Speaking freely in the Middle East

The Doha Debates suggest that people in the Arab world could teach Westerners a thing or two about freedom of speech.

Dennis Hayes

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Topics Politics

A forgotten theme amid the reporting of the Arab Spring, now the Arab Summer, is that many people in the Arab world support freedom of speech in a way that seems odd to many in the censorious West – and this despite the existence of authoritarian regimes of various forms.

Last December, I had personal experience of the importance of freedom of speech to many in the Arab world while arguing for the proposition ‘Education is worthless without freedom of speech’ at the 50th Doha Debate in Qatar. The Doha Debates began seven years ago with the support of Sheikah Moza bint Nasser Al Missned of Qatar. The aim was to encourage debate in the Arab world without any interference from the authorities, a condition that is an absolute for the debate chair, TV journalist and author Tim Sebastian. Except for some hostility and a boycott when the proposition ‘This House believes that Dubai is a bad idea’ was discussed, the Doha Debates have gone from strength to strength, even being broadcast from other countries during the Arab Spring. Dubai now even hosts its own ‘Dubai Debates’ and the television audience for the BBC World and other showings of the Doha Debates is in the millions.

The Doha Debates aren’t alone as examples of open and free discussion. Through the educational body, the Qatar Foundation, and the creation of the Education City in Qatar, Sheikah Moza has created a unique space for academic thought and open debate. Even the Islamic Cultural Centre in Doha has a publication entitled Freedom of Expression. Although full of virtuous caveats, it nevertheless asserts that ‘a society with freedom of thought will produce creative human beings’.

So what of the debate, ‘Is education worthless without freedom of speech’? Fellow participants Nagla Rizk (American University in Cairo) and Kevin Watkins (Education for All, UNESCO) were unable to oppose the actual proposition, so they played a rhetorical trick and redefined the motion to mean ‘Education is worthless’ before proceeding to defend the ‘worthiness of education’. Despite this piece of sophistry they lost the debate 47-53. The headlines in the Gulf were ‘Doha Debates for freedom of speech’ and ‘Doha Debates agrees that education is worthless without freedom of speech’.

A survey associated with the programme was undertaken in late December and early January, and had more than 1,000 respondents from 18 Arab countries in the GCC, Levant and North Africa. The results were resoundingly in favour of free speech: ‘[A] majority of those questioned – more than 80 per cent – believe the Arab world would be more successful were it to enjoy greater freedom of speech.’

As I listened to successive audience members defend freedom of speech, two things struck me about the debate. Firstly, the 47 per cent who voted against – unless they were convinced or confused by the sophistry of the opposition – were mostly silent. The second thing was that our side would have lost the debate in most, if not all British universities, where the free speech-curbing culture of bans and ‘no platform’ is the norm.

Here in Qatar, however, concepts such as ‘no platform’ seemed alien and unacceptable to much of the audience. Western students could learn a lot from watching the Doha Debates about the importance of free speech. Tim Sebastian managed to get Shimon Peres to speak and even organised a unique debate between Hamas and Fatah.

The 50th Doha Debate, and the subsequent debates it has given rise to, also identified what is wrong in the current understanding of the Arab Spring and what can be learned from it. There are now two common explanations for the sudden spread of opposition to authoritarian governments across the Arab world: first, that this uprising is based on the level of education attained by young people across the Arab world, and second, that it was fuelled by the technological power of these new young ‘digital activists’.

Nagla Rizk, reporting on the Doha Debates in the Egyptian press, ran with both arguments: ‘The motion presents education as a function of solely one factor: freedom of speech. I flip this argument on its head and argue that freedom is itself a product of education. I ask: what are the Egyptian bloggers and Tunisian digital activists a product of, if not their own local systems of education, with all their restrictions on freedoms? And how come Egyptian women enrolled in illiteracy eradication programmes of civil society groups start reporting their abuse once they begin learning how to read and write? And why is the percentage of Egyptian women opposing female genital mutilation higher among the educated than it is for the illiterate?’ These ‘local systems of education’ didn’t need freedom of speech, she continued, because ‘in today’s world… knowledge is received from diverse sources… with technologies democratising the learning process’.

In a recent report on the Doha Debates in the New York Times, one interviewee suggested that in the Arab world, with its large populations of young, often educated but unemployed youth, the Doha Debates gave a ‘statistically false representation of regional demographics… This is the digital age. We could use the internet to collect questions from a wider audience and then see which questions rank highest.’

Firstly, apart from a few basic reading skills and the like, ‘education’ necessarily involves free speech and being critical. Not to have a critical element means that you are engaged in training not education. Nagla Rizk was equivocating because she thinks, like the New York Times‘ interviewee, that the Arab Spring came from democratised knowledge accessed through technology. Yet the spontaneous outburst of criticality we saw during the Arab Spring was a result of an increased freedom of speech. It had nothing to do with the form in which that freedom was expressed by blogging or on Twitter.

Secondly, the ‘democratic’ access to local knowledge that Rizk celebrates over debate could end up damaging rather than boosting the Arab Spring. Technology may have helped to get people out for protests and days of rage, but it can do little to develop political ideas and consciousness. Only free and serious debate can do that.

As another interviewee told the New York Times, the Doha Debates ‘really challenge this idea that Arabs don’t produce people — and women — who can speak their minds’. It is precisely this desire to speak one’s mind and challenge those in authority that makes the Doha Debates so impressive. In fact, what many in the Arab world have today, which many in the West do not, is a belief that free speech is important.

The Doha Debates are not in any sense the motor behind the Arab Spring. But they do capture the commitment to free speech that runs through this year’s Arab uprisings. A good rallying cry for the Arab rebels would be: free speech – no ‘ifs’, no ‘buts’.

Dennis Hayes is Professor of Education at the University of Derby and a visiting professor in the Westminster Institute of Education at Oxford Brookes University.

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