On Sunday, the Washington Post (paper edition) published a lengthy tribute to Jamal Khashoggi, its former columnist. The article is worth reading. Joby Warrick, Loveday Morris, and Souad Mekhennet present a more nuanced and informative account of Khashoggi than the Post has been willing to render until now.
I think the Post has recognized that its portrait of Khashoggi as a pro-democracy saint needs to be modified slightly now that even the New York Times has rejected it. Ambiguity needs to be acknowledged, but still must always be resolved in the light most favorable (from a Western reader’s point of view) to Khashoggi.
In the end, I think the Post fails to dance its way around the two most important facts about Khashoggi: his longtime participation in the repressive Saudi regime and his support for the Muslim Brotherhood.
Khashoggi worked for and backed the Saudi Arabian regime for decades. (Thus, it’s not surprising that he ended his friendship with Osama bin Laden who was trying to overthrow the Saudi regime). The Post credits Khashoggi’s claim that he nonetheless supported democracy and tried to work from within to promote freedom. However, it provides no evidence of this.
Thus, when the Post writes that the murder of Khashoggi “echoes previous slayings of writers and dissidents,” it’s important to remember that many of these slayings were at the hands of a regime Khashoggi worked for.
If Khashoggi’s approach was to “bore from within,” why didn’t he use the same approach under the current Saudi regime? After all, despite the brutality (which doesn’t distinguish it from its predecessors), the current regime is more reformist than the ones Khashoggi backed.
The answer may lie in palace intrigue. I suspect, though, it is also had to do with the current regime’s policies, which are less anti-Israel and probably less sympathetic towards anti-West Islamists, including the Muslim Brotherhood, than its predecessors.
This leads to the second reality the Post tries to dance around — the Brotherhood. The Post says this about Khashoggi’s relationship with that anti-America, terror supporting outfit:
Friends say Mr. Khashoggi had a complex view of the Muslim Brotherhood and other political Islamists, particularly in his later years. He believed that democracy in the Middle East was impossible unless moderate Islamists were allowed a voice, acquaintances said, but also he disdained extremism, and his social leanings were decidedly secularist.
“His idea was that we shouldn’t be an enemy to them,” said a Saudi friend who requested anonymity because of the risk of official retaliation. “It’s wasn’t his mentality. He was more liberal, more Western.”
When the best Khashoggi’s friends can do is describe the relationship as “complex,” there’s reason to suspect it was problematic. That’s a more accurate description, I think.
In any case, Khashoggi’s writings about the Brotherhood aren’t terribly complex. They are well summarized in a column he wrote for the Washington Post called “The U.S. is wrong about the Muslim Brotherhood and the Middle East is suffering for it.” Khashoggi argued that America’s aversion to the Brotherhood is “the root of a predicament across the entire Arab world” because it stands in the way of democratization.
This claim is dubious at two levels. First, regimes in countries like Egypt and Saudi Arabia aren’t taking their cues from the U.S. when they combat Muslim Brotherhood. They know a mortal enemy when they see one.
Second, the Muslim Brotherhood isn’t a freedom loving, pro-democracy outfit. On this point, here was the best Khashoggi could do:
The Muslim Brotherhood’s political practices [in Egypt] could have matured and become more inclusive, and the unimaginable peaceful rotation of power could have become a reality and a precedent to be followed.
Anything is possible, even the “unimaginable.” But U.S. policy-makers shouldn’t tilt in favor of an anti-West, anti-Israeli terror supporting organization on the off-chance that one day it might “mature and become more inclusive.”
The purpose of Khashoggi’s article seems to have been to persuade Congress not to designate the Brotherhood as a terrorist organization. Yet, Khashoggi made no effort to show that the designation is undeserved (i.e. that “the U.S. is wrong about the Brotherhood”). He simply argued that the designation impolitic.
That depends on one’s politics. Khashoggi’s were Islamist. The Post fails to show that things were significantly more complex than that.