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The Qatar World Cup is about to shatter colonial myths

Instead of mimicking ex-colonial powers, the event can help decolonise biased thinking about Arab and Muslim cultures.

FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022 mural at Katara Cultural Village in Doha, Qatar, Nov 13, 2022 [Sorin Furcoi/Al Jazeera]
FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022 mural at Katara Cultural Village in Doha, Qatar [Sorin Furcoi/Al Jazeera]

Qatar will soon make history. On Sunday, it will become the smallest country ever to host the world’s biggest sporting event. To appreciate the contrast, think of the vast countries that hosted the previous two iterations of the FIFA World Cup: Russia and Brazil.

While the “soft power” and “smart power” in Qatar’s diplomatic inventory have been credited by many for this moment, the World Cup deserves to be looked at through more than just the lens of international relations. As postcolonial scholars like Edward Said and Gayatri Spivak (PDF) have argued, the Euro-American imagination has long dictated what is “good” while determining how the Oriental “other” is represented.

The World Cup offers a chance to reset those narratives.

After all, there is something magical about the World Cup happening in Qatar. Since winning the bid to host the 22nd edition of the World Cup, Doha has been readying itself for the global showpiece, putting income from its hydrocarbon industry to good use modernising the country’s infrastructure – especially roads, transportation and technology.

Qataris have increasingly transformed themselves into avid information technology users. Doha continues to be modernised at a swift pace, from a pearling village into a smart city and home to diverse expatriate communities. It is equipped with state-of-the-art technology, giving Qataris greater digital accessibility and connectivity, whether in e-governance, efficient banking or health.

Yet while football fields are supposed to inspire international unity and a spirit of sportsmanship, there is no escape from constructions of otherness in global encounters like football’s biggest carnival. In this case, that shows in the systematic, relentless and racially prejudiced campaign in the West against Qatar in the years leading up to this World Cup.

How else can one explain the manner in which Qatar has been subject to vilification like no host before it? Not other small nations with extreme weather, such as Switzerland in 1954. Not superpowers like the United States, where the Los Angeles area hosted the World Cup final in 1994, just two years after witnessing some of the country’s worst race riots in decades. Not Mussolini’s fascist regime and Argentina’s brutal military junta. Not Brazil, where people living in favelas were evicted as the country looked to hide its poverty from fans travelling for the 2014 World Cup. Not Russia, which held the 2018 event amid rising homophobia.

These countries were seen as legitimate hosts – no matter what they did – because, somehow, football was and is seen as belonging to them. By contrast, Qatar was viewed with disdain the moment it won its bid, treated as an outsider gatecrashing a party of the elite.

In fact, like other Arab, Asian, African and South and Central American nations, football came to Qatar via colonialism, when the country was a British protectorate between 1916 and 1971. The Anglo-Persian Oil Company (APOC), the precursor to British Petroleum (BP), began oil exploration and production in the late 1930s. Football followed in the 1940s. The Doha Stadium was the first football arena with a grass pitch in the Gulf region. League competition started in the 1960s, several years before independence.

Ironically, postcolonialism studies have had little to say about football – even though many of the slums of former colonies have produced major stars, from Pele in Sao Paulo, Brazil, to Raheem Sterling in Kingston, Jamaica. Many Arab players – from Algeria’s Rabah Madjer to Egypt’s Mohamed Salah – have made similar journeys to Europe’s rich clubs.

The football World Cup must not be simply an exercise in new forms of cultural mimicry of former colonial powers. Even as football in the West struggles to address racism – Brazilian player Richarlison recently had a banana thrown at him in a Paris friendly – the Qatar edition of the World Cup could help decolonise biased thinking about Arab and Muslim societies by using their diverse cultures to enrich the global experience of football.

For instance, Qatar’s alcohol-free stadiums during the World Cup could set an example. They will allow a broader section of people to come to matches without worrying about the alcohol-fueled violence, racism and foul language that’s common in European football arenas. As Qatar hosts fans from around the world, it can showcase an alternative way to enjoy the sport – one that does not import a generic experience of being a football fan while ignoring Qatar’s local values.

Qataris are accustomed to living with foreigners and the World Cup is yet another chance to display their affinity with multiculturalism to counter the Western stereotype of the “fanatic Muslim” – as seen recently in Islamophobic and racist French cartoons depicting Qatar’s national team.

By presenting an alternative narrative to the way both the Muslim world and football have been viewed in the West, this World Cup could help decolonise the language of the sport. “European football” is not white. “African” or “Arab” football are not signs of colour or of ethnicity. Yet these labels are used as codes for dominant ethnicities and races far too often in the way the sport is covered.

That’s where postcolonialism can serve as an antidote, by placing – to paraphrase Harvard University professor and critical theorist Homi K Bhabha – the ex-colonised in-between different worlds and outlooks.

The Arab world is full of literary minds that have tackled stereotypical representations and unequal encounters in their work – and that can serve as inspiration as the region looks to host the world on its terms. Sudanese writer Tayeb Salih’s 1966 book Season of Migration to the North captures the essence of the in-betweenness that Bhabha highlights.

The brilliant Saudi Arabian novelist Abdulrahman Munif coined a special term: al-teeh (loss, confusion). His classic compound novel of five stories, Cities of Salt (Mudun al-Milh, published in 1984), is one of the best examples of postcolonial literary studies. It tells a tale of political, economic, environmental and cultural devastation when neo-coloniser (American capitalism and petrodollars) and neo-colonised (the Gulf) meet.

These writings are poignant reminders that hosting and organising the FIFA World Cup is an occasion for much more than parading Westernised lives.

In colonial times, Arabs fostered anti-colonial resistance by, among other things, wearing local dress and ensuring that they preserved their traditional culture. Today, they don the Arab “thobe” (ankle-long tunic) made from fabric that hails from Japan. That reflects the mingling of the global and the local – in a way that Qatar and the Arab world could draw upon as the region hosts major sporting events.

The FIFA World Cup should be a shared space for a new modernity that isn’t white or colonial. A modernity that speaks to Arab, Asian, African, Indigenous and Latin values of tolerance, human rights and good governance, and challenges the stereotypes that are often thrust upon the Global South.

A modernity that seeks a more just, equitable and – truly – decolonised world, and questions and resists neo-colonising hierarchies. A modernity that demands rights to cultural self-determination, and asserts shared futures and experiences on terms of mutual respect.

Through Qatar’s World Cup, “the beautiful game” can help subvert colonising tendencies and cultural narcissism in our multicultural world.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.