Overview:

A last-minute ban on alcoholic beer in stadiums for the FIFA World Cup in Qatar should have the world asking questions about other regional religious and political issues.

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Just 48 hours before the start of the 2022 FIFA World Cup, the conservative Muslim country of Qatar reversed its position on allowing alcoholic beer in official stadiums. While such beverages may be sold at other fan destinations after 7pm, only Bud Zero may now be purchased within or around the stadium itself, unless you hold a fancy hospitality box (around $23,000US for the cheapest suites).

This move comes after the official sponsor Budweiser accepted other restrictions this week: a cost of around $14US per 500ml glass, much higher than original promises from the event’s host country, and a limit of four units of alcohol per guest. FIFA has reason to be worried about being in breach of its $75 million dollar contract with Budweiser, and other sponsors are also expressing concerns in the wake of Qatar’s last-minute reversal.

But it’s not really about the beer.

The decision seems to have come from the Qatari emir’s brother, Sheikh Jassim bin Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, who has been actively involved in day-to-day planning for this international event. The Guardian proposes that the reasoning is cultural: many fans, coming from similarly restrictive Gulf and Asian countries, are more accustomed to “dry” sporting events. The argument here is that open shows of drunkenness will make the stadium experience unsafe and uncomfortable. Just as we’re primed to buy popcorn at a movie theatre, but not at a church, two very different approaches shape cultural response to the same activity of sitting and watching a match.

The deeper issue comes from the last-minute reversal itself, and what it tells us about the unreliability of Qatar around even more important potential sites of cultural conflict. The England and Wales teams have already decided to wear “OneLove” armbands in support of LGBTQ+ rights, and will likely be fined by FIFA for doing so, because FIFA has proposed its own run of generic armband messages for different stages of the contest.

Qatar’s complexly religious politics

Meanwhile, Qatar is a brutal country when it comes to relationship rights. Its penal code punishes extramarital sex, including same-sex relationships, with prison terms of up to seven years. Another facet of the code also allows police to detain people for up to six months without charges, as an act of “Protection of Community”, and Amnesty International has reported on the torture of members of the LGBTQ+ community as recently as September of this year. Securing the safety of fans in general will require that people from around the world suppress key facets of their lives if they wish to partake in these events.

If being the key word here, because Qatar’s World Cup infrastructure was overwhelmingly built on indentured servitude: a form of modern slavery. The country holds a complex global role, because it sits on around 10 percent of the world’s known natural gas reserves, which has granted it significant laxity in international dealings. Providing the US with its largest military base in the Middle East has also made it allies in the West, and Al Jazeera has been warmly welcomed into the global news network. Qatar supposedly has the richest citizens, even though “citizens” make up a mere 10 percent of its 2.9 million population.

Qatar is in many ways a bundle of contradictions, because its modern form (post-natural gas discovery, which rapidly elevated the fortunes of a previously hard-living local population) emerged between two extremist powers with very different approaches to international relations. Nestled like a pearl in the Persian Gulf, Qatar sits flush against Saudi Arabia and looks out upon Iran. Iran has a predominantly Shia Muslim population of the “Twelver” branch (twelve divinely ordained imams, the last of which will return as a savior), and no love lost for the West. Saudia Arabia is predominantly Sunni (i.e. the Prophet Mohammed left no successor), houses the sacred lands of Mecca and Medina, and secured global power in part by being open to a kind of “petro-Islamic” relationship with the West.

In its few decades as a suddenly major economic player, Qatar has been trying to modernize and pursue progress within that rigid context. Not in terms of political infrastructure: it’s still run by an absolute monarchy. But it is a far more multi-religious society than its neighbors, and although apostasy remains a death-penalty offence (and blasphemy and proselytizing also come with long prison terms) there are no recorded death sentences for the charge. Islam is the state religion (Sunni-dominant), but others are recognized by the state, and the courts rely on a blend of secular and sharia law. Despite marginal advances, women’s rights remain suppressed by male guardianship laws, of the sort one finds in Sunni Muslim communities informed by rigid Wahhabism (also dominant in Saudi Arabia).

The path forward

There’s an argument to be made, then, that the World Cup is exactly what Qatar needs to help it continue to modernize: to open it to the world, and to use the world’s scrutiny as a driver for further social changes. This was already seen in how Qatar answered outcry over the conditions faced by its exploited migrant workers; changes to the law have emerged, if slowly, and with the jury still out on whether these changes will last.

But from what moral center, elsewhere, is this motivating scrutiny supposed to arise? FIFA itself is no bastion of good moral conduct, and it’s not as if the last World Cup (held in Russia) took place in a pristine pillar of human rights.

It is very easy to fixate on surface markers of restrictive religiosity, like this last-minute reversal on alcoholic beverages in stadiums ahead of the first game of the 2022 FIFA World Cup, which will be held this Sunday, November 20 between Qatar and Ecuador.

The real challenge is recognizing that oppressive religiosity in these regions is strongly interwoven with political and financial incentives, and driven by the world’s continued over-reliance on oil and natural gas reserves despite their devastating impact on our environment. There are many ways to alleviate the brutal nature of the former—not least of which, by changing our cultural and economic relationships to the latter. Game on.

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GLOBAL HUMANIST SHOPTALK M L Clark is a Canadian writer by birth, now based in Medellín, Colombia, who publishes speculative fiction and humanist essays with a focus on imagining a more just world.