It's Fine to Criticize Qatar.
Values matter. Consistently upholding them matters.
The World Cup in Qatar is, predictably, a hot mess — and the only thing messier is The Discourse about the World Cup in Qatar.
First and most importantly are the more than 6,500 migrant workers who have died since Qatar began preparing for the games. Many of these workers, and many thousands more who lived, labored under profoundly exploitative and dangerous conditions. Many had their passports seized, and were unable to quit their jobs or leave the country. Many who died are likely uncounted, and Qatar has been deeply resistant to any accounting. Human rights organizations have been sounding the alarm on these abuses for years, and have been met largely with a shrug.
Then there is Qatar’s treatment of LGBT people, religious minorities, and women. Being gay and acting on it can land you in a Qatari jail; Qatari security forces have been known to beat up LGBT people. Rape survivors face jail time — sex outside of marriage is illegal, and if the cops don’t believe you were raped, well, you’ve just admitted to a crime. This isn’t simply hypothetical: A Mexican woman who was working to prepare for the World Cup had to flee Qatar after being raped. Practicing minority religions can also get you into trouble. And women face formal discrimination under the law: Wive are legally required to defer to their husbands; men’s divorce rights are broad while women’s are sharply limited; and women are entitled to only half the inheritance of men.
Qatar isn’t unique in its poor treatment of women and LGBT people. In the US, after all, scores of pregnant women have nearly died, lost their fertility, or seen their health permanently compromised by “pro-life” laws.
But as I wrote in the aftermath of the Dobbs decision that overturned Roe v. Wade: One consequence of dangerous and discriminatory laws should be that companies, sports teams, and other entities are unwilling to host their events in your state. I hope that when the World Cup comes to the US in 2026, it reconsiders hosting games in states that put women’s lives at risk by refusing to give them adequate medical care.
As it stands, pregnant fans who travel to, say, Houston for a World Cup game risk serious illness, including sepsis, the loss of their fertility, hemorrhaging, and possibly death if they miscarry while in the state of Texas. This isn’t a fringe possibility; it’s something dozens if not hundreds of women have already endured in self-styled “pro-life” states in the US. I’m not saying that sporting events should only be held in states and countries with perfect laws. I am saying that those who organize these events need to assess rights and risks. A law saying that same-sex couples can’t marry is a bad, ugly, discriminatory law, but it’s not a law that puts players or fans at immediate risk. A law saying that a person who has same-sex intercourse or who “promotes homosexuality” can go to jail is a bad, ugly, discriminatory law, and it puts players and fans at immediate risk of going to jail. Ditto the kind of abortion bans now in place across the conservative US: Those bans put players and fans at huge health risks for what are extremely common pregnancy complications. That’s on a different level of immediate physical harm than, say, failing to pass equal pay legislation — bad (very bad), but not immediately dangerous to insiders and visitors alike. Companies, sports franchises, and other event-holders should act accordingly.
It is morally abhorrent that the World Cup went forward in Qatar. Female fans cannot trust that they won’t face jail time if they’re raped. Gay fans cannot trust that they won’t face jail time simply for being with a partner. And while Qatar made big promises about equality and inclusion in order to secure the World Cup, it has walked back a great many of its promises — banning beer sales (except for those to the richest fans and owners) is just one way in which the country simply went back on its word.
What’s particularly infuriating, though, is seeing critiques of Qatar being chalked up to “Islamophobia” or “colonialism,” and the kind of whataboutism that essentially says no person from the US or Europe can possibly critique another nation because our countries aren’t perfect, either.
No, our countries aren’t perfect — far from it. But if you consistently advocate against religious extremism and for feminism and equal rights at home, it is actually fine to apply your principles more broadly — especially when we’re talking about a multi-billion-dollar sporting event.
And in fact, I would argue that it’s necessary to believe in basic human rights and equality deeply enough that you apply those principles universally. It is also arguably part of the culture of white Christian conservatives to discriminate against LGBT people and women, but sorry, that part of white Christian conservative culture is bad and it should change. For a very long time, discriminating against LGBT people and women was a deep-seated part of American culture more broadly. But feminists and gay rights activists challenged that — they contested it, said it was wrong, demanded it change. They said that the “it’s our culture” defense is simply not a good enough reason to treat other human beings badly.
