Thursday, June 18, 2009


I was never interested in debate in school. We learned the format and engaged in one debate, the pet project of our junior year history teacher. But I always thought it was fruitless to cultivate the art of arguing both sides of an issue, and would lead to simply being good at arguing rather than having firm convictions. In college, I encountered my share of confidently argumentative students who merely reinforced my prejudice.

As far as I know, my husband was never into debate, either, but here in Qatar it has become his main extracurricular program with the university students. He trained as a judge with a visiting group from Oxford, acts as advisor to the Qatar University debate club, and gives presentations on the value of debate in English as a Second Language (ESL) teaching. This activity has made him increasingly busy, due to the enthusiasm of the students who learn to compete in debates – they’re even whisking him off to Turkey later this month for a training event.

The popularity of debate in Qatar comes partly from the monthly BBC World program Doha Debates, hosted by Tim Sebastian. Each month, a selected panel takes on a touchy topic relevant to the Muslim world, and the panelists debate each other and parry Sebastian’s sharp, devil’s-advocate jabs. The live audience, mostly of local students and young adults, participates in the discussion, and a vote is taken at the end to pass or fail the motion. (If you link, you’ll see that this motion passed.)

I was teaching knitting at the recreation center of the Qatar Foundation, the organizational sponsor of the debates, and encountered the above poster in the lobby. It made me think hard about what a significant freedom it is that such a poster can exist, prominently displayed in universities throughout Doha. Despite its message, it remains undefiled, and no one has gone around ripping them down. This is my answer to people who ask if living in a Muslim country is scary, or if Qatar is full of Islamic fundamentalists.

It also counteracts my old prejudice about debate. In this country, freedom of speech is valued, but there is still a tangible limit. Protests are not tolerated, and criticism of government is rarely heard, so local residents do not engage in activism. However, when given the opportunity to debate, they are allowed to express and articulate views that may not be otherwise considered acceptable. In the context of the debate, no one is politically blamed for what they say, and so these students can try on opinions for size and palatability, without threatening consequences.

Students also learn to examine all sides of an issue, and to see the point of view that might not naturally be their own. I had never realized how much “training” my own education gave me in this way of thinking, until I encountered cultures in which it’s less inherent. So I no longer think debate is dumb. I can see why my husband is actively promoting it, and I hope debate in Qatar will continue to grow and thrive, engendering important discussion and expanding minds.