From the day Qatar was awarded an opportunity to host the FIFA men’s World Cup in 2022, Islamophobic coverage of the Qatari state has proliferated in Western media. The Western media discourse has been heavily focused on highlighting human rights issues, immigration laws, climate, and bribery accusations while obscuring possible successes of the first Muslim country to hold the FIFA World Cup. For example, an article on Bleacher Report with the title “6 reasons why the World Cup should be taken away from Qatar,“ led with concerns about scorching heat in the small Gulf State, followed by criticisms of how the event would cause a “disruption to European leagues.” At the same time, other sport media analysts have questioned why an Arab country (approximate population of 2.8 million) with little soccer history succeeded in becoming the host nation. Such reporting serves to cast doubts on the acceptability of holding a mega-sporting event in a Muslim country.
In recent years, Qatar has made meaningful changes in its human rights laws as compared to many Muslim countries in the region. For instance, in a small but symbolic action, Qatar will allow football fans to display rainbow LGBT+ “pride” flags during the World Cup. Similarly, the Qatari government has now formally recognized the harsh conditions of migrant workers and promised to take steps to improve their lives. These changes depict how a mega international sporting event, such as the World Cup, can have a socio-political impact on a conservative society. Thereby, rather than calling to ban Muslim countries from inclusion in hosting mega-events, there may be benefits in encouraging a sporting culture in the Muslim world. Further, the one-sided discourse in Western media about Qatar poses a threat to the rising sporting culture among Muslim women in the region. Overall, the current portrayal of Qatar in the popular sporting press illustrates the existence of Islamophobic bias within the Western media and broadly in the sporting industry.
Numerous scholars have argued that media discourse on sports is not just about sports but is also entangled in a variety of socio-historical forces. Historically, global sport media and culture have been dominated by Euro-Western nations. For instance, in my own Ph.D. dissertation research on sporting culture in South Asia, which involved collecting data from marginalized Muslim women taking part in traditional sports within the Islamic Republic of Pakistan, I uncovered how British colonizers systematically eliminated traditional and indigenous sports in the Indian sub-continent to further their sporting agenda. In this research, I also examined how Western media and scholarly discourse propagates a biased, Islamophobic understanding of sporting culture in the Muslim world. Ultimately, there are very few Arab voices among media analysts in the West. Hence, the biased reporting against the Qatari state may be understood through the broader lens of Islamophobia prevalent in the Western media.
Scholars such as Mahmoud Arghavan, Tariq Amin-Khan, and Sunniya Wajahat have previously used Edward Said’s (1978) work on Orientalism to understand broader Islamophobic trends in Western media. Said defined Orientalism as consisting of three symbiotic elements. The first element of Said’s definition entails a Western academic bias toward harvesting and teaching knowledge about the Muslim world via a Eurocentric lens. The second element emphasizes Orientalism “as a means of thought” in the broader Western discourse (e.g., popular media), whereas the third element of the definition elucidates how Orientalism is a Eurocentric style for controlling, rearranging, and maintaining colonial authority over the East (aka Orient). Considering Orientalism as a Eurocentric “means of thought” helps explain the tendency of Western sports media analysts to believe that the Western world has the true birthright to control and organize sporting events and structures. In contrast, the Muslim and Arab world are portrayed as disorganized, anti-human, and retrograde by the same media analysts. For instance, the implicit belief in covering the Qatar World Cup from many sport media experts stems from targeting the capability of an Arab country to hold a mega-event rather than discussing how Qatar can improve its policies to make the event more inclusive.
Therefore, to tackle the current wave of Orientalism, the Qatari state needs a comprehensive strategic media policy. For example, the Qatari state should be open about current human rights issues and discuss how they plan to resolve them within the cultural context. Attempting to hide data and information because of the fear of being prosecuted by the Western media and sporting organizations, such as FIFA, can further aggravate Orientalist discourse. For sport media consumers, considering a broader socio-historical lens while reading and analyzing current Western media coverage of the FIFA men’s World Cup in 2022 can yield important insight. Keeping in mind Edward Said’s concept of Orientalism as a “means of thought” used to marginalize the East can help us untangle the inherent Islamophobic bias that has permeated much of the Western popular discourse about the World Cup and broader Muslim world.
Dr. Umer Hussain is a post-doctoral research associate at Texas A&M University, USA. His scholarship focuses on investigating the intersection between race, religion, and gender in sports and the eSports context.