While we support condemnation of human rights abuses in Qatar, many Western criticisms are rooted in Islamophobia and should make us reflect on the rights of migrants and queer people in the UK.
As the eyes of the world turn to Qatar with the kick-off of the World Cup, there has been a lot of debate about the country’s human rights record and the ethics of Qatar being the host. Of course, we do not condone any of the human rights abuses that have taken place in the country, both recently and long before the World Cup preparations. We want to remember the migrants who have suffered or died whilst stadiums were erected. It is deeply sad and harrowing to hear the stories of all those who died for the sake of this event.
But we want to take this moment to question some of the rhetoric that has appeared, particularly from Western countries. Qatar has received condemnation for its abuses of migrant workers and queer people. Whilst we condemn the treatment of both communities at the hands of the Qatari state, we also recognise that Western virtue signalling, both by Westerners in Qatar and by the British media at large, is not a viable solution to this problem. It is almost important to recognise the same volume of criticism was not present at the last World Cup, when Russia hosted the event.
Many have been quick to condemn the treatment and rampant exploitation of migrant workers in Qatar without reflecting on what is happening in their own pitches. It was clear that we were aware of the situation facing migrant workers in Qatar for years, and the condemnation has come far too late. Furthermore, whilst the Qatari state’s abuse of migrant workers remains in the spotlight, we must not lose sight of the migrant workers who are abused and who die in Europe. Nor must we forget the migrant workers that die at sea due to Fortress Europe’s border violence and a lack of safe routes. It is time that we stop putting ourselves on a righteous pedestal, and look inwards.
We should be compelled to reflect on the treatment of migrant workers closer to home. We know from our work and the work of our partners, that exploitation and modern slavery is widespread and growing in the UK.
According to our own Government, between July and September this year, 4,586 potential victims of modern slavery were referred to the Home Office by the National Referral Mechanism. This is a 10% increase on the previous quarter. We know many will never reach the high threshold of modern slavery or as exploited, and many more will never come forward to report their horrific experiences because of fear.
LGBTQ+ people and queer communities
There has been a lot of condemnation of treatment of LGBTQ+ people and queer communities in Qatar. While of course, we stand against violence towards queer people in all its forms, we want to point out the hypocrisy and question the motives behind it. LGBTQ+ rights are often weaponised by state actors in geopolitics. Queer Qataris exist, and the virtue signalling done by the West will only harm the progress that local activists have made on the ground, and will put queer Qataris at greater risk. We understand that whilst queerness has thrived in the Global South prior to European colonialism, the fact of the matter remains that queer rights are being seen by the Qatari state as a Western import. It is imperative that we cease engaging in human rights imperialism, and that we stand in solidarity with queer Qataris. We must respect and amplify their voices and desires. They know best the situation in their home country, and they should be the ones leading the fight. Western imperialism and virtue signalling has no place in the journey for queer liberation.
We must reject this idea or specifically the idea of homonationalism (short for homonormative nationalism). In Jasbir Puar’s book Terrorist Assemblages: Homonationalism in Queer Times states, in the wake of 9/11 the United States constructed itself as ‘gay-safe’ in comparison to the Middle East and saw homosexuality being included into the “us” of the “us-versus-them” nationalist rhetoric. It is the idea that certain liberals within the queer community and their allies uphold certain ideas of progress and modernity. It goes hand in hand with the idea that certain Western cultural and social norms are the ideal, in contrast to other cultures. It’s more likely you have heard of the term pinkwashing which refers to the appropriation of LGBTQ+ rights to advance a particular political agenda, rather than having any genuine concern for the rights of queer people.
Islamophobia and queerness
A lot of the criticism of Qatar, especially with respect to queer rights, is inherently Islamophobic. The common narrative is that Islam is a fundamentally ‘barbaric’, ‘violent’ religion and therefore at odds with queer liberation. Yet this narrative dismisses a highly obvious point: that queer Muslims exist and have always existed. As with all religious texts, queer-affirmative interpretations of the Quran do exist, and allow for a beautiful reconciliation of queerness and Islam.
The idea that Qatar’s stance on LGBTQ rights is solely down to Islam ignores the fact that actually, it has more to do with geopolitics and the lasting legacies of Western imperialism, than any claim of essentialised cultural or religious backwardness. The fact that we have ‘gay clubs’ or queer spaces is because they are a place where queer communities can feel safe. The world, yes, even in the UK, is still fundamentally unsafe for queer people.
How can we in the West comfortably portray ourselves as defenders of LGBTQ+ rights when homophobic and transphobic hate is increasing in the UK. Our trans siblings are being used as a scapegoat and we are watching the few rights they have being eradicated. Hateful or fascist stickers are appearing in their workplaces or doctors’ surgeries. Friends and loved ones in the community feel increasingly unsafe. We take measures every day to protect ourselves or those around us while many still feel they can’t come out to those around them.
We’re in no position in the UK to place ourselves on a moral high ground and condemn the actions of another country when so many of these issues are prevalent here. While we want to condemn States, governments and the like when they oppress communities and identities, we cannot stand on a moral pedestal while we backtrack on rights for migrants or queer and trans people here. These vulnerable and marginalised groups are also oppressed in the West and yet the West becomes outraged when these actions are done by non-Western actors or when it is useful to their interests.
Statement from MRN – Fizza Qureshi (she/her), Anastasia Gavalas (she/they) and Julia Tinsley-Kent (she/her)