HUFFINGTON POST

Why We're In The Middle East, And Why It's Important For HuffPost Arabi To Host An Open Dialogue

With the launch of our latest global edition, HuffPost Arabi, The Huffington Post has entered controversial terrain. HuffPost Arabi is modeled after the U.S. site, covering politics and entertainment with a mix of original reporting, bloggers and aggregation. It does so in Arabic, by regional writers and for regional readers. 

Here in the U.S., HuffPost is known for its progressive, populist bent -- and to be sure, many of the blogs we run fall somewhere within that definition. But as an open platform we also run plenty we disagree with, and some that many readers find downright offensive, including some that have been anti-immigrant, anti-abortion, pro-gun and pro-torture. Our openness has turned out to be one of our great strengths: It gives us a huge audience of conservatives, which has allowed us to be one of the central players on the media stage. Just yesterday, Republican House Speaker John Boehner based an attack on President Barack Obama solely on our reporting.   

We're taking the same open approach in the Middle East, and already we're getting attacked from all sides. Liberals are appalled by homophobic and anti-modern blog posts and warn that the whole thing is a vehicle for the Muslim Brotherhood, and religious conservatives are hitting us from the other side. Meanwhile, backers of the Brotherhood itself have attacked it for publishing a blog post by the famous Egyptian preacher Amro Khalid (because Khalid justifies the Sisi coup against Mohammed Morsi) and for a blog post by Nadir Bakker, a pro-government Salafi figure vocal against political Islam.

What all of the critics are missing, though, is just how vital it is today more than ever to give our full-throated support to press freedom and diversity in the Middle East. The region is undergoing seismic changes politically and culturally. It's moving forward in some areas and slipping back elsewhere. We -- or, more accurately, they -- need to talk things through. Launching HuffPost Arabi presents a unique journalistic question: Mainstream opinion in the Middle East is in many ways different from that in the U.S. on some key social and foreign policy issues, so how does an Arab-focused but Western-affiliated outlet handle opinions that are common in the region but offensive back home?

Take LGBT rights. The latest Pew survey in Jordan, Egypt and the Palestinian territories, for instance, found 94-95 percent of people saying they personally believe homosexuality is "morally unacceptable." In more tolerant Lebanon, 80 percent believe this.

Societies evolve, and they do so through the force of social movements, which then shape dialogue. In the Middle East, both are tightly bound up by repressive regimes. It is likely no coincidence that changing opinions on LGBT rights have come at the same pace and moment as the growth of social media. Wadah Khanfar and Anas Fouda -- the head of Integral Media Strategies, our partner in HuffPost Arabi, and editor-in-chief, respectively -- are both accomplished journalists, and we have every confidence that they'll bring a balanced approach to debate in the Middle East. 

The value of open dialogue over repression and violence can't be overstated. HuffPost Arabi's headquarters are in London and Istanbul, so that our editors can be as free as possible from repressive regimes who see an open Internet and a free press as threats. For those governments, allowing heterodox voices to engage in dialogue is a radical move, but it's one we embrace proudly.

That doesn't mean we, as an institution, are proud of every single thing written by every single one of our contributors. Many of us back here at HuffPost U.S. find some of the commentary deeply offensive, while other bits of it seem simply absurd. One post from Egyptian writer Ammar Mtawea lamented that, since the coup there, "from time to time, a video of pornographic dance appears in one of the headquarters of the political parties, or gay people organize a press conference in the middle of Cairo, or fashion shows with nudity take place in downtown Cairo." 

Ridiculous as it is from our perspective, Mtawea's view represents the views of a sizable number of Egyptians, and we gain nothing by suppressing it. He's young, studied literature and Islamic studies at Cairo University, and considers himself a human rights blogger. By opening the platform to such voices, we can bring them into the fold and maybe, over time, as they debate with fashion writers, "pornographic dancers" or gay people holding press conferences, they -- or more likely their children -- will soften up.

That doesn't mean it's a free-for-all. In his column, Mtawea used an offensive term when referring to gay people, and we took the post down for that reason. But he's free to resubmit it with a less grotesque term, even if the overall message remains offensive and retrograde.

The Middle East is a deeply divided region and can only move forward progressively through dialogue. Sometimes that dialogue will be uncomfortable to some Western ears -- and, importantly, to many Middle Eastern readers who don't share the perspective of political Islamists. Others here in the U.S., particularly those on the conservative end, might recognize themselves in some of the patriarchal or militaristic attitudes on display. Here in the United States, according to that same Pew survey cited earlier, 37 percent of people find being gay unacceptable. In some parts of the U.S., sodomy was officially banned, as it is in Egypt, until 2003's Supreme Court ruling in Lawrence v. Texas -- which Justice Antonin Scalia furiously decried at the time, and still does.

But Scalia and his followers are more than welcome to make their case here in the pages of HuffPost U.S., and Scalia's Arabic brethren will be afforded the same opportunity at HuffPost Arabi. It won't always be pretty, but as we say over here in the States, freedom isn't free.

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