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The Dartmouth
June 16, 2024 | Latest Issue
The Dartmouth

Alsheikh: A Goal for Orientalism

Western media coverage of the Qatar World Cup was influenced by ancient Orientalist and Islamophobic tropes.

The 2022 Qatar World Cup was supposed to be a time for intercultural communication and appreciation — yet, even as the Asian and African worlds bonded together over football, the West reverted to promoting age-old tropes of Oriental despotism and primitivism. 

Throughout the month-long competition, French magazines took to depicting Arab footballers as terrorists. Germany’s manager Jurgen Klinsmann proclaimed that it’s “in the culture” of Iranians to cheat and heckle and British news anchors claimed that Qatari culture is an “abomination.” A case study of British media publications revealed that only 5% of articles covered Qatar positively, with the majority taking a strong negative tone. Even traditionally neutral organizations opted to attack Qatar: In an unprecedented move, the BBC didn’t broadcast Qatar’s opening ceremony, instead choosing to lecture football fans on Qatar’s human-rights violations.  According to the Guardian,  Qatar is known for two things: “huge oil reserves” and “flagrant human rights abuses”. Such a sweeping generalization sums up what Western attitudes have been to the small gulf nation in recent months: dehumanizing and Orientalist. Centuries-old bigotries against Arabs and Muslims have resurfaced because a small Arab country found itself in a position of attention.

That’s not to say that Qatar’s problems don’t exist— they do, but they’ve been completely misrepresented. Take for example, the widely-circulated Guardian article about Qatar alleging that “6,500 migrant workers have died in Qatar since World Cup awarded”. Contrary to its headline, what the article actually reported was the total number of immigrants who had died from any cause, including deaths “due to natural causes, chronic illness or even traffic accidents”. This is only one example of a larger trend; newspapers around the world have sacrificed their journalistic integrity to attack a small Arab country for hyperbolized crimes.

These exaggerated narratives draw on real workers’, womens’ and LGBTQ problems that exist in Qatar, but willfully ignore their context and relative magnitude. For example, while conditions for workers in Qatar were lamentable at the start of the decade, great strides have been taken to improve their situation — measures taken by the Qatari government to improve the treatment of workers include ending the infamous kafala system, establishing a workers’ compensation fund of over 164 million dollars, allocating nearly a billion dollars for the payment of quarantined workers, among many other efforts which our news publications have altogether ignored. In the words of Builders and Woodworkers International, “there have been enormous changes and progress in the country…migrant workers have great expectations."  As a result, less workers die per capita in Qatar than in the UK, the source of most of Qatar’s criticism, as well as India, where most migrant workers emigrate from. These developments have barely been touched upon in mainstream Western media coverage.

Even in the world of women’s rights, the country has made tremendous progress: Qatar has a higher proportion of female students in college than both the United States and the UK  (85.4% vs. 54.9% and 56.6%), as well as a higher percent of women participating in the workforce than in the United States and most of Western Europe (57.22% vs. the US’s55.23%, Germany’s 56.84%, and France’s 51.9%). In regards to sexual freedoms, in 2020 no LGBTQ Qataris suffered “arrests or prosecutions under the law”, whereas in the U.S. hundreds of LGBTQ+ Americans became victims of violent hate crimes in the same year. While these observations are imperfect comparisons that don’t tell the whole story, they do show that the West cannot be morally superior to Qatar as we’ve been told. 

Another sign of our own hypocrisy can be found in how other recent sporting events have been covered. Compare the 2022 World Cup coverage to the 2018 World Cup, which Russia hosted. That World Cup took place as Russia was actively arming Assad’s Syrian government whilst they committed crimes against humanity, and just four years after Russia illegally annexed Crimea. Despite this, Western news outlets only brought up Russia’s World Cup for criticism in less than 3% of their news articles, usually separating their coverage of the tournament from criticism of the state. In one study’s sample, researchers found only three articles in Western media that mentioned Russia’s hosting alongside the burgeoning conflict in Ukraine. Furthermore, after the Russian opening ceremony (which BBC aired), Western criticism of the World Cup largely stalled, whereas in Qatar it only intensified as the opening ceremony unfolded. The same phenomenon was observed earlier this year in China — while criticism of China’s hosting of the Olympic games was voiced (due to, among other things, their ongoing genocide against the Uyghers), ultimately it petered out as after the opening ceremony got underway (which, again, BBC aired). Bringing up these examples isn’t whataboutism; that Qatar is being covered more negatively than other countries for lesser crimes shows the double standard of our media.

What a coincidence that the first major international sporting event held in a Muslim country was met with unprecedented backlash in the West. I would argue that Nazi Germany hosted their Olympics with less Western outrage than Qatar hosting the World Cup — will we be blind to our own double standards? Clearly, we as a culture are still gripped by centuries-old prejudices regarding Arabs and Muslims; rather than viewing them as human beings with a unique set of sociopolitical challenges, we here in the West only allow ourselves to view them as oppressors, tyrants and despots. That a small but prosperous nation with a rich cultural heritage can be reduced into nothing more than a “human rights hellhole” by our media is a dangerous sign for the future of East-West relations. Orientalism is built on the idea that there is an “ absolute and systematic difference between the West, which is rational, developed, humane, superior, and the Orient, which is aberrant. undeveloped, inferior” — this theme is easily read throughout the West’s recent coverage of Qatar’s World Cup, as Danyel Reiche of the American University of Beirut argues.

We in the West, sitting on top of our legacies of colonialism and oppression, would do well to remember that Qatar is more than “huge oil reserves” and “flagrant human rights abuses”; it is a community of human beings with unique circumstances and problems. Leave point-scoring and antagonism for the field: treat Muslims like they’re human beings, not the opposing team.