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Arab forum tackles a Washington taboo

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It may be a cliché in the West to talk of debates as the court of public opinion. But it's not a cliché in the Arab world, where free speech is the rarest of all commodities – and where there is simply no other possibility of holding key political figures and thought leaders to account. Never mind if those speakers tell the truth or lie their heads off – at least they are forced to listen to the public's criticism and obliged to justify their positions.

If you can stage debates like that in the Middle East, you'd have thought it would be easy to do the same in the US. You'd have thought wrong.

"Why would we write you a blank check to come to our campus and say whatever you want?" asked one prominent – and incredulous – East Coast academic.

"Why would I accept less freedom than I get in Qatar?" I replied.

It was a telling start to a struggle over free speech in America that I simply never had expected.

Few observers felt we would survive Washington. Media colleagues and PR experts told us well before we arrived that they scented blood – ours – and that after our debate March 25 at Georgetown University, we would be hammered by lobbyists, pundits, and hostile hacks.

Whichever way it went, they said, our reputation was finished.

The direct cause of our predicted demise was nothing more than my insistence on debating Israel's relationship with the US in a city that quakes at the slightest prospect of upsetting Jerusalem or criticizing its actions in public.

We didn't set out to upset anyone. But we did debate the robust motion "that this house believes it's time for the US administration to get tough on Israel," in the belief that it would air opinions, not often heard in the US, and provoke a timely discussion of the Obama administration's approach to the region.

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