Saudi journalist Jamal Ahmad Khashoggi (Khashuqji, Kashoggi) was a trained expert on political Islam as well as a leading reformist voice in the clash with the kingdom's traditionalists in the early 21st century. A former editor of the broadsheet newspapers Arab News and Al-Watan, he was summarily dismissed from the latter on 27 May 2003, following a scathing editorial critical of Ibn Taymiyya, the fourteenth-century Muslim thinker who inspired Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab and Wahhabism in Saudi Arabia. Khashoggi accepted a media adviser position with Prince Turki Abd al-Aziz bin Faysal bin Abd al-Aziz Al Sa'ud when the prince was appointed ambassador to the United Kingdom, and accompanied him to Washington, D.C., in 2005 when Turki was credentialed to the United States. Khashoggi was reinstated as editor of al-Watan in 2007. Khashoggi was a regular political commentator for various media outlets, including major American networks, the BBC, al-Jazeera Television, and several Saudi channels.
Khashoggi was born in Medina in 1959 and, after his primary and secondary education in Saudi Arabia, enrolled at Indiana State University (ISU) in Terre Haute, Indiana, in the United States. He earned a bachelor's degree in business administration from ISU in 1983 and accepted his first position that same year as the regional manager at Tihama Publishers in Jidda. In 1985, he joined the English daily Saudi Gazette as a reporter and simultaneously held the assistant manager of information position at the Gazette's sister newspaper, Okaz, until 1987. His first major break occurred in 1987 when he was offered a coveted correspondent's post with the London-based Arabic daily Al-Sharq al-Awsat and weeklies Al-Majalla and Al-Muslimun. His employment with these three publications between 1987 and 1990 landed him the managing editorship and, eventually, the position of acting editor in chief of Al-Madina daily. In 1999, however, he traveled to London to assume the far more prestigious post of managing editor of the London-based English daily Arab News. Throughout the 1990s, Khashoggi was a correspondent for Al-Hayat, a leading pan-Arab daily. Prince Turki bin Faysal bin abd al-Aziz al Sa'ud offered Khashoggi a position as media adviser at the Saudi embassy in London after he lost his Al-Watan editorship. He accompanied the prince to Washington, D.C., in 2005 when the ambassador moved to the United States, returning to Riyadh in January 2007.
In the aftermath of the tragic events of 11 September 2001, Khashoggi stood out among his countrymen when he called for assuming responsibility for the fact that young Saudis attacked the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon in Washington, D.C. He said in his article, "A Saudi Asks, Why?," "Usama bin Ladin's hijacked planes not only attacked New York and Washington, they also attacked the Islam faith and the values of tolerance and coexistence that it preaches." In much of his extensive journalistic output, primarily written in Arabic, Khashoggi rejected denial and loathed those who continued to believe conspiracy theories. He raised difficult issues, pointing to the evidence that nineteen young Muslim men--including fifteen Saudis--headed for what they considered a self-ascribed martyrdom mission, though it was little more than criminal behavior. By alerting his readers to reflect on what actually attracted thousands of Saudis to go to Afghanistan when that hapless country was under Taliban control, how legitimate opposition to communist occupation morphed them into terrorists, and why they chose to bring their jihad home to the kingdom, Khashoggi articulated near-taboo subjects. In 2002, he asked what needed to be done to ensure that adolescents were "never influenced by extremist ideas like those that misled 15 of [his] countrymen into hijacking four planes that fine September day, piloting them, and us, straight into the jaws of hell."
When Ambassador Turki resigned, Khashoggi was reinstated to the Al-Watan editorship in April of 2007. However, he resigned in 2010 after uproar about another controversial opinion piece. In 2015, Mohammad Bin Salman Al Saud (also known as MbS) rose to the throne as crown prince of Saudi Arabia. That same year, Khashoggi was named to run the Al-Arab television station to compete with Al-Jazeera. However, the channel was shut down after its premiere, which led Khashoggi to view MbS with suspicion. In 2017, Khashoggi visited the United States but when several of his Saudi friends were arrested, he decided it was too dangerous to return home so he stayed. He began contributing columns to the Washington Post, often comparing MbS to Russia's president, Vlamimir Putin. In March of 2018, he wrote in the Guardian that MbS "appears to be moving the country from old-time religious extremism to his own 'You-must-accept-my-reform' extremism, without any consultation--accompanied by arrests and the disappearance of his critics." In April of that year, he received an award from the Islamist-leaning Center for the Study of Islam and Democracy. On October 2, 2018, he went to the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul to pick up a document. According to Turkish officials, Khashoggi was then killed and dismembered by a team of Saudi agents. Saudi officials denied harming the journalist but provided no evidence that he left the building or offered any credible account of what happened to him. His disappearance caused a rift between Saudi Arabia and the United States. In December of 2018, Khashoggi and a group of journalists were named, collectively, as Time magazine's 2018 Person of the Year.
