By David Lepeska
DOHA // During the question and answer session of this week’s Doha Debates, a Qatari student named Donna stood and asked one of the guest analysts a tough question about political trust, then pressed him to give an honest response. The exchange begged the question: why don’t we have many TV shows like this in the United States?
The thought seems revolutionary. The common wisdom is that it is Arab countries that lag behind, with poor education, little freedom of expression and a dearth of quality entertainment. There is some truth to these beliefs.
But consider that on American television this week, Oprah’s karaoke contest came down to three finalists, Tyra Banks, supermodel turned talk show host, wondered if you’d like to try The Tapeworm Diet, and The Jerry Springer Show asked the eternal question, “My Cousin’s Baby is Yours?”
Yes, US television has some intelligent programming, such as the Emmy-winning The Daily Show with Jon Stewart and Charlie Rose on PBS. The BBC, which manages and broadcasts The Doha Debates, is a world leader in news and entertainment programming.
But The Doha Debates is financed entirely by the Qatar Foundation and the majority of its speakers and audience are of Arab origin. It is an Arab production, one that regularly hosts illuminating and often heated discussions on some of the most pressing topics of the day, including extremism, women’s rights and the occupation of Iraq.
It is also closing in on its 50th episode, and with its appeal to the region’s youth, it may be creating a new image of Arab intellectualism.
“In some ways the show has exceeded our expectations,” said the show’s host and founder, Tim Sebastian, who hosted the BBC’s HARDtalk interview show for decades.
The Doha Debates is the BBC’s most popular weekend programme, according to producer Tanya Sakzewski, and the show’s website is among its most visited. This week The Doha Debates rolled out an Arabic-language website, where episodes can be viewed with Arabic subtitles.
At least 2,000 Arab and Qatari students have attended debating classes at QatarDebate, a national debating society established in September 2007 in response to the show’s success. The Qatar Foundation recently launched an Arabic-language student debate show, Lakom Al Karar (“The Decision is Yours”) and Doha will be host to the World Schools Debate Championship in February. Debating clubs have sprung up not just in Doha, but in Saudi Arabia and at a Palestinian university.
This in a region with a rich intellectual history and tradition of debate that many -- especially in the West -- assume has been lost in today's more conservative societies.
“In a sense, this is a giant leap backwards – and that’s a good thing,” added Sebastian. “These young people are questioning, probing, arming themselves with good questions and being dogged about getting answers.”
This week’s motion,“this house trusts Iran not to build a nuclear bomb”, could hardly be more timely. The international community has been pressing Iran on a UN-brokered plan to swap its low-enriched uranium for nuclear fuel. Iran agreed to the deal last month in Vienna but has wavered, hinting that it does not trust western negotiators to keep up their end of the bargain.
The opinions expressed were wide-ranging, belying the “Arab Street” myth of ideological uniformity that lingers in much of the West. “One of the surprising things is Arab diversity, in terms of opinion,” said Sebastian. “We used to be able to tell by dress how people would vote. Now we rarely have any idea.”
Iran and its nuclear ambitions have long been a grave concern in the Gulf. Arguing for the motion, Mr Marandi placed Iran’s nuclear energy programme in the broader framework of breaking the western monopoly on advanced research and technologies.
“We should question the motives of those countries who have and use nuclear weapons,” said Seyyed Mohammad Marandi, head of North American studies at the University of Tehran. “While Iran is the world’s biggest victim of WMD’s, it is very revealing that it has never produced chemical weapons, because Iran deems them immoral.”
An Egyptian student named Rama braved catcalls to voice a potentially controversial query: “How can we trust that any Supreme Leader, present or future, will not issue a fatwa saying it is a Muslim duty to nuke or attack any nation?”
Alireza Nourizadeh, director of the Centre for Arab and Iranian Studies in London, argued against the motion. “How can you trust a government who kills its own people?” he asked.
“Where is your evidence?” asked Sebastian.
“I’m not going to disclose my evidence here,” said Mr Nourizadeh.
“Well then it doesn’t sound very credible, does it?” said Sebastian, earning titters from a studio audience made up mostly of local high school and university students.
That audience seemed to side with Mr Nourizadeh, as 52 per cent voted against the motion. But a Qatari student who voted in favour was unfazed. “I like how this reveals two sides to every question,” said Ahmed al Malik, 18. “We can express both sides, and understand the issues better.”
Sebastian saw the ground shifting.
“You’d be hard-pressed to walk down Oxford Street in London,” he said, “and find students that would rather go debate than spend the day shopping.”
-- edited version appeared in The National, 13 Nov 2009.