Qatar’s Islamization of the World Cup backfires

All the Cup did was spotlight the Gulf state’s egregious human rights abuses.

Palestinian supporters of Morocco celebrate the Qatar 2022 World Cup quarter-final match between Morocco and Portugal, in Nablus, Dec. 10, 2022.  Photo by Nasser Ishtayeh/Flash90.
Palestinian supporters of Morocco celebrate the Qatar 2022 World Cup quarter-final match between Morocco and Portugal, in Nablus, Dec. 10, 2022. Photo by Nasser Ishtayeh/Flash90.
Hany Ghoraba
Hany Ghoraba
Hany Ghoraba is an Egyptian writer, political and counter-terrorism analyst at Al Ahram Weekly, author of Egypt’s Arab Spring: The Long and Winding Road to Democracy and a regular contributor to the BBC. He is a senior fellow at the Investigative Project on Terrorism.

While fans will remember the 22nd World Cup for one of the best final matches in tournament history, the games will also be remembered as the most controversial.

The controversies have nothing to do with anything that took place during the matches. Unlike any other World Cup, this year’s host country, Qatar, used the global spotlight to proselytize visiting soccer fans, media and others.

Some of the most controversial radical Islamist preachers were present, including Indian televangelist Zakir Naik. Naik, who is wanted by Indian authorities for money laundering and hate speech, traveled to Qatar despite issuing a 2021 fatwa that said professional football is haram—prohibited by Islamic law. He reportedly gave religious lectures and posed for pictures with Islamist missionaries from around the world.

“If [Osama] bin Laden is fighting the enemies of Islam, I am for him,” Naik said in 2006. “If he is terrorizing America, the biggest terrorist, I am with him. Every Muslim should be a terrorist.”

Naik’s presence was just one example of Cup fans being subjected to religious indoctrination.

The Qatari Ministry of Awqaf (Endowments) and Islamic Affairs set up a pavilion to introduce Islam to visiting World Cup fans. The government also gathered a multinational group of preachers to advocate Islam to visitors and persuade them to convert, a short video published by Al Jazeera shows.

In hotel rooms, QR codes linked guests to introductions to the Quran and Hadith (sayings of the prophet Muhammad). Outside stadiums, women were offered hijabs and help with how to wear them.

A panel of clerics was stationed in front of stadiums to educate soccer fans about Islam. 2,000 volunteers were assigned to the job. Famous Islamist televangelists also delivered seminars on Islam over the course of the tournament. Booklets about Islam were distributed in six different languages. Wall murals with Muhammad’s sayings decorated the streets throughout the Qatari capital. A Mexican national team fan was videotaped converting to Islam.

Organizational scandals

Beyond the preaching, Qatar’s conservative ideology generated another controversy for fans and vendors: It banned alcohol sales at the games, breaking a promise made before the tournament.

“I’ve been to several World Cups and it is the first time that not even in the stadiums, they will serve beer. I think it’s a bit bad because, for me, beer and football go hand in hand,” said Portugal fan Federico Ferraz.

As a result, Budweiser is seeking $47 million from FIFA, the international football body. Budweiser has sponsored FIFA competitions since 1986 and never encountered sales restrictions before.

Attempts to spotlight Islam also suffered from the attention given to allegations of corruption and Qatar’s infrastructure failures.

Despite spending as much as $300 billion on infrastructure and stadium construction, Qatar hardly delivered the promises it made when it was awarded the games in 2010.

Visitors complained about the quality of the fan villages and zones due to a lack of adequate or affordable hotels. Many fans ended up staying in tents or shipping containers that lacked adequate sanitary facilities.

Media reports revealed that more than 6,500 foreign workers died during the construction of the new facilities, further tainting Qatar’s organization of the tournament. Other workers were kept in appalling conditions, crammed in unhygienic dwellings. Many were not paid by the Qatari government.

Rather than the praise it hoped for, Qatar drew official condemnation from the European Parliament due to its human rights abuses towards women and gay people. “International sporting events,” a parliament resolution said, “should not be awarded to countries in which fundamental and human rights are violated, and where systematic gender-based violence is prevalent.”

In addition, the resolution called for “full investigations into the deaths of migrant workers in the country and to compensate families in cases where workers died as a result of their working conditions.”

Qatar suffered another black eye when several popular singers refused to perform at the Cup. Dua Lipa denied even considering the idea. “I look forward to visiting Qatar when it has fulfilled all the human rights pledges it made when it won the right to host the World Cup,” she said. Rod Stewart stated that he rejected a $1 million offer to perform.

Unsportsmanlike conduct

Morocco became the first African country to advance to the Cup semi-finals, defeating Portugal and Canada and tying Spain to get there. Qatari media celebrated the Moroccan victories as a “victory for all Arabs.” Qatar’s ruler, Prince Tamim Bin Hamad, broke protocol by waving a flag and cheering the Moroccan team’s win over Spain.

Moroccan fans chanted the Islamic shahada—“There is no God but God and Muhammad is his prophet”—during the Dec. 14 match against France. France won 2-0.

After Sunday’s final, Prince Tamim placed the Arabian traditional bisht cloak on Argentinian captain Lionel Messi before he raised the World Cup. Qatari and Islamist journalists, including the Muslim Brotherhood’s Ahmed Mansour, hailed it as a victory for Arabic traditions.

Despite the broken promises and blatant human rights violations during the Cup, Qatar still has apologists trying to convince people the country lived up to the games’ ideals.

The World Cup is “proof, actually, of how sports diplomacy can achieve a historical transformation of a country with reforms that inspired the Arab world,” Greek MEP Eva Kaili said last month.

Kaili was charged by Belgian investigators last week with receiving bribes from Qatar. Sources say that 150,000 euros was found in her apartment. She was voted out of the European Parliament and her assets frozen by Greek authorities. Belgium and the European Parliament opened an investigation this week into other members who may have been bribed by the Qatari government.

Qatar condemned the Belgian and European investigations on Sunday and warned that they could impact diplomatic relations and Qatar’s supply of natural gas to those countries.

The Qatari regime bribed its way into hosting the World Cup, causing an international scandal for FIFA that pushed its former head Sepp Blatter to resign in 2015. A year earlier, he called the decision to let Qatar host the World Cup “a mistake.”

The irony of trying to explain Islam’s tolerance to visitors in Qatar while restricting their behavior during the Cup was apparent to both visitors and observers. Qatari propaganda claimed that its World Cup would shatter colonial myths about Arabs and Islam. But in the end, organizers may have exacerbated these myths by hosting visitors in unclean tents with dirty water, denying their freedom to drink alcohol and dress as they wish and even enforcing a behavioral code of conduct.

These failures happened while Qatari officials were openly arresting and harassing journalists, which isn’t an ideal tourism advertisement.

Hosting an Islamized version of the World Cup only spotlighted Qatar’s grave human rights violations. It certainly failed to help the small Gulf state improve its global image.

Hany Ghoraba is an Egyptian writer, political and counterterrorism analyst at Al Ahram Weekly, author of Egypt’s Arab Spring: The Long and Winding Road to Democracy and a regular contributor to the BBC. He is a senior fellow at the Investigative Project on Terrorism.

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.
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