One sideshow in the Jamal Khashoggi affair is the Twitter lynching of some of those who embraced Saudi Arabia’s de facto ruler, Mohammed bin Salman, when he toured the United States earlier this year. I wasn’t one of those admirers. But now that the image of the crown prince has turned toxic, I have some sympathy for a few of those who bet on him.
These smart and deeply informed observers of the Arab Middle East were not, like President Trump, attracted to the 33-year-old prince because of the promise of business deals or arms sales, or even because of his apparent openness to a tacit alliance with Israel against Iran. Rather, they were inspired by his attempt to modernize Islam in the place where it is most needed: the homeland of 15 of the 19 9/11 hijackers and countless foot soldiers for al-Qaeda and the Islamic State.
Such religious reform, meaning the elimination of radical and violent Muslim strains, has been the biggest, though least-talked-about, goal of U.S. policy in the Middle East since Sept. 11, 2001. For years after the attacks, many — including President George W. Bush — subscribed to the notion that democracy would provide the necessary cure. But after a few months of exhilaration following the 2011 Arab uprising, most were discouraged by the incompetence and creeping autocracy of elected Muslim governments in Egypt and Turkey.
In Mohammed, Egyptian strongman Abdel Fatah al-Sissi and their mentors in the United Arab Emirates, a lot of people in Washington saw a new way forward: enlightened dictators. Liberal reformers and pro-democracy advocates, such as Khashoggi, might be exiled or imprisoned — something American fans of the autocrats opposed. But Mohammed and Sissi would go to war with al-Qaeda and squelch the extremist clerics who inspire jihad. They would be the Pinochets and Lee Kuan Yews of the Middle East, leading a forced march to modernization that would leave Riyadh looking more like glittering, and more tolerant, Dubai.
Dennis Ross, one of the most experienced American Middle East hands, noted in a Post op-ed this month that Mohammed had not only allowed women to drive and opened movie theaters but also appointed a new moderate head of the World Muslim League. “If the changes that MBS is driving actually materialize,” Ross wrote, using Mohammed’s initials, “they would discredit religious extremism, end its export out of Saudi Arabia, reconcile Islam with modernity and provide a model for development that has been lacking in the Arab Middle East.”
Who wouldn’t be for that?
Khashoggi, for one. The veteran journalist was one of the most incisive critics of the new autocratic wave. He, too, had been inspired by the pro-democracy revolutions of the Arab Spring, and then disenchanted with some of the results. But Khashoggi didn’t give up on democracy. On the contrary, he argued forcefully in his Post columns that checks and balances — especially in the form of free expression — remained essential to the cause of modernization, and that reform could not be carried out from the top down.
“Prince Mohammed is right to go after extremists. But he is going after the wrong people,” Khashoggi wrote a year ago, pointing out that liberal advocates of the very reforms Mohammed was promoting were being arrested and jailed by the dozens, even as fundamentalist clerics continued to speak freely.
Khashoggi has been falsely accused of being a supporter of Islamic extremists. He wasn’t. But he did believe that the reform of Islam cannot mean wiping out peaceful political movements that espouse Muslim values. “There can be no political reform and democracy in any Arab country without accepting that political Islam is a part of it,” he wrote in August.
Mohammed and Sissi are bent on destroying the Muslim Brotherhood, the region’s oldest and most enduring Islamic political organization. But Khashoggi argued that the excesses of the Brotherhood in Egypt should have been corrected by elections, not Sissi’s bloody military coup. “Intolerant hatred for any form of political Islam . . . has destroyed Arabs’ choice for democracy and good governance,” he concluded.
Tragically, Khashoggi’s murder has proved him right. Though definitive public evidence is lacking, no serious student of Saudi Arabia believes a premeditated assassination carried out in a foreign capital by a team of 15 could have happened without Mohammed’s knowledge, and most likely, his direction.
That reveals the core problem of betting on him as an agent of reform. With rare exceptions, autocrats aren’t capable of fighting corruption or fostering modernization. They inevitably focus on eliminating all opponents, using methods that nurture more radicalism and make genuine reform impossible. Mohammed’s American supporters should have seen the contradiction between his repression and the goal of modernizing Islam. Khashoggi’s death should end their dreams of a reforming Arab strongman.