The Associated Press, with bureaus across the globe, put together a great explainer under the headline, “Islam in Qatar explained ahead of FIFA World Cup.” This is a must-read for editors and reporters as well as fans and visitors. Here is how it opens:
Qatar is a Muslim nation, with laws, customs and practices rooted in Islam. The country is neither as liberal as Dubai in the United Arab Emirates nor as conservative as parts of Saudi Arabia. Most of its citizens are Sunni Muslim.
Qatar’s most powerful clan originates from the Arabian Peninsula’s landlocked interior, where the Wahhabi ideology was born. Its national mosque is named after the 18th century religious figure, Mohammed Ibn Abdul-Wahhab, who spurred the ultraconservative interpretation of Sunni Islam known as Wahhabism.
Visitors to this mosque and others in Qatar are asked to dress conservatively, with men covering their knees and women preferably donning loose-flowing robes known as abayas and headscarves.
Unlike Saudi Arabia, where adherence to Wahhabism led to strict segregation of unmarried men and women, banned women from driving and kept concerts, cinemas and even yoga off-limits for decades, Qatar has long sponsored the arts, allowed women to participate in high levels of governance and encouraged tourists to feel at ease in the country. It also permits the sale of alcohol in licensed hotels and bars.
While basic explainer journalism has gone a long way in trying to help readers understand Qatar, this just isn’t enough.
There needs to be more context with the help of Islamic sacred texts and quotes from scholars and imams. There has been little to no English-language journalism featuring this type of basic religion-beat reporting.
This omission has led to the use of Qatari government officials having to describe to everyone what their country will or will not do. It automatically puts them on defense, often filling a reaction quote — often drawn from an online information website — in a news story or feature that’s already been written. The quote is just something to put towards the bottom to present “the other side.”
An estimated 1.5 million international visitors are expected to travel to Qatar for the 32-nation tournament, although many LGBTQ fans say they are not going to make the trip. That’s an important story that has been well covered. The other story that isn’t is what do Qataris think of the World Cup coming to them. Are they willing to welcome the world? We know that the officials say they are. Are Muslims split on such social issues? I have to think they are — but that story hasn’t been reported on as of yet.
In a second explainer, the AP — under the headline “Traveling to, around Qatar during FIFA World Cup” — focused on how to get around and what to see. This section stuck out:
Outside of the tournament, Doha has several cultural sites to visit. Qatar’s Museum of Islamic Art offers both interesting views inside its galleries and a view outside of the city’s skyline. Nearby is Doha’s Souq Waqif, which has traditional storefronts and gifts for sale — including even a falcon section. The National Museum of Qatar, designed by French architect Jean Nouvel, is a take on the desert rose. Qatar’s National Library also is renowned for its design. Doha’s Mall of Qatar has some 500,000 square meters (5.3 million square feet) for shopping. There are also beachfront resorts and tour companies offer trips into Qatar’s desert expanses as well.
It’s clear that Islam, its beliefs and culture will be a major part of this World Cup. These explainers are of use to readers and fans as they will be to travelers – specifically the thousands of journalists from around the globe – who will descend on Qatar to file stories over the course of the 29-day competition.
Much of the coverage has been critical. Much of that comes from the fact that Qatar was given the World Cup by FIFA at a time when the soccer’s world organizing body was rife with corruption. Coupled with the Middle East’s clash of Western mores and a misunderstanding of religion that has created a unique set of circumstances never before seen ahead of such a massive sporting event.
I wrote a piece about this at Religion Unplugged back in December 2021, 11 months ahead of the tournament, that pinpointed the following:
Qatar has come under fire over the past few years in the lead up to the 2022 World Cup primarily for its abuse of migrant workers used to build the stadiums that will be used throughout the month-long competition. Beyond that, the biggest issue remains what to do about drinking and LGBTQ rights. Homosexuality, for example, is punishable by flogging and imprisonment.
Australia’s Josh Cavallo, a defender who came out as gay in October, said he would be afraid to play at the World Cup in Qatar because of the Gulf nation’s ban on homosexuality. Qatari officials have said they would be open to fans of all sexual orientations but expect them to respect norms that frown upon public expressions of affection.
Not everyone in the Islamic world has expressed such openness. For example, retired Egyptian soccer star Mohamed Aboutrika said homosexuality is “not compatible with Islam.”
“Our role is to stand up to this phenomenon, homosexuality, because it’s a dangerous ideology,” he added, “and it’s becoming nasty and people are not ashamed of it anymore.”
Among the many issues, conflicts surrounding sexuality will almost certainly be, for most journalists, the most important.
While we expect many players from Western nations to speak out against Qatar, what about those from countries in South America, Asia or Africa where mores may be more aligned with the Gulf state? I think of Brazil, a team loaded with practicing Catholics and evangelicals? What about Iran, a nation that is a Muslim theocracy where a recent hijab controversy that involved the death of a young woman spilled over to their soccer team?