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Qatar hosting the World Cup highlights Western double standards

Is this truly about human rights, or is it that Western pundits can’t stomach the idea that an Arab Middle East country will host the World Cup?
Image: A man looks up at a mural showing two boys holding up a football.
A man looks up at a mural in Katara Cultural Village in Doha ahead of FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022 on Nov. 18, 2022 . Francois Nel / Getty Images

From the moment Qatar won the bid to host the 2022 World Cup, there have been criticisms surrounding its capacity and deservedness to hold the event. And rightfully so; any country that plans to welcome people from around the world for a globally important affair should be subject to intense scrutiny.

The many impassioned protestations about Qatar's hosting sweep a great deal under the rug.

But what has played out over the past several years, and intensified in the final few months before the World Cup’s Sunday premiere, reveals the depths of Western prejudice, performative moral outrage and, perhaps most significantly, gross double standards.

A barrage of negative and quite frankly racist commentary about the tiny Persian Gulf nation has included headlines suggesting that fans who were celebrating the buildup to the tournament were paid to appear, because they were South Asians. A French outlet published a cartoon depicting the Qatari national team as terrorists. The list goes on.

But is this debate truly about migrant workers’ rights and human rights, or is it that European countries and Western pundits, who view themselves as the traditional gatekeepers of global soccer, can’t stomach the idea that an Arab Middle Eastern country will host such a venerable event?

In the spirit of full disclosure, I lived and worked in Qatar for the better part of five years. I have seen firsthand the development and progress the country has made — as well as where it needs to improve. As a Muslim, I am also acutely aware of the social conservatism and the societal limitations Qatar has to balance in welcoming fans from different backgrounds while preserving cultural and religious norms and traditions. As an avid soccer fan, I also plan on attending the World Cup, which, as an Arab American, I am excited to witness in the Middle East.

And forgive me if I don’t think you have to get drunk and start a fight with rival fans in order to enjoy a soccer game, which will be more difficult to do this year after a surprise last-minute decision to ban alcohol sales at the World Cup stadium.

The many impassioned protestations about Qatar's hosting sweep a great deal under the rug. For instance, FIFA, world soccer’s governing body, is arguably one of the most corrupt international organizations in the world. It has been plagued with accusations of corruption and pay-to-play scandals, so much so that at one point the U.S. Department of Justice indicted several high-ranking FIFA officials. If Qatar is a villain, it is not one in isolation.

It is fair to criticize Qatar for its poor track record on migrant rights, members of the LGBQT community and women. But it feels dubious, even disingenuous, to see Western countries and their pundits routinely singling out Qatar without acknowledging that in the U.S., the Defense of Marriage Act is still the law of the land — which, in case you forgot, defines marriage between a man and a woman. Yes, much of the States has culturally moved forward and there are encouraging attempts to repeal the act, but understanding the difference between culture and law is important, both here and overseas. This year alone, the U.S. has seen nearly 240 bills introduced that directly roll back LGBTQ rights or criminalize gender-affirming care.

It seems ironic that Western teams will encourage their players to protest LGBQT rights in Qatar, but won’t tolerate them taking a stand against injustice in their own governments.

I wonder if any of these European and American commentators and pundits grandstanding about human rights will call for the U.S. to be stripped of hosting part of the 2026 World Cup for the way elected leaders and our judicial system have rolled back reproductive rights, moved to ban the word “gay” in public schools along with banning books they believe threaten a far-right political and religious narrative. As far as I can tell, no one is accusing the U.S. of trying to sportswash its anti-women policies in these conversations.

Instead of stopping at accusations against Qatar, Europeans and Americans should set a better example of how migrants in their own countries are treated. A recent inquiry concluded that France and the U.K. let 27 people die while the countries argued about who should rescue a sinking vessel with the migrants on board. If the Danish federation wants to oppose migrant conditions in Qatar, it should also protest conditions in Europe. Americans decrying Qatar’s migrant labor policies should likewise use the opportunity to discuss solutions to their own brutal treatment of migrants.

I’m old enough to remember when U.S. Soccer told players to stand for the national anthem after Colin Kaepernick ignited a movement of protests by taking a knee during the national anthem at NFL games. It seems ironic that Western teams will encourage their players to protest LGBQT rights in Qatar but won’t tolerate them taking a stand against injustice in their own governments.

When Qatar won the bid to host the World Cup, some questioned how a country with little soccer history was allowed to host it. Such arguments belittle the purpose of the tournament, and ignore history. When the U.S. won the World Cup, the country did not even have a professional soccer league. Japan and South Korea were hardly soccer nations and yet with the arrival of the World Cup to these countries, the sport has taken off in meaningful and lasting ways. Besides the fact that Qatar is currently the reigning Asian champion team, let’s remember that a major purpose of the tournament is to advance and promote the sport, as a form of positive development.

If anything, the anti-Qatar rhetoric highlights the blatantly Western-centric discourse around the sport. When FIFA decided to shift the tournament’s schedule to the cooler months of November and December to avoid the stifling heat, many European soccer leagues and teams cried foul, claiming it would disrupt their annual seasons and schedules.

Keep in mind that throughout the history of the World Cup, the tournament has been traditionally played in the summer months of June to August, when European leagues are in their off-season. For nearly 90 years, South American countries have had to adjust to playing in the World Cup during their seasons. But no one seemed to complain that it was going to disadvantage South American countries, which claim nine World Cup championships among them.

No one is saying Qatar is perfect. That would be ridiculous. But I am urging us to be more nuanced in our critiques and resist simply parroting generic biased accusations, without some self-reflection.

The world is more interconnected today, in large parts because of events like the World Cup. And people have rightfully grown increasingly frustrated by Western moral arrogance and self-righteousness. Plus, bombastic accusations, hyperbolic headlines and prejudice undermine the credible criticisms of international sporting bodies like the International Olympic Committee and FIFA, which have been riddled with egregious problems for decades.

Luckily, the fans arriving in Qatar to watch the World Cup have made the distinction that so many Western pundits have failed to in the run-up to this tournament. Even without all that beer.