So football, whether we like it or not is now all over the news. For some it is one of the great sporting events – for others it is 22 people kicking a ball in a field, but that is the least of our arguments! The news is also full of armbands and protests or the stopping of protest / expression, and the righteous heat is somewhat like the fans’ support of their team, though the issues are rather more serious and life-threatening than a game of football.
Arab states, and most “traditional” societies hold to “traditional” values when it comes to sex and marriage, even if not everyone lives by them. They are also more authoritarian in government and less tolerant of protestation. We should note that this is how most western nations were until quite recently.
The Human Rights movement is a relatively recent phenomenon birthed from a mix of accepted Jewish-Christian values and a growing sense that all human beings are of equal worth (itself something that was developed from Genesis 1 and a belief that Christ died for all). Sadly these theological beliefs had not had the power to change the West’s view of slavery until the 19th century, and it took longer for them to influence labour laws, universal suffrage etc. Today we struggle to incorporate community rights with individual rights.
It is a further form of Western colonialism to expect all other parts of the world to adopt “our” values, however passionately we hold to them.
There are various debates swirling around in the desert heat: whether a country as small as Qatar, and with such a modest football record, should be a host; whether it is remotely green to build stadia which will never be used again; whether, or to what extent, there was corruption in the bidding process; whether a society that uses cheap foreign labour is one to be encouraged (and where health and safety, workers’ rights etc seem to be minimal); whether a country which criminalises LGBTI+ people is one that should host a world event. Then there are comparative questions: is Qatar worse than Russia (host in 2018 – 4 years after it had invaded and annexed Crimea), or China with its persecution of Uighur people and its overrunning of Hong Kong democratic values, or Iran or .. ? Is it maybe easier to have a go at a smaller nation? – where is the consistency? How much worse do we believe Qatar to be than our own present and past?
I can see a number of far from good results. We can demonise Qatar while avoiding wider questions of human rights. We can relativise it all so we end up paralysed into inaction. We can avoid asking questions about our own record and current practice. We can pretend it doesn’t matter and say it is all about the football. We can feel self-righteous in our indignation but have done nothing to make things better.
What really matters? I suggest something that really matters is when ordinary people lose their lives because of oppression or corruption. Qatar built floodlights to illuminate these new stadia but the floodlights also are illuminating the dead workers and the living conditions of so many, and the extraordinary quality-of-life discrepancy between the citizens of Qatar (11.6% of population) and the millions of workers who build and maintain that life quality, but ours is becoming a less equal society as well!
The Iranian team who were silent for their national anthem showed the courage of the anti-apartheid protesters, and the determination of the Tolpuddle Martyrs and suffragettes. If we are all better informed about our history of oppression and of resistance, then at least something good will come from this strange few weeks of international sport, and if we are motivated to do something for justice for the oppressed and most marginal, inspired by acts of courage, then something better still. What would “winner” really look like?