Middle East: positive steps needed to restore calm

Footballers with diametrically opposed views on homosexuality and alcohol consumption have sparked heated controversy over Islamic mores and human and labor rights in Qatar’s home stretch ahead of the FIFA World Cup. next year’s football world.

Two things emerge from the controversy beyond the specific arguments put forward by the opposing camps.

First, some fault lines cross community boundaries rather than pitting one community (Muslims) against another (non-Muslims).

This is true for supporters of autocracies like Qatar and Saudi Arabia who are less concerned about workers’ rights and supporters of European clubs acquired by Gulf buyers with generous pockets and willing to spend.

This is not to say that some of the Gulf states care about rights, just as many Western fans remain critical of Qatar despite reforms to its labor system and to Saudi Arabia in the aftermath of it. assassination in 2018 of the kingdom’s consulate in Istanbul of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

Second, the lines of demarcation are much sharper and more entrenched when it comes to social and moral standards than they are when it comes to, for example, workers’ rights.

The division over rights and claims that mega sporting and other events allow autocracies with tarnished records to whitewash their reputations comes as human rights groups increase pressure on Qatar.

Activists want the Gulf state to further reform its labor regime, properly implement adopted reforms and lift all restrictions on women’s rights.

Unlike LGBTQ rights and alcohol consumption, human and labor rights are the only area where fault lines cross religious and ethnic lines.

Saudi race car fans and drivers have rejected calls to boycott F1 from this month’s tournament in Jeddah as well as the notion of sports washing, the use of sports to counter criticism of the country’s tarnished record. kingdom in human rights.

“The country was closed to the world. Now things are changing and they should support us if we want to, ”said Reema Juffali, Saudi Arabia’s first female professional racing driver.

Likewise, Newcastle United fans celebrated the acquisition of their club by Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund even though some expressed concern over the kingdom’s human rights violations.

That didn’t stop thousands of people wearing Saudi clothes from welcoming the new owner and Newcastle’s perceived new wealth with wild scenes of singing and drinking when the club played their first game in October after taking over control.

Australian gay footballer Josh Cavallo started the debate on sexuality by declaring in early November that he would be scared of making the Qatar World Cup due to the Gulf state’s ban on homosexuality and sanctions severe criminal penalties ranging from flogging to long prison terms.

One of the few actors to publicly discuss his sexuality, Mr. Cavallo expressed his concern a month after revealing his homosexuality. Mr Cavallo said other footballers have privately expressed similar fears.

Supported by its member clubs, the English Premier League launched its Rainbow Laces campaign shortly after Mr Cavallo spoke out. The campaign involved a rainbow-themed brand, armbands, laces and badges displayed in matches played between November 27 and December 2.

Qatari officials have insisted in recent years that LGBTQ fans would be welcome during the World Cup, but should abide by standards that disapprove of public expressions of affection, regardless of sexual orientation.

Paul Amann, founder of Liverpool FC’s LGBT fan club Kop Outs, met with the organizers of the Qatari World Cup in 2019 before heading to Doha with her husband to assess the situation for himself.

“I am very pleased that their approach is to provide an ‘everyone is welcome’ ethic that includes respect, albeit through confidentiality. I don’t know if the rainbow flags will be generally accepted “in the country”, but maybe in the stadiums, “he said on his return.

Responding to the pro-LGBTQ campaign and possibly reinforcing Mr Cavallo’s fears, retired Egyptian football legend Mohamed Aboutrika insisted that homosexuality “is not compatible with Islam”.

Considered one of the best Egyptian players in history, Mr. Aboutrika went into exile in Qatar, where he is a commentator for beIN, the Gulf State’s sports broadcasting network. Authorities accused him of belonging to the controversial Muslim Brotherhood and added him to a list of Egyptian terrorists after he left.

Mr. Aboutrika has denied allegations that he funded the Brotherhood. The group was banned after the 2013 military coup that toppled Mohammed Morsi, a brother who was Egypt’s first and only democratically elected president.

