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Arabs tackle free speech taboo

Across the Middle East, what would never happen in polite company now appears on broadcasts of The Doha Debates – discussion of controversy.

By Caryle MurphyCorrespondent / September 16, 2009

Moez Masoud, a Muslim 'televangelist' from Egypt, makes a point on The Doha Debates program last year. He and three others debated the motion 'Muslims are failing to combat extremism.'

Courtesy of Doha Debates

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Doha, Qatar; and Riyadh, Saudi Arabia

As soon as the cameramen called it a wrap, the audience swarmed onto the TV studio set. Almost giddy with delight, several university students from Saudi Arabia went straight for chairs vacated by the performers and pretended to be stars of the show.

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The program that thrills these students isn't a reality show, a religious forum, or a sexy soap opera. It's something far more ordinary – but also mightier. As the show's producers like to say, it's about "the power to change minds" – through words.

That is the theme of The Doha Debates, the five-year-old hit show on BBC World News. Produced eight times a year in Doha, capital of the tiny Gulf emirate of Qatar, the program features speakers debating such controversial questions as "Does political Islam threaten the West?" "Does the face veil hinder Muslim integration?" "Do Gulf Arabs value profit over people?" "Are Muslims failing to combat extremism?" "Is Arab unity dead and buried?" and "Should Muslim women be free to marry anyone they choose?"

Moderated by former BBC interviewer Tim Sebastian, the debates follow the format of the prestigious British debating club, the Oxford Union. After four speakers (two on each side) argue for and against a motion, the panelists are questioned by Mr. Sebastian and the audience, which then votes electronically to determine the winning side.

Through the BBC, The Doha Debates can be seen in some 300 million homes in 200 countries. But its greatest legacy may be in the Middle East, where authoritarian regimes stifle free speech, newspapers are heavily censored, children are raised to obey without question, and school systems reject critical thinking in favor of rote learning.

Amid this smothering environment, The Doha Debates is perhaps the freest public forum for probing tough issues that deeply resonate in the Arab world.

"It offers an opportunity for free speech and expression of an opinion, which is very much in demand and very highly appreciated," said Asaad al-Asaad, an English instructor at Riyadh's Yamamah University, who accompanied his Saudi students to Doha for a taping.

One student, Mishaal al-Rasheed, said the program has taught him that "you don't need at the end of the debate to agree with me. But at least respect me for my ideas."

He is impressed, he added, that Qatar "took the lead in having debates in our Islamic world.... In another Arab country, [the debaters] might be in jail right now."

One of the show's failings, Mr. Asaad said, is that it lacks Arabic subtitles, which would make it more accessible.

Asked about this, moderator Sebastian, who also founded the program, said in an e-mail that he wasn't aware of any "full-length BBC current affairs show [that] carries subtitles in any foreign language." But, he added that starting in October the program will start an Arabic website that will carry subtitles on streamed video of the debates.

Free tickets to the live tapings are given mostly to students from all over the Middle East attending universities or high school in Qatar. For an hour, they have the rare experience of being able to say whatever they like without fear of reprisal.

At times, their pent-up frustration explodes on air. During a recent program, a young Egyptian was urged by a debater to make his views known. "How can I voice out my opinion if my leaders are actually oppressing me to not talk?" he shouted back. "My leaders are in power [for] 27 years and I am not allowed to speak."