The Saudi Consulate in Istanbul, where Jamal Khashoggi once walked in and never walked out, happens to be on a tree-lined residential neighborhood a stone’s throw from my own apartment. Around this time last year, I remember frantically trying to reach out to Turkish government officials to get information about Jamal’s whereabouts. “The details are grim,” one said two days after his disappearance.
A year forward, I cannot help but wonder what Jamal’s brutal murder has changed in the conduct of global affairs. The outrage has died down. Media attention has tapered off. There are no longer camera crews outside the consulate. Thanks to President Trump’s decision to ignore Riyadh’s guilt in return for fat defense contracts, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is off the hook. The Saudi regime is out of its brief stay in the doghouse and preparing to host the Group of 20 meeting in Riyadh next year. The United Nations investigation has concluded what we already know, but is now shelved in the annals of other great crimes of our times.
So what has really changed?
The answer is sobering. We all knew about the brutality of the Saudi regime — with its unique theological foundation and inclination toward severe punishments, such as decapitation and flogging — to dissidents according to its own twisted sense of justice. But the real story is not about Saudi brutality; it is about the mealy-mouthed response from the West. What was truly shocking about the incident was the Western acquiescence to it.
Look at the photographs of the Saudi crown prince smiling with world leaders in June at the Group of 20 summit in Japan. Jamal’s murder has crystallized the crumbling of the international liberal order. It brought out in broad daylight the fact that the United States is unwilling to uphold the liberal norms it prides itself on, and made clear that the West no longer feels it has transformative power.
The age of impunity has descended upon us. Human rights are no longer considered global values, but rather privileges meant for a select group of people living in Western democracies. That the people fighting for freedom and democracy in other parts of the world are unwilling to accept this exceptionalism does not seem to matter to world leaders in the era of Trump. Great-power competition is here, and the great powers are only thinking of themselves. They do not understand that the human condition is connected, that we are all in this together. No one is better off if some people are brutally suppressed, intolerably poor or murdered and dismembered in a consulate.
The West’s ignominious capitulation was made all the more stark by the response from the Turkish government. Turkey’s place in this story is complicated. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is no friend of free speech, as Turkish prisons are still full of journalists and citizens jailed for dissenting views. But Turkish officials and senior members of Erdogan’s team were outraged by the audacious Saudi violence. Erdogan, too, was furious.
Yet, there are shades of gray. Throughout this ordeal, covering this story, I couldn’t help but be thankful that Turkey is not as repressive as Saudi Arabia, that our prisons are a revolving door, that our system is closer to democracy than any other in the Middle East. Whatever his reasons were, Erdogan was on the right side of history this time.
Yes, there has always been a Turkish-Saudi rivalry for leadership in the Sunni world. And yes, maybe Ankara wanted to milk the situation with its drip-by-drip media leaks to advance a broader regional agenda. But Erdogan called a murder a murder. I am glad he refused to cover it up.
And even if Saudi Arabia retains its place in the world order for now, Jamal did not die in vain. Jamal, both in his long struggle to bring the perfidies of the Saudi regime to light and in the memory of his horrific death, will always symbolize the perseverance of the deep rebellion among Muslims against their dynastic dictators. Western leaders might continue to choose to work with these despots, but Jamal’s example will always remind us that one day, they will have to deal with the restless reality of the region’s people, too. The dictators might protect Western interests, but they cannot rescue the Western soul.
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