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29 December 2022  •  Society & Culture

Qatar was a test, Western media failed

By Joseph Hathaway-Wilson
Content Warning: Racism, Islamophobia
Qatar was a test, Western media failed

“For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction.”

For a long time, Newton’s third law has been a favourite among parents and teachers for highlighting the consequences of one’s actions. In the field of social science, however, not every reaction is equal nor opposite. Sometimes there are multiple reactions to a single action, and sometimes they are completely inadvertent and random. 

A pandemic originating from China may result in millions of deaths worldwide and the disruption of the global economy. It may also result in flushes of Sinophobic sentiment and anti-Asian hate crimes across the United States. The occupation of Palestine by the Israeli military may result in decades of displacement, persecution and suffrage for Palestinian people. It may also result in ill-informed demonstrations of anti-Semitism around the Western World. An international sports competition being hosted in Qatar may result in large-scale discussions pertaining to the importance of human rights. It may also result in media commentators exploiting this controversy to spout Islamophobia and racism.

The trouble with much of the West’s coverage of Qatar 2022 was not in its defence of human rights, but the ease with which valid criticism swiftly gave way to derogatory sentiment. While the Qatari government – not to mention FIFA themselves – may be rightly entitled to media hostility, the unbridled ignorance of all things Arab and Islamic that characterised much of the Western media’s coverage of the event ensured that this spite was, ironically, nondiscriminatory. Here, the metamorphosis of Qatari-government-criticism into blatant Islamophobia and anti-Arab racism was telling. So what did we learn from the West’s coverage of Qatar 2022?

Willing ignorance underpins Western discourse concerning the Arab world

When predisposed views about certain social or cultural groups are already rife, the ability of journalists to pin the red string of insinuation between a specific demographic and a negative stereotype can have catastrophic ramifications. Few examples of this are more relevant than when east-Asian ethnic groups became increasingly tied to adjectives insinuating “filth”, “infestation” and “cheapness” in news media at the start of the pandemic.

When it comes to discrimination in the media, Qatar 2022 provided something of an inverse equation. In addition to actively conjuring a negative image of the Arab world through racial stereotyping, much of the anti-Arab discourse to arise from the World Cup was born from a place of laziness. It was not that these particular journalists went out of their way not to refer to the cultural practices in question respectfully, but rather that they did not bother learning how. Demonstrations of ignorance towards Arabic cultural practices began with the widespread appropriation of the agal by non-Arabic supporters (and the media’s inability to register it) and piqued with the discussion around the bisht placed on Lionel Messi after the Final. 

For those who weren’t watching, soon after Argentina defeated France in the World Cup Final, Argentina captain, Lionel Messi, was cloaked in a bisht – a robe-like garment signifying prestige and importance – by the Emir of Qatar, at the same time as he received the World Cup Trophy. The consequent media discourse epitomised just how little vast portions of the Western media cares to learn about Arabic culture before disparaging it. BBC pundit and former England international, Gary Lineker, was quick to reprimand the competition hosts for the display, referring to the bisht as “a little robe,” while one Daily Mail article described it as a “selfish moment” in which Messi was forced to “cover his iconic No. 10 shirt with an Arabic robe.” One article from Australia’s Channel 7 neatly compiled a number of “black cloak” remarks shortly after incorrectly defining the bisht as a garment worn by “Arab warriors after a victory in battle.”

The refusal to understand the title and function of the bisht may not be on a par with some of the derogatory remarks made about Arab culture over the course of Qatar 2022. It did, however, encapsulate a level of ignorance reminiscent of the Times of London journalist who tweeted that “Qataris are unaccustomed to seeing women in Western dress in their country,” or the German news anchor who claimed the sign of Tawhid – a hand gesture made to recognise the oneness of Allah, used in celebration by the Moroccan national team – was a gesture sympathetic towards ISIS. Most of these misconceptions could have been avoided with little more than a Google search (think about how quickly you found out what an agal was two minutes ago), yet time and again they became a focal point of an event with scarce relation to the realms of politics and religion. Ultimately, one cannot help but think that the ignorance ingrained in the West’s coverage of Qatar 2022 was not an accident so much as it was a choice. 

You’re still not allowed to be Muslim and proud

Perhaps the most upsetting truth to emerge from the coverage of Qatar 2022, was that all of its distinctly Islamophobic features would have existed very much aside from the controversy of competition. The controversy simply acted as an excuse to exercise this deeply-rooted, Orientalist fear of Islam and the Middle East. Once again, this is not to defend the actions of the Qatari government, nor FIFA’s decision to select a nation that disregards fundamental human rights as host of an event designed to unite the global community. A slightly more analytical approach to the scenario, however, may reveal the vast discrepancies between Qatar and the religion to which its wrongs have so often been attributed.

The most glaring controversy hovering above Qatar 2022 was the exploitation of migrant labour. Abhorrent work and living conditions eventuating in estimates of six and a half thousand worker deaths overshadowed the build-up to the World Cup, sparking outcry from a number of national football teams participating in the tournament. Furthermore, Qatar’s vigilant anti-LGBT+ laws caused no shortage of debate. Unlike the exploitation of migrant labour, which can be attributed to the autocratic nature of the Qatari government as opposed to a religious belief, the link between Islam and Qatar’s discriminatory legislation was ostensibly clearer, especially given Qatari legislation is informed by an interpretation of Sharia Law. The revelations of corruption in the bidding process for the 2022 World Cup, meanwhile, possess about as much correlation with Qatari cultural practices as they do Russian – absolutely none, other than both country’s bids being tainted by allegations of corruption.

Even though these human rights abuses can be attributed to the Qatari government, sections of the Western media’s spite for the Gulf nation has been applied to Muslims all over the world. Over the course of the World Cup, it not only embodied a deeply uninformed perspective of the Arab world wherein Islam and Arabia are one and the same, but revealed a separate dislike for the practice of Islam that was unlocked by the ability to berate at will. This was first evident in publications such France’s Le Canard enchaîné, with their cartoon depicting the Qatar national team as radical Islamic terrorists. As outlets became increasingly comfortable in making Islamophobic and racist remarks, the focus spread to beyond just Qatar, as one Danish news anchor drew a comparison between an image of the Moroccan football team celebrating with their mothers and an image of monkey families huddling for warmth. 

Observing the West’s reception of Qatar and, perhaps more importantly, Morocco, reminds one of comments made by Australian journalist Waleed Aly regarding former AFL player and Australian of the Year, Adam Goodes: “Australia is generally a very tolerant society until its minorities demonstrate that they don’t know their place. The minute someone in a minority position acts as though they’re not a mere supplicant, then we lose our minds.” Morocco was not scrutinised and ridiculed because they were successful. It was because on the road to their success, they left no one second guessing as to their faith. Every penalty shootout was preceded with a prayer from the Quran and every victory followed by the sujūd (Islamic prayer). Western media’s reaction to this was typical of the highly cosmetic tolerance Aly discusses. While the West can tolerate Islam from a distance, recognising its presence on the world stage, be it in the form of the bisht, Tawhid, or sujūd, proved too much.


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