MAINSTREAM media ensured that LGBTQ+ rights were centre stage in the opening week of the World Cup in Qatar, while football took something of a back seat.
Well before the tournament was awarded to Qatar in 2000, concerns were raised over the tiny country’s limited football history, its human rights record, the high expected cost, and the hot local climate. Bribery apparently bought Qatar’s win, resulting in Fifa’s chair resigning in disgrace. Several governors have since admitted that the decision was a mistake.
The original intention was to play the tournament in the summer, despite ridiculously high temperatures. After years of wrangling, the event was switched to winter, despite the huge disruption this has caused to domestic and international club competitions.
The Guardian reported last year that 6,500 South Asian migrant workers (mainly from India, Pakistan, Nepal, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka) have died in Qatar since the country was awarded the World Cup in 2010. Yet the Qatari government claim there were just 37 deaths among workers at stadium construction sites between 2014 and 2020, only three of which were work-related.
Qatar hosts the pan-Arab broadcaster Al-Jazeera and has supported Islamist groups across the region, but within its borders politics is nearly non-existent. Power is concentrated in the hands of a hereditary emir, criticism of authorities is heavily restricted, and politically oriented groups are banned.
Qatar’s laws punish the ‘offending’ of Islam or any of its rites or beliefs. The government censors websites, newspapers, magazines and books if they display content deemed as derogatory of Islamic values. Authorities generally permit various faiths to practise privately, but proselytising for any religion other than Islam may result in a prison sentence.
Christians represent over 10 per cent of Qatar’s population, comprised mostly of expats and foreign workers. Qatar ranks as the 18th worst country when it comes to Christian persecution, according to Open Doors World Watch List.
Qatar’s laws, however, are not nearly as strict as those of, say, Saudi Arabia. Qatar has long sponsored the arts, allowed women to participate in high levels of governance and encouraged tourists to feel at ease in the country. It permits the sale of alcohol in licensed hotels and bars, though it is illegal to consume it in public spaces (to the dismay of many World Cup fans). Hotels and stores often display Christmas trees and decorations in December.
Yet, the main objection to Qatar’s hosting of the World Cup has been its strict laws against homosexuality. Homosexuality is illegal, with a punishment of up to three years in prison and a fine and the possibility of a death penalty for Muslims under sharia law (though this is not known to have been enforced).
The Western world deems it unacceptable that any nation should in any way hinder the free expression of same-sex or transgender values. Qatar officials, for their part, sought to reassure fans ‘of any gender, [sexual] orientation, religion, race’ that ‘they’ll all be welcome here’, adding: ‘The safety and security of every single fan is of the utmost importance to us. There’s a lot of training going into security personnel to make sure that things that are culturally different are seen in that frame.’
Sexual offences in Qatar aren’t limited to homosexuality; extra-marital sex also carries a prison sentence, and all forms of public displays of affection are frowned upon, as they are in other Middle East countries.
In their outrage, Westerners conveniently overlook the fact staring them in the face: their real problem is not with Qatar, but with Islam. Qatar’s homosexual laws are rooted in Islamic Shariah law. Indeed, anti-homosexuality laws are common to virtually all Islamic countries across Asia, the Middle East and Africa. Asian countries such as Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Indonesia, Iran, Iraq, Lebanon, Malaysia, Maldives, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Yemen all carry heavy sentences for homosexual offences (such as lengthy prison sentences, 100 lashes or even the death penalty). A great many African nations have similar laws; not least Algeria, Chad, Eritrea, Sudan, Somalia, Tunisia, Morocco, Senegal, and Comoros.
Anti-gay laws are by no means confined to Islam. Non-Islamic countries including Singapore, Myanmar, Zimbabwe and various Caribbean and Pacific island-nations (such as Jamaica, Grenada and the Solomon Islands) all criminalise homosexual activity. When the World Cup was held in Orthodox Christian Russia four years ago, LGBTQ fans were warned against holding hands and publicly displaying their sexuality.
Indeed, as we all know, homosexuality is condemned in the Bible (Lev 18:22; 1 Cor 6:9–10; 1 Tim 1:10; Rom 1:26–27). Ironically, preachers can face prosecution here in the UK for merely pointing this fact out, however gently.
As ever, however, Muslims seem to be largely immune from criticism on this issue. Western media will do everything to avoid pointing the finger at Islam, instead focusing on ‘easy’ targets, like Christianity.
One might ask, given that Qatar’s attitude to homosexuality was known long before the teams agreed to go there, why did football fans simply not boycott the event? Don’t those who voluntarily enter a country have an obligation to abide by its laws?
Given that Russia was banned from the World Cup due to its invasion of Ukraine, why was Iran allowed to take part, given it is helping to arm Russia, given its harsh crackdown on recent protests and given its discrimination against women, not to mention its deplorable policy of criminalising LGBT people, often by execution?
Given that a UK poll conducted in 2016 found that over half of British Muslims think homosexuality should be illegal, why is there such outcry by the British media at Qatari laws on homosexuality but not at the same views being held by the Muslim community within our own country?
And if Qatar’s laws on homosexuality had been directly based, not on Islamic law, but purely on traditional Christian teaching, would this fact not be noted in media sources, and Christianity roundly condemned as an utterly barbaric and oppressive religion?
The rather muted protest raises more questions than it answers, as the rights of one group come up against the realities of global challenges, cultural contexts and the rights of others. There is no simplistic ‘one love’ slogan that can answer these questions.