Qataris revitalise traditions of open debate at majlis

Small groups are putting key issues, including free speech and aid for Pakistan, on the agenda as sense of urgency returns to gatherings.

DOHA // The majlis has played a central role in Arab society since pre-Islamic times, when groups of tribal elders would sit and discuss important community concerns and make decisions. In Qatar, though, the majlis in recent decades has become more of a simple social gathering or informal business meeting than an earnest consultation.

Now a handful of young Qatari men and women are returning this tradition to its roots, taking up urgent social and political issues and adding a dash of activism and diplomacy. "There is a need to have serious discussion about some topics here in Qatar," said Hamad al Ibrahim, 30, who, along with his brother, hosts a majlis where topics of debate have included freedom of speech, democracy and Islamism. "What we are trying to do is get people to think about their current situation."

An Arabic term meaning "a place of sitting", the majlis is an integral Ramadan tradition, in part because the Prophet Mohammed, consulted regularly with an inner circle of friends and advisers. In the centuries that followed, majlises spread across the Muslim world. Today it is the name for parliaments in Iran, the Maldives, Turkmenistan, Saudi Arabia, Indonesia and other countries. On any given day a dozen or so majlises take place across Qatar. Few are as open and thoughtful as the al Ibrahims', which meets every Saturday and holds a monthly discussion on a pressing issue.

Guest speakers have included David Kerr, the former head of Sidra Medical Centre and now a healthcare adviser to the British prime minister, David Cameron, and Tim Sebastian, host of the BBC's Doha Debates. On a recent Saturday in a warm, carpeted space on the edge of Doha, a dozen Qataris and a few guests sat on couches set against walls covered with striped wallpaper. A visitor spoke of the floods in Pakistan, the displaced, the lethargic government response, the looming starvation.

At the majlis a week earlier, the al Ibrahims asked members for donations for Pakistani flood relief, to be handed in at the next majlis. In the first day they received commitments totalling 40,000 Qatari riyals (Dh40,360). "This is the worst disaster in Pakistani history," said Abdul Ghaffar Aziz, an official with Al Khidmat Foundation, the charitable arm of Jamaat-e-Islami, Pakistan's oldest Islamic political party.

Al Khidmat is building camps for the displaced and providing food, clothing and medical attention. By the end of Mr al Ghaffar's talk the majlis had raised more than 265,000 riyals. "People really contributed generously," said Mr al Ibrahim, who works as an analyst at Rand-Qatar Policy Institute. "It's one of the things that we are proud we could achieve." Majlis members feel the same way. "This is good for Qataris," said Jaber al Mosallam, 23, referring to the al Ibrahim majlis.

At his own family majlis, which Mr al Mosallam attends almost nightly, the talk is of business, football, the latest news. Some issues remain taboo. "It's not that you're scared of it, but it's very difficult to talk about certain issues," Mr al Mosallam, who works at Qatar Petroleum, said. "Honesty has a price." Maryah al Dafa is trying to do something good as well. Returning to Doha last year after getting her master's in the United Kingdom, she launched what most believe is the first women's majlis in Qatar.

"We needed a place to vent and talk about anything, from girly issues to politics and other topics," said Ms al Dafa, 24, the daughter of a Qatari diplomat. Members of her majlis include a handful of US citizens and other westerners. For Ms al Dafa, the majlis is as much about cultural exchange as it is about expressing opinions and discussing life in Qatar. "It's comfortable but also critical - of everything, even ourselves," she added. "Even if you don't say anything you leave having heard three to four views on society in Qatar or politics in the United States."

Such discussions represent a shift, according to Hiba Khodr. A visiting fellow at the Doha branch of the Brookings Institution in Washington, she has studied majlises in the Gulf. "In Kuwait they are more organised, more involved in political discussions and policy making," Ms Kodhr said, adding that in Kuwait there are several women's and even mixed-gender diwaniyat, as they are called. In Bahrain, majlises are similarly open.

"Here [in Qatar] people don't talk about these issues," Ms Khodr said. "They simply don't speak politics, at least not yet." This reluctance to talk politics is what inspired Ms al Dafa to carve out a space for real discussion. "There's only, what, 300,000 Qataris, and most of them are apathetic about all this," Ms al Dafa said. "I'm not a revolutionary, but it's about being critical and constructive and making positive change."

Many Qataris believe the country's current leadership has allowed for greater openness. They point to mixed-gender higher learning at Education City and thoughtful public discussion on the Doha Debates. "The more educated people get, the more willing they are to break boundaries and express themselves," Hassan al Ibrahim said. His brother Hamad is hopeful that a new generation will be perfectly comfortable talking politics, free speech, and the direction of Islamic society in the modern world. For now, he just wants to get the ball rolling.

"In order to change people's mentality it takes some time," he said. "I think if we can replicate this in more majlises, it would be great."