Out in the World: Qatar's human rights record casts a dark cloud over the World Cup tournament

  • by Heather Cassell, BAR Contributor
  • Thursday November 17, 2022
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U.K.-based gay activist Peter Tatchell staged a one-man protest in Doha, Qatar last month leading up to the World Cup. Photo: Courtesy Peter Tatchell Foundation
U.K.-based gay activist Peter Tatchell staged a one-man protest in Doha, Qatar last month leading up to the World Cup. Photo: Courtesy Peter Tatchell Foundation

Qatar isn't getting the attention that it wanted by hosting the men's world soccer championship in the small Middle Eastern country, as its dismal human rights record and homophobia have been on full display.

The FIFA Men's World Cup 2022 begins with Qatar facing Ecuador November 20. The 32-team tournament ends December 18.

More than 1.2 million visitors from around the world are expected to generate more than $6 billion in revenue for the country, reported Human Rights Watch.

The country's human rights record, especially LGBTQ rights, has come under harsh scrutiny around the world as queer and human rights organizations, soccer leagues, and fans demonstrate or skip the games out of safety concerns. A recent column by former B.A.R. sports columnist Roger Brigham urged viewers at home not to watch the games.

The San Francisco Recreation and Park Department, meanwhile, has partnered with Street Soccer USA to provide free public viewing parties of the FIFA World Cup games beginning November 21 at the Crossing at East Cut in the city's South of Market district. There will also be a World Cup Village in Union Square (333 Post Street) beginning daily at 8 a.m. from November 25 to 27.

The U.S. Soccer Federation is using a rainbow version of its crest at the Americans' World Cup training facility in Doha, Qatar, the Associated Press reported November 14.

The America team, which has its World Cup opener against Wales on November 21, will not wear the rainbow crest on its uniforms. It is part of the federation's Be the Change initiative.

"When we are on the world stage and we are in a venue like Qatar, it's important to already bring awareness to these issues," U.S. coach Gregg Berhalter said Monday, according to the AP. "And that's what Be the Change is about, it's not just stateside that we want to bring attention to social issues, it's also abroad. And we recognize that Qatar has made strides, there has been a ton of progress, but there's still some work to do."

Same-sex relationships are illegal in Qatar.

Some Qatari LGBTQ people have spoken out, concerned about the effects of Westerners' pro-LGBTQ demonstrations leading up to the World Cup.

Conflicting statements about LGBTQ people's safety from Qatari and FIFA representatives, espousing that queer people will be safe in the country that criminalizes same-sex relationships and calling for LGBTQ visitors to respect Qatar's Islamic laws, haven't quelled some advocates' concerns.

The tension has been simmering since 2010 when Qatar was selected to host the global soccer competition. It's not all about LGBTQ rights, as advocates also note Qatar's abuses of workers and women. It is now threatening to boil over, much to organizers' dismay.

Conflicting messages

A spotlight on the country's poor human rights record, rather than soccer, is exactly what FIFA and Qatar leaders did not want. The global soccer association and the Persian Gulf country's leaders released statements promising safety for LGBTQ soccer athletes and fans during the games. Some foreign officials urged queer soccer fans to respect Qatar.

A statement to the Standard Media from the Qatar government described it as a country of "warm hospitality" that would continue to ensure the safety of all "regardless of background."

However, recent statements made by FIFA's top officials, including Qatari FIFA World Cup ambassador and former footballer Khalid Salman, and Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al-Thani, Qatar's deputy prime minister and minister of foreign affairs, heightened concerns among many LGBTQ soccer fans.

In an interview with a German reporter, Salman responded to a question about gays by saying it was "haram," meaning forbidden, according to Islamic law.

He continued, adding, "It is damage in the mind," and expressed he was concerned children may learn "something that is not good."

A Qatari official quickly ended the interview, which was part of a documentary that aired on German television station ZDF November 8.

There was a swift backlash from some politicians, soccer organizations, activists, and fans.

Salman is employed by Qatari organizers, not by FIFA, reported Sky News.

Salman, 60, later claimed in a tweet that his comment was taken out of context and reiterated Qatar's message, "Everyone is welcome in Qatar, but our religion and culture will not change for the championship."

Sheikh Mohammed told Sky News, "We have our cultural norms. We have our society and what they like and what they don't like. We are not going to change the society for [a] four-week event. Yet we are respecting everyone and expecting from everyone to respect our laws."

This month, FIFA President Gianni Infantino called on teams to focus on soccer and reportedly asked them not to be dragged into every ideological battle that exists, reported CBC News.

Diplomats appeared split, some standing with Qatar and others expressing criticism.

United Kingdom Foreign Secretary James Cleverly urged football fans to be "respectful" of the host nation and "compromise," reported Pink News. Cleverly plans to attend the tournament despite a recent survey by Public First for More in Common that found 62% of British people believe Qatar's stance on gay rights should ban it from hosting the global tournament.

Germany's interior minister and sports minister, Nancy Faeser, called Salman's comments "awful," reported Barron's. German Football Association president Bernd Neuendorf also condemned the remarks.

Last month, Faeser was called in by Qatar's government after making statements criticizing the country's human rights record. Despite her criticism of Qatar, Faeser will travel to watch Germany's opening World Cup match against Japan, reported Euronews.

Prince William, who is president of the Football Association, currently does not plan to attend the games due to a busy schedule traveling in the U.S. If England makes it to higher levels in the competition, his schedule could be altered, Kensington Palace said, reported Sky News.

U.S. State Department spokesperson Ned Price, a gay man, called Salman's comments a "great concern," reported the Associated Press.

