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Colonial hangover: Is criticism of the Qatar World Cup racist?

Other columnists in Arabic-language media asked why there was far less intense criticism levelled at Russia, host of the last football World Cup.

Colonial hangover: Is criticism of the Qatar World Cup racist?

NEW YORK: It seems as though every day, criticism of Qatar, host nation of this month’s football World Cup, grows louder. The small, energy-rich Gulf country—the first West Asian nation to put on this particular sporting mega-event—has been condemned for its treatment of migrant workers, the LGBTQ community, and women, as well as for suspicions around how it was awarded the international tournament in the first place. But at the same time, another chorus has been getting louder, too. Commentators from both inside and outside the Arabic-speaking world are asking why Qatar is being so harshly criticised, suggesting it has less to do with political issues and more to do with racism, Orientalism, even Islamophobia.

“As Arabs, we think that if this tournament was being hosted in a non-Arab country, there wouldn’t be the same sort of uproar,” Syrian novelist Wafa Alloush wrote in an editorial on the Arabic-language news website run by Turkish broadcaster, TRT.” There are many things about Qatar that deserve to be criticised and put under the spotlight,” Khaled al-Hroub, a professor in Qatar, wrote on the UK-based website, Middle East Eye. “But there is a huge gulf between criticising a country for specific wrongdoings and using disparaging cultural statements and stereotypes that tap into embedded racism.”

Other columnists in Arabic-language media asked why there was far less intense criticism levelled at Russia, host of the last football World Cup. They also suggested it was hypocritical of European countries to criticise Qatar when they have yet to properly reckon with their own colonial histories in West Asia and Africa and how they deal with migration.

That sort of sentiment was also reflected on social media, where users joked about the fact that, if the German team had only focused on football rather than human rights, they might not have lost to Japan in their match this week. It has all been a bit much, Yasser Abdel Aziz, an Egyptian expert on media issues, agreed. “Qatar is not above criticism,” he told DW. “But so far, its hosting of the World Cup doesn’t seem to merit the level of negativity we have seen from some Western media outlets.” Abdel Aziz had noticed a strong cultural bias in some of the criticism, which focused on the difference between Western and West Asian cultures. But is it racist?

Dictionary definitions say racism is “the belief that different races possess distinct characteristics, abilities, or qualities” and that Orientalism is a distorted view of the differences between Arab people and cultures, and Europeans. Orientalism also often involves a feeling of European superiority over West Asia.

And it is true that some of the media coverage of the sports contest in Qatar has landed in that territory. A French magazine published a cartoon of the Qatari football team dressed as terrorists; while captions in a British newspaper, The Times, suggested Qataris were not used to seeing women dressed in Western-style clothing. The captions, which were false, have since been amended.

Another French reporter said he was surprised by the number of mosques in Qatar, and Doha locals reported visitors were asking them whether females needed to wear headscarves. All these incidents demonstrate a lack of knowledge about the country and the region.

However, it is also true that a lot of the current arguments being published around the topic rely on a debating tactic known as “whataboutery”, where one responds to a serious accusation with an equally serious counter-accusation, thereby distracting from the issue that started the argument in the first place.

As has been pointed out by human rights activists on social media, it’s possible to discuss European hypocrisy on issues like colonialism and migration, and Qatar’s human rights problems at the same time.

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DW Bureau
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