An interview with Jamal Khashoggi

f0117-screen_shot_2012-06-13_at_11-18-02_pm c3c1e-screen_shot_2012-06-13_at_11-17-47_pm

WRITER: Hisham Wyne PHOTOGRAPHER: Cedric Ghoussoub. For VISION Magazine, London.

Born in Medina in 1958, Jamal Ahmed Khashoggi has sparked much controversy over the years as one of Saudi Arabia’s most prominent and outspoken journalists. Now the head of nascent news network, Alarab, his reach and influence continue to grow.

What is the remit of journalism in the Arab world? Should the Fourth Estate restrict itself to reporting facts in the most objective manner, or venture forth into the realm of literary activism and opinion swaying? There is no one better placed to answer that question than Jamal Khashoggi, the veteran Saudi journalist who was hounded out of the country’s Al Watan newspaper. Twice. Once for taking on radical Islam and once for calling for reform in the country.

“I will admit that I have both reported facts on the ground and also tried to promote debate and change opinion,” he says. “Yet, in the Arab world, I believe the most important concern for journalists should be the former. The essence of journalism is in providing information so that people can reach their own conclusions. This is especially what Arab audiences need because they have restricted access to genuine facts.”

Jamal Khashoggi is a giant of Saudi journalism. He started his career in 1994 with the Saudi Gazette, before moving to competitor, Arab News. Perhaps the defining feature of Khashoggi’s journalistic career in Saudi Arabia so far has been his dalliance with Al Watan. He came on board as editor-in-chief, was pushed out for his opinions and eventually returned before being forced into leaving again. So why come back when the first was so disastrous? For Khashoggi, the answer is simple.

“My first stint wasn’t enough in that it only lasted fifty-three days. Al Watan wasn’t just a newspaper, it was a mission to modernise Saudi Arabia, inject new ideas into the country, fight extremism, reject narrow mindedness and create discourse. It was meant to offer room for debate and I wouldn’t have returned if I felt that it didn’t have the capacity to fulfil its potential. Despite the opposition, I’m proud of what we accomplished at Al Watan. We succeeded in opening up a number of issues that were once taboo but are now are being openly discussed.”

Khashoggi’s stint at Al Watan was ended both times by stringent opposition from hardline religious factions in Saudi Arabia. He remains deeply sceptical and accuses them of embarking on a power struggle thinly disguised as religious truth. He notes that certain elements in the clerical establishment didn’t like him, not because of a difference of opinion but because he had an opinion to begin with. “These people enjoyed a monopoly on thought and the exercise of religious power and didn’t want me to endanger that status quo. They still enjoy power and wish to dictate to the public at large. And hence do not like debate.”

He believes it is this quest for intellectual and political power by hardline clerics that makes them intercede in daily affairs. They brook no argument even from other members of the religious elite who may have differing views. He cites the example of the ban on birth control, which he believes is less a religious issue and more a social concern. Saudi Arabia’s socio-economic structure cannot cope in the long term with rampant birth rates, which encourage unemployment and poverty. However, the hardliners are uninterested in nuance and are resisting attempts at any discussion.

On being asked his stance on the rights of women in Saudi Arabia and their marginalised position, Khashoggi is adamant that it is yet another example of a social issue usurped by power-hungry religious figures. “The subjugation of women is being seen as a religious issue but in fact, it’s a social concern. A certain group of Saudis want to govern the role of the female because they consider women to be objects owned by men. They are interested not in protecting women but in their own honour by controlling what they consider to be their ‘property’. This is onerous. From my point of view and indeed that of Islam, women do not belong to anyone and are not objects to be controlled. God spoke to both men and women in his holy book.”

“The essence of journalism is in providing information so that people can reach their own conclusions. This is especially what Arab audiences need because they have restricted access to genuine facts.”

Khashoggi describes himself as fiscally liberal, someone who believes in the power of free markets and a reduction in the role of government. He calls himself a liberal Islamist but one who is influenced by Salafism. But isn’t Salafism, a branch of puritanical Islam that is being increasingly correlated with violence in Western media, incompatible with liberal values? Khashoggi thinks otherwise. “Much confusion stems from radical Islam posing as Salafism. The two are often incompatible. The true idea of Salafism holds a person squarely responsible for his or her actions and generates a personal connection with God. Salafism is not about following just one article of faith, but following what you believe is the most valid conviction of faith. And unfortunately, we have thrown away that pluralism and shrunk the room for religious debate. Unfortunately, we have lost a huge library and have settled for a single bookshelf.”

