Arab forum tackles a Washington taboo

The Doha Debates dared to discuss the US relationship with Israel in Washington – and got away with it.

This story began – as so many do – with a lunch.

While attending a conference in 2004 in the tiny Gulf state of Qatar, I was invited to break bread with the ruler, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, and his wife, Sheikha Mozah. As a bewildering array of courses came and went, the royal couple talked of their vision for reform and openness and asked me if I had any suggestions.

It was the start of a journey, now entering its sixth year, that led to the formation of the first global free speech forum in the Middle East – The Doha Debates – and last month to a highly controversial session in Washington.

My suggestion to Qatar's ruler was to stage a series of town hall debates in the country, get people arguing without fear of censorship or repercussions and tackle the hottest political topics in the Arab and Islamic worlds. The key condition was that my team would retain full editorial independence – with no interference of any kind from the state.

Half a decade later, that condition has been respected in full. Moreover, hundreds of young Arabs from across the region have talked publicly and for the first time in their lives about such issues as war, extremism, Arab disunity, and human rights.

They have embraced the concept that words are the only acceptable weapons in a civilized society; they have formed their own debating teams and come to our events, ready to challenge the likes of Shimon Peres, Bill Clinton, and senior Hamas official Mahmoud Al Zahar.

It may be a cliché in the West to talk of debates as the court of public opinion. But it's not a cliché in the Arab world, where free speech is the rarest of all commodities – and where there is simply no other possibility of holding key political figures and thought leaders to account. Never mind if those speakers tell the truth or lie their heads off – at least they are forced to listen to the public's criticism and obliged to justify their positions.

If you can stage debates like that in the Middle East, you'd have thought it would be easy to do the same in the US. You'd have thought wrong.

"Why would we write you a blank check to come to our campus and say whatever you want?" asked one prominent – and incredulous – East Coast academic.

"Why would I accept less freedom than I get in Qatar?" I replied.

It was a telling start to a struggle over free speech in America that I simply never had expected.

Few observers felt we would survive Washington. Media colleagues and PR experts told us well before we arrived that they scented blood – ours – and that after our debate March 25 at Georgetown University, we would be hammered by lobbyists, pundits, and hostile hacks.

Whichever way it went, they said, our reputation was finished.

The direct cause of our predicted demise was nothing more than my insistence on debating Israel's relationship with the US in a city that quakes at the slightest prospect of upsetting Jerusalem or criticizing its actions in public.

We didn't set out to upset anyone. But we did debate the robust motion "that this house believes it's time for the US administration to get tough on Israel," in the belief that it would air opinions, not often heard in the US, and provoke a timely discussion of the Obama administration's approach to the region.

As it happened, we came, we debated – and lo and behold – not a single dog even snarled at us! No sign, either, of the much-vaunted Jewish lobby, apparently poised to strike at anyone who dared question Israel's peace-loving credentials.

I won't pretend that all our participants enjoyed the event. The motion's opponents, Harvard law Prof. Alan Dershowitz and former Israeli Ambassador to the United Nations Dore Gold, lost graciously enough to the other side, Michael Scheuer, who had hunted Osama bin Laden for the Central Intelligence Agency, and Avraham Burg, former speaker of the Israeli Knesset. But at times the evening must have seemed to them a like a rough session at the dentist: a lot of painful scraping, probing, and drilling.

We do that eight times a year in that roughest of neighborhoods, the Middle East, without any threat of being savaged by anyone. And now we have done it in a highly charged Washington – and got away with it.

I was surprised to learn that freedom of this kind is considered such a risky proposition – or "blank check" in the US. But unlike most other checks these days, this one really does pay dividends. Keep writing them, America.

Tim Sebastian, an author and award-winning television journalist, is the chairman of the Doha Debates.

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