Global Opinions

How Khashoggi gave Arab dissidents support — and a community

(Brian Stauffer for The Washington Post)

Mohamed Soltan is a human rights advocate and founder of the Freedom Initiative.

I often teased Jamal Khashoggi about him getting scared too easily. On a road trip together to New York in 2018, I vividly remember him yelling at me for texting while driving, paying little heed to my attempts to comfort him with my Cairo-acquired driving acumen.

Jamal’s fears in relation to my driving were likely justified. What Jamal did not fear was big, unpopular ideas — especially ones promoting the Arab people’s fundamental rights to freedom and representation. Nor was he afraid of passing on his knowledge and experience to other Arab dissidents — myself included — who learned to view him as a mentor. Through his empowerment of other Arab writers and activists, he helped give millions of oppressed people in the region a voice at a time when their governments had gone to great lengths to silence them.

Jamal was well aware of the tens of millions of dollars poured into Western policy circles in support of narratives demonizing advocates of democratic rule and fundamental rights in the region. These narratives reinforced stereotypes that Arab populations can be governed only by strongmen, and conflated Islamist ideas with terrorism. In particular, authoritarian regimes harped on the failures of political Islam during the Arab Spring, using them to vilify the region’s dissenting voices.

Jamal not only understood that this pernicious narrative was being used to justify iron-fisted authoritarian rule but also recognized that he alone could not fill the void and single-handedly offer a counter-narrative. In his mind, there were no better surrogates to articulate the pains, struggles and aspirations of the Arab people than Arabs themselves. And so he traveled near and far to find, connect and amplify those voices.

He made himself accessible and offered guidance and mentorship to anyone who sought him out. His tolerance and gentle demeanor made sensitive issues debatable over tea and allowed him to forge relationships with ideologically antithetical groups — whether they were liberal, Islamist, secular, part of the government or everyday people. And he didn’t see this mentorship as a one-way street: He was always asking those he engaged with about the tools of the trade and how to mobilize from outside of the system.

I was fortunate enough to benefit from Jamal’s friendship and mentorship in his last year living near Washington. I remember the comfort I felt seeing him walk into my first think-tank panel, which he made sure not to miss. He helped me work through forgiving my uncle, who was a general in the police force that violently dispersed the sit-in during which I was shot and later arrested in Egypt. He also helped me prepare for television interviews and calmed my fears about my family’s safety in the aftermath of my decision to speak out. Jamal took a stake in me without premeditated political calculus, just as he did with other Arab voices around the world.

Jamal’s support extended far beyond the personal. For the dissident Arab communities in exile and in the region, he offered an integral element that had been missing since the fall of the Arab Spring. Unlike many other dissidents, Jamal had experience championing reforms from within circles of power. He spoke often of the ways good people brought about positive change from within faulty systems. This made him unique, and his message reverberated in the region and resonated with people in differing camps.

Jamal articulated his reformist and progressive — but by no means revolutionary — political ideals for the region loud and clear, both privately and publicly. He had the knowledge and insight to back up his ideas, and most important, he had a pulse on both the corridors of power and the streets. In self-imposed exile, he began to cultivate around him a community of surrogates who vocalized a more nuanced narrative of the Arab world and its struggles.

Together, Jamal and this community of Arab voices began to deconstruct the reductionist narrative promoted by the Arab world’s authoritarian regimes. Jamal himself embodied their worst nightmare: a pluralistic and nuanced progressive. But it was not just his ideas that led to his gruesome murder. It was also who he was — a gentle giant with a penchant for freedom and the ability to galvanize others.

Jamal would not be with me the next time I would drive up to New York. It was the weekend following his disappearance in the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul, and I was frantically refreshing my Twitter feed, hoping the worst was not true. I was terrified of the possibility of having to break the news of my friend’s murder to his loved ones. I mustered up the energy and courage to push forward as I reached New York — the first but definitely not the last time I channeled my inner Jamal.

Rest in power, my friend. Your legacy lives on.

Read more about Jamal Khashoggi:

A missing voice, a growing chorus

Ezzedine Fishere: Jamal Khashoggi symbolized the promise of reconciling political Islam and democracy

Asli Aydintasbas: The liberal world order crumbled a year ago. We’re still reeling.

Iyad el-Baghdadi: Saudi Arabia is suffocating the Arabic public sphere. We must fight back.

David Ignatius: What happened on the way to Jamal Khashoggi’s horrifying final seconds?

Jason Rezaian: Khashoggi and I were targeted for our journalism. But I still have hope.

Credits: Mohamed Soltan

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