It was the ideas of pure Salafism, Khashoggi says, that were responsible for Saudi Arabia’s rise and momentum. But religious cadres eventually corrupted those ideas for their own ends, creating hierarchies, power differentials and even encouraging violence to serve political ends.

Asked whether he believes in an Islamic state, Khashoggi’s pragmatic answer was typical of the man. “If God wants to create an Islamic state, that is His will. But as people, we should create what we can create and improve the socio-economic standards of life for others.”

He is a captivating man and his reformist attitude is compelling. One wonders if his upbringing and early years were responsible for turning him into the thinker he has become? Did he, for instance, have liberal parents? Apparently not. “My father was a conservative man in social terms. I grew up in Medina, the holy city, in its old days when it was still intact. We lived in a building that was around two hundred years old. Ours was a very traditional, close knit and large family.” Khashoggi’s own family - he has two sons and two daughters - has been brought up with far more freedom of action. He thinks that is a positive even if it has diluted family cohesiveness.

He puts his independent streak down to his early fascination with reading, writing and analysing. It led to a constantly evolving ideology. As a student, he says he was religious and close to the Islamist movement. “Later, I began to open up and develop my own flavour of free Islamist thought. Over the past fifteen years, I have become convinced that the economy is the driving force of all socio-political change. This isn’t a Marxist argument as much an understanding that economics is a critical tool for improving people’s welfare in the Arab world.”

Growing up, he says he admired two paradigms – Gamal Abdel Nasser’s nationalistic ideas and the teachings of Abdel Wahhab, the Islamic theologian who founded the Salafist movement in the 18th century. “These two strands of thought might be seen as contradictory but I liked the Wahhabi simplicity of Islam and the individual freedom it provided. Simultaneously, I approved of the Arab nationalism, vigorousness and propulsion towards modernisation and industrialisation that Nasser advocated.”

Despite being outspoken, Khashoggi is essentially a measured thinker who takes time to weigh each argument before expressing himself. Yet he does not believe that political partisanship or philosophical debate does much to resolve issues on the ground. He believes that it is human welfare and economic development that are fundamental to progress. “Ideology is less important than results. For instance, being a good Muslim and yet failing in your economic policies will not bring you success as a leader. There needs to be concrete dialogue on deliverability and welfare.” Such practical sentiment is reflected in his reading list, which prioritises current affairs and books like Freakonomics over more esoteric discussions.

Khashoggi’s shift away from dogma arose from what he perceived as personal failings in individuals who claimed to be righteous. “Maturity shaped the way I thought about and understood the world. Human beings have faults and flaws. I saw men of principle whose actions did not reconcile with their own words. This made me realise that people are just people and led me to a human-centric approach.”

When asked for current role models or heroes, Khashoggi sinks into thought for a few seconds before replying in the negative. “I don’t really have any and there is no one I see as my hero. I tend to see people as people, who are always fallible. We should accept that flaw and virtue will always be offered in combination.”

Journalistically, he admires Pulitzer Prize-winning author Thomas Friedman’s columns because he feels the commentator interjects with his opinion only once he has taken the trouble to gather the facts. “Friedman will actually travel, talk to businessmen, talk to kings and leaders and even discuss issues with the Muslim Brotherhood before writing a succinct 600-word column. His opinions are based on investigative journalism and facts on the ground. This sort of journalism is lacking in the Arab world.” Another of his favourites is apparently Indian-American, Fareed Zakaria.

Khashoggi’ current job is likely to see him making headlines – and probably ruffling feathers – on an even greater scale. He is currently working with H.R.H Prince Alwaleed bin Talal on getting the prince’s new Arabic news channel Alarab off the ground in Bahrain. “He offers the assurance of strong backing and financial support but he does check facts and numbers,” he says of his relationship with the successful royal businessman. “Things must be feasible and must make sense to him financially.”

The Saudi-centric news channel’s starting date has been pushed back so that a legal agreement with the Kingdom of Bahrain can be finalised but it is expected to launch mid-2013. Once again throwing his hat in the journalistic ring with his new project, Khashoggi plans to bring honest gumshoe reporting and old-fashioned sensationalist-free scoop back to the twenty-four hour news cycle.

“Ideology is less important than results. For instance, being a good Muslim and yet failing in your economic policies will not bring you success as a leader. There needs to be concrete dialogue on deliverability and welfare.”