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Champion Ismaili debaters argue convincingly for youth to take up the art of disputation
Shirin Sharif
25 March 2011
  • French essayist Joseph Joubert aptly observed, “It is better to debate a question without settling it, than to settle a question without debating it.”

    As competitive debaters, Shakir Rahim, Iqbal Kassam, and Shama Barday might very well support – or contest – that statement, but it is undeniable that they have found much reward in the endeavour. Their well-honed abilities to thoroughly research all aspects of a question and argue its points intelligently has earned them awards at state, provincial, national, and international levels. Each of them has been trained in the intricate art of respectful disagreement – in other words, they can convincingly steer a verbal dispute their way while keeping their cool.

    Shakir Rahim won his second World Individual Public Speaking and Debating Championships in Cape Town, South Africa. He is one of only two people in the competition's history to have captured the title twice. Photo: Courtesy of Shakir Rahim
    Shakir Rahim won his second World Individual Public Speaking and Debating Championships in Cape Town, South Africa. He is one of only two people in the competition's history to have captured the title twice. Courtesy of Shakir Rahim

    Good debaters are not only eloquent speakers but also quick thinkers. They are able to mould, evolve and expand a concept in order to challenge their opponent. A common misconception about debate is that the intent is for one idea to trump another. Rather, the test is of how strong a debater's idea or concept is, and whether it can stand the rigor of being disputed, dissected or derailed.

    “I have a better understanding of others' viewpoints, and can look at issues from different perspectives,” says Shakir Rahim, who started debating in the eighth grade. “That has improved my public speaking skills.”

    Now in his final year of college at the University of Toronto, Rahim has garnered an impressive array of accolades since high school. He won the British Columbia provincial debate title five times, then went on to win the Canada National Public Speaking Championship. He qualified to compete in the World Individual Debating and Public Speaking Championships four times, and is only the second person in the competition's 20-year history to win twice at that championship. His second victory came during his final year of high school when he competed against 80 students from 15 countries over five days in Capetown, South Africa, to capture the title.

    At 18-years old, Iqbal Kassam is a two-time national debate champion from Canada and was a member of the 2009 Canadian national debating team in the World Championships quarterfinals in Athens, Greece, where he placed among the top-10 in the individual category. He was also captain of the 2010 national team that won the World Championships in Qatar – Canada's first win since 1988. Kassam and his debate partner were the only two to have won the national championships twice. He has also won provincial as well as North American debating championships.

    In February 2010, Iqbal Kassam represented Canada at the World Schools Debating Championships held in Athens, Greece, where he placed among the top-10 in the world. Photo: Courtesy of Iqbal Kassam
    In February 2010, Iqbal Kassam represented Canada at the World Schools Debating Championships held in Athens, Greece, where he placed among the top-10 in the world. Courtesy of Iqbal Kassam

    Kassam has just started his undergraduate studies at the University of British Columbia. Eventually, he would like to help shape Canada's foreign policy and contribute in an international capacity. He recommends debating as a way to build confidence. “Public speaking,” he says, “builds an outgoing and self-assured personality.”

    Shama Barday, now in her final year of law school at Duke University, was co-captain of her debate team in high school. She won several first-place individual speaker awards at various tournaments, including the Georgia State Championships, and qualified twice for the Tournament of Champions, a US national championship event.

    When Barday got involved with debating, she realised that it was much more than memorising bullet points from speeches. “Debate requires students to conduct independent and in-depth research on a wide variety of topics, and then to use that information to craft persuasive arguments,” she says.

    Barday found that the skills she learned in debate – such as time management, research strategies, and public speaking – were very useful in her work. “Countless hours of preparation work goes into researching and gearing up for a debate tournament, as debaters must always be prepared to be confronted with a new and unique argument, and to think on their feet to creatively argue for or against a position.”

    Rahim also finds that the lessons he learned from debating in high school continue to come in handy. His advice to prospective debaters is not to focus on the competitive aspect. The skills they acquire just by debating are worth the effort regardless of how a competition turns out. He also recommends keeping updated on news and current issues – a habit he cultivated while in middle school.

    Shama Bardai, who was a Woodruff Scholar at Emory University and is now studying Law at Duke, says that debating helped prepare her for many of life's challenges. Photo: Courtesy of Shama Bardai
    Shama Bardai, who was a Woodruff Scholar at Emory University and is now studying Law at Duke, says that debating helped prepare her for many of life's challenges. Courtesy of Shama Bardai

    Kassam could not agree more. “Read – read everything you can get your hands on,” he says. “There is no substitute for knowledge. You can be eloquent and sway people with rhetoric, but at the end of the day, it's the power of reason that [makes others] believe in your side of the issue.”

    Rahim eventually wants to work in a field that betters the conditions of others – possibly by pursuing a career in the public sector or international humanitarian law, while Kassam hopes to become a lawyer and eventually get into politics. Barday, recently started working in the litigation and trial practice department at a law firm headquartered in Atlanta.

    The three champion debaters might argue for or against any number of issues, but they are in resolved agreement that debating has improved their self-confidence, built their knowledge on a large variety of subjects, and equipped them with valuable tools for the future.

    “Whether in a public speaking forum, an interview, when you are called upon in class, or in an every-day conversation,” asserts Barday, “through debate, you gain self-confidence in your ability to effectively articulate a message.”