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December 22, 2022 11:21 am

Qatari Islamization of the World Cup Backfires

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avatar by Hany Ghoraba


Soccer Football – FIFA World Cup Final Qatar 2022 – Fans in Buenos Aires – Buenos Aires, Argentina – December 18, 2022 Argentina fans celebrate winning the World Cup Photo: REUTERS/Agustin Marcarian

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

The controversies have nothing to do with anything that took place in a match. Unlike any other World Cup, the 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, or prohibited. 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 introduce visitors of Qatar to Islam and persuade them to convert, a short video published by Al Jazeera shows.

A Mexican national team fan was videotaped converting to Islam.

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 has never encountered sales restrictions before.

Attempts to spotlight Islam also suffered from the attention given to allegations of corruption and to Qatar’s infrastructure failures. Despite spending as much as $300 billion in 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. Fan villages and fan zones are designated areas full of tents for visiting fans for accommodation and celebration. Many ended up staying in tents or shipping containers which 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 on Nov. 24 over its human rights abuses toward women and gay people. “[I]nternational 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 to 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 said he rejected a $1 million offer to perform.

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.” And 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 cloak “Bisht” 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 World 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 and ex European Parliament vice president said last month.

Kaili was charged by Belgian investigators last week for allegedly receiving bribes from Qatar. Sources say that €150,000 was found in her apartment. She was voted out of the European Parliament and her assets were 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 its supply of natural gas to these countries.

Hosting an Islamized version of the World Cup only helped to focus a spotlight on Qatar’s grave human rights violations. It certainly failed to assist the small Arabian Gulf state improve its global image.

Investigative Project on Terrorism (IPT) Senior Fellow 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. A version of this article was originally published by IPT.

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