The massive hypocrisy of the West’s World Cup ‘concerns’

Belén Fernández

United States Secretary of State Anthony Blinken recently came out against a ban on rainbow armbands at the World Cup tournament in Qatar, which various European team captains had intended to sport in support of LGBTQ rights and against discrimination. Blinken flagged the ban as “concerning” and a restriction on “freedom of expression”.

The secretary’s scolding came on the heels of another rather “concerning” development on the world stage: a mass shooting at a gay nightclub in the US state of Colorado that killed five people and wounded 18 others. This, in a country that fancies itself the global role model in terms of respect for freedom of expression, human rights, and all that good stuff – and yet where it is becoming increasingly difficult for people to exercise their right to not be massacred at nightclubs, elementary schools, places of worship, shopping malls, and so on.

In 2016, the US witnessed its worst mass shooting in history when 50 people were killed in an attack on a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida.

This year, an independent UN human rights expert found that LGBTQ rights in the US are “under a concerted attack” and being “deliberately undermined” by state governments. Add to this landscape the institutionalised racism and discrimination that constitutes “freedom” in the US, and it seems US officials might have slightly more pressing matters to attend to on the home front than World Cup armbands.

Indeed, as this year’s World Cup host, Qatar has come under intense US and European fire on the issue of gay rights as well as migrant worker exploitation (not to mention the violation of the apparent human right to drink beer in sports stadiums). After all, Orientalism dies hard – and what better backdrop for the release of pent-up Western chauvinism than a football tournament in a bona fide Middle Eastern desert, enduring Orientalist symbol of Arab backwardness and resistance to progress?

The point of calling out Western criticisms is not to contend, crassly, that the Gulf emirate is categorically beyond reproach. It is, rather, to highlight the massive hypocrisy that is on display when countries that continue to commit more human rights abuses than Qatar could ever dream of decide to unilaterally award themselves the moral high ground.

It’s kind of like when the US rails against oppressive government behaviour in Cuba. The critiques are not necessarily invalid in and of themselves, but they command zero moral traction given the US’s superior track record of oppression, including its barbarous 60-year embargo of the island and its operation of an illegal prison and torture centre on occupied Cuban territory in Guantánamo Bay.

As the old saying goes, look in the mirror before you judge others.

Navid Zarrinnal, a scholar of Iran and the Middle East at Stanford University in California, remarked in an email to me that “Western supremacist attitudes and cultural imperialism” are being showcased at the World Cup – “disguised”, as usual, as “advocacy for human rights”. This arrangement naturally makes it difficult for Western states and NGOs to “prioritise self-reflection over their saviour anxieties”.

The people who are “parachuting into Qatar to lecture them about gay rights”, Zarrinnal said, are ignorant of the long history of homosexuality in the Arab world, which is “reflected in their poetry, visual art, and social history”. He continued on to describe how Western powers, now with their footballers at the vanguard, have instead reduced the panorama to a simplistic narrative of repression – salvation from which depends entirely on whether Arab homosexuality can be “molded into the same LGBTQ identities they have in their own countries”.

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