Rushda N. and Aisha Hasan
As Lionel Messi walks up to the podium to claim the one major footballing award that has eluded him so far, the roar of the crowd reaches a crescendo. The moment marks the culmination of a stellar career for the world’s greatest footballer, and the crystallisation of Qatar’s cultural and sporting ambitions. Moments earlier, Shaykh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, Emir of Qatar, embraced the footballer and draped a traditional black-and-gold bisht around his shoulders. It was a gesture of honour, one that resonated across the Arab world and beyond. But it was also a reminder of Arab culture and identity—an invocation of tolerance and multiculturalism in an era defined by Western exceptionalism.
To many, Messi’s long-awaited victory was a fitting end to what has been hailed as the best World Cup in history. And with the bisht, Qatar ensured that this tournament will always be remembered as the Arab World Cup. Every photo that captured the iconic trophy lift is a reminder that the games were played on Arab soil, in the heart of the Muslim world.
Unsurprisingly, Western media was infuriated. While some journalists made openly racist remarks, others accused Qatar of trying to ‘hijack’ the moment. Israeli journalist Tahel Forst went perhaps the furthest in declaring that by dressing Messi in a sheer black robe, “the manliest man in the world, was turned into a woman”. What should’ve been a celebration of football was turned into a political hatefest steeped in Islamophobia and anti-Arab bigotry.
But such has been the case for this year’s World Cup from the start. In the weeks leading up to the games, Western states and commentators heaped criticism on Qatar for its refusal to relax laws surrounding homosexuality and for reversing its decision to allow alcohol in the stadiums. FIFA came under criticism, with many speculating that Qatar was awarded its hosting bid as a result of corruption. Qatar’s human rights abuses were highlighted, stirring up outrage amongst the general public, with many vastly exaggerating the number of deaths of predominantly South Asian construction workers. Needless to say, Qatar ought to be held accountable for its despicable labour conditions. But the incessant virtue-signalling may have been more plausible if it was not coming from countries with some of the worst track records of oppression and warmongering. As a Muslim country, it was also deemed to be oppressive towards women, with many regarding the entire event as a prime example of “sportswashing”. Dogged by controversy, as well as the reported exorbitant cost of the games and the Qatar national team’s early exit from the competition, some commentators were quick to write off the World Cup as a failure.
Yet, it turned out to be quite the contrary. In a recent BBC poll, Qatar 2022 won the vote for best FIFA World Cup of the century by a staggering 78%. In terms of the football alone, this tournament was unparalleled, providing a host of unexpected results throughout the group and knockout stages, marking the ‘last dance’ for some of football’s biggest stars, and delivering arguably the greatest World Cup final ever. But there was much to appreciate beyond the action on the pitch: Qatar delivered the most accessible, compact and family-friendly World Cup in history. And for people from non-Western countries, particularly Arabs and Muslims, this World Cup held special significance. From numerous teams beating their stronger European and Latin-American counterparts, to the displays of pan-Arab, pan-African and pan-Islamic solidarity, the World Cup stands as an example of the unifying potential of cultural production and soft power.
Not just football
For many Muslims, attributing significance to the World Cup is questionable, and for good reason. It is ultimately a hyper-commodified event that takes place under the auspices of an international organisation and is largely sponsored by Western corporations. A Muslim country being host does not change this fundamental reality, nor does it exonerate the games of their problematic features.
The sheer cost of the World Cup also raises many ethical questions. Qatar spent an extortionate $220 billion on the tournament, more than 20 times the estimated $11 billion spent by previous host Russia in 2018, which itself broke the previous record of $3 billion. One wonders what other worthy projects could succeed were Muslim countries willing to commit a fraction of such spending on other initiatives.
Additionally the treatment of migrant construction workers, while not perhaps as extreme as depicted in Western media, cannot be ignored. The World Cup was hosted by the wealthiest country in the Muslim world, but was achieved through the labour of many who hailed from the poorest. The modern-day slavery that exists across the Gulf is a shame for the Arab world and one that needs greater pushback from Muslims globally. Our honour as Muslims comes not from ostentatious performances on the world stage, rather from ensuring that our fellow brothers and sisters in faith and humanity are afforded their rights and dignity.
However, to close the door on the impact of the World Cup here would be a mistake. More interesting than perhaps the formal event as planned by the organisers are the informal interactions and conversations that take place on the sidelines. The symbolism of not just the games, but of the behaviour of the fans and the players themselves can reveal areas of commonality, as well as social and political fault lines. The cultural exchange among visitors, and the attitudes and reactions from viewers across the world, are also poignant features to consider in understanding the impact of the event.
