Raising his voice
Kingdom of Silence charts Jamal Khashoggi’s shift to Saudi Arabian critic
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Throughout history, criticizing the governing authorities has been a sure-fire way to lose your home or your head. Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi enjoyed the Saudi Arabian ruling royal family’s confidence for years. Then he began to speak and write openly against his country’s perceived failure to embrace democratic and social reforms.
In Showtime’s new documentary Kingdom of Silence (rated TV-MA), friends and former colleagues describe Khashoggi as loyal to king and country in spite of his criticism. But king and country—or one of its princes, at least—no longer saw him that way. In October 2018, Khashoggi was murdered in gruesome fashion.
The documentary picks up in the mid-1980s, during the Soviet Union’s war with Afghanistan. Several Muslim-majority nations sent fighters to aid Afghanistan. Khashoggi was working as a war correspondent for various Arab newspapers and also possibly serving as a Saudi Arabian intelligence agent. He developed a close relationship with a Saudi military leader named Osama bin Laden.
“Jamal looked at bin Laden with stars in his eyes,” New York Times staff writer Lawrence Wright says in the film. “Then he began to hate what bin Laden had become.” But even after 15 Saudi nationals and four others carried out the 9/11 attacks, Khashoggi continued to defend Saudi Arabia publicly. He denied that his nation’s government was responsible for the almost 3,000 American deaths. Khashoggi’s reputation as an internationally recognized journalist lent his words credibility.
Khashoggi saw that freedom of expression was the key to reform in the Arab world.
“At each and every junction in modern Saudi history and U.S.-Saudi relations, Jamal was there at that crossroad, either reporting, explaining, or spinning,” says Al Jazeera political analyst Marwan Bishara. The documentary also plays clips of interviews with Khashoggi, and actor Nasser Faris narrates parts of the film by reading Khashoggi’s writings.
Then came the Arab Spring—two years of pro-democracy uprisings in several Arab countries starting late in 2010. It caught by surprise and profoundly influenced Khashoggi. Wright says Khashoggi “saw that freedom of expression was the key to reform in the Arab world and especially in Saudi Arabia.” Khashoggi remained a loyal Saudi, remembers friend and former Middle East Institute colleague Maggie Mitchell Salem, but “how he defined loyalty clearly evolved and changed.” To Khashoggi, loyalty meant pushing his beloved kingdom toward democratic ideals.
“When there are positive reforms, we will welcome them,” Khashoggi says in an interview. “When there are transgressions, we will be critical.” Self-exiled in America and writing for The Washington Post, Khashoggi frequently singled out Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s political crackdowns for rebuke. Meeting with attorneys for the families of the 9/11 victims also put Khashoggi’s life in jeopardy.
“Not a person in the world knew more about the Saudi government’s entanglements with al-Qaeda and Osama bin Laden than Khashoggi,” Wright claims.
The CIA concluded that bin Salman ordered Khashoggi’s assassination inside the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul, Turkey. Intelligence experts say Khashoggi’s killers probably suffocated him, then dismembered his body. According to audio transcripts, “sounds of struggle last approximately seven minutes.” Khashoggi’s last words were, “I can’t breathe.”
The film stops short of lionizing Khashoggi. Former diplomat David Rundell provides a pragmatic view of U.S.-Saudi relations: Khashoggi’s criticisms were upsetting a delicate partnership. The film also mentions some troubling aspects of Khashoggi’s personal life. He divorced, remarried, and was at the Saudi Consulate that fateful day to obtain a marriage license for a “secret” fiancée. Two of these women speak in the film.
Still, despite his flaws, Khashoggi lived believing political freedom was a principle worth dying for.
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