Breaking myths on Islam through world cup: The Qatar way

For a long, oriental worldview has dominated the differences between Arab people and culture compared to that of the West. The world cup has given Qatar and the Arab World at large an opportunity to reset those narratives that include Islamophobia.

Sport is a robust platform to reach a wider audience cutting across cultural and national differences. Sport is a valued human act that teaches respect for others, endurance, and teamwork. It also provides an opportunity to maintain relations despite strong conflicts. Taking advantage of this, Qatar made sports an essential component of its soft power strategy. By excelling in sports participation or hosting successful, events, countries earn international image and reputation. 

The tiny Arab Gulf State received the right to host the FIFA World Cup from the governing body on 2 December 2010. Since then, Qatar has met a storm of criticism, and numerous Western countries have shown much scepticism. All financed by Qatar’s abundant wealth from its natural gas and oil, Qatar has systematically poured capital into various sporting events at home and abroad. Despite solid criticism of miniature football history, the unfavourable climate for playing football, and allegations of corruption and ill-treatment over its labour rights, Qatar epitomized its image as a truly global sporting destination. 

Qatar also tries to display the best of its culture and hospitality by hosting sports events and creating a glamorous image distinct from its regional competitor through sporting activities. It builds up a reputation and attracts attention to the country. Sports also add to its foreign policy achievements, giving it a distinctive identity. The Western and Euro-centric worldview has long determined what and how “others” are represented. Orientalism distorts and miscommunicates the cultural differences between the east and the West. For a long oriental worldview has dominated and contorted the differences between Arab people and culture compared to that of the West. The world cup has given Qatar and the Arab World at large an opportunity to reset those narratives.

While diversifying its economy and benefitting its income from the hydrocarbon sector Qatar has modernized its infrastructure to grab the attention of the West. It has spotlighted Qatar’s innovative modern culture reflecting its global-local (glocal) consciousness. It captures Qatar’s intention to engage creatively and critically with global processes. A glaring example can be the design and technology behind Qatar’s World Cup stadium architecture like that of AL-Wakrah stadium. This leading football venue of the Qatar World Cup has been designed to symbolize the Qatari Islamic history and future progressive vision.

The Katara Cultural Village Mosque in Doha saw huge footfall. It became the focal point of attention for visitors who wanted to understand the Islamic way of life. The Qatari authority ensured multilingual preachers at the mosque complex to facilitate and explain the essence of the religion. It is consorted effort by the Ministry of Awqaf and Islamic Affairs in Qatar to introduce the teaching and tolerance of Islam during the World Cup 2022. The fans and tourists encountered in the world cup pavilions words, preaching, or habits of Prophet Mohammed emphasizing good life and deeds.

Ironically Qatar faced severe criticism since it won the bid. Like any other Arab and Asian country, football came to Qatar via colonialism. Qatar was a British protectorate and football followed after the 1940s, even before Qatar received its independence. Little credit has been given to the postcolonial understanding of football even when Arab players like Algeria’s Madjer and Egypt’s Saleh have made their commendable journey to Europe’s elite clubs. Qatar has strictly used this narrative to cheer for the victory of other Arab states – such as Saudi over Argentina, Morocco over Belgium, and Spain despite its own national team’s poor performance on the pitch.

The state-of-art infrastructure and the expensive cafes, where the visitor footfall is vital, having painted with quotes from Prophet Mohammad, and malls carry advertisements promoting Islam. The Souf Market area has numerous kiosks of free books and pamphlets on the preaching of Prophet Mohammad in the most marketable ways. Other Islamic centres are open for 12 hours a day for tours and assistance. 

One thing that requires attention is Qatar is a Wahhabi state, and its national mosque is named after the 18th-century religious figure Mohammed Ibn Abdul-Wahab; Qatar has deliberately crafted an image distinct from Saudi Arabia’s. Qatar has women in a high level of governance, with the limited sale of alcohol and for long accommodated its tourist to feel at ease – while somewhere trying to strike a balance between conservative Saudi Arabia and the neoliberal cosmopolitanism of UAE. So when protests started showing on the football pitch, it also showcased the double standards of the Western Countries and came as a mixed blessing for Qatar. Qatar depends on ex-pats for its workforce, and Qatari nationals are accustomed to living with foreigners. The world cup is just another opportunity for Qatar to showcase this multiculturalism countering Islamophobia. 

This is the first time a Muslim nation has hosted a World cup. Some international critics have called the efforts taken by Qatari Authority to covert visitors to Islam. Several social media enthusiasts posted about fans’ changing faith have claimed fake. While there are numerous unverified reports and dozens of claims of people embracing Islam, the Qatari Authority has kept stressing that Islam doesn’t accept conversion through coercion. Qatar’s Ministry of Religious Endowments clarified that the objective of Qatar is not “the number of converts to Islam, but rather the number of those who change their opinion about it.”

Qatar has again got itself into the controversy surrounding the invitation of Muslim preachers from different countries, including Indian Islamist preacher Dr Zakir Naik. The Indian Government bans him, and his “Peace TV” is prohibited in India, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Canada, and the UK. Undoubtedly Qatar is not completely clean and is not a role model for the Arab World. It has hosted sectarian clergies and has financed them to promote its biased views. Also, the expectation from visitors to dress in a particular way and to be sensitive to Qatar’s norms with strong vigilance over websites, news, media, and books shows the very restrictive nature of the state. Restricting visitors on where alcohol can be consumed, modest dress, and sexual preferences are signs why the West has questioned its candidacy as a host of the grand footfall tournament. 

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