Being a spectacular event held once every four years, the World Cup itself is not enough to herald long lasting change, but it can highlight underlying sentiments that particularly in the Arab World, cannot otherwise be expressed under the authoritarian gaze of the state. This event marks the first mass mobilisation of people in the region since the Arab Spring, and yet, being centred around sport, does not ignite the same political tensions.
Focusing solely on the many ways in which the games violate Islamic ethics overlooks some key lessons, namely what happens when Muslims are able to unite over something positive. Despite living in a globalised world, Muslim countries and populations are less integrated than one would expect. The first step towards greater unity is the creation of spaces that recognise this facet of Muslim identity. Understanding the unifying impact of culture and sports should encourage us to find ways of engaging in authentic cultural production that can showcase Islam, and provide opportunities for cross-cultural exchange and intra-religious conversation.
Finding the Ummah in the fans
“When Saudi [Arabia] plays here, they’re playing on home ground,” remarked World Cup chief Hassan Al-Thawadi in the aftermath of Saudi Arabia’s shock win against Argentina.
His statement seemed laughable to those familiar with the politics of the Gulf in recent years. With Qatar facing a boycott from almost all its neighbours in 2017, the competition between Qatar and the UAE-Saudi block for influence in the Middle East has been the source of much political tension. This has also been accompanied by rapid regional change, from the UAE normalising with Israel in 2020 to liberalising social norms in once conservative Saudi Arabia.
Yet geopolitics aside, Al-Thawadi’s statement accurately depicts the atmosphere of the World Cup as sparking a unity in the Arab world not seen since the beginning of the Arab Spring. In the aftermath of Saudi’s shock win against Argentina, videos of Sheikh Tamim Al-Thani draped in the Saudi flag were seen by many as symbolic of the reconciliation between the two countries.
The unity witnessed throughout the games goes beyond the Gulf; Saudi Arabia’s victory was celebrated by Muslims across the world. One video showed a tent in Bangladesh crowded with Rohingya refugees cheering ecstatically at Saudi’s goal. Another video showed Yemeni football fans expressing their support of the Saudi national team, despite Yemen suffering under the Saudi-led assault for almost nine years. For many, the victory was not one of the Saudi government, but of Muslims all over.
Tunisia’s dramatic win against France and Morocco’s progression to the semi-finals were also celebrated across the Muslim world. Morocco’s triumph against Portugal and Spain spurred a host of memes on social media invoking the Moorish conquest of Al-Andalus. The defeat of formerly colonising nations, even in sports, was seen as a rare moment of victory. The behaviour of Muslim footballers was also praised; from the players falling down in prostration after each win, attributing their win to Allah by raising their index fingers, reciting Qur’an prior to penalty shootouts, and rushing to celebrate their victories with their mothers.
Morocco’s semifinal game against France was charged with pan-Islamic emotion. Fans from all over the Arab and Muslim world flocked to the stadium to express their support for the Moroccan players, leaving the tiny minority of French supporters devastatingly outnumbered. For a national team to receive such overwhelming support during a game outside their own country is a remarkable phenomenon. Neither did the spectators miss an opportunity to assert their Islamic identity; wth French President Emmanuel Macron in attendance, the crowd, as one, erupted into chants of ‘La ilaha illallah, Muhammadun rasulullah.’ There is something to be said for a unity that transcends national borders, even if it is manifested in a mere football game; a brotherhood rooted in faith, casting away the yokes of political warfare, if only momentarily.
Outside of the games themselves, the World Cup has served as an opportunity for players and fans alike to highlight Muslim causes. While Muslim governments such as Morocco and the UAE pursue normalisation with Israel, their citizens are far from forgetting the Palestinian people. From Palestinian flags featuring at every match, the people’s refusal to talk to Israeli reporters, and chants calling for the liberation of Palestine, the message is clear: the Arab world stands with Palestine.
Even more heartwarming was watching football fans beyond the Arab and Muslim world stand in solidarity with the Palestinian cause. Social media was flooded with videos of tourists snubbing Israeli reporters, English fans chanting ‘Filistin hurrah!’ (Palestine will be free!) into the camera, and people from different parts of the globe proudly waving the Palestinian flag. Whether or not the global solidarity will translate into effective change on the ground, it’s clear that this World Cup has thrown a wrench into Israel’s propaganda efforts.
