With a few weeks to go for the controversial World Cup in Qatar (for which the state spent a whopping 200 billion USD!), football fans are still asking if one among the greatest spectacles in sporting is worth tuning into after the country failed to repair its image since its acceptance of the bid. Since Qatar’s hosting of the event was announced in 2010, sponsors and teams alike have wavered over the decision to stay away from the event since the country’s human rights track record — especially towards LGBTQ people, came under public scrutiny.
In Qatar, homosexuality is against the law and is punishable by seven years in prison. Football fans, activists, and members of the community have repeatedly raised the issue of how a country that actively persecutes its LGBTQ residents will accommodate viewers. While the World Cup organizers have addressed these concerns numerous times and stated that all fans were “welcome,” Tamim bin Hamad al Thani, the Emir of the Gulf state, added that respect for “our culture” was demanded.
What the Emir failed to acknowledge is that Arab culture is steeped in homophobia. For decades countries in the Middle East have alleged that homosexuality is both morally unacceptable and a Western import. Cultural perceptions towards homosexuality includes viewing it like an disease, a sin, or a combination of both. There is an outright denial of the existence of homosexual people, let alone gay Arabs. The common official position is one along the lines of, “we don’t have gay people here.” The World Cup was the first time in Qatar a state-actor of high eminence acknowledged homosexuality publicly.
The climate of heteronormativity paired with the very real risk of violent attacks is so oppressive that residents live in constant fear of living out their identity. In 2016, an opinion piece that appeared in the outlet Doha News by a gay Qatari man under the pseudonym Majid, described the lived realities of being gay in Qatar. The article spoke of the “irreparable damage” caused to his mental health because of entrenched homophobia. Majid also stated that he “wouldn’t have chosen to have been born in a place where my life is tantamount to my death. There is no prospect or future for me here – no normalcy.” Other first person narratives from gay expatriates reveal that they feel like they are constant state of surveillance, where one wrong move or the slightest indication of who they are could have very grave consequences.
A recent interview with Khalid Salman, former national team footballer and ambassador for the FIFA World Cup Qatar, mere weeks before the event, only serves as a reminder of what could be in store for LGBT travellers. Khalid claimed that homosexuality is a “damage in the mind,” and that he was afraid of “many things entering the country” that would have a “negative impact” on children. Moreover, reports of hotel rooms being refused to same-sex couples have also come out.
The state, is however, on the defensive, stating that they have been at the receiving end of malignment by critics even though they have remained as welcoming as possible. However, these welcoming attitudes that seemingly sprang up out of nowhere is very unfair to LGBTQ Qatari citizens who have had to suffer at the hand of the state. Implicit reminders that Qatari authorities do not think its LGBTQ citizens deserve basic rights are reinforced by comments that Qatar should only create an exception for visitors. It runs the risk of distorting the oppressive realities LGBTQ Qataris have had to live under.
Human Rights Watch recently released a report that identified six instances of severe and persistent beatings and five instances of sexual harassment in police custody suffered by LGBTQ people in Qatar. HRW interviewed six LGBTQ Qataris, including four transgender women, one bisexual woman and one gay man. All of them said that Preventive Security Department officials had imprisoned them in a secret facility in Al Dafneh, Doha. They were verbally harassed, physically abused and subjected to psychological torture. They were also forced to sign pledges vowing that they would “cease immoral activity.”
Sure, Qatari authorities have begrudgingly “welcomed” LGBTQ attendees, but the same cannot be said for the people of the nation who have been subjected to abuse and conversion therapy. The World Cup will come and go, with many of these debates even forgotten. Unless these discussions are used to refocus attention on the conduct of the state towards its inhabitants, assaults against individuals and residents for their identity will continue to occur long after the stadium lights are switched off. In view of the numerous concessions the state has made to project the image of the nation as a modern, cosmopolitan paradise that is advantageous to the state economically, the adherence to “faith and culture” must be reexamined. There have been numerous instances of the state of Qatar loosening its conservative policies to accommodate changing attitudes, the most significant being permitting bars and nightclubs with free-flowing alcohol to operate. The lines between regressive tradition and modernity cannot be an either/or and the state must address the lapses in its values. While the Middle-East may be far from de-criminalizing homosexuality, it still needs to check its hypocrisy.