was a few weeks ahead of a wave of mass arrests that targeted dissidents and intellectuals,” wrote el-Baghdadi. “There was one thing that many of the victims had in common: large social media followings. More than targeting the dissidents themselves, the arrests were part of a plan to degrade and conquer the last remaining open, inclusive Arab public sphere.”
Nor has it helped that Western governments, especially the Trump administration, have placed their strategic interests in allying with Saudi Arabia ahead of a principled moral stand about the kingdom’s behavior. Khashoggi’s memory, argue his friends and supporters, will be a perennial thorn in the side of regional realpolitik.
“Jamal, both in his long struggle to bring the perfidies of the Saudi regime to light and in the memory of his horrific death, will always symbolize the perseverance of the deep rebellion among Muslims against their dynastic dictators,” wrote Turkish columnist Asli Aydintasbas. “Western leaders might continue to choose to work with these despots. But Jamal’s example will always remind us that one day, they will have to deal with the restless reality of the region’s people, too. The dictators might protect Western interests, but they cannot rescue the Western soul.”
*Ishaan Tharoor writes about foreign affairs for The Washington Post. He previously was a senior editor and correspondent at Time magazine, based first in Hong Kong and later in New York. Follow @ishaantharoor