The perils of advocating reform

Jamal Khashoggi thought he was doing good for his country, but others didn’t see it that way when he decided to break taboos in Saudi Arabia

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By  Massoud Derhally Published  July 3, 2003

|~||~||~|Freedom of expression can be a scarce luxury in the Arab world. More often than not, journalists still have to be mindful of what they can and cannot say.

The past and current year are full of examples of Arab journalists that were imprisoned, detained or banned and there are few exceptions. It’s across the board, visible in every Arab country.
After the September 11 attacks, the Arab world received a wakeup call. To a large degree, this meant that journalists had more leeway to transcend boundaries previously deemed as red lines. On the back of what many saw as a bandwagon for reform was the Saudi journalist and scholar, Jamal Khashoggi.

However, on May 27, Khashoggi, who recently joined the Saudi daily Al Watan as editor in chief, got what can best be described as a rude awakening. After a series of editorials and cartoons in Al Watan criticising religious clerics, Khashoggi was fired, on orders from the ministry of information. “On the morning he was fired, a number of senior Saudi religious clerics met with Prince Nayef, the Interior Minister and expressed their deep concern about the fact that Al Watan seemed to have launched a campaign against them, and was undermining their authority in Saudi society,” says John R. Bradley managing editor of Arab News. An order was then issued to remove Khashoggi.

Khashoggi, say observers, ignored the journalist’s rule for survival in the Kingdom, of knowing how to play the game. “It’s always a difficult balancing act, [but] Jamal did things that you don’t usually do here as editor in chief,” says Bradley.
“He attacked the religious establishment openly. He was dealing progressively with the issue of women, which is another area you don’t go into without serious subtlety.”

His mistake was that he published articles about how women should be allowed to go to football matches and pictures of them wearing veils in the style of their football team.

“He managed to go into length regarding two great taboos in just three weeks, without much subtlety,” says Bradley.
Bradley describes Khashoggi as unusual for a Saudi journalist. “He is a field journalist. He was in Afghanistan when the Russians were there and he reported extensively from there, from Sudan and elsewhere,” says Bradley.

According to Bradley, Khashoggi is one of the few, “perhaps the only Saudi editor in chief, who made it to the top by working up the ladder and gaining genuine journalistic experience. He is an intelligent, conscientious journalist who cares deeply about the profession and deeply about his country.

“He is also a very pious man. There was lots of talk on Islamic web sites about how no-one prays at Al Watan, whereas Jamal led the prayers at Arab News when he was deputy editor of the paper. I personally saw that. He was the victim of a smear campaign,” Bradley adds.

Khashoggi was deputy editor of Arab News for three years and had become a strong and outspoken advocate for tolerance. He shunned extremism and called on his people to be self-critical.
“When I entered Al Watan I had different ideas. I wanted to introduce new ideas to the paper, to introduce the positive effects of globalisation and of being part of the world,” Khashoggi told Arabian Business.

“Those are the things that were incorporated in the King’s speech at the Shoura council. There should be a modern and tolerant Saudi Arabia for modern people and I thought we were approaching [this] era. All intellectuals in Saudi Arabia should push for this new era of modernity, of tolerance, of being part of the world, and interacting positively with the world. That was the theme I was planning to adopt in Al Watan.”

But when terrorism hit Saudi Arabian soil on May 12 and Saudis got a glimpse of its shocking reality, Khashoggi was enraged. He was sickened and decided to do something constructive about it. Khashoggi, and to a large extent Al Watan, criticised the religious clerics in the Kingdom and that rubbed up them the wrong way. “The terrorist attacks of 12 May blew up in my face somehow. I was very angry about the attack,” says Khashoggi.

“It’s a horrible attack against civilians. It’s an attack that doesn’t agree or fit with any of our moral standings, whether they are Islamic, local or bedouin. You just don’t go and kill innocent people, children and women and claim you are doing it on behalf of religion. I am a practicing Muslim and I felt insulted.”
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The other thing that upset Khashoggi was what he saw as the reluctance of religious activists to condemn the attack. “It took them five days to come out with a word and when they came out with a word it was a reluctant word,” says Khashoggi. He instructed his reporters to contact the preachers. “Whoever we reached said ‘We are going to issue a statement shortly.’ In my opinion, that was wrong,” says Khashoggi.

“You don’t wait to issue a statement on a terrorist attack, which happened in the neighbourhood, next door to you, right at home. They didn’t need to wait until an investigation committee came back from abroad to give the facts. They knew the facts, they knew who did it. They were even speculating on who did it and again they were talking about 9-11 conspiracy theories, saying it couldn’t be those young people of jihad. I became furious and started criticising the fanaticism.”

Some observers say the episode with Khashoggi is a blow to the mainstream part of the Kingdom’s population that had been calling for transparency and reform. There is talk that the incident has sent out mixed signals and this may slow the implementation of reforms and demoralise what seemed a more open press. They point to a number of journalists who were forced to resign or were dismissed because of critical reports about the religious establishment, religious extremism, and the government. These journalists include Mohammad Mukhtar Al Fal and Ahmed Muhammad Mahmud, the editor and publisher, respectively, of Al Madina newspaper; and Qanan Al Ghamdi, former editor of Al-Watan.

But Bradley at Arab News says, “It’s not really contrary to the openness because there has been no unambiguous openness here anyway. What there’s been is two different groups vying for the upper hand in this reform debate; one group is the conservative Islamists, the other group is the reformists.”

But the prospect of clashing with the conservative Islamists did not deter Khashoggi, who is a strong proponent of education and raising his people’s awareness. He believes they are afraid of reform and that this need not be the case. Khashoggi explains that some Saudis believe that if reform takes place, then it would be American or foreign imposed.

“We need to debate with them. We need to educate them and say, ‘Reform is a good thing; they reform in the most reformed countries, even in Sweden,’ “ he exclaims. Japan, he argues, is a very important example, because it kept its traditions, its values and religion, but at the same time it adopted the Western sense of modernisation.

“We need to see how the Japanese kids are being taught. We are always afraid of whatever comes from America, [but] Japan is not a hostile country in the minds of many Arabs,” Khashoggi explains.

“To adopt the Western sense of modernisation does not necessarily make you lose your values as a Muslim nation. We will always stay a Muslim nation. You can still have a mosque and go there five times a day,” he adds.

Khashoggi, who admits he is hurt and has lost interest after being fired, is hopeful the reform and debate process will continue.
“I did what I did because I love my country and because I believe in the leaders of my country,” he says. “Maybe they will just say Jamal made a mistake and we will not make the same mistake and will continue on the path of reform, on the path of self-criticism.”

A week after his dismissal, an unrelenting Khashoggi was on his way to Sharm El Sheikh to cover the summit of Arab leaders with President George Bush. His morale was still intact despite receiving hundreds of hateful sms messages on his mobile phone and rude calls.
But he’s also received plenty of supportive messages from fellow journalists and supporters from around the world.
He won’t be able to get a position in the Kingdom as editor in chief. However, his former colleague Bradley believes his career may still prosper.

“I think he will be able to write and he has extensive contacts with the Dubai-based Arabic language satellite channels. I wouldn’t be surprised to see him as a presenter on one of those before the end of the year.” ||**||

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