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
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.
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?”
- “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.”
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.)
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