Inside a Muslim’s Experience at ‘Revolutionary’ Qatar World Cup
Please note: This feature was written in December 2022.
As host nation of the most notorious sporting event worldwide, Qatar has faced relentless criticism for its legislation on women's and workers rights among many other controversies. But, what has this meant for the perception of Muslims and Islam globally?
FIFA announced Qatar as the 2022 World Cup host nation. This was instantly met with widespread confusion at how a country with so little footballing history had been given this monumental opportunity.
Among this, Qatar faced endless scepticism in its capability of holding such a demanding tournament on a grandeur scale. Doubts emerged surrounding their lack of existing infrastructure for the matches, the regions sweltering summer heat in the peak of football season and concerns of recurrent human rights abuse.
Despite these highlighted issues, the Gulf nation was the unlikely victor beating out the other potentials in the running - South Korea, United States, Australia and Japan - becoming the first Arab country and first in the Middle East to host a World Cup.
Nearly 12 years later, the long-awaited tournament has finally graced us.
But what are the Qatari residents' views on the media’s portrayal of Islam?
In a questionnaire, 100% of Qatari natives believed that the World Cup being held in a Muslim country had improved a wider understanding of Islam. Many elaborated by saying that the international visitors were often hesitant but curious with both the culture and religion of the country, with several being pleasantly surprised with their experience after only being exposed to fear mongering of the Middle East and Islam by Western media.
Zeinab Moukachar, a Qatari native resident disclosed to me that she felt this opportunity “gave internationals the chance to witness a ‘normalcy’ that is universal, as opposed to heightened differences and oddity that is portrayed in western movies/shows/video-graphic forms of media.”
She expanded her point by saying “This greatly contributes to one’s perception of viewing Muslims, who are existing/living normally in a Muslim country, no longer as “the other” with weird habits or backward beliefs, but as similar in many habits, lifestyles etc, to them.”
Moukachar coined the phrase “the normalcy factor” that many foreigners lack a cultured exposure to.
This was further evidenced by Al Jazeera’s interviews with fans on Qatar soil. Many shared their preconceived notions of what the culture of the country would be like and how religious rulings would affect their day-to-day while visiting for the sporting tournament. Numerous fans mentioned “It was the unknown, but it worked out a lot better than we thought…I felt more comfortable as soon as I got here.”
Similarly, in an interview with Sky News, Qatar World Cup chief Hassan Al Thawadi commented; “Once you engage, the fear of the unknown and the assumptions that build that fear, goes away.”
He went on to say; “This World Cup provided a platform for interaction and global cultural exchange” that he described as having a “profound impact on changing the perceptions of this part of the world.”
The Alcohol ban
One of the most highly publicised aspects differentiating this World Cup to others of the past is the alcohol ‘ban’. In line with their Islamic values, alcohol consumption is prohibited outside of government-approved areas eg; hotel bars. While it’s not an entirely dry country like its neighbouring nation Saudi Arabia, Qatar chose to maintain these religious rulings during the World Cup and have a strict zero-tolerance for any public drinking on the streets and in the stadiums during the matches.
But what impact did this have on fans' experience?
This stringent regulation at football matches had previously been unheard of, with alcohol often used as a popular tool for fans to ‘enjoy themselves’ and ‘let themselves go’ at games. In some cases though, this combination has proved to be lethal, aiding the ‘football hooliganism’ culture that so many have grown accustomed to when attending matches. In Qatar however, this behaviour was seemingly not as present.
A coincidence? Highly doubtful.
FIFA estimates 25% of spectators were women.
Female fans in the heart of the capital Doha further disclosed they had “No fear that you’re going to get caught in something rowdy, or shouted at by men who are really drunk” and believe “Qatar made the right decision” for a nicer overall experience for women.
How is this different from UK fan experiences?
These fan delinquency issues are increasingly becoming more apparent in the UK.
Cast back to the Euro 2020 Final at Wembley Stadium.
Thousands and thousands of England national team fans gathered before the game and were the primary cause of widespread disorder, violence, xenophobic songs, racial abuse and intimidation of women, Forbes reported.
Business Journalist Zak Garner-Purkis stated his view that “Hooliganism has remained embedded in English football fans identity.”
The quintessential relevance of social media in today’s day and age has further enabled the unpredictable behaviour of fans and given a bigger platform to expose controversial happenings.
How is alcohol consumption linked with domestic violence?
Women’s Aid first launched their ‘Football United Against Domestic Violence’ campaign in 2014 in an effort to get all those in the football community to take a stand against misogynistic and sexist attitudes that directly underpins violence against women.
Following this, they have recently launched their new ad campaign ‘He’s Coming Home’ alongside House337 in order to raise awareness for domestic abuse faced during the football World Cup. A combination of factors including high fluctuating moods, stress and passion, but most significantly alcohol consumption, all increase both the severity and frequency of abuse during and after games.
Researchers from Warwick Business School (2022) found that reported cases of alcohol-related domestic abuse rose by 47% on the day of an England victory at the World Cup.
This shocking reality in the UK puts into perspective the positive aspects that Qatar’s alcohol ban has had on the sporting tournament, in particular with the treatment of women.
