Opinion: Khashoggi, the Liberator

A native of one of the most repressive regimes in the world, Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi knew more about the nuances of freedom than most. In observance of last week’s International Day to End Impunity For Crimes Against Journalists, I discuss his final op-ed piece and his struggle and passion for freedom of expression in the Arab world and beyond.
Opinion Khashoggi, the Liberator

On October 2, Jamal Khashoggi, a Saudi Arabian journalist and columnist for the Washington Post, walked into Riyadh’s consulate in Istanbul and never came out again. For days after his disappearance, Saudi Arabia denied accusations of its involvement and attacked his reputation. The president of the United States defended them. Security footage showed a doppelgänger of Khashoggi leaving the consulate in Khashoggi’s clothes. The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia officially claims that Khashoggi’s death was a premeditated murder, but that Khashoggi was killed in a rogue operation that the leadership was unaware of.

As many have pointed out, Khashoggi was not a vicious dissident. Rather than taking a sledgehammer to the heavy yoke of Wahhabi absolutism in Saudi Arabia, Khashoggi served as a guiding voice, encouraging the kingdom to embrace values he believed would further its development as a nation — and all countries in the Arab world.

In his last column, Khashoggi wrote about freedom of expression. He began with the excitement felt by “journalists, academics and the general population” in the wake of the Arab Spring. However, those hopes were quickly dashed as the countries involved in the movement reverted to their old ways — or worse. This regression is one of the things Khashoggi believed needed to change the most.

“More important, we need to provide a platform for Arab voices.”

“More important, we need to provide a platform for Arab voices,” Khashoggi wrote. “We suffer from poverty, mismanagement and poor education. Through the creation of an independent international forum, isolated from the influence of nationalist governments spreading hate through propaganda, ordinary people in the Arab world would be able to address the structural problems their societies face.”

The irony of his words is that Khashoggi was killed by a “nationalist government spreading hate through propaganda” precisely because he was an Arab voice with a platform. Even worse, the administration of the U.S., Khashoggi’s adopted country, embraced and promoted Saudi Arabia’s implausible and ever-shifting stories.

Aside from the United States’ diversity, the freedom to which Americans are accustomed is one of the few nearly universally admired things about the country. However, rather than that freedom being inherent in the soil or emerging passively from an exceptional populace, it is furthered only by America’s commitment to it — a commitment that can and seemingly has been defaulted on by the U.S. government.

If the American government remains unwilling to defend the higher value of freedom of speech and freedom of the press, for fear of losing out on a multi-billion dollar arms deal with Riyadh, it will have shown far less courage than Khashoggi, who died at the hands of one of the most brutal regimes on earth for defending these very ideals.

Though Khashoggi’s fate is tragic, Riyadh’s lies palpable, and President Trump’s defenses indefensible, the case has catalyzed journalists in liberal democracies to reassert the importance of these freedoms and draw attention to fellow journalists worldwide, some of whom suffer unjust abuses from regimes without such liberties.

The liberation that Khashoggi desperately sought for the Arab world had little to do with the comparison between East versus West, but rather with those who believe in and support freedom of expression versus those who oppose it. He was a liberator in the sense that he believed that the only way for society to thrive is to permit the people to speak transparently and openly about the challenges facing them, and he was not afraid to say so.

Last Friday, November 2, marked the International Day to End Impunity For Crimes Against Journalists, a day that highlights the low conviction rate of those charged with crimes against media workers. Only one in ten cases actually results in a conviction, and these are only the cases that go to trial. Dozens gathered at the Mayflower Hotel in Washington, D.C., for a commemoration to celebrate Khashoggi’s life. The memorial highlighted the fact that Khashoggi’s body has not been recovered or released to his family for proper burial, despite calls by the U.S. State Department, the international community, and his fiancée and family for the Saudi government to do so.

It was just one month before that when Khashoggi’s fiancée awaited him outside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, but he did not return. Questions still remain. And culpability still must be determined, although available evidence continues to point squarely at Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

Heeding Khashoggi’s calls for freedom for others in the world requires the global community to condemn the violence of the Saudis in Istanbul. The case, and its subsequent handling by world governments serves as a window into understanding the precarious security situations surrounding journalists, dissidents, and citizens worldwide, and our values going forward.

What Khashoggi understood was that human freedom is inherently interconnected, and to ignore injustice in one part of the world is only to invite the same injustice elsewhere. And though valuing human life and freedom over money may require sacrifice on our part, it will be substantially less than the price that Khashoggi paid.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Inside Arabia’s editorial stance.