As the 2022 World Cup kicks off, rs21 member Lisa Leak considers what gets left out in rows between Western liberal ideologues and apologists for the Qatari state.

Former Brazilian far-right President Jair Bolsonaro visits Qatar in 2021. Photo credit: Palácio do Planalto, Flickr.

It’s impossible to precisely enumerate the migrant workers who died needlessly during the decade-long construction boom that laid the groundwork for the Qatar World Cup. NGOs have credibly estimated several thousand excess deaths from heat stress, inadequate medical care or other causes. Those workers who survived the construction projects will largely not be around to see the sport, having been in the country under short-term visas legally binding them to their employers. Both realities are in line with the Qatari state’s usual treatment of migrant workers, and so could easily have been anticipated when the tournament was awarded to Qatar twelve years ago.

In this context of heart-wrenching human loss and tragedy, it is hard to feel at ease with the sudden spasm of moral outrage that is running through the football community on behalf of LGBT fans looking to attend the World Cup. In recent weeks attention has been continually refocussed on this issue, helped along by outcries against Qatari sports ambassador Khalid Salman (who described homosexuality as ‘damage in the mind’ in an interview in early November) and FIFA President Gianno Infantino (who defended the Cup in an incoherent press conference asserting thatI feel Qatari, I feel African, I feel gay, I feel disabled’).

Both incidents were responses to the steady stream of potshots directed at the tournament by Western critics, focussed mostly on what restrictions will be faced by LGBT fans at the Cup. In the UK, the Labour Party and Liberal Democrats have seized on the tournament as low-hanging fruit to burnish their moral credentials, accusing the government of ‘defending discriminatory values’ and solemnly announcing that they will not be sending delegates to attend the tournament (did anyone expect they would?). Condemnations have come from leading football pundits involved in actually presenting coverage of the tournament, including Gary Lineker, Alan Shearer and Gary Neville – although this didn’t prevent Neville from also accepting a paid deal to provide commentary for Qatari state broadcaster beIN Sports.

The flurry of condemnation is reinforced by a range of cultural commentators outside of the footballing world. A good example is the bisexual comedian Joe Lycett, who issued an ultimatum to David Beckham, earmarking £10,000 of money for various LGBT charities but threatening to shred it instead if Beckham persists in his role as a brand ambassador for the World Cup (Beckham didn’t respond, and Lycett didn’t follow through, saying the threat had been a stunt intended to spark conversation). Every day in the weeks running up to the tournament, fresh reports were published speculating on what the rules will be at the Cup around specific iterations of queer identity such as rainbow flags and same-sex kissing. 

While some of these interventions are clearly more honest and well-intentioned than others, it is difficult to take seriously the sudden outrage on behalf of queer football fans by those leading the charge – Western politicians and media outlets, and prominent figures in the world of corporate men’s football.

The only openly gay male professional footballer in the UK today is Blackpool striker Jake Daniels, making professional football one of very few spheres of public life where a ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ policy still seems to apply. Homophobic chanting and behaviour is widespread, and is rarely acted on robustly by club managements or regulators. Club managements have no appetite to campaign significantly against homophobia – or perhaps they believe that they would alienate the most engaged and lucrative sections of their fans if they did so.

In this context, it is hard not to suspect that something ulterior is at work in the sudden outpouring of concern for queer fans. An example of this is the perpetual tug of war over rainbow flags and armbands. The Qatari authorities zigzagged repeatedly before the Cup over whether flags would be confiscated, providing the basis for copious news coverage speculating on this. But the furore seems strangely artificial when rainbow flags have never been a common sight at men’s football matches in the first place. Nor is it the case that no similarly repressive measure could be imagined in Western football: only last year UEFA held an investigation into whether a player’s rainbow armband constituted a banned ‘on-field political statement’ (the same grounds given by Qatari authorities), while left-wing fan groups have been banned and censured for flying Palestine flags at fixtures with Israeli teams.

It’s also notable that the situation of LGBT people in Qatar is getting relatively little attention compared with the widespread fixation on the impending contact between Western queer fans and Qatari society. Even though thousands of British football fans took part in Islamophobic far-right demonstrations in 2018-2019 as part of the ‘Democratic Football Lads Alliance’, there has been no equivalent fretting about whether England fans will engage in racist behaviour towards Qataris. When UK activist Peter Tatchell flew to Qatar to stage a one-man protest under the slogan ‘Qatar Anti Gay’, he seemingly did not regard it as a problem that his stunt could not include, or even meaningfully relate to, queer people living in Qatar. That did not stop Tatchell from celebrating his own brief stop-over as ‘the first LGBT+ protest in Qatar or any Gulf [state]’.

The disposition of a large current of British culture and media towards cultural sabre-rattling over the position of queer fans at the Cup is primarily driven not by a consistent concern for LGBT rights, but by an obsession with morally charged civilizational boundaries between a purportedly liberal, tolerant West, and a purportedly brutal, reactionary Islamic world. This discourse focusses on the relative rights and freedoms possessed by queer people in some Western states, and presents these as a proof of Western cultural and moral superiority.

In turn, this assertion inevitably leads to counter-arguments accusing the West (and often queer people ourselves, despite the negligible space we actually occupy in this discussion) of using the tournament to try to force unwanted cultural changes on Qatar. In this vein, it’s notable that the French national team are largely cooperating with Qatari wishes, and justifying this in terms of the hard-line assimilationism that France itself imposes on Muslim residents: France captain Hugo Lloris comments that he will not wear a rainbow armband at the Cup because ‘When we are in France, when we welcome foreigners, we often want them to follow our rules, to respect our culture, and I will do the same when I go to Qatar’.

Another limitation on the effectiveness of Western liberal outrage is that critiques of the Qatari state’s homophobia are so often paired with the much more dubious claim that Qatar’s overall ‘human rights record’ should make it unfit to host the tournament. The problem with this claim is simple hypocrisy: the Western states that referee the global paradigm of ‘human rights’, and serve as the implicit gold standard for that paradigm, are perpetrators of murderous imperialist violence around the world, not to speak of abuses committed against their own populations. There is no substantial reason to see Qatar as any more ‘unfit’ to host the World Cup than the scheduled 2026 co-host, the United States – a state which is currently enabling a protracted genocide in Yemen, sponsoring apartheid in Israel, and enslaving millions of its own citizens through its prison-industrial complex.

There is a discussion worth having here: one that grapples seriously both with the genuinely appalling abuses of the Qatari state, and with the hollowness and hypocrisy of Western hand-wringing over ‘human rights’. It hasn’t been had, and instead the World Cup presents two alienating spectacles side by side: on the one hand, a World Cup built through indentured labour as a PR exercise for delusional plutocrats; on the other, a confused melee of cultural recriminations about the rights of a small number of queer Western would-be attendees. This endless hoofing back-and-forth of accusations between Western liberal ideologues and apologists for the Qatari state might be about us, but it is mostly without us. It does little to help queer people, either here or there.

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