There is an undercurrent of racism about the negative coverage of Qatar during the World Cup, the first to be held in a Muslim nation.
Western sensitivities around banning alcohol, homosexuality and demands around worker’s rights have a ring of moral colonialism.
Yes, the Qataris do have some practices unusual to us.
They are one of sixty nine countries that ban homosexuality. There is even the prospect of capital punishment for being gay, although it has never been carried out.
In practice what they are really against is the open display of not just homosexuality but any kind of public affection.
Heterosexual couples have been charged and jailed in the past throughout the Middle East for overly amorous interactions, not least several incidents of drunken sex on the beach. While being charged may seem harsh, in pious countries the act is a great show of disrespect, a bit like taking a cr*p in a church.
And talking about disrespect, what about the England fans dressed as Crusaders?
For those not so up on Middle Ages history, the Crusades were religious wars a thousand years ago authorised by the Vatican Church to take back the holy lands of Jerusalem from Muslims. The Christians lost, but openly wearing such outfits in the Middle East would be akin to wearing Nazi uniforms.
The act just screams perceptions of moral superiority. And England is the same country that invaded Iraq for spurious reasons. Talk about hypocrisy.
When it comes to homosexuality we should remember for much of the world, and throughout history, the practice has been something that some people do, not a public identity.
Even in countries that might seem especially traditional, the act is largely tolerated as long as it’s not something made public. As soon it’s out in the open the locals fear their families being shamed and shunned.
Likewise drinking. Alcohol is banned in the Koran. Yet the country tolerates tens of underground bars among their five star hotels. International reports describe these places as buzzing with electronic music, sports memorabilia and dancing.
Granted the bars often have their windows blacked out, once again a marker that it’s the public element of activities that they see as licentious which is a no no. Do what you like behind closed doors is the attitude.
This also explains why authorities banned Budweiser selling their booze in stadiums, although I can understand the anger at such a ban weeks before the event.
The Qatari authorities have rightly been very defensive at the criticism, with Supreme Committee for Delivery & Legacy (SC), responsible for administering the tournament, told CNN that: “Everyone is welcome in Qatar, but we are a conservative country and any public display of affection, regardless of orientation, is frowned upon. We simply ask for people to respect our culture.”
When it comes to worker’s right, human rights groups are right to point out the terrible working conditions many migrant workers have faced over the years. Such workers include relatives of mine from Bangladesh, one of the biggest exporters of cheap labour to the Middle East.
Thousands have died on scorching construction sites in the past two decades. But even here, much progress has been, most notably the indentured system known as kafalah, which has been abolished altogether two years ago.
Qatar was the first country in the Middle East to allow workers to change employers. They have also set a minimum wage, revolutionary in the region.
“Qatar’s new labor reforms are some of the most significant to date and could, if carried out effectively, considerably improve migrant workers’ living and work conditions,” said Michael Page, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch.
I am not here to try and let Qatar off the hook. There is much more that can be improved, not least getting rid of the death penalty for gay people, regardless of whether it has even been enacted.
But this is a country that was a desert colony of the British half a century ago and has now, through the wonders of their natural gas reserves, risen to be among the richest in the world. They have a right to be proud and are showing it off through the Bedouin themed opening ceremony replete with Quranic verses. There was a bit of K-pop thrown in too to keep it global, but you get the drift.
As an Aussie born elsewhere, sometime I get frustrated when it feels like the whole world must bend to Western sensitivities. Sure, we can criticise, but let’s have some self awareness when it strays into either virtue signalling or outright prejudice.
Dr Tanveer Ahmed is a psychiatrist and author.