The West's Hajj: How Qatar's World Cup Altered the Perception of Arabs

The Arab world sees the World Cup as a chance to compete with the West as an equal. The question of what should be taken and what should be forgone from the West has been engaging Arab and Muslim thinkers for centuries

A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el
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Qatar fans cheering their team during a World Cup match last month.
Qatar fans cheering their team during a World Cup match last month.Credit: Manan Vatsyayana/AFP
A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el

“This is the first time they’re coming to an Arab state without condescension, without feelings of supremacy. Suddenly they see Arabs as equals. This is the greatest pilgrimage to an Arab state outside the hajj,” Amin Khableh writes on Al Jazeera's website.

A video on social media shows an entire Brazilian family that converted to Islam after its first experience with Qatar. Several other clips show young Western women receiving help from Qatari women when putting on the hijab they bought as a souvenir.

“Suddenly they heard the muezzin, they now know the Arab kaffiyeh and they’re thronging to the mosques to see the prayers,” a commentator writes on a Saudi site. In those videos, the muezzin can be heard calling the faithful to prayer, as masses of fans watch the worshippers with amazement.

“The muezzin’s voice enters the heart before it enters the ears,” a Qatari journalist writes. Dozens of carefully chosen clips show Western fans and players full of praise for the reception they received, the order and of course the overall splendor of the World Cup in Qatar.

What happens on the soccer field is important, but the “new Arab’s” image is clearly Qatar’s main achievement.

“Clearly in the World Cup, 28 days when East and West meet on Arab soil, you can’t erase the image instilled in the West for decades, one that deepened after the attacks on the United States on September 11, 2001,” Khableh writes.

“That’s an image depicting the Arab as a wild Bedouin hostile to modernity and progress, as a wealthy man who wastes billions of dollars on pleasure, drowning in wine as soon as he gets on a plane. Or as a drugged radical planting explosives and cutting off heads. Or as a woman, a chained creature looking for a place to hide behind a tent flap, amid the houses locked to keep out the light of freedom and life.”

Khableh isn’t just talking about the image of the Arab and the Muslim in the West. He also reflects on the way Arabs have adopted those images.

Culture shock is the term many Arab columnists are using to describe this historic meeting of the West and the Arab world, not only Qataris.

“Most of the people coming to Qatar are of Arab origin. They aren’t hostile … and don’t see themselves as the center of the world. They want to discover other cultures humbly and joyfully,” says Lolwah Rashid Al-Khater, a Qatari assistant foreign minister.

Of course, we can disagree with the credit she gives the foreign guests, but there’s a more blatant version.

A building displaying the colors of the Qatari flag in Doha last month.Credit: Jennifer Lorenzini/Reuters

“Granted, we don’t have sexual and political freedom as you have, but we are stable, thriving entities that hold international events at a high standard and compete with the best,” writes a commentator from the United Arab Emirates, Abdullah Abed Al-Khalek. He chastises the “new colonialists and hypocritical Western Orientalists.”

In other words, this time the West is competing with the East as an equal. Its victory isn’t assured.

Maybe this was also the intention of Qatar’s former ruler, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, who paid a fortune for Qatar’s right to host the World Cup. Sheikh Hamad, an extraordinary man with both a Muslim and an international worldview, ousted his father in 1995. A year later he founded Al Jazeera, which launched a revolution in the Arab media. He wanted to prove that Islam and the West could coexist.

To him, hosting the World Cup wasn’t only a huge achievement for Qatar, one worth paying bribes for and causing the death of thousands of foreign workers. It was an attempt to prove that “the Arabs” could stand side by side with the “Westerners.”

Germany players covering their mouths in support of LGBTQ rights before a match in Doha last month.Credit: Molly Darlington/Reuters

And like other leaders of rich Gulf states, Hamad could afford to import the West without feeling dependent or subjugated. As stressed by the late Fouad Ajami – who taught and wrote at Princeton, Johns Hopkins and the Hoover Institution – oil states were selective in what they imported from the West, eschewing the personal and cultural freedom.

In this vein, Hamad, his son Tamim and his mother “imported” the huge residential towers that were planned by Western architects and engineers, the artistic treasures that were bought for hundreds of millions of dollars, the university branches and the World Cup. Democracy was left out, as were freedom of expression and the rights of women, workers and LGBTQ people.

The World Cup hasn’t helped in these respects, save for improved conditions for workers in Qatar. Al Jazeera, which blazed trails by exposing the corruption of Arab regimes and interviewed dissidents, fell silent on Qatar and its ruling family.

Then there’s the issue of homophobia. As expected, Qatar’s ban on wearing rainbow armbands – joined by FIFA – set off a furor. The German players who covered their mouths in protest of the decision were lambasted by Mohamed Aboutrika, a retired Egyptian soccer player working as a commentator in the tournament.

Morocco fans celebrating in Doha on Thursday after their team qualified for the World Cup's knockout stages.Credit: Amr Abdallah Dalsh/Reuters

German Interior Minister Nancy Faeser also criticized the decision; Aboutrika asked her in a tweet whether she came to Qatar to make fun of the country’s laws. He said Qatar is a country that God has strengthened with Islam and that won’t change its religion or laws.

As he put it a year ago, “Our role is to stand up to this phenomenon, homosexuality, because it's a dangerous ideology and it’s becoming nasty and people are not ashamed of it anymore.”

For Aboutrika, the issue is also who makes the rules. Will the condescending West once again dictate “cultural behavior” to the developing world? To Aboutrika and other Arab commentators, the fact that the World Cup is being held in an Arab country doesn’t only require the visitors “from the West” to respect the country’s laws, it also denotes recognition.

In contrast, Lebanese journalist Diana Moukalled writes on the Daraj website: “Is discrimination against women, harm against workers and the issue of gays a local cultural matter? That’s the method the local regimes are using based on the pretext of protecting the local culture; they violate human rights. … Without a free public space, how is it possible to know that women truly believe that their repression is a cultural question and that in its name they must obey the violation of their rights?”

The question of what should be taken and what should be forgone from the West wasn’t born in Qatar’s World Cup stadiums. It has been engaging Arab and Muslim thinkers for centuries, but for generations the regimes drew the red lines.

The internet and especially social media have undermined the regimes’ cultural monopoly. In events such as the World Cup, Egyptians or Kuwaitis no longer feel obligated to root for an Arab team. It’s not a problem to be a die-hard fan of Argentina or Germany, but you don’t have to adopt the underlying “culture.”

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