Jamal Khashoggi
Jamal Khashoggi
One image of the late Jamal Khashoggi lingers with his friend and fellow Washington Post columnist, David Ignatius.

The memory reflects the impact that freedom of the press had on Khashoggi.

It was fall of 2017. Khashoggi was living in Virginia, exiled from his home country, Saudi Arabia. Khashoggi had both criticized repressive policies of that Middle East nation’s monarchy, and praised some of its reforms. Shortly after relocating to America, the Post added him as a columnist. His first day at the storied daily in the nation’s capital is etched in Ignatius’ mind. 

“He walked around our newsroom, just full of hundreds of journalists working hard, just trying to do the best work they can. He just smiled like a kid,” Ignatius recalled by phone Wednesday. “It was just so cool, so exciting [for him] to be associated with a real newspaper whose only job was to tell the truth. That was just the best thing that ever happened to him.”

The worst followed a year later. Khashoggi died in a grisly assassination on Oct. 2, 2018, after entering the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, Turkey, to obtain documents he needed to marry his Turkish fiancee. A CIA investigation concluded that Khashoggi’s killing, carried out by a 15-person team, was ordered by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the Post reported in November. The Saudi government denies the prince directed Khashoggi’s murder and has charged 11 people in that case, CNBC reported earlier this month.

The journalist’s ambush and death — a horrid dismemberment — stirred multiple geopolitical ramifications from the U.S. government’s relationship with the Saudi monarchy, to that government’s treatment of dissidents and the retribution by authoritarian nations against journalists. In Terre Haute, the city where Khashoggi lived while earning a business degree at Indiana State University, his collegiate alma mater established the Jamal Khashoggi Annual Address on Journalism and the Media.

ISU invited Ignatius, the Post’s foreign affairs columnist, to be guest speaker at the inaugural event at 7 p.m. April 2 in Tilson Auditorium. It is open to the public, and admission is free. Ignatius’ topic seems daunting: “How to Fix the World: The Future of Foreign Policy.” Yet, he’s covered the Middle East since 1980. He’s built friendships with fellow journalists from Arab nations, knows the dangers they face, and understands the context of Khashoggi’s “complicated” background.

Last week, Ignatius recounted “disturbing” elements of Khashoggi’s past. He was a Muslim Brotherhood member and became a friend of Osama bin Laden’s when bin Laden was rebel fighter in Afghanistan. Khashoggi traveled in Afghanistan with those mujahideen rebels. “I mean, he was out there,” Ignatius said of Khashoggi’s activities in that era when the mujahideen fought the Soviet Union-backed Afghan government, and the U.S. supported those rebels in a war that stretched from 1979 to 1989.

Ignatius added, “I don’t think you can paint over the troubling parts in his story.”

As time passed, Khashoggi saw journalism, rather than radicalism, as the way to change oppression in Saudi Arabia and the Middle East, Ignatius explained. Khashoggi disassociated himself with bin Laden after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Writing for Arab publications, Khashoggi criticized policies of the Saudi religious establishment, called for reforms and criticized that nation’s participation in the war in Yemen.

Reality is necessary in telling Khashoggi’s story. “It’s a mistake to pretend,” Ignatius said. “He wasn’t a saint. He was a person that evolved.”

As Ignatius put it, Khashoggi had “decided that journalism — telling the truth — was the way that Saudi Arabia would be transformed, and the Arab world along with it. And, obviously, I thought that was a much more sensible way of trying to cleanse what was and remains a very corrupt society, where citizens don’t have rights in the way we have and want people to have.

“For folks in the Midwest, I’m not trying to pretend that there aren’t parts of his story that shouldn’t cause people trouble,” Ignatius continued. “But people change. They evolve. Their anger grows into something that’s more positive. And I’m convinced from my own dealings with him, that that happened with him.”

Khashoggi came to Indiana to study at ISU in late summer of 1977, finished in 1982 and received his bachelor’s degree in May 1983. One of his first days on campus was captured in a photo by the Terre Haute Tribune in August of ‘77. Forty-one years later, a photograph of a grayer, more Khashoggi ran on the cover of Time magazine. That publication named Khashoggi and fellow journalists “who lost their lives or freedom to do their jobs” as its collective “Person of the Year.” 

The initiation of an annual address on journalism is an appropriate way for ISU to remember Khashoggi’s contribution to journalism and press freedom, Ignatius said. 

“It’s great that Indiana State is doing this and wants to affirm its connection with Jamal. It’s proud of him,” Ignatius said. “People in Indiana should understand with Jamal — and this is true with so many thousands, millions of people — when people come to America and see the way we live and the kind of freedom they have, they want it.”

That influence is strong, and Ignatius hopes Americans “understand the gift that we give to other people from other countries just by being ourselves. Our values are powerful, and people see them, and I think it does make a difference, and it did with [Jamal].”

Ignatius has attended funerals of other journalists killed for doing their jobs, including many in the Middle East. He’s delivered their eulogies, too. He’s not sure why Khashoggi’s murder captured global attention and elicited outrage. Perhaps its brutality or apparent premeditation sparked that response. Journalists still face threats daily worldwide, but continue working and exposing injustices nonetheless, just as Khashoggi did.

“One reason I want to come to Indiana to give this lecture is because I think it’s so important that people understand the good that can come from the work that courageous journalists like Jamal do in the Middle East, and the way it can transform those countries — without violent revolution, without crazy Osama bin Laden terrorism, but in a constructive way,” Ignatius said.

Truth, and the freedom to tell it, matter.

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