Sunday, June 06, 2004

National Dialogue? Just Talking!

Dr. Khaled M. Batarfi, Arab News

Dr. Ghazi Al-Gosaibi, our intellectual minister, angered many when he wrote in Al-Watan recently that the National Dialogue forums are meant to train people in debating skills, not to recommend reforms.
The notion that more than 60 people who represent all social groups and are some of our best in most fields were just brought in to engage in speech training course was shocking.
This could be because our expectations were too high, or due to the general feeling that we are so late and need to move much faster, or that the implication that our top intellectuals don’t know how to speak their minds, express their thoughts and discuss their positions was insulting.
Al-Madinah columnist Muhammad Salahuddin felt it was like asking a straight-A college graduate to go back to kindergarten. Al-Riyadh writer Mohammad Reda Nasruallah wrote that time was running out, and we needed to reform our government to better respond to the challenges and to implement urgently needed social and administrative reforms.
Dr. Muhammad Al-Qunaibit, a Shoura Council member, asked how Gosaibi would feel if asked to invest so much time and effort in one of these forums only to be told that all was just for practice. Abdullah Khayyat of Okaz expressed his astonishment that Gosaibi, a respected intellectual, would advocate that the forums’ recommendations should not be at the top of the decision-makers’ agenda.
I do agree with Dr. Gosaibi on the need to improve our culture of debate. Our school curriculum, like our society, is not based on two-way dialogue. Children are brought up, whether in school, home or mosque, to listen, memorize and obey. They are not supposed to discuss and disagree, or encouraged to read beyond a very limited canon, or to carry out scientific research.
When they study in the West, they get their first culture shock at school as they struggle to cope with the new learning environment. They don’t know how to argue, speak their minds, think independently, and do free uncharted research.
Yes, we need to change all that, not just within the Center for National Dialogue but everywhere — at school, in the media, in the administration, in society at large.
But I don’t agree with Dr. Gosaibi that the fruits of two real, mature, well-prepared and conducted debates should not be put to good use. Those are reform recommendations most people, if not all, agree must be urgently implemented.
The world is watching. Women, the unemployed, the underprivileged, Shiites and other schools of thought are waiting. The clock is ticking, Dr. Ghazi, and we don’t have all day.

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