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 , Correspondent

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    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.'
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    The Doha Debates, produced in Qatar and aired on the BBC, are inspiring students across the Middle East to form debate clubs.
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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.

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?"

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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."

The program's impact is evident in the hundreds of appreciative e-mails, including some from Israel, that pour onto its website, www.dohadebates.com, which gets about a million hits a month, according to Alexandra Willis, who until recently was the program's producer. Some messages praise the program for giving a new generation "the tools to think for themselves," she added.

One "legacy" of the show, Ms. Willis said, is "an incredible surge in debating activities in Qatar and the region." This is evident in new debate clubs at high schools and universities across the Middle East, including in Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and at a Palestinian university in the Israeli-occupied West Bank.

The Doha debates has also staked out new territory by inviting Israelis to be on the program and grapple with controversial aspects of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In March 2007, for example, Ilan Pappe, of Haifa University, and Yossi Beilin, a former peace negotiator and Knesset member, spoke on opposite sides of the motion that "Palestinians should give up their full right of return."

Israeli debaters also have included former Foreign Minister Shlomo Ben-Ami and Deputy Education Minister Michael Melchior. President Shimon Peres was a special guest.

When another program debated whether Palestinians "risk becoming their own worst enemy," the audience agreed by 71 percent. And in March, the program tackled whether "it's time for the US administration to get tough on Israel" during a taping at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. (The audience said, "yes," by 63 percent.)

On another show, senior Hamas official Mahmoud al-Zahar got a harsh grilling from young Palestinians. "He kept answering questions by talking about what the Israelis are doing and the students kept telling him we expect something better from you," recalled Sebastian.

The program's birthplace, Qatar, is a feisty Arabian Gulf nation of 200,000, whose natural gas exports gives it one of the highest per capita incomes on earth.

The show arose from a 2004 conversation that Sebastian, former host of the BBC interview program HARDtalk, had with Qatar's ruler, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, and his wife, Sheikha Mozah. She is chairwoman of the Qatar Foundation for Education, Science and Community Development, which funds worthy causes. The couple asked Sebastian to suggest projects the foundation might sponsor.

"I said, 'What about town-hall debates?' " Sebastian recalled. Given a green light, he hired Willis away from the BBC to be his producer.

They showed tapes of the initial debates to BBC executives, who agreed to broadcast the show after realizing "this was something quite special ... in the Arab world for people to speak out this way," Willis recounted.

The program is "an independent unit" of the Qatar Foundation, which provides the funding. But "they have no say in what we do, who we invite, or the topics we choose to debate," Sebastian said in a phone interview. "And they've never sought to have any say. One of the biggest favors they've done us is to let us entirely alone."

There's no better place to see the impact of The Doha Debates than Yamamah University, a private college in Riyadh's sprawling desert outskirts. Seated in his campus office, Asaad said that when he decided to teach debating his only model was Arabic TV shows, where discussions "turn into more of a rooster fight than an actual debate."

Initially, his students "were shouting at each other or answering a question with a question," Asaad recounted. "I said, 'Hey guys, we ... should be doing some things in a different way. There should be some quality. There should be some research. We should go a little bit deeper beyond what people say in the coffee shops or the bus stops.' "

Then Asaad found The Doha Debates website. "As a teacher, it provided me with everything I needed," including the ability to download past debates and read transcripts. "We discussed the format, the role of the moderator, and I said, 'Fine, can we try a debate like this?' "

Their first public debate in the university's auditorium took on the motion "This house believes coeducation improves education." (The audience of both male and female students gave the idea a thumbs down.)

His students were so taken with debating that Asaad organized what he believes is the first debating club at any Saudi university. It now has about 25 regular participants.

"You could say that our debate club is the legitimate child of The Doha Debates," said the Syrian-born instructor, adding that Yamamah now offers a course in debate. "By preparing the students to become good debaters, you're preparing the future community leaders to become better negotiators."

Saud Al-Thonayan, a club member, said that before he discovered The Doha Debates, "when anyone talked about debating in Arab countries, I said it's not debating, it's fighting." He recalled being "shocked" during a taping when the "sensitive issue" of political Islam was discussed before an audience of conservatives and liberals. "All of them were debating and asking questions in a new way for Arab countries," he said. "In a friendly way."

Learning this "new way" has been a personal struggle for Mr. Thonayan. "There is an important thing that I love in debating: How to be calm. Because I face a lot of problems in this case. I get angry. I always debate with extremists, with religious people about some Saudi issues, like women's rights. And we always end up fighting because I get nervous and angry."

But, he added, "I have learned how to be calm, how to control myself."

Saudis generally aren't used to formal debate. The older generation often admonishes young people not to bring up certain topics – like the ban on women driving – because it's regarded as impolite to discuss contentious issues in public, said debate club member, Abdulrahman al-Duwaish.

"If it's a sensitive issue, it will be opened sooner or later … so we have to talk about [it]," Mr. Duwaish said. "And because of our debate club, because of The Doha Debates, we are opening these issues ... and, inshallah, you will see us after 10 or 15 years leading Saudi Arabia for a better era."

Sebastian doesn't debate that. He's encouraged to see young audiences "testing the limits of what is possible.... They want to take their societies forward. They don't want to follow; they want to lead," he said. "They feel much more confident. If they represent the direction that the Arab world is headed in, then the world is in for some pleasant surprises.

"What we've done is let out a genie, which will be very hard to put back in the bottle."

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