Jamal Khashoggi and the Need for Conversation

Source: Mohammed Al-Shaikh/AFP/Getty Images

Source: Mohammed Al-Shaikh/AFP/Getty Images

The disappearance, and later professed killing, of the Saudi-Arabian journalist Jamal Khashoggi has shaken the world in recent days. In simple terms, it is a story of a man who entered a government building, only to never set foot out of it again. It is an act consistent with an established pattern in the region, yet also an act that could perhaps finally be the tipping point to open debate on the actions of the Arab World.

On the third of October, Khashoggi visited the Saudi consulate in Istanbul to issue paperwork regarding his divorce and was murdered by fifteen Saudi officials. The truth about his death has become a needle in a haystack, lost among a conundrum of Saudi Arabia’s intricately laid out cover-ups, Turkey’s futile attempts to hijack the narrative, the United States’ sanction threats, and general global speculation.

The specifics surrounding this case are insignificant; the incident is now is bigger than Jamal Khashoggi. In a post-Arab Spring era characterized by a heightened consciousness of fundamental human rights and liberties, namely free speech, the overt lack of these very rights is beyond frustrating. Arab states continue to monopolize the conversation, and their leaders seem to like the sound of their own voice too much. In Khashoggi’s final piece before his death, titled “What the Arab World Needs Most is Free Expression”, he touches on an idea of a “state-run narrative [that] dominates the public psyche.” It is this state-run narrative that has been attempting to create ambiguity around the truth behind his death, and to obscure the clear cut reality that Arab leaders are irrationally threatened by the slightest hint of disobedience.

The Khashoggi case does not exist in isolation. Unfortunately, there are tens of Arab dissidents who have preceded Khashoggi... and likely many more that will follow.

In 2016, the Jordanian political activist Nahed Hattar was shot dead on the steps of the courthouse, after being tried for sharing a provocative caricature on Facebook. While it was an Islamic fundamentalist who assassinated him– and not government officials as is the case with Khashoggi– the Jordanian government criminalized his actions and in doing so played an active role in his death. The state-run narrative has thus fostered hostility and propelled the gunman’s actions. In Khashoggi’s own words, the gunman can be said to have “[fallen] victim to this false narrative,” which can be tempting in a country where there is no form of an alternative narrative.

Khashoggi’s death is a harsh reminder that reaffirms just how little the Arab Spring has achieved in regard to freedom of speech; it is not easier now than it was three, five, or even ten years ago to express views that do not necessarily align with the status quo. His self-imposed exile is a testament to the state of despair that has materialized in recent years, and to how institutionalized the suppression of free speech has become under power hungry heads of state. Khashoggi took precautions because he was able to anticipate backlash from his government. Self-imposed exile, not unlike self-censorship, speaks to the environment of hostility that Arab states are able to establish as a deterrent for the exercise of free speech.

Khashoggi addresses the reality of becoming desensitized to clampdown in his article. In describing the Egyptian government clampdown on a newspaper publication, he expresses dismay at the fact that such “actions no longer carry the consequence of a backlash from the international community. Instead, [they] may trigger condemnation quickly followed by silence.”

What does this trend mean for his own death? While there has indeed been backlash from the international community, it does not mean that silence will not ensue. Silence always ensues in Arab states. Khashoggi, like Hattar before him, will eventually become old news. The cycle will continue unless there is a conscious effort to break it; to treat his death not as a threat but a validation of the need for conversation. A tipping point.

This is an effort required largely of international powers, who are in a position to reprimand Saudi Arabia. While hampering economic ties through freezing arm sales presents a conflict of interest, there is a standard of morality that needs to be upheld in spite of economic consequences, especially when the whole world is watching. This duty to seek justice for Khashoggi does not only implicate international powers, however. Harvard University recently cancelled a lecture by the Saudi prince Turki al-Faisal, a former head of intelligence and ambassador to the US, in light of Khashoggi’s killing. Evidently, influential private entities can also exert pressure to jeopardize Saudi Arabia’s reputation on the world stage.

If we must learn one lesson from Khashoggi, let it be to speak up. We are capable of constituting the ripple effect that is so desperately needed. While the Arab Spring may have made little tangible progress, it did ignite a flame of rebellion and of nonconformity. That legacy must be preserved. We cannot let the fire lit by Khashoggi case dwindle; we must instead allow it to fuel something bigger. Let Khashoggi be the conversation starter in a region that so desperately needs one.