Islam researcher explains World Cup dispute: “Many reservations about Qatar are based on ignorance and stereotypes”
The West attacks the World Cup hosts Qatar sharply and persistently, the emirate feels backed into a corner and defends itself fiercely. Islamic scholar Dr. Sebastian Sons explains how dangerous the conflict is, what it means and how it could be resolved.
Qatar wants to impress the world by hosting the first soccer World Cup in an Arab country. Instead, the Gulf Emirate is in the pillory. Exploitation and inhumane treatment of guest workers, the ban on extramarital and homosexual relationships, oppression of women – the list of criticisms is long.
The government of the Islamic country rejects all allegations and sees itself as the victim of a Western dirt campaign. FOCUS online spoke to Islamic scholar Sebastian Sons about the escalating conflict, the consequences and possible solutions.
FOCUS online: Actually, football should connect people. The World Cup in Qatar splits. Do you see the danger that the tournament will drive an even bigger wedge between the West and the Arab countries?
Sebastian Sons: In recent weeks, massive criticism from Europe has prompted an offensive backlash on the Qatari side, labeling the reservations as what Emir Tamim has described as double standards, Eurocentric hypocrisy and a campaign of defamation.
On the one hand, this reaction shows that for many years parts of Arab societies have been growing frustrated with the West, whose criticism of the situation in the Arab world is rejected as patronizing, disrespectful and moralizing.
On the other hand, the Emir also wants to create a stronghold mentality with his statements and is primarily addressing his own population in order to show strength in the face of external attacks and thus strengthen his reputation. At the same time, he must show his powerful neighbors like Saudi Arabia that he will not back down.
Does the massive criticism of Qatar also represent the conflict between Christians and Muslims – and is this dispute being further fueled by the hostilities towards Qatar?
other: Many people in Qatar and other Arab countries perceive the allegations as Islamophobic. The Islamic-Arab world now has the opportunity to host a World Cup for the first time and is largely proud of it.
It would therefore be desirable if both sides de-emotionalised and polarized the debate and entered into a constructive dialogue. Many of the reservations are based on ignorance and stereotypes – also because people are currently talking less to each other than about each other.
About the expert
Sebastian Sons, born in 1981, studied Islamic studies, modern history and political science in Berlin and Damascus. After his studies, he worked as a scientific department head at the German Orient Institute. He then worked as a scientific project assistant in the Middle East and North Africa program of the German Political Society (DGAP) in Berlin. Between 2019 and 2021 he was a consultant in the regional project “Cooperation with Arab donors” of the German Society for International Cooperation (GIZ) GmbH in Jordan. Today he works as a researcher for the Bonn research institute CARPO.
After the violent attacks, especially from Europe, other Arab countries are showing solidarity with Qatar, even if they are not actually close to the emirate. Is there a new “front against the West” forming?
other: For many people in the Arab world, the World Cup in Qatar also represents their ambition to belong to the global football family. That’s why they sometimes see the allegations against Qatar as criticism against them.
Gulf Arab governments in particular want to send a signal to their own people with their solidarity with Qatar by emphasizing Arab unity – despite many differences with each other. The rationale behind this is to improve your image and present leadership strength: the more you feel attacked from outside, the more likely you are to try to close your own ranks.
The West and especially Germany denounce the situation in Qatar. Is this criticism appropriate in its sharp form and in its durability?
other: It would make sense to pay more attention to the sharpness of the criticism: On the one hand, there are justified allegations with regard to the human rights situation and corrupt procurement practices.
On the other hand, the individual points of criticism are blurred, as there is a lot of argument in Germany about the beer ban or the timing of the World Cup in our winter. The latter are rather points that are rightly perceived as Eurocentric and overbearing in many parts of the world. Therefore, in the debate, care should be taken to pay more attention to the nuances.
The Qatar file
Many want to boycott the soccer World Cup in Qatar. In our multimedia story you can read why and what exactly the host country is being accused of and what has happened in the desert state since 2010.
Why does the West prioritize its criticism and not recognition of progress, reforms and things that are going well in Qatar, such as health and education policy or infrastructure development?
other: The Arab world – especially the Gulf monarchies – are going through a dramatic social change, which we often do not notice. This leads to simplifications and black-and-white thinking, while Arab societies are very complex and multi-layered.
The contradiction between modernity and tradition therefore falls short. Instead, completely contradictory developments are taking place in these societies, which we often hardly want to or can hardly perceive from the outside. This leads to a partly one-sided assessment of the situation in the Arab world.
Read here: No taxes, total surveillance and “German doner kebab”: Qatar ticks so strangely
Women’s rights in Qatar, which do not correspond to Western ideas, have also been massively criticized. Women play an important role in the fields of education, science and medicine. Why is this hardly recognized in the West?
other: In particular, young people and women now have much better opportunities to realize themselves. The vast majority of students are female, and many women hold influential positions in business, politics, science and culture. This development is real, leading to a change in gender relations and challenging patriarchal structures.
Here, too, the picture is very complex: while there are emancipated women’s movements in many Arab societies, unequal treatment between men and women still plays a role. Both belong together and cannot be separated.
Russia has received little criticism from the West for hosting the 2018 World Cup, despite having annexed Crimea four years earlier. China, where the Winter Olympics took place in 2022 and where the human rights situation is desolate, was largely spared. Everyone is suddenly hitting Qatar – isn’t that paradoxical?
other: This is also an accusation I often hear in Qatar. I think this has something to do with the fact that the zeitgeist has become more political and critical, and more people are more concerned with the relationship between sport and human rights.
A huge rift has also developed between football fans and the associations, most notably FIFA. Many fans reject the over-commercialization and greed of global football. To a certain extent, the World Cup in Qatar represents a negative climax for all these grievances, but it is only part of their disappointment and anger at the undesirable developments in global football.
Will the constant criticism from Germany have a negative impact on our trade relations and in particular the desired energy partnership with Qatar?
other: Germany and Qatar have intensified their political relations in recent months and regard each other as important partners – in business and energy. At the moment the debate is very heated, but after the World Cup the situation will certainly calm down, which will lead to further political and economic cooperation.
However, cooperation with an autocratic country like Qatar always remains problematic, which is why it would be important for Germany’s foreign policy to develop a long-term strategy based on dialogue and pressure to reconcile values and interests.