Influences and Contributions
Beyond the post-11 September 2001 dilemmas, Khashoggi recognized that internal calls for reform would not be effective as long as elementary and secondary level curricula included theology as a teaching matter. He reasoned that such education should be confined to religious colleges and not be imposed on younger students, further identifying a challenge facing Saudi Arabia. Still, similar to many reformists, he has cautioned those who called for expedited change, arguing that such reforms cannot be imposed by fiat and must emerge from within the kingdom's delicately balanced constituencies.
Though a trained journalist with years of experience in various Saudi and pan-Arab outlets, Khashoggi earned his fame as editor in chief of Al-Watan, partly owned by descendants of the late King Faysal ibn Abd al-Aziz. Al-Watan, a leading independent outlet for openness, was founded in 2000 in Abha (Asir province), which is a major base of support for Saudi Islamists. The newspaper's opinion pages reflected pluralism and featured articles expressing diverse views. Over a short period of time, its contents angered Islamists for a variety of reasons, including debates around extremely sensitive women's issues such as identity cards and the right of women to drive, the central role of the Mutawwa'a (religious police) in society, and whether Saudis gave undue deference to established religious leaders. A series of articles condemning the Hay'at al-Amr bi'l-Ma'ruf wa'l-Nahi an al-Munkar (Committee for the Propagation of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice), as the mutawwa'ayyin are officially known, led Interior Minister Nayif bin Abd al-Aziz to scold Saudi journalists in public. To say that Al-Watan was a lively forum for debate, often raising the ire of leading members of the ruling family, would be an understatement.
Yet in the aftermath of the 12 May 2003 attacks on civilians in Riyadh, when twenty-five individuals were killed in three housing compounds, Khashoggi published an editorial titled "The Words of Ibn Taymiyya Are the Real Problem." In it, he managed to provoke Saudi Islamist elements, both establishment and opposition, because he broached the ideological basis of the system. Ibn Taymiyya (1268-1328) is considered to be the spiritual father of Wahhabism, and no one before the 22 May editorial asked how Saudis could justify killing innocent people, whether Muslim or not, in the name of Islam.
"How did these murderers permit [the spilling of] the blood of Muslims and children?" asked Khashoggi. He pointed his accusatory finger, declaring that those who murdered "based on a Fatwa of Ibn Taymiyya in his book The Jihad, that says that if the infidels take shelter behind Muslims, that is, if these Muslims become a shield for the infidels, it is permitted to kill the Muslims in order to reach the infidels are wrong, because ... it is a mistaken Fatwa that contradicts the way of the Prophet Muhammad."
These words did not, for obvious reasons, go down well with clerics and their acolytes. Few appreciated a lesson in theology from a liberal newspaper editor. On 27 May 2003, approximately two weeks after the suicide bombings in Riyadh, Khashoggi was fired by order of the Saudi Information Ministry.
Several years after he was dismissed from his editorship at Al-Watan in Riyadh, Khashoggi was reappointed in order to assert his journalistic expertise and rekindle the paper as a forum for serious debates, although conservative groups opposed his lesser-conservative outlook--as there were few liberal ideas in Saudi Arabia--and pressured him to go in 2003, the overall atmosphere changed throughout the kingdom over this short period of time. Most Saudi newspapers openly and audaciously discussed issues previously raised by Al-Watan, which provoked criticism. Khashoggi was thus a path breaker, as he combined the habit of asking probing questions with the vigorous discipline of an investigator.
- Al-Watan. Available from http://www.alwatan.com.sa.
- Arab News. Available from http://www.arabnews.com.
- "For Khashoggi, a Tangled Mix of Royal Service and Islamist Sympathies," New York Times, https://www.nytimes.com/2018/10/14/world/middleeast/jamal-khashoggi-saudi-arabia.html (December 11, 2018).
- Jamal Khashoggi. Foreign Exchange with Fareed Zakaria. Available from http://www.foreignexchange.tv/?q=node/772.
- "Jamal Khashoggi obituary," Guardian, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2018/oct/19/jamal-khashoggi-obituary (December 11, 2018).
- Khashoggi, Jamal. "A Saudi Asks, Why?" UAvailable from http://www.project-syndicate.org/print_commentary/khashoggi1/English.
- ------. "The Words of Ibn Taymiyya Are the Real Problem," Al-Watan (13 May 2003).
- "Time magazine made the right choice," USA Today, https://www.usatoday.com/story/opinion/2018/12/11/time-magazine-right-choice-person-year-talker/2276691002/ (December 11, 2018).