By Hassan Aourid
Until last Saturday, I was hopeful that the disappearance of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi at his country’s consulate in Istanbul was not more than a case of censure that might result in his transfer home to face trial or might silence him. But revelations on Saturday night and Sunday indicated an abrupt and dramatic change that might amount to an assassination. This would turn his disappearance into a rerun of the disappearance and murder of left-wing Moroccan politician Mehdi Ben Barka in 1965, coincidentally in the same month as the disappearnace of Khashoggi. Ben Barka’s assassination brought the Moroccan establishment to its knees, tainting its image. It also forced the opposition to radicalise, and threatened reconciliation efforts. Similarly, the Khashoggi case could transform into a burden too weighty for Saudi Arabia to bear.
Nothing is certain, but should Khashoggi’s assassination be confirmed, Saudi Arabia and the entire Middle East region will have taken a dangerous turn. Such a development will also have implications for Saudi Arabia’s future and its relations with Turkey, scuppering the idea of a ‘Sunni NATO’ and adversely affecting Saudi relations with the West – including the USA, particularly following President Trump’s recent pronouncements on bilateral relations. The West cannot remain silent and prioritise its interests over its values if Khashoggi is found to have been murdered.
I made Khashoggi’s acquaintance in May at a conference on security and political arrangements for the Middle East and North Africa convened by the Afro-Middle East Centre and Al Sharq Forum in Istanbul. The gathering gathered a galaxy of intellectuals and pundits from the Arab and Islamic world alongside international observers from the rest of the globe. Khashoggi was among the participants and was a keynote speaker at the closing session.
Speaking polished English in a calm tone, he provided a sensible assessment of the situation across the Arab world, from countries that embraced change and defended it inside and outside the Arab world to those that are openly inimical to change or ask to be left alone after facing adversity and seeing their nations torn apart. The kernel of his presentation was his defence of the strategic interests of Saudi Arabia and what he regarded as the risks that Iran’s nuclear programme and expansionist designs pose to the region.
It was no secret that Khashoggi was opposed to Saudi Arabia’s new policies, or, rather, new developments in his country led him to keep his distance from decision makers after having been an astute defender of his country, and it policies and institutions.
The new policies and new methods for conducting public affairs in Saudi Arabia have forced him into self-exile and a liberal opposition to the situation in his country. He was not loathe to air his views, whether on television channels, forums or meetings, or in the columns of The Washington Post, which were characterised by depth and audacity. I was a regular reader of his articles to understand what was happening in the Saudi kingdom.
Two months ago, I read one of his Washington Post articles where he referred to David Kirkpatrick’s book on the critical situation in the Arab world. I subsequently bought and reviewed the book.
Khashoggi wanted to prevent liberal and reformist movements from being left to the mercy of authoritarian regimes by encouraging them to align with with the dynamics of their societies. To put it differently, he wanted to have them recognise Islamic views regardless of differences since they were a reflection of a societal reality and an internal dynamic. Turning them into an enemy might hamper their evolution and drive them into withdrawal and, eventually, extremism. It was a principled position, which he articulated without neglecting the core principles underpinning modernist thought, including the emancipation of women, the introduction of legal standards for political action, balance among branches of government, and democratisation. This vision is bothersome for regimes that unilaterally decide the fate of adversaries and dissidents by pitting one movement against the other. It is also troublesome for regimes focused on dealing with the present to the detriment of the strategic, regimes that refuse to abide by standards, or account for their actions.
Particularly striking and central, to Khashoggi’s credit, was his defence of his country’s strategic interests, a reflection of his maturity and credibility. Some dissidents are driven by their impetuosity to confuse views, persons and regimes with the strategic interests of their countries, losing their credibility in the process. They might find themselves in an ephemeral media bubble and descend into oblivion as soon as it bursts. Khashoggi did not fall in this category, and he thus kept his credibility intact. He stands for something new that observers of Saudi Arabia’s affairs tend to overlook: liberal views which want to be immersed in global trends and universal experience. He was not the first to voice or embrace these tendencies, but he became one of its voices and mouthpieces. His mysterious disappearance signals a dramatic shift; the confirmation of his murder will worsen matters. Yet his forced disappearance will not kill his ideas. When an individual is silenced, the ideas he embraced or was made to embrace by the social dynamics in his country or region will not wither and die. On the contrary, they become more dangerous when they haunt people who were made victims, martyrs and ultimately icons. Khashoggi is now an idea that poses a greater danger to the current establishment in Saudi Arabia.
The tragic disappearance of a person whose sole weapon was his pen brings to mind an incident that changed the course of the Middle East when the henchmen of the Ottoman caliph, then the embodiment of Islamic unity, executed Arab nationalists in May 1916 in Damascus. When Emir Faisal bin Hussein, a leader of the Arab Revolt against the Ottomans and later king of the Arab Kingdom of Syria, heard the news, he sprang to his feet in a fit of rage, removed his headdress, and shouted a line that has become famous and marked a break with a system that was hitherto seen as the custodian of Islam: “Death has never been so appealing, oh Arabs!” The rest of the story is history. The smallest spark can ignite the largest fire.