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Jamal Khashoggi’s last column for The Washington Post, written shortly before his Oct. 2 disappearance and published Thursday, espouses the cause that animated most of his life: free expression in the Arab world. The absence of that freedom, he wrote, means that Arabs “are either uninformed or misinformed. They are unable to adequately address, much less publicly discuss, matters that affect the region and their day-to-day lives.”
Khashoggi made it his mission to fill that gap. To speak freely, he left Saudi Arabia, where he held comfortable positions in the ruling establishment, and moved to Washington, where he began contributing columns to The Post. He was planning ways to create space for other uncensored Arab voices that could advocate for democratic reforms. His final column calls for “the creation of an independent international forum, isolated from the influence of nationalist governments spreading hate through propaganda.”
Khashoggi, who would have turned 60 this past weekend, held numerous positions during his career, including as an adviser to a Saudi ambassador to the United States. But he was first and foremost a journalist — one who relentlessly tried to push the boundaries of free speech. He was twice fired as the editor of the most progressive Saudi newspaper, Al Watan, in one case for publishing sharp critiques of Islamist extremists. A television news network he helped to found in Bahrain in 2012 was taken off the air after one day, after it broadcast an interview with a critic of that country’s authoritarian regime.
A turning point for Khashoggi came in 2016, when he warned the regime of King Salman and his son, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, about “an overly enthusiastic embrace of then-President-elect Donald Trump,” as he later described it in The Post. His column with the Saudi-owned international Arabic daily Al Hayat was canceled, and he was forced off Twitter.
“I spent six months silent, reflecting on the state of my country and the stark choices before me,” he wrote in his first Post column, published 13 months ago this week.
Then he acted. “I have left my home, my family and my job, and I am raising my voice,” he declared. “I can speak when so many cannot.”
In the columns he published in The Post before his disappearance, Khashoggi offered a consistent message: Saudi Arabia desperately needed the liberalizing reforms being promised by Mohammed bin Salman, but they could not be combined with repression. “Replacing old tactics of intolerance with new ways of repression is not the answer,” he wrote in April.
He frequently aimed his commentaries at the crown prince, whom he was hoping to influence for the better. He wanted the regime’s governing program to succeed, and he argued that would be more likely if liberal advocates were free to speak. By “encouraging public debate and discussion by relaxing his grip on the country’s media, as well as releasing those jailed for expressing their views, [Mohammed bin Salman] would prove that he is indeed a true reformer,” Khashoggi wrote.
His columns belie the despicable propaganda, spread by Saudi trolls and some U.S. conservatives, that Khashoggi was himself an Islamist extremist. Though he joined the Muslim Brotherhood in his youth, believing it was the best vehicle for reform in the Arab world, he later came to the conviction that “democracy and freedom were the Arabs’ best hope of purging the corruption and misrule he despised,” as The Post’s David Ignatius put it.
Khashoggi’s exile from Saudi Arabia to a position of public critic caused him “anguish,” he wrote. He would “wake up every morning and ponder the choice I have made to speak my mind.” In the end, he paid far too dearly for that principled and courageous decision.