Price remarked that the U.S.'s relationship with Qatar is based on "areas of mutual interest."

Those interests, "allows us to discuss what is important with the United States and values of tolerance, diversity, of respecting all people regardless of who they are or whom they love," Price said. "I suspect we'll be addressing that directly."

Speaking out

LGBTQ advocates view Salman's comments as evidence that LGBTQ soccer players and fans will not be safe in the country.

"Football has come on a long way over the last decade in becoming a much more inclusive sport where LGBTQ+ people are recognized and respected," Robbie DeSantos, director of communications at Stonewall UK, told Sky News. "The ambassador's comments just show that this is not a tournament for everyone. This is not a tournament where LGBTQ+ people are going to be welcomed."

Western LGBTQ activists have responded by staging demonstrations. On October 25, gay rights activist Peter Tatchell protested outside the National Museum of Qatar in Doha, the country's capital, wearing a white T-shirt with the hashtag "#QatarAntiGay." All Out protested outside the FIFA Museum in Zurich November 8. Tatchell and All Out are based in the U.K.

Tatchell is hosting another demonstration November 19 outside Qatar's embassy in London, according to an announcement from the Peter Tatchell Foundation.

In a petition, a coalition of French LGBTQ organizations has asked the French Football Federation and French football professionals to take a public stand against Qatar's abuses against LGBTQ people and other communities. Soccer captains from England, France, and Germany have pledged to wear "One Love" rainbow armbands to demonstrate against the country and show solidarity with Qatar's LGBTQ community during the tournament.

Consensual gay sex can be punished with up to seven years in prison. According to Human Rights Watch, years can be tacked onto the sentence for other penalties, such as instigating or enticing sodomy (three years) and any consensual sexual relations can be penalized up to 10 years. Under Sharia law people in same-sex relationships can be sentenced to death.

HRW is one of the human rights organizations that has been outspoken about its concerns for LGBTQ soccer players and fans traveling to Qatar for the games, queer Qataris living in the country, and the country's other human rights abuses against workers and women. Last month, HRW released a report about LGBTQ rights in Qatar and accused the country's authorities of arbitrarily arresting and abusing suspected LGBTQ Qataris leading up to the games.

The co-founder of LGBTQ online platform Ahwaa, which is popular in North Africa and the Middle East with thousands of users, isn't convinced queer soccer players and fans will be safe in Qatar.

Speaking anonymously with iNews due to increased threats, the Ahwaa co-founder said FIFA officials left their conversations hanging.

The news outlet reported it conducted its own investigation, which echoed HRW's report. The media outlet found the "government's Preventive Security Department hunts gay men and trans women on dating apps, entrapping and luring them to hotel rooms before arresting and deporting them."

The Ahwaa co-founder accused FIFA officials of simply glossing over the issue, claiming they worked directly with local LGBTQ Qataris and set up some safety measures to protect LGBTQ players and fans.

A FIFA spokesperson told iNews that the organization had mechanisms in place to protect LGBTQ people during the World Cup. FIFA officials have also stated that rainbow flags would be allowed to fly around the stadium.

Matt Beard, executive director of All Out, the LGBTQ organization that organized the protest in Zurich, told CBC News, "We are demanding from FIFA, from the Qatari government that LGBT+ football fans who traveled to Qatar to enjoy the sport are safe and protected and can be their authentic selves."

Don't speak for us

Not all LGBTQ Qataris are thrilled with Western LGBTQ activists criticizing their country and government.

Gay Qatari Dr. Nasser Mohamed, who founded Osra Medical in San Francisco, is critical of the attention focused on LGBTQ visitors to Qatar and not queer people living in the country, he told the AP.

"Being in a country that has no LGBT visibility, no conversations about what it's like to be an LGBT person, made me feel like there's something wrong with me," he said, which is why he came out last year to open the conversation for the World Cup. Feeling an urgency, he said he wanted to let people know "that we're not OK."

However, protesting doesn't work in Qatar, a country that rarely has any demonstrations, he said.

"It's just so illogical to protest ... if anything will cause the regime to retaliate," said Mohamed, who worked with Tatchell on culturally competent strategies in Qatar. Tatchell broke his promise to him not to protest during the World Cup, he said.

He told Newsweek that Tatchell's methods may have worked in other contexts, but they were not the right fit for Qatar and certainly didn't show the risks and "all the fights that we've been fighting."

Tatchell didn't immediately respond to a request for comment. He did tell Newsweek, "There's many different ways of campaigning, and they're all valid. I think my protest in Doha has achieved a massive global media coverage."

Too dangerous

Some LGBTQ soccer fans are skipping the World Cup all together due to safety concerns while others are boycotting watching the games on TV.

Mexican lesbian Saskia Niño de Rivera told the AP she planned to propose to her partner, a Mexican lesbian soccer agent, at the World Cup. But after learning more about Qatar, the couple decided to skip the tournament. De Rivera proposed to her partner in Amsterdam over the summer instead.

"As a lesbian woman, it's really hard for me to feel and think that we are going to a country where we don't know what could happen and how we could be safe," she said. "It was a really hard decision."

De Rivera and her partner are not alone. LGBTQ sports organizations such as Denver's You Can Play Project to Argentina's Gays Passionate About Soccer are sitting out the games.

Jamie Greene, a member of the Scottish Parliament, told the BBC, "If you can find a positive in any of this, it has certainly put the issue of equality, women's rights and LGBT+ rights on the radar of the international stage."

Got international LGBTQ news tips? Call or send them to Heather Cassell at WhatsApp/Signal: 415-517-7239, or [email protected]

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