aving lived in Qatar and Canada puts me in a unique spot, witnessing the West's holier-than-thou attitude while trying to maintain some sanity. While I am not a Qatari national, I was born there to Iraqi-Lebanese parents and many of my family members still live in Qatar. I migrated to Canada in 2010, the same year that Qatar won the bid for the World Cup. Since then, the western contempt toward Qatar, the country that I still lovingly call bayti (my home) has skyrocketed.
Despite ongoing objections to Qatar’s role as host, the event was a big success. A total of 26 million viewers in the U.S., and almost 20 million in the U.K. watched the final match between France and Argentina on Fox Corp and BBC, capping off a tournament of record-breaking viewership numbers.
While there has been some fair critique of Qatar’s human rights abuses, the West has told only half the story of this tournament. What they neglected were the many displays of Arab hospitality such as local Qatari children offering free food to visitors, and the accessibility reforms Qatar made for fans with disabilities.
I’ve tried to tune out much of the white noise, like many Arabs in North America have for the last 20 years. But as a Canadian journalist of Arab ethnicity, it is necessary to address the lack of counter-narratives about Qatar.
The secular smoke screen
In the days leading up to Qatar’s hosting of the World Cup, orientalist tropes and blatant hypocrisy permeated the news. Much of the West went aggressively after Qatar for banning beer at the stadium, after first vowing to allow alcohol to be served. Last I checked, getting drunk isn’t the universal way of enjoying everything, everywhere on every occasion. In fact, when female visitors attending the event described feeling safer in Qatar than in their home countries, one of the reasons cited was the lack of alcohol.
Contrast this with so-called secular laws in Canada. Quebec's Laicity Act, also known as Bill 21 bars its civil servants like teachers, lawyers, police officers, and government personnel from wearing any religious symbols at work. Some say that the bill promotes a secular society. In reality, it also fosters disparity, misogyny and anti-religious harassment. Social stigmatization of Canadian Muslim hijabi women is no benchmark for a progressive, secular society.
But as westerners, we would rather ignore our faults and criticize Qatar.
During the tournament, Canadian sports commentators’ and columnists’ racist bents were also seen. They lambasted Qatar as a “repressive elite society” living off oil money that has bought its way into the tournament. Yet, if pressed for a conversation about “Equity, Diversity and Inclusion,” they often sidestep their racism by rooting the response around “human rights.”
Many western journalists ardently supported the Iranian men’s team when they decided not to sing the national anthem (for one game) as a sign of solidarity with the Iranian people standing against the state’s violence. They failed to highlight the Palestinian liberation cause, which was at the heart of Qatar’s World Cup.
The western media’s one-sided activism makes me ask: aren’t Palestinian rights human rights? Moreover, Canadian legacy news companies proudly mention their diversity hiring policies, but I don’t see many journalists writing about how Qatar’s World Cup symbolically became a call for Arab solidarity.
It started when Saudi Arabia defeated Argentina 2-1 on Nov. 22. Then, Morocco’s winning streak – which ended in the semi-finals – had Arab people dreaming that we too can win in one of the biggest sporting events. All it took was 12 years of negative press, so we could play the beautiful game at home. Even when hubb al-Maghreb (love for Morocco) overtook the non-Arab football fans, western critics couldn't let Morcoccans and their supporters have their moment.
Following the stunning 1-0 victory against Portugal in the quarterfinals on Dec.10, the Germans proved that they are sore losers. A German TV host for Welt accused the Moroccan team of “posing with [the] Islamic State gesture.” All the Atlas Lions did was to raise their index fingers while holding the Moroccan flag.
For the ill-educated and the Islamophobes it was a “salute” to ISIS, but in reality it is a Muslim tradition, “Shahadah,” meaning The Testimony. It is a reminder for the oneness of God, which is one of the five pillars of Islamic faith along with: Salah (prayer), Zakah (charity), Sawm (fasting) and Hajj (pilgrimage).
Western countries carved up our world
Established non-profits like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch were critical of Qatar hosting FIFA 2022. However, earlier this year, when FIFA announced that Canada, the U.S. and Mexico will host the men’s World Cup in 2026, neither these NGOs nor the western media had any issues.
American-led wars in the Middle East have destroyed the lives of tens of millions of people since 2001. Estimates vary, but most reports put the civilian death toll in Iraq and Afghanistan alone at half a million or more. Yet, there is no conversation about revoking the U.S.’s hosting bid. Equally, no international or home-based columnist has spoken about rescinding the tournament from Toronto or Vancouver because of Canada’s treatment of migrant workers who come here on the Temporary Worker Program to work in the agricultural sector for minimum wage. They often find themselves in dangerous working conditions, sub-par living quarters and are forced to pay inflated fees to recruiters.
I wonder if Canadian journalists will ever unleash their fury about workers’ rights in the same manner they did towards Qatar.
The geopolitical arena of the 2022 World Cup set in motion a duplicitous terrain for many westerners to easily cast stones. Some even lauded the German national team’s attempt to take a stand against Qatar banning the “one love” armband, and it seemed profound at first blush.
Playing against Japan on Nov. 23, the German team posed for a group picture by placing their hands over their mouths as though they had no voice. But their theatrics failed to impress fans, many of whom recalled the team’s questionable treatment of Mesut Ozil, the German-born midfielder with Turkish roots who quit the team in 2018 over racism. Ozil, who is also Muslim, famously said that when he wins a game, he is thought of as a German, but when he loses, he is an immigrant.
And while the Germans were quick to address Qatar’s human rights issues, it is worth noting that earlier this year, Germany closed its borders to internally displaced Afghan refugees seeking shelter to make way for Ukrainians who sought sanctuary.
Throughout the World Cup, the West and its Twitter pundits found weak reasons to discredit Qatar. They even went after Qatar’s Emir, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al Thani for gifting a bisht (a traditional Arab ceremonial robe) to Argentina’s Lionel Messi.
In response, this gesture of respect was called “bizarre” in The Telegraph, and “an unnecessary look” in The Athletic. On the BBC, British sports broadcaster and former football player, Gary Lineker, reached for a reason to complain when he said it “seems a shame… that they’ve covered up Messi in his Argentina shirt.”
I for one find this Eurocentric arrogance unnecessary.
They have all been duly ratioed on Twitter, but for anyone lingering with their orientalist tendencies: Bisht please, it is a “cloak” of honour, not of invisibility.
As journalists, we bear the burden of telling nuanced stories. By cherry-picking facts, resorting to racist inklings and remaining indifferent, western journalists impede the holistic cross-cultural understanding of the Middle East.
The continued one-dimensional attacks on Qatar look like desperate attempts to discredit Arabs, which worked well with the overarching Arab myth at the outset of the tournament. It is time that the West retraces its steps and learns humility. The truth is, a tiny Arab, Muslim-majority country hosted a smooth, memorable first-ever men’s World Cup in the Khaleej: the Arabian Gulf.