In his 1951 novel, Requiem for a Nun, William Faulkner wrote something that's useful today for understanding a little more deeply the Jamal Khashoggi Saudi-Turkey story: "The past is never dead. It's not even past."
As this Foreign Policy piece suggests, Khashoggi, who wrote columns for The Washington Post, was in some ways the victim of a conflict that goes back some 300 years: "The apparent abduction, and probable murder, of the prominent Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on Oct. 2 unmasked the ugly despotism behind the reformist image of the kingdom’s crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman. Less noticed, however, is the way this scandal revealed a long-running rivalry between the two countries that directly butted heads at the outset: Turkey and Saudi Arabia.
"The foundation of the rift lies in the countries’ distinct versions of Sunni Islam — versions that have evolved within very different historical trajectories and that have produced contrasting visions about the contemporary Middle East."
Which means that Khashoggi's disappearance and death was in some ways connected to a deep religious dispute that continues to shape both Islam and the Middle East today. Again, the Foreign Policy piece:
"This is a story that goes back to the 18th century. Then, much of what we call 'the Middle East' today, including the more habitable part of the Arabian Peninsula, was part of the Ottoman Empire, ruled from Istanbul, then called Constantinople, by a cosmopolitan elite of mainly Turks and Balkan Muslims, including Bosnians and Albanians. The Hejaz, the western region of the Arabian Peninsula that included the holy cities of Mecca and Medina, was revered for religious reasons, but it was a backwater with no political or cultural significance."
Given that background, there is, at the moment, no telling where this disturbing Khashoggi story will wind up -- if it ever does wind up, a cautionary "if" offered in the spirit of Faulkner. What we do know is that both Saudi Arabia and Turkey are run by rigid autocrats who know how to hold on to power. Still, as of Friday evening we know that the Saudi government now acknowledges that Khashoggi died at the Saudi consulate in Turkey, but that it was a result of an argument that led to a fist fight that led to his death, as this ABC News report describes. (I'm waiting for the related news that a new investigation shows that Abraham Lincoln died at the Ford Theater as the result of a fist fight with John Wilkes Booth, but so far I'm still waiting.)
But it's clear that, as The New Yorker reports, President Donald Trump and others in his administration seem hopeful -- perhaps unrealistically so -- that they won't have to condemn the Saudi regime: "President Trump seems ready, even eager, to embrace the Saudi version of events — or at least the kingdom’s pledge to investigate the saga, after it abruptly abandoned its claim that Khashoggi had exited the consulate alive. He condemned criticism of the monarchy."
In fact, this Boston Globe column says Trump is failing at handling this crisis, but that failure is "appalling but not surprising."
The media in Saudi Arabia, over which the government exercises considerable control, also seem to be looking for ways that the U.S. and the Saudis can remain pragmatic allies. An example is this piece published the other day by Arab News, an English-language newspaper in Saudi Arabia. Over the years, Arab News occasionally has demonstrated surprising independence, but it operates with nothing like the freedom of press enjoyed by journalists and their media outlets in the U.S.
Although Arab culture on the Arabian Peninsula is ancient, Saudi Arabia, as a nation, is quite young. It was founded in the 1930s. And the House of Saud has ruled it ever since, having struck a political-religious bargain with the leaders of a strict form of Islam called Wahhabism. The deal says the Wahhabi leaders get to set the country's religious agenda while supporting the government to the House of Saud. When I spent time in Saudi Arabia in 2002 with other North American journalists, interviewing government and religious leaders, it was clear that the Saudis understood that they were in the middle of a battle for the soul of Islam after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, given that most of the hijackers were Saudis.
That battle continues today in different forms and different places. But given that Saudi Arabia -- and particularly Mecca -- is ground zero for Islam, what happens there can and often does play a major role in how that struggle proceeds.
The recent hope that Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman would turn out to be a welcome reformer in Saudi Arabia seems now dashed on the rocks of murderous reality, though we may not know that for sure for some time. What we do know is that the history being made today in the aftermath of Khashoggi's disappearance will never be dead -- or even relegated to the past.
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WOMEN CLERGY BECOMING MORE NUMEROUS
A new survey shows that female members of the clergy in the U.S. are increasingly numerous. That's a good thing, in my view, though it doesn't mean that the stained-glass ceiling is fully shattered. And it doesn't mean that female clergy are immune from being among those who've also had to say #MeToo. One of the best sermons I've heard on that subject came last week from the associate pastor of my congregation, Second Presbyterian Church of Kansas City. You can watch the Rev. Kristin Riegel's sermon here.