The plight of Muslims in East Turkestan was also referenced. Qatari fans mocked the German team for covering their mouths in protest of the ban on LGBT activity by covering their own mouths while holding up pictures of Mesut Ozil, who was dropped from the German national team after he spoke out against China’s imprisonment of Uyghur Muslims. Pictures of fans highlighting the Uyghur plight have also circulated on social media.
Public displays of solidarity aside, the event also served as an opportunity to hold intra-Muslim events and conversations. The state-led Qatar Foundation hosted a series of events featuring Islamic scholars and orators such as Shaykh Omar Suleiman and Dr Haifa Younis. These spiritual and educational events, which included lectures, panel discussions and youth-centric forums, were held at iconic tourist locations like the Qatar National Library and the National Museum of Qatar. The presence of visibly Muslim celebrities like Khabib only heightened the sense of Muslim identity. Palestinian icon Muna el-Kurd was also invited by Qatar Foundation as part of their effort to draw attention to the Palestinian cause on football’s biggest stage. The seven-day long D’reesha Performing Arts Festival on Arab culture and heritage, held in Qatar’s Education City, highlighted Palestinian activism through art and music.
In terms of scale and publicity, this event has perhaps no parallel in the modern history of the Muslim world. Whatever the long-term impact, it is hardly insignificant that Muslim organisations came together to utilise the world’s biggest sporting event as a platform for transnational Muslim dialogue. At a time when Muslim causes are often suppressed or deprioritized on the international stage, this World Cup allowed Muslims to express solidarity with our brothers and sisters in faith, on a public platform, without fear of reprisal.
Intra-Muslim interactions aside, the World Cup has also been an opportunity for fans from all over the world to travel, most likely for the first time, to a Muslim-majority country. Cultural exchange is part and parcel of every international event, and Qatar similarly took steps to introduce its history and religion. This was evident in the opening ceremony, with Qatar featuring a conversation between American acting legend Morgan Freeman and Qatari YouTuber and disability activist Ghanim Al-Muftah, in which Ghanim recited a verse from the Qur’an emphasising the importance of living with and learning from one another. The words of Allah were heard by the tens of thousands of people in attendance and viewers across the world. In the face of increasing polarisation, presenting the unifying message of the Qur’an highlighted the potential for tolerance rooted in faith. Regardless of political motivations, Qatar’s decision to kick off the globally awaited tournament with a Qur’anic verse conveyed a sense of pride in their Muslim identity at a time when Muslims often feel pressured to conceal their Islamic beliefs.
Beyond the opening ceremony, mosque tours and stalls for tourists to try on hijabs, abayahs and keffiyehs in their team colours introduced tourists to Islamic beliefs and Arab culture. Several mosques also set up services that allowed the Friday khutbah to be translated in real time into different languages, with tourists listening to the sermon through headsets. The hospitality of locals also served as a form of da’wah; from children offering sweets outside the stadiums to taking tourists back to their homes, such methods of introducing Islam epitomise the natural way the deen spread across the world in Islamic history.
There have been many unconfirmed reports on social media of tourists converting to Islam as a result of learning about the religion. Yet conversions aside, thousands of fans making positive associations with Muslims and Arabs is a net win for a religion and region that have been demonised in popular culture for decades. By humanising Muslims, dispelling myths surrounding Islamic culture, and showcasing an Islam that defies orientalist narratives of barbarism and backwardness, such events have the potential to galvanise support for Muslim causes and build bridges between different communities.
While Western governments continue to lament the ‘hijacking’ of the games and elucidate on the many reasons why Qatar is beyond the pale, this World Cup has been enjoyed more broadly by international fans simply because its location has made it easier and more affordable to attend. Additionally, many of the values which Western commentators rely on in their critique are not universal; homosexuality remains taboo in most parts of Africa, South and East Asia, and is banned in previous World Cup host Russia. The universalising of liberal values in the media does not exclude the potential for real cultural exchange and appreciation to be built between Muslims and other people from around the world.
Changing the game: Cultural production and pride
“Culture is the overall synthesis of four partial syntheses: morals, aesthetics, practical logic, and technology.”Malek Bennabi
While it may not yet be universal, the influence of secular liberal values can nevertheless be seen across the Muslim world. Saudi Arabia presents perhaps the most drastic transformation; from having banned cinemas and women driving for decades, the country now holds hundreds of gender mixed ‘raves in the desert’ every year. The liberal social and cultural standard set by the West is dominant the world over, and is often expected to be replicated in international spaces, while indigenous cultures and religious values are excluded.
