The Middle East and Human Rights: A Road Map After the Qatari World Cup
The World Cup in Qatar put the myth of a separation of sports and politics to bed.
Like in Qatar, human rights, worker rights, and LGBT rights are likely to be important issues as other Gulf and North African states move center stage as hosts of and bidders for some of the world’s foremost mega-sporting events, including the 2030 World Cup and the 2036 Olympics.
For FIFA, upholding the fiction of a separation of sports and politics will increasingly be perceived as a farce. At the same time, the world soccer body’s decisions on what protests are legitimate during a World Cup, like in Qatar (LGBT, yes, Iran, conditional), will be seen as political.
The 2023 FIFA Club World Cup in Morocco in February and the Asian Games later that year in Qatar are not on par with the World Cup, in terms of global reach. Nonetheless, they are litmus tests for hosts and activists alike.
The responsiveness of hosts to activists’ criticism of their adherence to human, worker, and LGBT rights will indicate the degree to which image is the foremost driver of hosting.
In doing so, the Moroccan and Qatari tournaments, and similar events in the region scheduled for later in the decade, will also test the validity of notions that reputation laundering — or “sportswashing,” an effort to distract from tarnished rights records — is why autocrats host tournaments.
Finally, the responsiveness of Middle East countries will provide insights into what segments of global public opinion autocratic hosts care about, given that activists primarily impact public sentiment in democratic countries where the media report their campaigns.
A key determinant of activists’ effectiveness will be their willingness to distance themselves from critics whose positioning is not a concern for achieving and upholding rights but is defined by bias, prejudice, and bigotry.
Furthermore, the forthcoming events will suggest what lessons activists have learnt from their campaign during the 12-year run-up to Qatari World Cup. Activists’ pressure produced a significant enhancement of worker rights in Qatar, even if the improvements and implementation of reforms fell short of their demands.
But worker rights are low-hanging fruit, and the campaign to improve the working and living conditions of migrant labor in Qatar frames what may be achievable when it comes to far more complex, culturally sensitive issues such as gender and sexual diversity, which evoke much more deep-seated passions.
Take political rights. Freedom of expression, freedom of the media, and freedom of assembly are indivisible. One either can express oneself and organize, or one cannot. It’s black and white. There is no middle ground.
Worker rights are a different animal. Activists will have to keep in mind that workers are likely to want immediate improvements in their working and living conditions initially, and only once those have been achieved will they be more concerned about political rights.
A similar logic plays out on socially controversial issues, particularly LGBT rights, where government policy is aligned with public sentiment. With Muslim populations and Protestants in Africa deeply hostile to LGBT rights, activists will have to be creative in seeking to change a community’s circumstances.
One potential tactic may be to build on the positions of credible, albeit often controversial Muslim scholars, such as Tunisia’s Rached Ghannouchi, an Islamist politician and thinker, and Salman al Audah, a prominent and controversial cleric who has been languishing for years in a Saudi prison.
The two men denounce homosexuality as a sin, but deny temporal and religious authorities the right to take punitive action. Instead, they position homosexuality as a sin for which practitioners should be held accountable in a next life.
Speaking in 2015, Mr. Ghannouchi said: “We don’t approve. But Islam does not spy on folks. It preserves privacy. Everyone leads his/her life and is responsible before his/her creator.”
Mr. Al-Audah argued that “even though homosexuality is considered a sin in all the Semitic holy books, it does not require any punishment in this world. One of the fundamentals of Islam is man’s freedom to act as he wants. But one must also take the consequences.”
Mr. Al-Audah went on to say that “homosexuals are not deviating from Islam. Homosexuality is a grave sin, but those who say that homosexuals deviate from Islam are the real deviators. By condemning homosexuals to death, they are committing a graver sin than homosexuality itself.”
This kind of thinking is likely a significant steppingstone to full recognition of LGBT rights in a Muslim world where success may only be achieved step by step.
Dr. James M. Dorsey is an award-winning journalist and scholar, an Adjunct Senior Fellow at Nanyang Technological University’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, and the author of the syndicated column and blog, The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer.