The Jamal Khashoggi I Knew
Editor’s Note: A version of this article was published in French on the website of Le Nouvel Observateur.
Jamal Khashoggi could not shut up to save his life. And even those who took his life cannot still his voice. It resounds from the unknown grave where a prince’s henchmen secreted his remains.
Most in Washington have rightly treated Khashoggi’s death as the outrageous crime that it is. Yet some epigones of the Middle East’s new Saddam cannot restrain themselves from a wink and a nod at the murder — of course it is wrong, but after all the journalist was no democrat, but a sympathizer of the Muslim Brotherhood! He was photographed posing with a rocket launcher among jihadists in Afghanistan and consorting with Osama bin Laden!
Some of these detractors rely on malicious misinterpretations of articles of Jamal’s that I recently posted on Twitter as a memento of my friend. In March 1989, Jamal gave me copies of two articles he had published in Arab News about the Arab mujahidin in Afghanistan when we met in Jeddah, sitting under pictures of President George H. W. Bush and Vice President Dan Quayle in the consulate general of the United States. The consul had arranged for me to meet Jamal because he was a rare voice in Saudi Arabia who echoed American concerns about misdirected Saudi support for the U.S.-backed struggle in Afghanistan. Jamal told me how Saudi leaders like Prince Salman bin Abdul Aziz, governor of Riyadh and head of the Saudi committee that distributed funds for the jihad in Afghanistan, were directing contributions to marginal sectarian groups that followed the kingdom’s Salafi version of Islam rather than to the national leaders of the Afghan mujahidin. Today that same Salman is Saudi Arabia’s ailing king, whose son and crown prince, Muhammad Bin Salman, ordered into action the men who murdered Jamal.
Jamal rejected extremist doctrines about “deviant” Muslims and non-Muslims. He told me how had been helping a European group in Peshawar, Pakistan, unload a shipment of aid for Afghan refugees. One of his Arab Islamist comrades asked him why he was cooperating with the kuffar (non-believers). “Because these kuffar are giving millions of dollars of goods to the Afghan refugees,” he answered. “Are you?”
But he did not just criticize Salman to me; he was also arguing personally with Salman himself. A grandson of the Turkish court physician of King Abdul Aziz Ibn Saud, the founder of modern Saudi Arabia, Jamal was both a critic and a loyal member of the Saudi establishment with access to the highest levels. The idea that he was a threat to the House of Saud, active in Muslim Brotherhood efforts at Islamic revolution, or even an opponent or dissident is ludicrous. Perhaps he should have been, but he was not. He was a loyal critic — so loyal that he underestimated the risk he faced.
In 2010 I visited Riyadh on a State Department mission, soon after Jamal was fired as editor of the Saudi newspaper Al-watan for an editorial criticizing religious extremism. Over lunch told me how he had personally appealed the decision to then-Crown Prince Nayyef Bin Abdul Aziz al-Saud, minister of the interior. Jamal had direct access to the highest levels of the royal family. Former intelligence chief Prince Turki Bin Faisal al-Saud, the close partner of CIA director William Casey in supporting the jihad in Afghanistan, later hired Jamal as his media advisor when he became Saudi ambassador to first the United Kingdom and then the United States.
That is the same Prince Turki who today teaches at Georgetown University and was photographed in July 2017 with President Donald Trump’s lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, and his current national security advisor, John Bolton, at a rally for the Iranian extremist group Mujahedin-e Khalq, which the United States long considered a terrorist organization (the designation was removed several years ago).
In November 2017, I reported to Jamal that Prince Turki had defended MBS at a meeting I attended. He wrote back:
I can’t write about him because I respect him highly.
I’m disappointed, he is highly respected at home and internationally, he must know that Saudi foreign policy has become impulsive and driven by fear and anger, jumping from one extreme to another, with no strategy and exit plan. Iran is winning by just waiting for us failing, and he is just committed to old fashion school, family solidarity.
Jamal’s views on Iran and the Shi’a opposition in Saudi Arabia were not far from those of the Saudi establishment. In January 2016 the government executed Shi’a leader Nimr al-Nimr and 46 other Shi’a dissidents convicted of terrorism, after what Amnesty International called “a deeply flawed trial.” I asked Jamal if democracy advocates like him were the ultimate target. He rationalized Nimr’s execution the way some now rationalize his: “Al nimr is no democrat, he is for Wali Alfaqia [the Iranian system] bloody system that put SA or part of it under Iran.” Still, he said he would have preferred that Nimr had been imprisoned rather than executed.
Jamal did think that the Kingdom’s impulsive opposition to Iran was ineffective. In a July 2013 article now scrubbed from the website of Saudi television station al-Arabiyya, he called for unofficial dialogue between Saudis and Iranians. He sent me a link to that article on June 26, 2014, the day after he wrote me:
As you see things going from bad to worst in Arab World. The only hope I think if someone can restore drive for democracy, that positive feeling that spread in Arab world after 2011 which pushed AQ to wistless period. We should talk. I call you. When?
We spoke that day. Jamal saw the democracy movement that Arab autocrats were crushing as the firmest bulwark against extremism in the region. As our mutual friend Abdullah Anas, an Algerian who served Afghan resistance commander Ahmad Shah Massoud for ten years, told me around the same time, “Al Qaeda died on Tahrir Square,” where the youth of Egypt showed that peaceful demonstrations could overturn tyranny in the Arab world.
For years, Jamal’s critics tried to call him a Muslim Brotherhood sympathizer to discredit his democratic advocacy. I will give Jamal the last word on this modern McCarthyism. In December 2015, he wrote:
My problem began after what happened in Egypt in the summer of 2013. I have been losing friends since. I did not call it a coup — I believe the military regained a power it had held for 1,000 years. Maybe they were not friends, as a real friend cannot be lost just because your opinions differ … .
Some said my enthusiasm for the Egyptian revolution of Jan. 2011 was due to me being a latent supporter of the [Muslim] Brotherhood. The numerous articles in which I have criticized the Brotherhood and blamed it for the collapse of democracy did not change their opinion.
An editor-in-chief at a prominent newspaper … wrote an article entitled “The deceivers,” in which he said I had fooled him and others because they knew me as a liberal. He, who was supposed to be a friend, was unable to understand that liberalism is for everyone, and if applied selectively will no longer be liberal. The holder of a free pen defends principles and refuses to be restricted.
A few weeks ago, my friend Nawaf Obeid admonished me, saying: “You need to write an article in which you confirm that you are not a supporter of the Brotherhood.” I replied: “Whatever I say, I’ll never convince those who suffer from Brotherhood-phobia. They say I support this party because I criticize their favorite regime. Do that and you too will be accused of being a Brotherhood supporter.”
In the Arab world, everyone thinks journalists cannot be independent, but I represent myself, which is the right thing to do. What would I be worth if I succumbed to pressure to change my opinions? … I want to be free, to think freely and write freely. I am free to do so.
Barnett R. Rubin is Director of the Afghanistan Regional Project and Associate Director at the Center on International Cooperation of New York University. He taught at Yale and Columbia Universities, headed the Center for Preventive Action at the Council on Foreign Relations, and served as senior advisor to both the U.S. State Department Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan (2009–2013) and the U.N. Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Afghanistan (2001–2002). His most recent book is Afghanistan from the Cold War through the War on Terror (2013).