Radical cultural relativism versus universality of human rights
Some in the Muslim world and elsewhere are riled up by what they perceive as the hypocritical Western denunciation of Qatar in the context of the World Cup.
“Y’all insisting one wearing the one love band is just disrespectful to the people hosting the game” a connection commented on a recent LinkedIn post. A former World Bank colleague wrote on Facebook: “If you don’t like it. Stay home and watch TV”. Others suggested the West should focus on its own human rights track record. “Who is good on human rights nowadays?” they ask pointing out to the civilian toll of Middle East wars led by Western powers or to the Western indifference to demonstrations in Iran. One asked: “how many Americans can place Qatar on a map?”.
For all those who find the courage to publicly express their indignation, there are many who know better than to draw the ire of the “woke left” but harbor similar concerns. It deserves a response. Here are some talking points for the remainder of the World Cup.
“When in Rome, do as the Romans do”
A first element of response is that the “respect local culture” argument does not apply to human rights. If it did, opposing slavery in the United States, Apartheid in South Africa, Nazism in Germany or Stalinism in Russia would too have been uncouth. Yet, the role expressions of solidarity abroad cannot be understated in contexts when holding such a position send people to jail or worse at home. You can respect countries’ sovereignty, while expressing concern with human rights violations.
Onto the cultural argument…
Now, the second argument — let’s call it the “Hugo Lloris argument” — that human rights is a cultural issue and that Western ideas of human dignity should not be imposed on the rest of the world, is not new. The tension between national sovereignty and international human rights standards dates back to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights origins. However, scholars agree that human rights are not a Western discovery and that non-Western societies had long emphasized the protection of human dignity. Simply put, “Freedom from torture, inhuman or degrading treatment” is a rather universal concept.
In addition, every atrocity from the beginning of time was justified by culture, tradition or religion. The burning of witches, the crusades, the Saint Barthélemy massacre, colonialism and racism were all carried out under the banner of Christianity. The Holocaust was justified by the need to preserve “German purity”. The Khmer Rouge regime wanted to “repair Cambodia”. There is always a moral argument to persecution.
Reopening the culture versus human rights debate undermines the basic agreement humanity reached in 1947 after finding itself on the brink of self-destruction.
Moral imperialism and double-standard
This third argument is probably the most legitimate one: indeed Western Nations have instrumentalized human rights to impose their colonial power on the rest of the World. In doing so, they damaged the human rights framework in long lasting ways.
However, the individuals criticizing Qatar2022, also call out Western shortcomings. If I may take my personal example here, I militate against mass incarceration in the United States or denounce xenophobia in France in the context of laicity (to the point of being persona non-grata in my embassy). Many Qatar2022 critics were also critics of warmongering Western administrations.
Ok but why Qatar and not others?
Why not reserve our outrage for more egregious violators, some are some are asking? LGBTQ+ campaigning is not specifically focusing on Qatar. Last year, the movement denounced the World Economic Forum for wanting to host its annual meeting in Singapore (thankfully that fell through) or COP27 for taking place in Egypt. Secondly, it is not as much Qatar that many of us oppose but FIFA selecting it to host the World Cup and companies sponsoring it without any demand for guarantees. What society expects of international sport events in terms of integrity and the values they carry is not unreasonable. The unapologetic conduct of Qatari authorities with its own people (from oppression of women to jailing of dissenting voices and court-ordered flogging) and migrant workers disqualifies the country from hosting international sport events. Add to it the allegations of corruption and it becomes legitimate to pay close attention to this event. As a side note, Qatar is not a passive nation in its opposition to human rights. At home, the authoritarian regime persecute dissenting voices and oppress minorities. On the International scene, it leads with Egypt and Belarus the infamous Group of Friends of the Family (GoFF) which works with socially-conservative elements in the West to oppose sexual and reproductive rights (read more here). In 2015, it attempted to block spousal benefits for gay U.N. employees.
The elephant in the room: the annoying “Gay lobby”
Lastly, those annoyed with the paltry “one love” campaign are really annoyed with the “gay lobby” and its nagging request that LGBTQ+ people be part of every single conversation. “Not everything is about sex” they seem to tell us. Well, we are not the ones that started it. Same-sex sexual activity is prohibited in Qatar under the Penal Code 2004, which criminalizes acts of ‘sodomy’ and ‘sexual intercourse’ between people of the same sex. Last month Human Rights Watch reported that Qatar’s security department forces had arbitrarily arrested LGBTQ+ people and subjected them to ill‑treatment in detention. Earlier this month, an official FIFA Qatar World Cup ambassador described homosexuality as “damage in the mind” during an interview.
As a people, we have had it with straight oppression. We are over it. In the words of Nina Simone, “me and my people just about due”. Many people do not understand the impact these laws have on us but also our families and communities. The trauma of having to lie to our parents, to our teachers or to our religious leaders, about something so essential about yourself is irreversible damage. We cannot continue to suffer forever to preserve the majority’s comfort and “traditions”.
Perhaps more permissively, some still unconsciously assume that same-sex attraction is less common in the Middle East than in the West but also that gayness is irrelevant in that context. Once of all, there are as many people experiencing same-sex attraction and non-conforming gender identity in Qatar than anywhere else, their suffering is just invisible to the naked eye.
I would add, in response to FIFA President Gianni Infantino’s ripping ‘racist’ critics, that the real racism here is to assume that the Muslim world cannot evolve on LGBTQ+ rights. Attitudes from Tunisia, Lebanon and the Middle East are changing with the rise of social media and progress in many parts of the world including India. The Middle East is far from immune to social change.
There are three types of reaction to Qatar2022: i) those who support it, ii) those who denounce it; iii) and the vast majority who do not care.
Yet, all of us should call out FIFA and its commercial partners (such as Coca-Cola which seems to excel at playing both sides since at least 2013) for giving credibility to Qatar despite its human rights track record including the oppression of LGBTQ+ people without conditions. We should celebrate those who take a courageous stance and keep track of those who do not. This is how change happens. The Singaporean authoritarian regime just agreed to decriminalize — not from its own accord — but under geopolitical and civil society pressure. The Qatar2022 campaign is not useless. There is nothing Western about human dignity, human rights matter and LGBTQ+ lives are valuable.