Opinion: Khashoggi part of brave tradition
Washington — Why was Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman so afraid of Jamal Khashoggi that he reportedly gave orders this past summer to bring the Washington Post contributor back to Saudi Arabia?
We’ll still be left with that question after the Saudi and Turkish investigations are done and the designated culprits are convicted. What was the threat that had to be silenced? My guess is that Khashoggi was seen as dangerous for the simple reason that he couldn’t be intimidated or controlled. He was an uncensored mind. He didn’t observe the kingdom’s “red lines.” He was an insistent, defiant journalist.
If you want to visualize what Khashoggi was struggling against, watch some of the slickly packaged video coverage of this week’s Future Investment Initiative conference in Riyadh. It was a captive audience, so to speak: MBS, as he’s known, got a prolonged, raucous ovation Wednesday when he denounced Khashoggi’s murder and promised cooperation with Turkey.
A gushing story in the Riyadh-based Arab News praised MBS’ “war” for modernization, which is “restoring the Middle East to its past glory,” and quoted the crown prince: “I believe the new Europe is the Middle East.”
Who wouldn’t like MBS’ vision of a modern, Europe-like Arab world at peace with its neighbors, including Israel? But the crown prince doesn’t seem to understand that a united, peaceful Europe was possible only because it had a shared culture of freedom and tolerance. Troublesome journalists don’t get murdered in that Europe. Leaders don’t order “rendition” of dissenters, as MBS did with Khashoggi in July, according to a U.S. official.
There’s a danger now that Khashoggi will be seen as a creature of the West, and not an authentic Saudi voice. But that view is false: Khashoggi was part of an Arab journalism tradition with a long, brave history. He is the latest Arab martyr for press freedom, but he isn’t the first. I’ve encountered many similar heroes over the past 40 years who shared Khashoggi’s ambition.
Let’s start with someone you’ve likely never heard of, a Palestinian named Tewfik Mishlawi, who was my colleague in Beirut in the early 1980s. Every morning he gathered the news from the region into a clear, unbiased summary called “The Middle East Reporter.” His dream, he once told me, was to create the first Arab wire service, with the same standards as the Associated Press or Reuters.
Mishlawi passed away in 2012, but he trained a generation of great Arab reporters, including The Washington Post’s matchless war correspondent Nora Boustany, who now teaches journalism at the American University of Beirut.
Lebanese journalists risked their lives to challenge Syria, which occupied their country for a generation. Samir Kassir, a fearless columnist for An Nahar, was assassinated in June 2005. May Chidiac, a Lebanese television anchor, was maimed by a car bomb in September 2005. She’s still crusading for a free press.
Gebran Tueni, the editor of An Nahar, was murdered in December 2005. At a memorial service for him in Beirut a year later, I quoted something his father, the great editor Ghassan Tueni, had written a month before his son was killed: “For us, a real press is democratic and free. It is a forum where public opinion can express itself. It is an effective tool for change.”
Turkish journalists have battled for this same dream. Can Dundar, a former editor of Cumhuriyet, was indicted in 2015 after publishing a story about how Turkey supplied arms to jihadists in Syria; he fled the next year to Germany. It’s grotesque to watch President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, whose country has imprisoned more journalists than any other, pose as a defender of the press in the Khashoggi case.
The yearning for public debate is shared by other Saudis. My friend Hussein Shobokshi was fired by the Jeddah newspaper Okaz in 2003 after he wrote a column dreaming about a more modern Saudi Arabia where his daughter could drive, a comprehensive annual budget was published, and leaders were elected. All three have happened, if you count Saudi municipal elections, he told me Thursday. He’s still a journalist, now hosting a weekly show on Al Arabiya.
Those who truly want a modern and prosperous Saudi Arabia could start by building on the legacy of Khashoggi. A country that cannot tolerate criticism will never be, as one of the slogans at this week’s Riyadh conference put it, “a roadmap for the future of civilization.” That could be Khashoggi’s gift, in death: A chance for Saudi modernizers to make a fresh start, without the brutal trappings of autocratic power.
— David Ignatius is a columnist for Washington Post Writers Group.