The programme teaching Arabic speakers to debate

Screengrab of a televised debate between two young people trained by Munathara.
Screengrab of a televised debate between two young people trained by Munathara.

In countries where freedom of expression is limited and the opposition is often stifled, it’s not easy to teach young people to debate and exchange opposing ideas. Yet since 2011, the online video platform Munathara [“debate” in Arabic] has been trying to challenge young Arabic-speakers from all over the world to improve their debating skills.

Every six weeks or so, the team at Munathara post a broad question on their platform, like “Should liberty of expression be restricted?” Any Arabic-speaker under the age of 30 is free to upload a video that responds to the question. They have 99 seconds to express their opinion and provide support for their argument.

Next, spectators can vote on their favourite videos. The makers of the top six videos are then invited to a special workshop held in Beirut, Istanbul, or Tunis. There, they take part in an initial debate, then the two winners of that debate—who each represent an opposing side—participate in a grand finale debate with a host of VIPs in attendance.

Young people participate in a training workshop in Turkey. Photo: Munathara.

Belabbes Benkredda is a founder of the Munathara platform, which is the first of its kind in the Arabic-speaking world. Benkredda is a German citizen of Algerian origin who studied philosophy of law and international relations. For him, it is essential to teach young Arabic-speakers how to debate in order to encourage them to participate in public discourse.

“We teach young Arabic speakers the art of dialogue and argument”

In 2011, at the beginning of the Arab Spring, I was a law student in Frankfurt. I was reading the works of the German philosopher Jürgen Habermas about the public sphere. In those pages, I found answers to my questions about the Arabic-speaking world, where I felt like, too often, the state imposed a single, definitive reading of every event. How can one call into question the official version? How can citizens develop and express their own point of view as well as participating in the construction of public discourse?

The idea behind Munathara is to create a space that is open to anyone, where ideas can be exchanged and debated. Munathara also aims to support people whose voices are not often heard in mainstream media, including women, young people, and religious minorities.

To participate, all you have to do is to send in a video in which you respond to the question that we have posted on Munathara. The top six videos are chosen by viewers; we don’t get involved in the selection process at all. In the final debate, the top two participants get to debate with well-known figures, many of them politicians from across the Arabic-speaking world. And, very often, the young participants give better presentations than their elders!

Young people participate in a training workshop in Turkey.

One of the aims of this initiative is to show young people that they can speak up and share their ideas intelligently. I used to be in their position—I didn’t think that I could express myself publicly. Then, one day, I was asked to be a guest commentator on a TV news channel. I accepted and, after my appearance, many people reached out to congratulate me. That experience made me want to continue to speak out and I decided that I wanted to encourage other people to do so as well.

Munathara has come a long way since we launched it six year ago. The last time we posted a question to debate on our site, we got 1,400 videos in response. You can watch the debates online. We also have several partner television stations that now stream our final debates live, including First TV in Tunisia and Tahrir News in Egypt.

Our platform is independent from governmental influence in Arabic-speaking countries. Our main backer is the German Ministry of Foreign Affairs. For a short time, we collaborated with Al-Jazeera, but we ended the partnership when the Qatari chain tried to influence our choice of guests.

"I succeeded in convincing the public that everyone should have the freedom to participate in politics”

Ghada AbuKhaiti, 26, is a student originally from Yemen who now studies in Morocco. She was one of 4,500 young people who participated in one of these debates. She won Munathara’s 23rd debate, which was held in October 2016 in Tunis.

I first heard about Munathara from Yemeni friends in Morocco. I was inspired to answer one of the questions that they posted on their site: “Are you for or against the banning of Islamist parties?”

I had 99 seconds to explain my position. I don’t share the ideas of radical groups, but I am against the idea of banning them from participation in politics. I defend democratic principles. No one should be discriminated against on the basis of his or her political opinions.

This video, in which Ghada AbuKhaiti responds to the question “Are you for or against the banning of Islamist parties?”, was selected as one of the best videos on Munathara and meant she was able to participate in a public speaking workshop and then the televised final debate.

I think I did about 20 takes before I was more or less satisfied with my video. I didn’t think that I would win. But a lot of people voted for me. I wonder if they were surprised to hear a liberal voice coming from Yemen.

I was invited to go to Tunisia to participate in the next round of selection. I debated against three different participants who were in favour of banning Islamist parties. After those debates, I was chosen to participate in the final debate. I was really overwhelmed. Would I be able to defend my ideas live?

Paired with an Islamist former Minister

I learned a lot during the training workshop organised by Munathara, including how to build a case for your position and then structure your argument. I also learned how to prepare responses to break down the arguments presented by the other team.

These strategies proved very useful in the debate itself. I was paired with Abdellatif Mekki, the former Tunisian minister of health and a member of the Islamist Ennahda party. We faced off with a young Libyan who is an incredibly gifted orator and Wahid Abdel-Maguid, a former deputy and member of the Egyptian nationalist party Al-Wafd. Both of them were against Islamist parties. The debate lasted an hour and it was my team who won.

I was really proud to have succeeded in convincing the public that everyone should have the freedom to participate in politics. Another cool thing was that we were actually able to agree on some topics with the other side, like the importance of separating politics and religion.

"I made the choice to appear publicly without a head covering"

It was an amazing experience. The process also helped me to overcome some psychological barriers. I don’t wear a headscarf, for example, and I made the choice to appear in public as I am. That actually helped me build a lot of self-confidence. I’m no longer scared to ask questions about sensitive topics. I also feel comfortable standing up for my point of view.

And then in March 2017 I had the opportunity to go to Beirut to participate in the DDX3, which is like the artistic version of the political debate that Munathara organises every year. The DDX3 features artistic orators who perform spoken word, poems and rap. I wrote a three-minute text about the importance of accepting differences. People responded well to it and it really encouraged me to pursue my dream of becoming a writer.