Doha Debates: five years of free speech

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The final Doha Debate of the fifth series will take place tonight at Qatar Foundation, where speakers and audience members will discuss the issue of marriage between Muslims and non-Muslims when the motion “This House believes that Muslim women should be free to marry anyone they choose.”

Chairman of the Doha Debates, Tim Sebastian spoke to Gulf Times ahead of the season finale, discussing the future of the programme while also looking back on “five years of free and uncensored speech.”

He explained that the programme came about as a result of a lunch he shared with HH the Emir Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani and HH Sheikha Mozah Nasser al-Misnad, where they discussed the possibility of creating a forum for free speech.

“This started as an experimental project, but has become a permanent one,” he said, adding “I never thought it would still be going after five years – five years is a very long time in television!”

“I hope that it carries on for another five years!” he said, adding “people need a forum to discuss issues – we need people to keep talking about them instead of fighting about them.”

“Whereas the Doha Debates may have been seen as an ‘optional extra’ when it first started, I think now people feel that it is a must-see event, and more importantly, it is an event they must take part in,” he added.
Although Sebastian pointed out that he didn’t wish to “exaggerate the importance” of the debates, he did say that he felt it worthwhile to point out that his team had enjoyed five years of totally free and uncensored speech – something for which he expressed his gratitude to the Qatari authorities.

“No-one has ever interfered or tried to block anything we have done here,” he said, adding “even when we brought in Shimon Peres.”

Sebastian explained that the visit of Peres was one of the highlights of the past five years, along with the special debate with Bill Clinton, the debate on the motion “This House believes that Muslims are failing to combat extremism,” and the visit of Mahmoud al-Zahar and his subsequent “tough questioning” by young, Palestinian students.

All remarkable occurrences considering the debates started as an in-house experiment, and will this year embark upon its sixth series on BBC World News.
“None of us knew what the response would be – we didn’t know whether the young people here would ask any questions or whether they would have any interest in the debates,” he said, adding “but the response has been remarkable.”

“We have seen so many different people from man different walks of life embrace the debates and we have proven to be a good representation of Arab diversity,” he claimed.

“The people have also been very self-critical and have shown the rest of the world that there is an intelligent, young, self-critical generation here – which can only be a good thing,” he added.
Sebastian described the audience – primarily made up of students – as the “stars of the show,” and said that over the past five years, they had developed in terms of their debating skills.
“The audience now come more informed, better prepared and with more targeted and focused questions,” he claimed, adding “and their expectations of the speakers have also increased.”

Luckily, these expectations have been met by the many guest speakers who have appeared on the show.
“I think we have tapped into reserves that people did not know existed in the Arab world,” he said, adding “I have actually been surprised by just how many of our speakers have been very good, and the fact that we have been here for five years is a great tribute to all of those who have taken part.”
Looking ahead to the next series of the Doha Debates, Sebastian said that there would be a number of exciting issues to look at, especially in light of the Barack Obama administration’s inauguration in the White House, and his early attempts to make a difference in terms of foreign policy.

And the new US president would be an ideal guest for the show, according to Sebastian: “We would like to have him on the show – no question – and we will be working hard to encourage it. The show would provide him with an excellent platform from which to engage with young people in the region.”
“If there is one place that the issues affecting the Middle East are aired from internationally, it is the Doha Debates,” he added.

Other plans include a debate focusing on the splits between Hamas and Fatah, and Sebastian also pointed to a number of other issues that could be used as inspiration for further motions, but stated that the need to keep an open schedule as opposed to publishing a preconceived list of debates is essential to the relevance of the programme.

“We want to stay topical and there is always a lot going on in the Arab world and plenty of surprises, so we watch the news very carefully,” he said.
“I want to be able to look back at each series and be sure that we have dealt with some of the key issues affecting peoples’ lives here, which I think we have,” he said, “but there are always more.”
“There are issues such as Afghanistan, Pakistan and plenty of others so there is no shortage of relevant and topical material for the debates,” he explained.

The debates’ chairman outlined plans to offer the debates online with Arabic subtitles, and also to enhance the website to include immediate reactions from both speakers and participants after each show.
“With the pressure that exists on free speech throughout the region and the rest of the world, I feel that we need to continue to stand up for it in a conspicuous manner,” he claimed, adding “and we also need to make people aware of the clear benefits of free speech such as informing people, allowing them to make up their own minds, and hopefully helping discover solutions to some of the problems they face.”

http://gulf-times.com/site/topics/article.asp?cu_no=2&item_no=292896&version=1&template_id=36&parent_id=16