Qatar Opens Debate on Thorny Muslim, Arab Issues

The government of Qatar has initiated a series of public debates about controversial issues facing the Arab and Muslim world, including women's equality in Muslim nations.

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MADELEINE BRAND, host:

Free and open public debate is not the norm in most of the Middle East. But in Qatar, the Arab nation best known to Westerners as home to the controversial Al-Jazeera television network, public debates rage over the most controversial issues, including how much equality women should have. The forums are called The Doha Debates, named after Qatar's capital. From Doha, NPR's Eric Weiner reports.

ERIC WEINER reporting:

It all started with a conversation between Qatar's first lady, Sheikha Mozah, and veteran BBC journalist Tim Sebastian. Both bemoaned the lack of open debate in the Arab world, so last year they launched The Doha Debates. The 90-minute sessions are taped before an audience of mostly Arab students. They're held in English, which means they're inaccessible to the vast majority of Arabs, and they're broadcast on the BBC rather than the Al-Jazeera network, which, of course, has a much wider audience in the Middle East. Despite this, or perhaps because of it, there are no red lines in these debates; no topics are off limits. In fact, says Tim Sebastian, the more controversial the better.

Mr. TIM SEBASTIAN (BBC Journalist): We want to address those topics that don't get a full airing in this region, because that way we push the envelope and we allow people the freedom to come and express their views on these very hot topics. And for many of them, it's the first time in their lives that they will have done this.

WEINER: The Doha debaters have taken on provocative statements such as `The war on terror has become a war on Islam' and `Iraq's neighbors have no interest in seeing a democratic Iraq.' But earlier this week, the forum tackled what's probably the most sensitive topic yet. The motion was Arab women should have full equality with men. In Kuwait, women were recently granted the right to vote and hold office, but there are very few women in positions of power in the region. And in Saudi Arabia, women cannot vote or even drive. One of the panelists, Kuwaiti Tareq Muhammad(ph) Al-Suwaidan, says don't blame Shariah, or Islamic law.

(Soundbite of The Doha Debates)

Mr. TAREQ MUHAMMAD AL-SUWAIDAN (Kuwaiti): That's the Shariah and to me, very clearly, Shariah, Islamic law, does not prohibit women from climbing into the ladder all the way to being a president of a country.

WEINER: The moderator, Tim Sebastian, is known for his ruthless interviewing style, and he pulled no punches on this evening. Here is an exchange with Khola Hassan, a British author who was arguing against full equality for Arab women.

(Soundbite of The Doha Debates)

Ms. KHOLA HASSAN (British Author): The average woman is weaker than a man in muscles.

Mr. SEBASTIAN: But why should they be treated differently even if there are physical differences? Why?

Ms. HASSAN: Because you have to make allowances for their weakness.

Mr. SEBASTIAN: Who says so?

Ms. HASSAN: God says so.

Mr. SEBASTIAN: He does?

WEINER: Another point of contention was the relationship between the Arab world and the West. Are we forcing Western-style democracy and the Western notion of women's rights on the Arab world? Here's Khola Hassan again, this time debating--and that's an understatement--with a member of the audience, a Kuwaiti woman named Holad Aheeli(ph).

(Soundbite of The Doha Debates)

Ms. HOLAD AHEELI (Kuwaiti): ...whether to choose ...(unintelligible) or not.

Ms. HASSAN: Our politicians are puppets. They just said it.

Ms. AHEELI: No.

Ms. HASSAN: Our politicians are puppets...

Ms. AHEELI: No, not all of us, no.

Ms. HASSAN: ...in the hands of the Western masters.

Ms. AHEELI: No. I'm sorry. I disagree with you.

WEINER: Finally, in true "American Idol" fashion, it was time for the audience to decide. They punched one of two buttons, voting either for or against the motion that Arab women should have full equality with men. A few minutes later, Tim Sebastian announced the results of this very unscientific poll.

Mr. SEBASTIAN: There we have it. For the motion, 85.8 percent.

(Soundbite of applause)

WEINER: This was, of course, not a typical Arab audience. They speak English, and many have lived abroad. The Qatar Foundation, which runs the forum, does plan to launch an Arabic version soon, but some Muslims don't like the fact that these debates are taking place in any language. They argue that Muslims should be united at a time when Islam is perceived to be under attack from the West. Tim Sebastian disagrees with that sentiment.

Mr. SEBASTIAN: Actually, one of the most important aspects is that it's OK to disagree. There doesn't always have to be a winner or loser. But even if you do win or lose, you can walk away; you can shake hands and walk away.

WEINER: This debate did end amicably, but not everyone walked away. A few lingered on an especially warm Arabian night, parrying and occasionally agreeing with the question of the day.

Unidentified Woman #1: ...not my body, not my beauty.

Unidentified Woman #2: But you see, Islam is inherently feminist, I believe, but...

Unidentified Woman #1: Exactly.

Unidentified Woman #2: ...the notion of modern femininity...

Unidentified Woman #1: But that's what I wish you had said.

WEINER: Eric Weiner, NPR News, Doha.

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