Jamal Khashoggi Isn’t the Only Person Who’s Disappeared

At the same time as democracy itself, outspoken individuals are mysteriously disappearing. The Daily Devil’s Dictionary explains.

Within the space of a few days, the world has taken note of a series of important disappearances. The demise of the great Catalan soprano, Montserrat Caballé, at the age of 85 cannot be considered a surprise, though the world of opera will regret her passing. Far more mysterious is the disappearance of two less celebrated but nevertheless important public figures: Interpol chief Meng Hongwei in China and Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, who disappeared inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. And then there’s this headline from The Intercept: “Saudi Women Who Fought for the Right to Drive Are Disappearing and Going Into Exile.”

None of the accounts mention why Meng returned to his native China, but we now know that he was arrested upon arrival on suspicion of corruption. Khashoggi, who had fled Saudi Arabia, disappeared after entering the Saudi consulate to take care of paperwork for his planned marriage with his Turkish fiancée.

Here is today’s 3D definition:

Disappearance:

An increasingly standard method some governments and most criminal organizations use for removing undisciplined voices from the public sphere, knowing that even if the event produces a crescendo of bad publicity about illegal and barbaric methods, this constitutes no threat to their regime and such talk will finally wane as the public becomes accustomed and ultimately indifferent to the arbitrary use of state power

Contextual note

The sudden disappearance of prominent people should not surprise us. It has become standard practice for regimes concerned with consolidating power while avoiding the inconvenience of democracy. Reuters reminds us of the existence of “several cases in recent years of senior Chinese officials vanishing without explanation, only for the government to announce weeks or even months later that they have been put under investigation, often for suspected corruption.” But the case of Meng, who lives in France and heads an international law enforcement agency, is clearly different.

The case of Jamal Khashoggi is more troubling, “amid reports that the critic may have been killed after entering” the consulate. Even a few days after the events, the facts behind both of these cases remain obscure, though the evidence is strong that the Saudis assassinated Khashoggi. In its article at The Intercept about the disappearing female activists, journalist Sarah Aziza provides a recent quote from Khashoggi himself: “Things got worse for … people with critical opinions. The government was sending a message that if you’re not with us, you’re against us.” The article quotes another activist in exile who felt it would be dangerous to go the Saudi Embassy for any reason: “Who knows what would happen? I’m afraid they would deport me.”

In recent news, a Bulgarian journalist known for investigating the misuse by business leaders and politicians of EU funds disappeared before her mutilated body was discovered. The government claims that her rape and murder had nothing to do with her investigations. And in Bangladesh, Fair Observer contributor Shahidul Alam, arrested in early August on shaky grounds, has been refused bail by the government.

Historical note

Writing about Meng’s apparent arrest by the Chinese authorities, The Telegraph informs us that “Several high ranking Chinese officials, wealthy businessmen and celebrities have disappeared without explanation since Xi Jinping, the Chinese president, launched a sweeping anti-corruption campaign after coming to power in 2012.”

Both Saudi Arabia and China use the pretext of corruption to go after their real or imaginary enemies, which is particularly convenient in a country like Saudi Arabia, where corruption is the norm. Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) knows that both friends and enemies are corrupt, but there’s no point in causing bother for one’s friends.

On the other hand, because everyone knows the entire regime is corrupt, another pretext is often required. Terrorism provides the universal antidote to criticism of arbitrary detention, punishment or assassination. Call it George W. Bush’s contribution to his own (not his father’s) “new world order.” Because every government is now engaged in the “global war on terror,” if corruption isn’t a sufficient reason to justify disappearing the critics, the government can call their actions terrorism. The very idea of global terrorism, coupled with progress in surveillance technology, has allowed all governments — including democracies — to become more autocratic.

Describing the measures taken by the Saudi government to disappear women, such as Loujain al-Hathloul, who militate for women’s rights, Aziza tells us: “The arrests were the latest example of a new and expanding tactic in Saudi Arabia of the state using anti-terrorism laws to silence dissent.” How then does protest in favor of women’s rights become transformed into an accusation of terrorism? Through clever but clearly devious reasoning based on “speculations that al-Hathloul was a Qatari operative intent on harming the Saudi state.” And since the Saudis have accused Qatar of funding terrorism (i.e., not the “good” terrorists funded by Saudi), the case against the young woman is simple: she’s a terrorist.

Governments have themselves become terrorist organizations. Mehmet Celik, political editor of Turkey’s Daily Sabah newspaper, stated on Al Jazeera’s Inside Story that MBS was using Khashoggi’s unexplained disappearance to make all the opposition figures exiled in Turkey “feel unsafe,” despite the fact that Turkey has a reputation as a safe haven for many exiles.

What is, after all, the aim of all terrorism? It is not to kill, but to make innocent people feel unsafe. Whether it’s through invasive wars, sanctions or choreographed disappearances, governments — and not just China and Saudi Arabia — have learned to be effective terrorist organizations.

*[In the age of Oscar Wilde and Mark Twain, another American wit, the journalist Ambrose Bierce, produced a series of satirical definitions of commonly used terms, throwing light on their hidden meanings in real discourse. Bierce eventually collected and published them as a book, The Devil’s Dictionary, in 1911. We have shamelessly appropriated his title in the interest of continuing his wholesome pedagogical effort to enlighten generations of readers of the news.]

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

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Author: Peter Isackson