It is in this context that Qatar doubling down on their prohibition of alcohol in stadiums and displays of support for LGBT issues is a clear break from the norm. In many ways, the World Cup was an example of cultural diplomacy done right. Al-Thawadi assured visitors that everyone was welcome, but maintained the position that as a conservative country public displays of affection or protests targeting Qatari laws would not be tolerated. The organisers then went on to hold a successful event that did not shy away from highlighting Qatari or Islamic culture, despite the continued criticism and efforts to undermine the significance of the games. In the opening ceremony, the performance paid tribute to Qatar’s history and culture, featuring Qatari singer Fahad Al Qubaisi, but also BTS singer Jungkook, reflecting an inclusion of international artists beyond the West. The final robing of Messi in a black bisht as he raised the trophy into the air cemented the event in collective memory, not just as the 2022 World Cup, but as the Qatar World Cup.
Qatar has also used the event as an opportunity to genuinely invest in the arts, architecture, and cultural education for the general population. The new Museum of Islamic Art celebrates Muslim history and creativity, showcasing rare religious and cultural objects from Islamicate cultures across the world. Among numerous other museums and exhibits are the Msheireb Museums, focusing on Qatar’s modern history. One museum, Bin Jelmood House, focuses in particular on the history of slavery in the Muslim world and the Gulf, gesturing to its modern day incarnations in the country. While a state-sponsored initiative that leaves much to be desired, the acknowledgement of this issue has the ability to initiate much needed conversations on the inequalities within Muslim countries.
Additionally, a great deal was invested in upgrading urban recreational spaces in Doha, creating an environment that is functional, aesthetically pleasing, and distinctly Muslim and Arab. This presents a model for development in the Muslim world that is not a pure emulation of Western modes of city planning and architectural styles. Metro access was also made completely free throughout the World Cup, making the city of Doha accessible to fans coming from all over. This is all undoubtedly made possible by the immense wealth generated through Qatar’s oil production, which is not replicable for most Muslim countries. Nevertheless, as countries like Egypt and Saudi Arabia build completely new cities devoid of any cultural or religious imprint, and often as escape hubs for the rich, parts of Doha stand in contrast as interconnected and discernibly Qatari urban spaces.
“Culture is like blood in the ‘body’ of society; it nourishes its civilisation and sustains the ideas of the elite as well as those of the ordinary people.”Malek Bennabi
Muslims today are often occupied with addressing complex theological challenges and pressing political crises. Important as these issues are, it is culture that touches the lives of all in society, embodies our moral values and influences our aspirations. With this in mind, recent events in Qatar make a strong case for Muslims having opportunities to unify and celebrate around cultural expression. Artistic and sporting spaces can facilitate transnational Muslim dialogue around important issues more gently than an overtly political setting, and can draw on the similarity of Muslim cultures to inspire pan-Islamic solidarity. Creative settings also introduce Islam to non-Muslims in a more natural and organic way than apologetic-style debates, and combat negative tropes about Islam beyond simply ‘stereotype-breaking’.
It would of course be remiss to disregard the ethical concerns surrounding the World Cup, but such problems do not mean we cannot reap its benefits, and learn from its triumphs and failures in the future. That a Muslim country could successfully pull off a global event at such a grand scale, while refusing to conform to certain expectations, has inspired confidence in the ability of Muslims to present themselves to the world in a positive and authentic way. In a world of Eurocentric ideals, this tournament has reminded us, in its own flawed way, that Islamic values can be highlighted on the global stage even in creative spaces.
Our ummah has a rich heritage we can draw from—in art, architecture, literature, and more. The key takeaway from the successes and shortcomings of this event is that the Muslim community needs to engage in authentic cultural production, something that is also part of the Islamic tradition. It cannot be a mere cry for representation, but must seek a higher objective: to capture the spirit of Islamic culture, to reclaim the narrative surrounding Islam and Muslims, and to inspire social and political change through the cultivation of soft power.
Rushda is a graduate student of Islamic studies and physics based in Qatar. She writes for her website New Dawn, and conducts youth-centric workshops in association with Islamic institutes in Malaysia.
Aisha Hasan is the founder of the Qarawiyyin Project. A researcher in international development and the political economy of the Muslim world, she is also a student of Islamic Studies and a Quran teacher.
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 Bennabi, M. The Question of Culture, (1959)
 Bennabi, M. The Question of Culture, (1959)