Some Lives Matter More
Why haven't U.S. elites rallied to the cause of Salman Rushdie as they did for Jamal Khashoggi?
The Washington Examiner’s Life and Arts editor Nicholas Clairmont considers the differing responses to Iran and Saudi Arabia in the wake of the Khashoggi murder and the attack on Rushdie.
One can learn a lot about the American foreign policy establishment by observing its differing responses to two recent acts of violence emanating from the Middle East: the stabbing of writer Salman Rushdie and the earlier murder of Saudi national Jamal Khashoggi. The same pundits who demanded the U.S sacrifice its relationship with the Saudis over the killing of Khashoggi are not only willing to ignore the Iranian government’s involvement in the stabbing of Rushdie, but are actually eager to reward Tehran with a renewed “Iran deal” worth billions of dollars along with priceless diplomatic concessions. Not to say that U.S. grand strategy should hinge on the case of any one individual. But it’s certainly revealing to see how quickly the sentimental bluster of the Khashoggi affair was dropped when it came to Rushdie, whose attacker hailed from a different morally compromised regime, Iran, that is currently favored by pundits and a different political party’s national security mandarins.
The question here is this: When a tyrannical Middle Eastern regime orders someone who is a writer in the West killed, does America have an obligation to cut off diplomatic relations? Seems like a clear question, if not necessarily a simple one, no? Certainly it has been treated as a simple question with a crystal clear answer by Joe Biden during the campaign for the White House in 2020, and by the press when he met with Mohammed bin Salman in July 2022. The human rights cost was too high, and America cannot have any relationship with a regime that would order the killing of a writer abroad, as Saudi Arabia did to Jamal Khashoggi. Yet there’s been a strange failure to compare and contrast the matters of Rushdie and Khashoggi, though the main differences seem just to be that the country ordering one writer dead is one American liberals like to excuse the crimes of more at a moment when, for deeply frustrating reasons, foreign dictatorships have become yet another thing we’re polarized about.
It’s helpful to revisit how much energy went into mythologizing Khashoggi after his death. Khashoggi became a world-historical figure when the gruesome details of his murder were used to memorialize him as a martyred journalist and democracy activist—a portrait that was plainly skewed if not outright fraudulent. In reality, Khashoggi played a role somewhere between political operator and spy. He was a terrorist sympathizer who once served as the go-between for the Saudi intelligence services to speak to Al Qaeda. He later found himself on the outs with his beloved home Kingdom and went to work for Qatar, part of which involved parlaying his pedigree in spycraft and his genuine knowledge of world affairs and wide connections into, famously, an occasional gig authoring—if that’s the word for it—political columns for the Washington Post.
The posthumous myth of Khashoggi as a secular Western-style liberal seeking to create democratic reform in his Saudi homeland was largely the work of the Post’s staff, led by Karen Attiah, Global Opinions editor and author of May 2022’s cash-in book, Say Your Word, Then Leave: The Assassination of Jamal Khashoggi and the Power of the Truth. Rather than revealing the shady and complicated truth of Khashoggi’s role in international power politics, the legend spread in the media after his death was cartoonishly simplified to elicit outrage that could serve to help cool American relations with the Sunni Muslim world’s capitals, a major goal of a faction of foreign policy thinkers inside Obamaworld who, since 2008, have designed an ideological grand strategy for Washington in the Middle East that centers on finding a way to normalize relations with the Islamic Republic of Iran at almost any cost. The story casual newsreaders got was like if Maureen Dowd had been garroted in the Azerbaijani embassy by agents of Peru. That’s what happens when journalists use their position to tell stories about how heroic journalists are: The American public gets fairytales in place of facts.
In fact it seems that sometime in the days leading up to October 2, 2018, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, de facto ruler of Saudi Arabia, allegedly ordered that the Post columnist and former regime apparatchik, Khashoggi, be murdered. And so he was, killed by some grisly wetwork agents of the Saudi government who lured him to a consulate in Turkey and dismembered him to more discreetly extricate his body from the facility.