Perhaps most importantly, feminists and other rights activists disputed the very idea that culture is a singular, unchanging thing. We all seem to understand that about our own cultures, especially if we are members of groups that are not dominant within those cultures — we understand that cultures are made up of the people in them and their beliefs, histories, and habits; we understand that these beliefs, histories, and habits are not universally agreed-upon or practiced; and we understand that while history can’t change, beliefs and habits can and do (and so, too, can our understanding of our own histories).
We understand that what gets deemed “the culture” is often little more than the desired norms of the dominant group, and just below that surface there is much else churning.
And so those of us who fight for the rights of women or minority groups or the dispossessed are almost always saying: This thing you call “the culture” that should not or cannot change is not the totality of this culture; it is not static, it is not permanent, it is not holistic, and it can be better.
Is it everyone’s job, then, to walk into other people’s communities and say, “you’re doing it wrong”? No. But it’s definitely not helpful to leverage the “that’s their culture” defense to justify egregious bad acts, as if other cultures are singular and static, as if there are not people fighting and contesting from within those cultures; as if the entire work of human rights has not been, always, fighting and contesting and making more space for more people.
Certainly many of the same people now claiming “Islamophobia” in criticizing Qatar are more than happy to criticize countries they aren’t citizens of when those countries treat people badly. When France bans women wearing headscarves from public buildings, for example, that is an egregious violation of their rights and it deserves condemnation — and indeed, it gets condemned by American liberals and plenty of people outside of France. The French claim that secularism is part of their culture is one I am sympathetic to, right up to the point where it infringes on the basic rights of people to be free of discrimination based on their faith. Is the answer to say, well, we should let the French leaders who passed this law dictate what is and is not French culture, and force adherence to it, even if doing so infringes on important individual rights? I would hope not.
It is actually totally fine to believe that it’s dangerous and regressive to make national law based primarily on religious texts. It’s totally fine to believe that using state force to make people adhere to a conservative interpretation of a religion — or frankly any interpretation of a religion — is a really bad way to do things. It’s totally fine (and I’d say good) to believe that mistreating and endangering women, LGBT people, and migrants is wrong and inexcusable.
It’s also good to treat people like moral actors. It’s good to treat people with basic respect. And part of how you do that is by both understanding where people are coming from and maintaining consistent standards about pretty basic values stuff. It strikes me as wildly condescending to suggest that Qatari culture is simply unchangeably cruel, misogynist, and homophobic if you would never apply that same assumption to your own community, or your own country, or your country’s economic and cultural peers. In other words, if you’d criticize a foreign but majority-white Christian country for something but you think it’s unfair to criticize a Muslim one for the same… why? Trust that Muslim countries also have active feminist, LGBT and human rights movements who, like you, dispute the claim that the most regressive elements of their countries define their cultures.
Again, this is not to say that white Christian Westerners should bust down Qatar’s doors and demand equality (that is… counterproductive, to put it mildly). It is to say that standing strong for universal human rights is important, whether those rights are at risk at home or abroad, and claiming that moral consistently on some of the most important issues on the planet is out of bounds because of bad behavior elsewhere or at some other point in history is nothing more than intentional distraction and emotional manipulation.
Regressive governments, including Qatar’s, have too often shut down dissent and made the stakes of speaking up from the inside impossibly high. And so leverage points matter, as does the question of who was invited into the conversation.
Qatar knew the World Cup would attack a diverse fan base from all over the world — that was the point of them hosting the World Cup. This isn’t a group of random tourists walking in uninvited and demanding beers. This is a global event that every single person involved in knew would attract people of different genders, sexual orientations, and religious faiths. Qatar wanted to host precisely because the country expected to benefit, financially and reputationally, from this pluralistic, diverse global audience. Now, they seem to want it both ways: The benefits of a diverse global audience, with none of the obligations to the people who make it up.
When Qatar opened its doors to the world, it promised an inclusive World Cup. That was a promise made to all of us, and we can all hold them to it.