Seeing Khashoggi’s Fate as a Death Foretold

We do not know very much of the future
Except that from generation to generation
The same things happen again and again.
Men learn little from others’ experience.
–T.S. Eliot, “Murder in the Cathedral”


The killing of Jamal Khashoggi was a death foretold from the time his comments on Saudi Arabia’s crown prince and effective ruler, Mohammed bin Salman, reached the royal court. Princes do not tolerate what they perceive to be insults, especially from commoners. In an absolute monarchy, the difference between criticism and treason does not pertain. Khashoggi, for years a loyal subject of the monarchy, dared to suggest that his country refrain from devastating its smaller neighbor, Yemen, and permit the kingdom’s inhabitants a measure of freedom. That was enough for his liege lord to perceive him as an enemy of his person and of the state. The official Saudi line denies the crown prince’s complicity in Khashoggi’s death, but it would have been understood by members of the Saudi government that if Khashoggi continued, others would follow. The Western powers that have played a decisive role in the Saudi kingdom throughout the past century should not be shocked at what happened to Khashoggi. His death is one of many they have ignored since Abdulaziz Ibn Saud founded the kingdom in the Arabian Peninsula and named it for his family.

Abdulaziz, in common with other Arab chiefs, was ram ad-dar, head of the house. Every Arab household has its head, and the senior male is revered by his offspring. Children grow up under the watchful portraits of grandfathers and fathers on the prominent walls in their houses. “In all traditional Arab houses and shops,” I wrote in “The Tribes Triumphant” (HarperCollins, 2006), “the head’s picture — usually retouched in black and white, of an old man framed under glass on a wall above door height dominated the most important room. President Mubarak, King Abdallah, Saddam Hussein in Iraq, Bashar al-Assad in Syria and King Fahd in Saudi Arabia translated to the public sphere the senior male’s leadership of the family.” To insult the leader is to demean the father, the basis of society’s stability, and jeopardize the realm. This system contradicts both democracy and the doctrine of human equality embedded in early Islam.

If Jamal Khashoggi’s corpse is discovered and Turkish government leaks are correct, the fingers with which he wrote will be found severed or crushed. The message will be clear, just as it was when the bloodied body of Lebanese journalist Salim al-Lowzi was discovered in 1980. Lowzi, who founded and edited political magazines in London, condemned the Syrian army’s occupation of Lebanon in the late 1970s. The flamboyant editor felt safe in London, where I used to see him in his Chelsea house, but he made the mistake of going to Lebanon to attend his mother’s funeral in Tripoli, the north Lebanese city where he was born. Gunmen kidnapped him as he left Beirut airport on Feb. 25, 1980. Police found his body a week later. His writing hand had been immersed in acid, a warning not to write anything against the leader.

Some commentators have questioned Khashoggi’s journalistic credentials, because he served the Saudi princes for much of his career. The respected Lebanese-American political scientist As’ad AbuKhalil wrote, “Khashoggi was a loyal member of the Saudi propaganda apparatus.” For much of his life, it was true that he served the state faithfully. The same might have been said of another martyr, Thomas à Becket. He served England’s King Henry II faithfully, until his spiritual duty as archbishop of Canterbury placed him at odds with temporal power. Khashoggi, when I occasionally met him in the Saudi Embassy in London, was working for the ambassador and former intelligence chief, Prince Turki al-Faisal. It was hardly a post for a believer in democracy, freedom of the press and public accountability. Khashoggi left government employ and resumed in earnest his work as a journalist. That calling put him, as Becket’s fealty to the church did, at odds with his former patrons. And he suffered Becket’s fate.

When in 1170 Becket excommunicated fellow bishops favored by the king, Henry raged, as recorded by contemporary chronicler Edward Grim, “What miserable drones and traitors have I nourished and brought up in my household, who let their lord be treated with such shameful contempt by a low-born cleric?” Henry’s knights, who would not be seen as traitors, went to Canterbury Cathedral to stab Becket to death while he prayed. In addition to murder, they defiled the church’s sacred space as in our time the minions who killed Khashoggi violated a diplomatic mission that under international law is protected territory and a place of refuge.

Papal and public outrage forced Henry to do penance for Becket’s murder in the cathedral that his knights had defiled. Twelfth century historian William of Newberg recorded, “On entering the chapter of the monks, he prostrated himself on the ground, and with the utmost humility entreated pardon; and, at his urgent petition, he, though so great a man, was corporally beaten with rods by all the brethren in succession.”

The thread from Khashoggi’s battered body to his crown prince seems as obvious as that between the slain Becket and King Henry despite Saudi Arabia’s attempt to absolve the crown prince of blame. Mohammed bin Salman’s defense appears to be that his knights in the intelligence services under his supervision overreacted to his condemnation of a troublesome journalist and killed him by mistake. It is up to the crown prince’s father, King Salman, to decide whether his son must atone to preserve his position. Will the old man make the crown prince bear his back, as Henry did, to suffer the beatings of journalists?

The English historian Lord Acton, in his famous 1887 letter to Bishop Creighton in which he used the phrase “power corrupts,” wrote, “There is no worse heresy than that the office sanctifies the holder of it.” Arab leaders believe themselves above criticism, accountability to those they govern and the moral duty not to commit murder and torture. Some of their people accept that the viability of the state requires acceptance of actions for which lesser beings would be punished. Others disagree, and it is they who risk prison or an end like Khashoggi’s. Acton insisted leaders could not be above the law, telling Bishop Creighton, “You would spare these criminals, for some mysterious reason. I would hang them, higher than Haman, for reasons of quite obvious justice; still more, still higher, for the sake of historical science.”

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