Invariably, Khashoggi is described in Western news roundups as a “dissident” and a “journalist,” but he was neither in the true sense of those titles. The Washington Post published him, sure, but his lazy copy was filed at the behest of the Qatar Foundation International, a state-funded enterprise of a different oppressive monarchy. The Post itself admits this, writing that it was “problematic” how texts revealed after his death show how an executive at the organization “at times shaped the columns he submitted to The Washington Post.”
In the wake of his butchering, however, the Post successfully laundered its own sloppy journalistic ethics in a posthumous story of heroism and martyrdom. As Michael Isikoff ably summarized, Khashoggi's connections to Bin Laden go as far back as the ‘80s. He kept up those contacts into the new millennium, and, crucially, past September of 2001. “I just fell apart crying heartbreak to you,” Khashoggi tweeted on the occasion of the U.S. Navy SEAL raid killing his old friend, Bin Laden, whom he only ever reluctantly and equivocally condemned even into the 2010s. In a 2005 interview with New Yorker staffer Lawrence Wright, Khashoggi reflected on the long relationship: “Osama is from a generation, our generation, who were hoping to establish the Islamic state. Just, an Islamic state, anywhere, because we believe that one state will lead to another. It could have a domino effect which could transform or reverse the history of mankind.”
None of this is to say that Khashoggi deserved to die or that Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is not a nasty tyrant who deserves to be loathed for his regime’s treatment of dissidents such as Loujain al-Hathloul, jailed for driving a car while also being female, a criminal combination at the time. By virtue of being a green-card holder and a human being, Khashoggi deserves our mourning and should have been better protected by the U.S. But a rogue intelligence asset working for Qatar with a corrupt deal to write in one of America’s fast declining, once-great journalistic institutions getting killed by his former employer is not the kind of galvanizing morality tale that would be useful for convincing Americans that their country has a moral obligation to end its strategic alliance with the Saudis—which was the whole point of the Khashoggi narrative in the first place.
This is all the background you need to understand why, when asked during the 2020 campaign for the presidency, Joe Biden vowed to make the Saudis “pay the price and make them in fact the pariah that they are.” He said he would cut off American arms shipments and publicize secret American intelligence conclusions about whether it was MBS who in fact ordered the killing. American foreign policy interests with regard to Saudi Arabia would be subordinated to the moral horror of the Khashoggi killing. On February 26, 2021, the U.S. Office of the Director of National Intelligence did release that report.
A year later, gas prices had nearly doubled, and Biden’s grandstanding over Khashoggi’s murder had to be put aside when he visited Saudi Arabia to convince MBS and the “pariah” state to pump more oil into the global markets.
Focused as ever on the theatrics, most American press coverage of the summit was preoccupied with whether the two men shook hands. Biden managed to avoid doing so to symbolically refuse to validate the Saudi tyrant. But, he did fist bump MBS, kicking off a thousand think-pieces about what this means for the integrity of the United States and for international freedom of the press. Voices from Biden’s base, concerned about no human rights so much as those of American opinion columnists, made him pay in the press for this minor diplomatic success and concession to geo-realpolitik. NPR wrote about how “Biden avoids a handshake with Saudi crown prince, but fist bump doesn’t go over well,” and the New York Times covered the “scathing criticism and modest accords” the meeting drew in its headline. “The first bump between President Biden and Mohammed bin Salman was worse than a handshake — it was shameful. It projected a level of intimacy and comfort that delivers to MBS the unwarranted redemption he has been desperately seeking,” said the publisher of the Washington Post.
So, to summarize: The news media in America supported Biden when he subordinated American foreign policy to the moral need to vilify his nominal Saudi allies over the Khashoggi killing. And it condemned him when, in order to try to relieve the suffering of the American poor, he placed economic and geostrategic considerations over making a pariah of the Saudi ruler.
This brings us to August 12, 2022, when 24-year-old Hadi Matar stabbed Salman Rushdie roughly 10 times in western New York state during a talk by the author at the Chautauqua Institution, an arts center.
