Almost two months have passed since at least five Saudi agents butchered one of their own inside the Saudi Arabian consulate in Istanbul. Jamal Khashoggi, an outspoken Saudi journalist based in the United States, had entered the consulate to retrieve the documents he needed to marry his Turkish fiancé. She waited outside for ten hours in vain before leaving and returning the next day. Within a couple weeks, it became clear that Khashoggi had been tortured and brutally dismembered only minutes after he entered the building, and that the men who killed him did so at the behest of the Saudi Arabian government. His murder exposed its ruthless crackdown on the press.
Widely respected at the time of his death, Khashoggi first garnered international attention for his reporting on the Soviet invasion in Afghanistan in the eighties. He was also a media advisor to the Saudi royal family before falling out of favor with the heir apparent, Prince Muhammed bin Salman (MBS). The de facto ruler of Saudi Arabia, MBS plans to liberalize both its oil-dependent economy and its severely conservative social mores. Young, charismatic, and keen to cultivate his image as a reformer, MBS has won praise for restricting the authority of the religious police and expanding the rights of women. In a country that still executes its citizens because of their sexual orientation or gender identity, it is an understatement to say that such changes are urgent.
Khashoggi supported MBS’s ambitions – who wouldn’t? – but he took issue with the strongman tactics the prince had used to accomplish those ends. The government arrested many of Khashoggi’s colleagues, while MBS tightened his grip on the country by imprisoning other members of the royal family. The final blow for Khashoggi arrived when the Saudi Royal Court prohibited him from writing at all after he criticized MBS for embracing the Trump administration, a move that Khashoggi considered naive. Fearing his safety, he fled Saudi Arabia to become an American resident last year. The Washington Post hired him as an opinion columnist.
Even though Khashoggi’s self-imposed exile pained him, his columns read more like letters from a concerned friend than an outpouring of righteous anger. In one article, he praises MBS for his goal to restore traditional Islam in Saudi Arabia while chastising the young ruler for arresting journalists and religious scholars with no ties to extremist movements. “I agree with MBS that the nation should return to its pre-1979 climate, when the government restricted hardline Wahhabi traditions,” Khashoggi wrote in another column. “But replacing old tactics of intolerance with new ways of repression is not the way.”
Unfortunately for Khashoggi, President Trump had also soured on the media. Trump has consistently labeled unfavorable coverage of him “fake news,” and declared independent journalists the “enemies of the people” on multiple occasions. Last July, he tweeted a GIF of himself beating up a man with the CNN logo superimposed over the head. Five weeks ago, the president praised another Republican lawmaker for body-slamming a reporter. Trump’s corrosive rhetoric does not compare to the brutal crackdowns on journalists that we regularly witness in other countries, but it shares their authoritarian disdain for dissent and objective truth.
The President’s sustained and remarkably disciplined campaign against the press has already produced serious consequences; the Libyan government seized on Trump’s criticism of CNN International last November to discredit the latter’s reporting on an emerging slave trade within its borders. Can we seriously doubt that the Saudi government was not acutely aware of Trump’s intense, well-documented hostility towards the Washington Post, or that this emboldened them to act against a mutual adversary?
The Trump administration also has a vested interest in letting Khashoggi’s murder slide; The United States and Saudi Arabia signed a major arms deal last year where the Saudi government agreed to purchase $110 billion dollars in military tanks, fighter jets, and other weapons. The President himself has been uncharacteristically forthcoming about where his interests lie. “It's over a million jobs; that's not helpful for us to cancel an order like that. That hurts us far more than it hurts them,” he claimed in October. The White House is so adverse to any blowback to MBS’s regime that it recently offered to expel Fethullah Gülen – an open critic of Turkey’s current leadership – from the United States if Turkey backed off from its own investigation of Khashoggi’s death. (To their credit, Turkey has rejected the offer.)
Even if we assume that Trump has not exaggerated the economic benefits of the arms deal, the President is wrong to speak about transferring weapons to the Saudi regime in such amoral and transactional terms. With American assistance, Saudi Arabia is currently waging a ferocious war against Shiite rebels in Yemen. The United Nations has declared the situation in Yemen to be the world’s gravest humanitarian crisis. Since the conflict began in 2015, at least 16,000 Yemenis have been killed, over 40,000 have been wounded, and 22 million now require humanitarian assistance in order to survive. Roughly 15 million Yemenis lack access to clean water, a situation which has led to the largest outbreak of cholera in recorded history. Saudi Arabia’s indiscriminate airstrikes alone are responsible for three quarters of all civilian casualties in the region. These are grim statistics, but it should surprise no one that a regime intolerant of even mild criticism from the inside would readily inflict massive suffering on its vulnerable southern neighbor.
Honoring Khashoggi’s work requires going beyond blaming our political leaders, however. In his final column, Khashoggi decried the absence of free expression in the Arab world and the intolerant policies of Arab governments. Yet he also reprimanded the rest of the world for its indifference. “These actions no longer carry the consequence of a backlash from the international community,” he wrote in his final column. “Instead, these actions may trigger condemnation quickly followed by silence.” We should take his words to heart. At a moment where liberal democracy’s future is uncertain, expecting a handful of writers to bear all the risks of speaking out is deeply unjust.
Khashoggi’s unapologetic defense of free speech in one of the world’s most starkly authoritarian nations should inspire us. He knowingly risked his own life and comfort to confront his government’s worst excesses. “I have left my home, my family and my job, and I am raising my voice,” he wrote in the Washington Post last September. “To do otherwise would betray those who languish in prison. I can speak when so many cannot.”