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A guide to navigating the World Cup discourse

Is it OK to watch the football? Is it problematic to criticise Qatar? Here, we break down some of the big ethical questions surrounding the 2022 World Cup

The World Cup kicked off on Monday, but the football is merely a distracting side-show to the real event: the discourse.

Controversial from the time of its announcement, the fact the tournament is being held in Qatar has given rise to an evermore rancorous debate, which has seen everything from a comedian pretending to burn £10,000 in protest against David Beckham’s involvement in the proceedings, to the president of FIFA holding a press conference to announce “Today, I feel gay” and suggest that he knows what it’s like to be a migrant worker because he was bullied as a child for having ginger hair.

As silly as much of this has been, the issues at stake – including, but not limited to, migrant exploitation and LGBTQ+ rights – are deeply serious. In order to help you navigate the World Cup, and the moral dilemmas it may pose, we have answered a series of hypothetical questions.

SHOULD I BOYCOTT WATCHING THE WORLD CUP?

Throughout history, boycotts have been most effective when they are an organised effort and form part of a larger movement, rather than being dependent on the whims of individual consumers. It’s true that plenty of people have decided to boycott the World Cup, but it’s all a bit haphazard. There is not an organised boycott; no Qatari LGBTQ+ or migrant organisations have called for one, and there isn’t a clear set of demands. Beyond the question of whether a boycott would be ‘effective’, it’s not even clear what it would be trying to achieve, beyond avoiding a largely symbolic complicity. 

This means that if you do decide to watch the tournament, you’re not undermining a collective effort or betraying a cause – there is even a dedicated LGBTQ+ Qatari supporters’ club which will be doing likewise. As an individual moral decision, you might want to avoid lending even tacit support to FIFA or Qatar – which would be fair enough. But in practical terms, I don’t think it matters much either way. If you want to offset any feelings of guilt, you could always donate to an organisation like The Alwan Foundation, which campaigns for the rights of LGBTQ+ people in the Gulf. 

IS IT PROBLEMATIC TO CRITICISE QATAR?

As the World Cup gets underway, a narrative has emerged on social media: it is hypocritical to criticise Qatar, because the UK, USA, China, and Russia (etc etc) are all just as bad, if not worse. One of the reasons being put forward for this hypocrisy is the west’s racism and Islamophobia, and I’m sympathetic to this argument: racism and Islamophobia are prevalent within British society and it just stands to reason that they would influence the way that we talk about a Muslim-majority country in the Gulf. It’s also true that the UK doesn’t have much moral superiority when it comes to lecturing other countries about LGBTQ+ rights or migrant welfare. 

But when taken too far, this way of thinking becomes a means of deflection, whereby it’s never permissible to criticise a given country if somewhere else is worse. Rather than encouraging a broader and more all-encompassing approach to global justice, it can become a way of shutting down discussion. There is clearly a strong vein of Islamophobia to some of the anti-Qatar sentiment on display, and a solid case to be made that the British media is singling out Qatar disproportionately (certainly, Russia received less negative coverage, despite being no paragon of LGBTQ+ rights). But it’s also worth remembering that a significant majority of the migrant workers being exploited in Qatar are Muslims themselves, and all of them are people of colour from the Global South. The pattern and style of criticism may at times suggest racist intent, but expressing solidarity with these people is not inherently a form of western colonialism in disguise. 

It’s also not the case that we have to choose between criticising the UK or Qatar. The two states are close trading partners, and Britain is directly complicit in whatever human rights abuses are carried out in Qatar, whether through exporting £3.4 billion worth of weapons there or through its long history of upholding conservative forces in the region. Qatar is neither a bulwark against imperialism nor a singular and unique evil: it is a wealthy country which is profoundly embedded within global capitalism. Any number of western companies and governments have profited from the World Cup, and it’s important to recognise their complicity. But for that to make sense, criticising the Qatari state itself can’t be off-limits.

That said, there are obviously instances in which people are being hypocritical. If you’re going to make a point of morally grandstanding about the World Cup (as Brewdog did recently, before it was revealed that the company had allowed its beers to be sold in Qatar), then you probably shouldn’t be seeking to profit from it at the same time. The idea that we all have a moral obligation to ‘speak out’, that silence is violence, has gained traction in recent years, but the last few weeks have shown that cack-handed attempts at support can do more harm than good. ‘Don’t Speak Out, Just Shut Up’ might not be the most inspiring rallying cry, but for some people it would be good advice. 

HOW CAN I BE AN LGBTQ+ ALLY WITHOUT BEING ANNOYING?

As we have argued before, LGBTQ+ activism around the World Cup has to be carried out in dialogue with queer people in Qatar and in tune to their specific needs. Otherwise, it risks becoming self-indulgent posturing.

One of the most irritating aspects of the discourse around this issue has been the way that, time and time again, the feelings of queer people in the west have been centred. When Foreign Secretary James Cleverly MP suggested that gay Brits travelling to Qatar should “be respectful of its culture”, he was met with an enormous backlash – lots of people complained that they felt invalidated or reminded of the times in their life when they’d been told to ‘tone it down’. Cleverley’s phrasing could have been better, sure, but the point he was making isn’t so outrageous: if you choose to go on holiday in a foreign country, it’s reasonable to abide by its cultural norms. My boyfriend and I recently visited a country where homosexuality is illegal, and we had a perfectly nice time – precisely because western tourists are not, typically, the people who suffer under these repressive laws. As an international tournament, the World Cup has an obligation to be welcoming to everyone, but we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that gay people in the west are not the primary victims of the Qatari state.

The issue of LGBTQ+ rights has also given rise to instances where criticism of Qatar has crossed over into straight-up racism. On Monday, topical comedy show The Last Leg performed a song about gay rights in Qatar, which featured the line: “but in Qatar if Alan Carr toured and was joined by Boy George and even RuPaul, they could end up three heads on a spike.” To be clear, it’s not so much that I’m ‘offended’ by this, as the fact that it’s the corniest, most embarrassing and unfunny shit ever. But revelling in jaunty fantasies of violence against queer people seems kind of homophobic in itself, particularly in the aftermath of a real-world massacre in the US. And while homosexuality can theoretically carry the death sentence in Qatar (which is worthy of criticism, for sure!), there is no evidence that this has ever taken place. Even in the context of a satirical song, making up the most baroque, barbaric and medieval form of punishment imaginable and attributing it to a Muslim country seems dodgy, to say the least. 

Finally, if you want to be an LGBTQ+ ally, one of the worst things you can do is commit to an incredibly milquetoast, half-arsed gesture – like the England team’s pledge to wear a rainbow band – and then immediately buckling at the first sign of pressure. This is far more insulting than not doing anything to begin with.