There has been a lot of kerfuffle on social media regarding the FIFA World Cup in Qatar. Principally, this has to do with the absence of beer at the football stadium, the ban on LGBTQ public displays of affection, and the violation of human rights of the expatriate workers. In response to such criticisms, respondents have pushed back, stating that Qatar should not be subjected to Western values, and that the West itself is hypocritical for it is tarnished with the baggage of slavery, colonialism, and exploitation of both labour and resources. However, two wrongs do not make one right. Thus, while people are free to deflect Western criticism by engaging in whataboutism, they require deeper scrutiny of their own values.
First, Western values are not Western but rather universal. Geoffrey Hodgson writes in his book ‘Wrong Turnings: How the Left Got Lost’ that the UN Declaration of Human Rights is not about imposing Western values on the rest of the world but rather a statement to not be like the West as it went through the era of populism, totalitarianism of both the left (under Stalin) and the right (under Nazism), and wars that wreaked havoc on humanity. Thus, the universal declaration of human rights was born out of such horrors and serves as a warning to the rest of the world that still reels under authoritarian dictators in the Middle East and China, the far-right populist regime in Modi’s India, or the equally oppressive military junta in Myanmar. All such places are rife with human rights violations, where poor Yemenis suffer under Saudi bombardment, poor Muslims under mob lynching and rights deprivation led by the Hindutva brigade, Uyghur Muslims under Chinese repression, and the Rohingya Muslims under a genocidal military junta.
Second, the issues raised about Qatar are real and the deflection of criticism seems to be more about identity politics where identity thumping trumps genuine regard for human beings. Qatar has every right to ban alcohol consumption in public and public displays of affection as a matter of principle. However, many such Gulf Countries already allow the consumption of alcohol in avenues including hotels, dance clubs, and entertainment parlours. Additionally, the beaches have sections where Westerners can dress freely in skimpy swimming attire. Moreover, the issue of LGBTQ public displays of affection is really a storm in a teacup when Arab men hold hands and publicly kiss and hug like the French or the Russian. Thus, the concerns on such issues are more about the purity politics of the critics and the identity thumping by the respondents than anything else.
Third, and this is true especially of Pakistanis, who try to behave as the flag bearers of Muslims and Islam, that not all criticism of Qatar is without merit. After all, they of all people should know better of the poor living and working conditions of the Pakistani maskeen (the ones who receive alms) in rich Gulf countries. It should be noted that these are the same countries that have awarded the highest civilian awards to the far-right PM Modi of India. It is only poor people from South Asian countries including Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, and Nepal who would be able to tell you horror stories of physical and sexual exploitation, poor working conditions, and the life with bunker beds in overpopulated rooms. Pakistanis can also recall the plight of young boys who have been used in camel racing as jockeys and the differential treatment based on the origin of one’s passport (European versus South Asian).
Moreover, Pakistanis should understand that they are closer to non-Muslims like Sri Lankans than Muslims including Afghans, Indian Muslims, Bangladeshis, Iranians, or the Arabs, several of whom view Pakistan with contempt partly due to the ill-conceived policies of its democratically unaccountable leaders. Thus, Pakistanis don’t have to rush headlong in defending Qatar and instead uphold human rights anywhere and everywhere as per the Qur’anic dictate to speak the truth even if it be against one’s own people.
To recapitulate, some of the criticism of Qatar is a storm in a teacup and is based equally on the intransigence of critics and the identity thumping of the respondents. Two men holding hands or kissing on the cheeks in public is a non-issue in Arab countries. Likewise, both alcohol and pork are freely available in various avenues in the Gulf. However, critics do have a point when they raise concerns on the human rights violations of poor South Asian workers and those complicit include both Western corporations and the rich Arab governments in the Gulf.
Finally, instead of identity thumping we need to come together, as echoed by the young man Al Muftah with Morgan Freeman that: “With tolerance and respect, we can live together under one big home”. And this includes LGBTQ folks, who are part of our family and friends. In essence, it should be reiterated that human rights are neither Western nor exclusively Islamic but rather they are universal.