Several reports spoke of an ‘electrifying atmosphere’ at the games whereby individuals were able to celebrate their passion for the sport, whilst being in an existing safe environment for families to comfortably do the same.
Additionally, there are over 100 volunteers stationed at every match and fan zone with the job of observing fan and worker behaviour, while recording any mishaps or grievances including sexual harassment, discrimination and disability access issues.
Although interestingly, Budweiser remained the official sponsor for this World Cup, as it has done for the last 36 years. After a last-minute change in decision on Qatar’s account, the company agreed with both FIFA and Qatar to sell their non-alcoholic brand Bud-Zero in stadiums for fans to enjoy. The brand was still permitted to sell their alcoholic beverages at licensed areas - corporate suites, FIFA fan festivals and hotel bars. This came at an estimated five million dollar loss to the company, now faced with a huge oversupply of beer that cannot be sold. Budweiser subsequently announced that the excess beer would go to the winning country of the tournament.
A Muslim convert view
British travel vlogger and recently converted Muslim, Jay Palfrey recently released a YouTube series on his experience venturing through Qatar, bringing to light the sacred religious spaces, the tourist hotspots, educational facilities and hidden gems, whilst also publishing several vlogs detailing his time at the 2022 World Cup games.
He said “I love the incredible diversity within the stadium, I hope the world can finally understand the true nature of Islam and its people.”
Throughout his videos, Palfrey continuously touches on his thoughts on the negative stereotyping of Islam and Muslims in the Western media, with his initial insight into Islam growing up in the UK and exposed to biassed situations, people and viewpoints. This led him to develop an unfortunate perception and prejudiced view of the religion and practising followers alike.
Once Palfrey started visiting Muslim countries, widening his community base and reaching directly into his curiosity of the religion, he found himself seeing the beauty of Islam he never even knew existed.
He goes on to confirm; “This is my Islam; it’s so peaceful, so kind and such a positive religion. I’m the happiest I’ve ever been.”
Controversy to the very end
After Argentina triumphed over France in the 2022 World Cup Final, footballing legend and captain of his home team Lionel Messi held up the infamous trophy while wearing a traditional hand-made Arabic robe known as a ‘bisht’ draped on him just moments before, by Sheikh Tamim Bin Hamad Al Thani, Emir of Qatar.
This was a sign of great honour, respect and appreciation of Messi’s undeniable skilful talent, and his countless accomplishments in his long career. Sources say the rare privilege of wearing this bisht is symbolically similar to that of a knighting, let alone it being draped onto Messi by Qatar’s leader himself.
Pretty innocent, you would think?
Well, nobody would be able to predict the enormous international debate that followed this seemingly simple gesture of gratitude.
Western media outlets decided to forego focusing on celebrating Argentina’s win and instead built an intense fixation on this moment that framed Qatar as ‘bizarre’, ‘selfish’, ‘disgraceful’ and ‘absolutely grim’ for protruding their culture onto a precious time belonging to another country.
Many pundits expressed their opinion on the scene with BBC commentator and presenter Gary Lineker, who has been very open on his anti- Qatari stance during this World Cup commenting; “This is a magic moment. It’s a shame in a way they’ve covered up Messi in his Argentina shirt.”
Other senior journalists portrayed their blatantly racist views in now-deleted tweets, with Mark Ogden of the ESPN stating that “All the pics are ruined by somebody making him wear a cape that looks like he’s about to have a haircut.”
“Thank God he’s taken that sleazy cloak off” says policy editor Jane Merrick of the i newspaper.
It truly makes you wonder how in this modern age, such senior employees at publications believe it is morally correct to distribute such distasteful and offensive content against a marginalised group already overwhelmingly negatively stereotyped in mainstream mass media on a global scale. Director of the Centre for Media Monitoring Rizwana Hamid stated the “growing evidence showing the representation of Muslims and Islam is having a direct impact on hate crimes and hostility towards Muslims, which mainstream media is playing into.”
Interestingly enough, this was countered online with the argument that past high profile footballing tournaments saw the host nation’s local cultures being embraced in times of victory. Most noticeably, Brazilian icon Pele celebrated his third World Cup win by wearing a sombrero placed on his head back in 1970 Mexico.
Is it then fair to say Pele’s rights to celebrate his own country were also impeached beyond reason at that moment?
This simply demonstrates the innate Islamophobic overreaction by the West whereby they identify the ‘other’ as a threatening reality, instead of taking an open-minded approach to learn and welcome those who hold different views and practices.
Also, it furthers the ideology of a lack of diversity, comprehension, wider understanding and acceptance of Islam and Muslim beliefs in the sport reporting and Western newsrooms as a whole.
An investment for the Muslim community?
With costs peaking $220 billion, making Qatar the most expensive World Cup to date, can this be coined as a worthy investment in the wider acceptance of Islam and Muslims worldwide?
Some may argue yes.
After all, the success, fan experience, unpredictability of matches and quality of gameplay for the 2022 tournament speaks for itself.
Keywords: FIFA, World Cup, Football, Qatar, Women, Muslims, Islam