Freedom of expression was my friend Jamal’s defining principle 

Freedom of expression was my friend Jamal’s defining principle 

I first met Jamal Khashoggi in 1993 in New York and we became friends, meeting occasionally in Saudi Arabia, the US or Europe, usually in meetings or conferences to discuss regional issues. We worked closely together when he became adviser to Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to the UK and the US, and later when he became editor-in-chief of Al-Watan, where I wrote a weekly column for seven years. 

Jamal came to New York in September 1993 to cover the trial of Sheikh Omar Abdulrahman, a prominent Islamist preacher who was convicted of aiding and abetting the perpetrators of the first World Trade Center bombing, which had taken place in February 1993. Jamal had an almost encyclopedic knowledge of Islamist groups, both political types and violent extremists such as Osama bin Laden. He utilized that knowledge to cover the New York trials. I was impressed by his hard work, as he went door-to-door in the back alleys of towns around New York in search of the truth and a scoop.

Jamal’s vast knowledge of Islamist groups was sometimes confused by his detractors as sympathy, which was far from the truth in my opinion. He abhorred the violence carried out by some of them, but thought it was possible and pragmatic to co-opt some of the peaceful elements into an inclusive political process.

We sparred frequently on that and other points, but it was clear to me that his ideas about political Islam were genuine and motivated by a desire for stability and social cohesion, which in his mind were necessary for political and economic development in the Middle East. The exclusion of any peaceful group can only drive it toward extremism, he thought. But those nuances were lost on some of his critics, who until now have tried to smear his reputation.

I was impressed by his hard work, as he went door-to-door in the back alleys of towns around New York in search of the truth and a scoop

Abdel Aziz Aluwaisheg

Jamal was ultimately a journalist, not a politician or academic. His views evolved continuously, but his belief in freedom of expression was constant. He was frequently misunderstood as he defended his right as a writer to address the thorniest issues. 

Freedom of expression was his defining principle, as I noticed up close during his spells as editor-in-chief of Al-Watan newspaper, a regional publication based in southern Saudi Arabia, which he turned into a respected national newspaper. He was fired twice from that post and was vilified by extremists, who objected to some of what he published, especially views challenging traditional social mindsets. 

When Jamal joined Al-Watan, he invited me to write a weekly column. I accepted gladly, as I was getting tired of the censorship at the paper I had been writing for. I asked Jamal that I should be consulted before any changes were made to my pieces, but there was nothing to fear, as I found out. Not once during his tenure did I have to change anything of substance in my articles. The situation changed after he left and I stopped writing for Al-Watan.

In November 2016, I saw Jamal for the last time, in Berlin at a meeting organized by a German foundation to discuss the potential for dialogue to defuse the crises of the Middle East. Over dinner later on, Jamal expressed anxiety over the escalating violence in our region and frustration that we are not able to discuss its fate in an open and civilized manner. 

He appeared to be palpably in pain as we talked about Syria, Lebanon, Palestine, Iraq, Yemen and Libya. How could a Westphalian process work there, as our hosts had proposed, when the warring parties refused to talk to each other except through the barrel of a gun? We agreed that the Gulf was spared the violence that had engulfed the region, but that the debates were equally shrill and at times nihilistic. Social media has been used to drive people apart instead of bring them together.

I did not see Jamal after that evening in Berlin, but I was following his writings. I think his main point was that you did not have to agree or disagree with his views, but he wanted people to listen to them and debate them. His critics, however, rarely engaged his views directly but instead attacked him personally. A smear campaign was in full swing before he was killed. 

  • Abdel Aziz Aluwaisheg is the GCC Assistant Secretary-General for Political Affairs & Negotiation, and a columnist for Arab News. The views expressed in this piece are personal and do not necessarily represent GCC views. Twitter: @abuhamad1
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