The Doha Debates is one of Qatar Foundation’s most successful and popular ventures; it is always well attended and the topics are interesting, controversial and relevant.

Last night’s debate considered the issue of minority religions in the Arab world. The audience carried the motion ‘This House believes Arab governments need to take urgent measures to protect religious minorities’ by 74%.

 

p0093plv_640_360The first of the speakers was former Archbishop of Canterbury, Lord George Carey. He argues all governments should protect religious minorities and that Qatar, Jordan and Tunisia in particular do, but countries such as Saudi Arabia don’t. He highlighted the worrying mass exodus from the Middle East of both Muslims, Christians and the Baha’i.

Fadi Daou, CEO of the Adyan Foundation and a Maronite priest spoke against the motion, arguing that governments should protect all its citizens equally. Arab Christians don’t consider themselves to be a minority, he argued, and so we shouldn’t stigmatise them. He placed importance on freedom.

Next was Ahmed Saad, former Imam of North London Central Mosque who said that the term ‘minority’ wasn’t offensive or derogatory and that his community appealed to the British government for protection after the 7/7 attacks. Governments cannot wait for a disaster before making a move.

 

roger-bismuth1Roger Bismuth, president of the Tunisian Jewish community insisted that legislation was more important than personal protection. Short and long term effects must be considered and religious equality must be promoted through education.

Timothy Sebastian, the moderator, pointed out that when Tunisians screamed for the death of Jews in the streets of Tunis, Bismuth petitioned the governments and called them up personally to ask for protection for his religious minority. Bismuth replied that he is a Tunisian first and foremost but once Sebastian had ripped into him, it felt like Bismuth wasn’t practicing what he preached. The opposition’s argument was that all citizens deserve and need protection, majorities and minorities and no community should be singled out. However, neither Bismuth nor Daou provided a strong enough argument to convince the audience that religious minorities didn’t need government protection.

There were some very interesting comments, a Bosnian compared the issue of religious tensions in the Middle East to the problems in Bosnia, and advised there were lessons to be learned from mistakes made in other countries. Everyone seemed to agree that a move towards democracy would be a positive step and as Lord Carey pointed out, ‘Churchill said democracy is the worst form of government…apart from all the others!’ Lord Carey said that we’re all minorities in one way or another. Daou said that in Lebanon, everyone is a minority.

A Qatari audience member asked who or what minorities were supposed to be protected from, an interesting question no one had touched upon. Persecution and discrimination were cited as major reasons and governments were urged to contribute to educate people towards a tolerant coexistence.

Although women’s rights were briefly touched upon, it would have been interesting if more could have been said (although as that was a topic of a past debate, perhaps they felt it would be repetition). Why people persecute and discriminate against each other would have been another interesting topic that could have been pursued.

All in all, it was a very interesting debate.

You can watch the debate on BBC World News on Saturday 5th May 12:10 pm and Sunday 6th May 12:10 am, 5:10 am and 6:10 pm.