Just before the attack on Rushdie, an alleged plot to assassinate former U.S. presidential national security advisor John Bolton in the Washington, D.C. area was foiled and “a member of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps was charged.” After, Secretary of State Tony Blinken commented that “there is an ongoing threat against American officials, both present and past.” Meanwhile, Rushdie’s would-be assassin is an American-born Shia extremist of Lebanese extraction who is obviously encouraged by the Iranian government, and not discouraged by Tehran’s official declaration that it was removing the bounty of Rushdie’s head in 1998 (in lieu of a regime-aligned private donor who would eventually raise the prize to over $3 million).
In his quite beautifully self-reproaching 2012 memoir, Rushdie describes having to forget about the stupidity and incivility of the people who tried to “both sides” it after the Supreme Leader of the Islamic Republic of Iran issued a fatwa in 1989 calling for his murder. Rushdie spent the first decade after the government of Iran put out a hit on his life hidden away, hustled between secret locations by security guards, using dummy apartments. His Japanese translator, Hitoshi Igarashi, was killed, and his Italian translator, Ettore Capriolo, was stabbed but survived. William Nygaard, the Norwegian publisher of the Satanic Verses, was shot three times and also survived.
Rushdie, in the memoir, devotes less time to the persecution he faces under the threat of being killed and more time “thanking his lucky stars'' for the attention of beautiful and brilliant women he can’t fathom how he wins despite being shy and dumpy and bald (Salman, my man, it’s the writing and world fame and danger, just FYI!). Other than the women, his primary interest is in free speech. He’s still mad about the failure of heart and principle of those he used to call the “but-brigade.” These are people who sound like this: “‘I believe in free speech, but people should behave themselves.’ ‘I believe in free speech, but we shouldn’t upset anybody.’ ‘I believe in free speech, but let’s not go too far.’” They are what really pisses Rushdie off. “I got so sick of the goddamn but-brigade,” he said at the University of Vermont in a speech after the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists caught the same victim-blaming he had. “And now the moment somebody says, ‘Yes I believe in free speech, but,’ I stop listening.”
Tehran indicated its pleasure with the stabbing: “Regarding the attack on Rushdie, we do not consider anyone other than he and his supporters worthy of blame—and even condemnation,” said its foreign ministry spokesman. Though Iran denied any connection with the attack, Vice reported that Matar “had been in direct contact with members of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps on social media.”
So, Jamal and Salman.
Here in one hand, we have the Osama Bin Laden-sympathetic foreign asset of two competing repressive Sunni Arab monarchies, published by the Washington Post for murky reasons and guided in his columnist duties as much by Qatari state interests as by independent journalistic opinion. And then, in the other hand, we have the literary star, catapulted to the heights of fame by his astonishing 1981 novel, Midnight’s Children, a post-colonialist masterpiece of magical realist political critique about the India of his birth.
On the day of the Rushdie stabbing, negotiators in Vienna announced that a new framework for American reentry into the JCPOA, or “Iran Deal,” had finally been hammered out. There are a lot of red flags with the Iran Deal. Compliance with the deal involves checking on known Iranian enrichment facilities via cameras that, in recent weeks, the Iranians have turned off. More, since February 24’s invasion of Ukraine, it is even more troubling that Russia is the guarantor of the deal and the country that will take in excess Iranian fissile material, and that Russia has demanded concessions, including sanctions relief, for its role overseeing the deal.
On the day of the stabbing and the days following, a silent chorus of important American foreign policy voices could be found neglecting to mention the attempted murder of a writer, setting it aside in service of higher geostrategic goals with regard to American relations with Iran. “Hopefully, we are looking at a revival of the JCPOA,” wrote Trita Parsi on August 15. Parsi is the founder and executive VP of the Quincy Institute, the influential think tank that advises Democrats. Chris Murphy, senator from Connecticut and member of the Foreign Relations Committee and the ranking Democratic member of the subcommittee on the Middle East and Counter-terrorism, wrote on August 16th that “Getting back into the Iran nuclear deal is the most important thing America can do to secure our interests in the Middle East. Let's get this done.”
But according to the logic of Murphy’s own party, shouldn’t our interests in the Middle East be guided by how its regimes treat Western celebrities? If killing a Western writer living in the U.S. is cause to subordinate all other policy and strategic goals, what’s so much more important about Jamal than Salman? The answer, of course, is determined by which tales the people in power find useful to their own goals.