After Qatar: A Roadmap for Activists

Is it true that reputation laundering or sports washing is why autocrats host big sports events?

January 13, 2023

Qatar 2022 put the myth of a separation of sports and politics to bed.

As in Qatar, human, worker and LGBT rights are likely to be center-stage as other Gulf and North African states host or bid for, some of the world’s top mega-sporting events.

These include the 2030 World Cup and the 2036 Olympics, as well as major Asian tournaments — the Asian Cup and the Asian Games.

FIFA and its fiction

For FIFA, upholding the fiction of a separation of sports and politics will increasingly be perceived as a farce. At the same time, the world soccer body’s decisions on what protests are legitimate during a World Cup — witness Qatar (LGBT, yes, Iran conditionally) — will be seen as political.

Of course, the 2023 FIFA Club World Cup in Morocco in February and the Asian Games later that year in Qatar are not on par with the 2022 World Cup in terms of global reach. Nonetheless, they are litmus tests for hosts and activists alike.

Why autocrats host big sports events

The responsiveness of hosts to activists’ criticism of their adherence to human, worker and LGBT rights will indicate the degree to which image is the top driver of hosting.

In doing so, the Moroccan and Qatari tournaments and similar events in the region scheduled for later in the decade also present a big test as to the validity of suggestions that reputation laundering or sportswashing, an effort to distract from tarnished rights records, is why autocrats host tournaments.

Picking segments of public opinion

The responsiveness of autocratic hosts will provide insights into what segments of global public opinion they care about. After all, activists primarily impact public sentiment in democratic countries where the media report their campaigns that address abuse of rights.

A key determinant of activists’ effectiveness will be their willingness to distance themselves from critics whose positioning is not a concern for achieving and upholding rights but is defined by bias, prejudice, and bigotry.

Lessons from the Qatar campaign

The forthcoming events will also point to what lessons activists have learnt from their campaign during the 12-year run-up to Qatar’s successful hosting of one of the most exhilarating World Cups in the tournament’s history.

Activists’ pressure produced a significant enhancement of worker rights in Qatar, even if the improvements and implementation of reforms fell short of their demands.

Worker rights are low-hanging fruit

As a result, the campaign to improve the working and living conditions of migrant labor in Qatar frames what may be achievable. The real test will be far more complex, culturally sensitive issues that, in contrast to labor, evoke deep-seated passions such as gender and sexual diversity.

Qatar indicates what reforms autocracies (particularly in Muslim-majority states) may entertain. It also points to what compromises are possible to improve the well-being of discriminated or disenfranchised groups, even if they fall short of full recognition of rights, and what areas do not lend themselves to compromise.

Political vs. worker rights

Take political rights for example. Freedom of expression, the media and assembly are indivisible. One can either express oneself, and organize, or one cannot. It’s black and white — there is no middle ground.

Worker rights if granted are a different animal, they significantly improve a worker’s immediate circumstances and quality of life. These rights include the ability to freely change jobs, to travel, to seek regulatory and legal redress of employers’ abuse and so on.

And they include the right to enjoy proper working and living conditions, to demand respect of rights, to have a minimum wage as a benchmark, to elect worker council representatives if adequately implemented.

Trade unions: A hard wall

Demands for independent trade unions, the right to strike and collective bargaining are legitimate and appropriate, yet unlikely to be negotiable. Why so? Simple — they would entail or open the door to a change of an autocratic political system, if not regime change.

Because, if independent trade unions are allowed, why not political parties and pressure groups? If labor strikes are legal, so should protests and demonstrations. If collective bargaining is a fixture, why should other groups not be able to push for rights collectively?

The nature of autocracy

These are all issues that challenge the nature of autocracy. Of course, there is nothing wrong with that. On the contrary.

Nevertheless, activists will have to keep in mind that workers are most concerned about immediate improvements in their working and living conditions initially. Only once those have been achieved will they be more concerned about political rights.

LGBT rights: Don’t ask, don’t tell?

A similar logic plays out on socially controversial issues, particularly LGBT rights. Here, government policy is aligned with public sentiment.

With Muslim populations and Protestants in Africa deeply hostile to LGBT rights, activists will have to be creative in seeking to change a community’s circumstances.

One potential tactic may be to build on the positions of credible, albeit often controversial Muslim scholars, such as Tunisia’s Rached Ghannouchi, an Islamist politician and thinker, and Salman al Audah, a prominent and controversial cleric who has been languishing for years in a Saudi prison.

The two men denounce homosexuality as a sin but deny temporal and religious authorities the right to take punitive action. Instead, they position homosexuality as a sin for which practitioners should be held accountable in a next life.

Speaking in 2015, Mr. Ghannouchi said: “We don’t approve. But Islam does not spy on folks. It preserves privacy. Everyone leads his/her life and is responsible before his/her creator.”

Mr. Al-Audah argued that “even though homosexuality is considered a sin in all the Semitic holy books, it does not require any punishment in this world. One of the fundamentals of Islam is man’s freedom to act as he wants. But one must also take the consequences.”

Mr. Al-Audah went on to say that “homosexuals are not deviating from Islam. Homosexuality is a grave sin, but those who say that homosexuals deviate from Islam are the real deviators. By condemning homosexuals to death, they are committing a graver sin than homosexuality itself.”

Theirs is a formula that neither legalises or legitimises homosexuality nor removes the stigma. But it does avoid criminalization and significantly enhances the lives of members of the LGBT community.

Look at Indonesia and Turkey

This approach builds on arrangements in Muslim-majority countries like Indonesia and Turkey, where homosexuality has not been outlawed but remains socially fraught and challenging.

It also reflects Qatar’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” approach during the 2022 World Cup. Intriguingly, this approach that was rooted in former U.S. President Bill Clinton’s attitude towards members of the LGBT community in the military.

Conclusion

Adopting the “don’t ask, don’t tell” approach is likely a significant steppingstone to full recognition of LGBT rights in a Muslim world where success may only be achieved step by step.

Takeaways

For FIFA, upholding the fiction of a separation of sports and politics will increasingly be perceived as a farce.

The 2023 FIFA Club World Cup in Morocco in February and the Asian Games later that year in Qatar are litmus tests for hosts and activists alike.

Reputation laundering or sportswashing, an effort to distract from tarnished rights records, is why autocrats host tournaments.

Activists’ pressure produced a significant enhancement of worker rights in Qatar, even if the improvements and implementation of reforms fell short of their demands.

Demands for independent trade unions would entail or open the door to a change of an autocratic political system, if not regime change.

Is there a way to avoid criminalization and significantly enhance the lives of members of the LGBT community?