If it is true that the captain of the doomed Egyptian ferry did indeed abandon his ship, leaving the passengers to fend for themselves, then his behaviour was an apt metaphor for the Muslim world: it is lost at sea without a captain.
In fact, the entire ferry tragedy is a microcosm of what most ails us – lack of wise leadership, lack of accountability and a cavalier disregard for human life, particularly when it is the life of the most vulnerable among us: the poor and the powerless.
It is at times like these, when we most need leadership, to remember the kind of leader Prophet Mohammed (PBUH) was.
When he first began preaching Islam to his community was it not his aim to make that community see those whom it wished to make invisible – namely the poor, women, orphans, slaves and other marginalized groups?
When the nascent Muslim community came under brutal attack, what was the lesson it learned from the wise leadership of the prophet? Surely it was that tolerance, perseverance and patience were better attributes for Muslims to display than naked and irrational emotion? And surely his emphasis on taking care of the most vulnerable and the weakest in society should be our emphasis today instead of abandoning a sinking ship and instead of standing by silently as mobs burn down embassies and threaten violence?
Who reminds us of these lessons today? Where are our wise leaders?
Those questions were paramount on my mind when I arrived in Qatar to take part in the Doha Debates.
The debates are held once a month and broadcast on BBC World television. Chaired by the internationally renowned newsman Tim Sebastian, whom readers will remember was the toughest interviewer on television when he hosted the BBC World programme HARDtalk, the debates not only present opposing views on some of the hottest topics in the Arab and Muslim world but they also encourage the audience to question both sides. At the end of the debate, the audience vote for the side they believe was most convincing.
For example, last month’s debate asked whether U.S. troops should immediately withdraw from Iraq. A majority of the audience voted they should.
This month’s debate was as pertinent as ever – does the Arab media need lessons in journalism from the West?
Al Jazeera TV quickly answered that question for me when I turned on the television in my hotel room in Doha. The first news item was about the latest tape from Ayman al-Zawahri, the second one was the tape of the kidnapped American journalist Jill Carroll sobbing and pleading for help, and the third news item featured masked gunmen who attacked the EU office in the Gaza Strip to protest offensive cartoons that were published in September in a Danish newspaper.
Watching this medley of horrors, it was difficult not to wonder where were those attributes of responsibility and accountability that the prophet taught us? How responsible is it to keep on providing such an enormously influential platform to men who continue to call for violence in the name of Islam?
And so it was not difficult for me to argue that the Arab media does indeed lessons from the West. Arguing alongside me was my former professor Abdallah Schleifer, a veteran American journalist who covered the Middle East for more than two decades for NBC News and who taught me the values and principles of professional journalism at the American University in Cairo’s Adham Centre for Television Journalism, which he helped found. He was recently appointed Al Arabiya’s Washington DC bureau chief.
Arguing against us were Khaled Hroub the host of a weekly program on Al-Jazeera TV and the Director of Cambridge Arab Media Project (CAMP) and Marc Lynch Associate Professor of Political Science at Williams College in the USA and the author of the recently published book Voices of the New Arab Public: Iraq, Al-Jazeera, and Middle East Politics Today.
After vigorously debating the topic and answering often challenging and always intelligent questions for 90 minutes, I am pleased to say that Abdallah and I managed to persuade the audience of our position – almost 70 percent of them voted in our favour.
Rather than summarize our arguments, I urge readers to go to the Doha Debates website to read the transcript. They will see that we took on everything from those controversial tapes that al-Jazeera broadcasts to the issue of the Danish cartoons.
I am more interested in sharing with readers my two lasting impressions of the debates. Firstly, they are hosted and funded by the Qatar Foundation which is headed by Her Highness, Sheikha Mozah bint Nasser al Missned. I commend her highness for her efforts to encourage free and open debate. Those who watched the debate will know that Abdallah and I vociferously criticized al-Jazeera on its home turf, Qatar, and were not censored.
Secondly, after the debate, many young people came up to me to continue the discussion. They were visibly relieved to hear an alternative voice. I could hear a hunger for debate that can never be filled with the endless stream of people who yell at each other on Arab television. So thanks to Tim Sebastian and the Doha Debates team for providing this vital monthly forum.
Remembering those young people who were so eager to debate, I ask once again where our wise leaders are.
Where are the captains of the Muslim world?