Mr. Aboutrika has long been known for his Islamist sympathies, his empathy for Ultras Ahlawy, one of the many militant football fan groups who played a pivotal role in the 2011 mass protests that toppled President Hosni Mubarak, and its support for the Palestinians in the Gaza Strip, blocked by Israel and Egypt.

“Our role is to resist this phenomenon, homosexuality, because it is a dangerous ideology and it gets nasty, and people are no longer ashamed of it. They (the Premier League) will tell you that homosexuality is a human right. No, it’s not human rights; in fact, it is against humanity ”, accused Mr. Aboutrika.

The Qatari parliament and state-aligned media, Saudi mosque imams, Saudi diplomats and Al-Azhar, the citadel of Islamic education in Cairo, have come together to reiterate Mr. Aboutrika’s condemnation.

Nonetheless, Mr. Aboutrika remains toxic in his native Egypt despite his advocacy for Islamic mores. Two players from his former team, Al Ahly, were removed from the club squad for shaking hands with the former footballer during the FIFA Club World Cup in Qatar in February.

At the same time, Mr. Aboutrika remains popular among club supporters. In Qatari stadiums, Egyptian supporters celebrated Mr. Aboutrika at the Arab Cup which ended this weekend by chanting “Ya Trika”.

What is evident in the debate over sexuality is that few, if any, will be convinced by the arguments raised by the opposing party. Both sides of the division deeply feel their positions. The best that can be hoped for is a middle ground between living and letting live, which is what the organizers of the 2022 Qatari World Cup seem to be proposing.

The question is whether the controversy brought a genius out of the bottle. Largely state-controlled media and clerics, along with others in Qatar and elsewhere in the Middle East, fueled the blaze. Statements by Qatari World Cup organizers sought to allay Western fears but, along with government officials, refrained from trying to deal with emotions at home.

There are no winners in this controversy. Neither LGBTQ fans and players nor Qatar wins if the argument produces a situation in which the environment leading up to and during the World Cup becomes toxic.

Speaking to Middle East Eye, an Egyptian residing in Doha summed up the dilemma: “BeIN Sports is in a difficult position. Human rights organizations will criticize them for not firing Aboutrika. But the Qataris will criticize them if they fire him, ”he said.

Egyptian-born Liverpool player Mohammed Salah has so far remained out of the fray. However, he did not come out unscathed from the reaffirmation of Islamic mores.

Dar al-Ifta, an Egyptian Islamic advisory, judicial and government body, criticized the player last month for failing to explicitly condemn alcohol consumption in an interview on Egyptian television.

Instead, Mr Salah said he didn’t think about alcohol and had no interest in trying it.

“Not thinking about doing forbidden things is an act of worship in itself,” said Dar al-Ifta.

A broader debate on the role of religion in education and society in general sheds light on the assertion of Islamic mores. The Gulf States have taken important steps in recent years to liberalize social mores.

Saudi Arabia has lifted the ban on female driving, eased gender segregation, strengthened women’s rights and introduced Western-style entertainment, but, like Qatar, has yet to completely abolish guardianship masculine. The United Arab Emirates liberalized alcohol consumption and allowed cohabitation for unmarried couples.

This weekend, Qatar celebrated its national day with a military parade. Alongside Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, Qatar has increasingly emphasized a national identity defined as much by nationalism and belonging as by religion.

Representatives of Al Azhar and Egyptian parliamentarians, activists and experts clashed this week over the need to memorize the Quran and the use of Quranic texts rather than poetry and literature in Arabic language lessons.

“Separating students from religion class is (a) a form of discrimination that divides society,” said journalist Isaac Hanna, director of the Egyptian Enlightenment Association.

Mr Hanna suggested removing religion from school curricula and replacing it with a course on morals and citizenship.

In a world in the throes of social and economic, if not political, transition, the mores controversies emanating from the Gulf’s growing role in international sports suggest that deeply held beliefs and attitudes may not keep pace with top-down reforms.

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