Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, in 2011. (Virginia Mayo/AP)
George Orwell titled a regular column he wrote for a British newspaper in the mid-1940s “As I Please.” Meaning that he would write exactly what he believed. My Saudi colleague Jamal Khashoggi has always had that same insistent passion for telling the truth about his country, no matter what.
Khashoggi’s fate is unknown as I write, but his colleagues at The Post and friends around the world fear that he was murdered after he visited the Saudi consulate in Istanbul last Tuesday.
I have known Khashoggi for about 15 years and want to share here some of the reasons he is beloved in our profession and the news of his disappearance has been such a shock.
Journalists can sometimes seem dry and remote, living in the flat two dimensions of a newspaper page. Khashoggi was a tall, reserved man, austere in the long, white thobe he wore until he went into exile in the United States last year. But in his work, he has always been full of life and daring; he embodied the restless curiosity and refusal to compromise on principle that are the saving graces of our business.
Khashoggi has always been the kind of journalist who annoys the authorities. That has been true of Saudi Arabia’s current Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who Khashoggi thought was an impulsive hothead who undermined his own good ideas for reform.
But Mohammed bin Salman was hardly Khashoggi’s first target. He was picking fights with the Saudi leadership 25 years ago. He was named editor of the reform newspaper Al Watan in 2003, got fired two months later for publishing criticism of the Saudi religious leadership, got rehired four years after that, and then was forced to resign in 2010 after publishing another controversial piece criticizing Salafist extremism. He was one of those journalists who simply wouldn’t back down when convinced he was right.
Khashoggi was passionate for reform of an Arab Muslim world that he considered corrupt and dishonest. He grew up in Medina, the son of a Palestinian immigrant who owned a small textile shop. He went to the United States for college, attending Indiana State University. He also embraced Islam, joining the Muslim Brotherhood and, in the late 1970s, befriending the young Osama bin Laden, whom he tried to turn against violence.
Khashoggi failed to dissuade bin Laden. But he never temporized about the evil that al-Qaeda brought to Saudi Arabia and the world. He wrote a column for the Daily Star in Beirut on Sept. 10, 2002, titled “A Saudi mea culpa.” At a time when many Saudis were still finding excuses for the al-Qaeda killers, Khashoggi described Sept. 11 as an attack on “the values of tolerance and coexistence,” and on Islam itself.
One of my favorite Khashoggi columns was a 2002 evocation of his friend Daniel Pearl, the Wall Street Journal correspondent who just had been murdered by al-Qaeda. They had met 10 years before, while covering the first Gulf War. Khashoggi wrote of this American Jewish reporter: “Pearl understood Arab and Muslim feelings … He was searching for the truth in order to convey it to his readers.”
Khashoggi and I were at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, in January 2011 as the revolt that came to be known as the Arab Spring was starting to sweep the Middle East. Khashoggi welcomed it. I quoted him in a column: “The Arab world has been seeking renaissance for the last 100 years,” but the movement for reform had been blocked by authoritarian leaders and inchoate public rage at corruption. Now it was time, he hoped.
What infuriated him about Mohammed bin Salman , I always suspected, was that the headstrong Saudi leader was wasting the yearning for reform so palpable in the kingdom. Khashoggi praised the positive steps in his Post columns. The crown prince was “right to go after extremists” in the religious leadership; allowing movie theaters in the kingdom was a “huge step toward normalization”; letting women drive deserved “considerable credit.”
But Mohammed bin Salman ’s reckless arrests and foreign adventures undermined these advances. Khashoggi wrote indignantly that the crown prince didn’t just lock up corrupt princes; he went after thoughtful intellectuals. He let women drive yet jailed the activists who had urged the reforms.
Khashogggi understood that he could keep his mouth shut and stay safe, because he had so many friends in the royal family. But it simply wasn’t in him.
Khashoggi wrote a column for the Post last year in which he described seeing some of his friends arrested and struggling with his conscience. “I said nothing. I didn’t want to lose my job or my freedom. I worried about my family. I have made a different choice now,” he wrote. He had made a decisive break with Mohammed bin Salman , choosing exile and honesty in his writings. His simple four-word explanation: “We Saudis deserve better.”