A cup complexity – Understanding the issues behind LGBTQ rights in the Middle East

The World Cup kicked off Sunday in a historic moment for Qatar, the first Arab country to host the world-renowned football tournament. Ten years of planning, these games have been filled with controversy, including allegations of bribery of FIFA officials in awarding Qatar the tournament, the deaths of thousands of migrant workers hired to build the soccer infrastructure, and the host nation’s anti-gay laws. It has come to the attention of many football fans that Qatar and by extension, the Middle East in general, have had a far more complicated relationship towards the LGBTQ community; in most cases, complete illegality. Rather than just focusing on the World Cup and FIFA’s right of jurisdiction in such events then, this article shall explore if change will be a sign of the times.

There is no doubt of the state of current affairs within the Middle East in regard to gay rights but it might be short-sighted of many to assume that no diversity of opinion exists across the region. For example, a decade ago, for a couple of years in a row, Pride Day was celebrated with great fanfare in the largest square of Istanbul. Thereafter safety and so has been banned in the last 2 or 3 years. Some people defy the ban, but it often leads to arrests and subjection to police violence. In examples such as these, one might focus on the violence faced by the community and while it is no doubt a tragedy in times like this, this example brings on the bigger question of why it has regressed

One of the key components to the multi-factored answer would be the style of political governance, in the case of the majority of MENA, many are under governments where religion and deep-rooted cultural values are prime deflectors for controversial issues such as these. At the time when many of these values and the books of teaching in both Islam and Christianity (the two dominant religious views governing societies within MENA), homosexuality as a concept was not something that was even necessarily perceived. Over time, many of those texts and teachings became law by proxy and were ingrained in many cultural values indirectly. Today, as the LGBTQ movement challenges these conservative views head-on, we see a struggle between what those within those cultural circles would say a struggle between secular ethical freedom and religious beliefs.

The problem then becomes two-pronged from here: on one hand, as many people are not willing to stray from their deep-rooted beliefs be it from a cultural or religious aspect, they will tend to continue the support of those who share said beliefs to hold office, be it within democratic or authoritarian regimes in the region. On the other side of the equation, those that hold office do not then see the need for LGBTQ rights to be brought to the forefront of reform because of the lack of challenge from the people themselves. While this statement is not to discredit the voices that do already challenge the government, the voices within the countries themselves are not necessarily strong enough to inspire a complete reversal of policy yet nor is it strong enough to back the government into a corner on the international stage, much like the ongoing Iranian protests.

Beyond this, the problem then intensifies should internet mobilisation be hindered within the countries. Education is the most effective measure to inspire progress but having had social media and certain news coverages blocked by the government, it is hard for people who might have different views from those traditionally held to feel comfortable enough to hold them and challenge them. While there are many other factors behind each country’s reasons behind their rejection of LGBTQ rights, the above has been laid out as a simplified account of the issues facing most of the MENA region.

Having said this, I will now bring in the significance of the World Cup, particularly when it comes to the internet mobilization and awareness point. Having an international community that should largely be protected by an overseeing football federation should eliminate the need for censorship within the country, despite Qatar’s outright disapproval of such. Countries such as England, having been threatened for wanting to wear the One Love armband, in itself have raised awareness of the issues surrounding the lack of LGBTQ rights in the region. It is now up to the citizens of the MENA region, having been given awareness of the controversy surrounding the issues of what they intend to make of it. It will not be an overnight progress nor a linear one, but there will be progress in its own time.

While this article does not attempt to justify MENA’s reasons for denying the rights of the queer community, it does attempt to justify that change does take time and will not be straightforward progress, much like how it is in the West. Let MENA take their time to progress, systematic and cultural symbolism has a lot more hold than it does in the West but it does not mean there will not be a sign of the times, the Cup in itself shows that exposure.


Featured Image: Igor Zeiger with licence via Flickr






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