Podcasting Reason: Saudi Teens Promote Critical Thinking Online
By Joseph Braude
In 2001, ten-year-old Omar al-Enezi, a native of the Red Sea port city of Jeddah, discovered critical thinking. Some prominent Saudi clerics had issued a religious edict against Pokémon children’s games and playing cards, then an international fad. They alleged that the franchise promoted “Zionism.” “Everybody was throwing away their Pokémon toys,” he said. “I had a lot of those cards and didn’t understand why I had to give them up.” He went online and researched the meaning of the purportedly subversive names and symbols on the cards. He found all of them to be benign, he said, and resolved to hold onto his collection. “But I noticed that a lot of my friends didn’t think the way I did,” he said, “and so I kept my head down—for years.” The essential problem, he said, is that an “ignorant movement” advanced by extremist clerics, reactionary media, and schoolteachers has strived to suppress logic and reason.
Many Saudis who shared Enezi’s discomfort with groupthink in Saudi Arabia gravitated to the sciences and gained courage to express themselves by discovering that they were not alone. As a twenty-two-year-old, Enezi entered the Department of Medicine at King Abdelaziz University in Jeddah and fell in a with a group of liberal students. They included Bahaa Orabi, a computer engineering student minoring in philosophy; Rakan al-Mas’udi, a self-described “humanist and enthusiast of equality” born in Syria; and Mohammad Al-Hamrani, a medical intern and amateur musician. The young men supplemented their studies by reading together in a range of fields and vented to each other about their frustration with the impositions of religious elites. They reached a conviction, Enezi recalls: “Progress in this country will not be achieved without inculcating the values of critical thinking and rational argumentation in the next generation of Saudis. . . . When people talk to each other here, too often they make arguments based on logical fallacies, impossible to resolve. It’s detrimental to the country to leave them that way.”
Enezi and his friends felt that the problem could be addressed by teaching the principles of critical thinking and the scientific method and by instilling a fascination with the many branches of science and technology that these techniques had birthed throughout history. If more Saudis learned how to apply critical thinking, they could talk and reason with each other empathically and compromise over irreconcilable differences. “You have to be able to do all of that if you are going to work through conflict.” The students doubted that Islamist higher-ups at the Ministry of Education agreed with them. So they resolved to create their own multimedia project to help Saudis fill the gap in learning.
In developing their project, they drew inspiration from random sources, including essays by evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, foreign university coursework in philosophy and science, and an Australian website called “yourlogicalfallacyis.com,” which pinpoints everyday errors in reasoning. They listened to American comedian Joe Rogan’s weekly podcast, The Joe Rogan Experience, from which they tried to figure out what made people laugh. In July 2013, they bought computer animation software and a microphone and built a home recording studio with echo-absorbing fabric. They began to create their own podcasts, YouTube videos, and blog entries to share what they had learned about logic and science in humorous, Saudi-inflected Arabic. They designed a website to aggregate the content and named it Asfar (Zeroes)—both a self-deprecatory title and a nod to the world-altering numeral, which happened to have been conceived next door in Iraq.
A typical Asfar podcast, from Valentine’s Day 2014, was titled “The Biography of Love: Attraction and Human Psychology.” The four boys talked through an online lecture by Yale University president Peter Salovey that examined the theory of the “love triangle”: intimacy, passion, and commitment. Hamrani pointed out that though love is experienced by the brain, “it’s not the same as a headache,” in that it cannot be explained in strictly chemical-neurological terms. “The difficulty of explaining love begins with a problem of language,” Enezi said. “In English there are distinctions between ‘I like you,’ ‘I love you,’ and ‘I’m in love with you.’ In Arabic we have distinctions of our own.” Riffing on Enezi, Hamrani pointed out that love between two people plays a different role in an individualistic culture such as Salovey’s than in a traditional society like Saudi Arabia, in which “larger groups, like families and clans, are more deeply vested in a couple’s relationship.” Later the discussion segued from Salovey’s lecture to books the group had read, like Gerald Schoenewolf’s The Art of Hating. Mas’udi pointed out that love and hate are not polar opposites but rather twins in intensity, equidistant from apathy. Sounding a note of optimism, he added, “You might be surprised to see hate very easily turning into love.”
Enezi said that the podcasts were “intended for a more patient and sophisticated audience.” For browsers with a shorter attention span, Asfar’s cartoons on YouTube offered a three-minute educational fix. Take “Critical Thinking,” an animated cartoon introducing philosopher Daniel Dennett’s “Seven Tools for Critical Thinking.” (The Asfar team made a few Saudi-friendly adjustments and invented an eighth tool.) Other cartoons explained the scientific method and the demotion of Pluto from planetary status. One podcast series even introduced—with extreme subtlety—the theory of evolution, an especially controversial topic in Saudi Arabia. All animated shorts were tightly scripted, with a soundtrack, crisp animation, frugal narration, and several laugh lines per minute.
Even as Asfar attempted to encourage critical thinking, others in the country were using much more powerful media to suppress it. Witness the four-part Saudi lecture series “Skills of Thought: Critical Thinking.” It aired on the Salafi TV channel Al-Majd, owned by a Saudi businessman and broadcasting free-to-air in twenty-one Arab countries. It appeared online via the learning platform IslamAcademy—overseen by no less than Salih bin Abdelaziz Al Sheikh, the Saudi Minister of Islamic Affairs, Endowments, Da’wah, and Guidance. The lecturer, Riyadh-based Murid al-Kallab, defined critical thinking as “arguing with logic,” then explained how not to use it: “The candle of critical thinking must be extinguished, and its light must be turned off, when it contradicts a proof text from the Qur’an or prophetic Hadith. In this situation, there is no place for critical thinking. We must simply believe and surrender. If not, I would be violating logic . . . for logic says that God’s wisdom cannot be understood by humankind . . . [and] you don’t have the right to choose what of God’s wisdom to apply or not apply.”
“Among the many problems with that video,” Enezi told me, “is that the person who is instructing us to stop thinking critically isn’t God; it’s a man. He’s just as fallible as anybody, but he claims to understand what God wants better than we do. He claims a mandate to order us to follow him. And he holds a giant megaphone.”
It was not possible to determine how many people tuned in to Kallab’s free-to-air lecture. But YouTube, which lists the number of views for a given video, provided a glimpse into how well he performed against Asfar on a level marketplace of ideas. The Kallab lecture was one of ten fifty-minute videos on “thinking” that, four years after their release in 2013, had garnered an average of 6,454 views apiece. By contrast, the Asfar cartoon on critical thinking, created on a shoestring budget and with no satellite channel to promote it, had won 8,100 views in less time.
Asfar did not stand alone but rather reflected a growing trend of like-minded independent ventures. A young man named Khalid al-Judi’ filmed himself extolling critical thinking on a webcam and won more than 14,000 views for the clip on YouTube. A group of doctors funded their own, more substantial online platform called “Scientific Saudi” and garnered 100,000 views for their videos and half a million Facebook fans. In other words, while the Salafi pseudo-scientist coasted on his petro-endowment, a grassroots movement of Saudis devoted to reason was gaining on him—and a growing audience craved more.
Middle East specialist Joseph Braude is author of the new book Broadcasting Change: Arabic Media as a Catalyst for Liberalism.