By James M. Dorsey

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Qatar 2022 put the myth of a separation of sports and politics to bed.

Like in Qatar, human, worker, and LGBT rights are likely to be left, right, and centre as other Gulf and North African states move centre stage as hosts of and bidders for some of the world’s foremost mega-sporting events, the 2030 World Cup and the 2036 Olympics, and major Asian tournaments, including the Asian Cup and the Asian Games.

For FIFA, upholding the fiction of a separation of sports and politics will increasingly be perceived as a farce. At the same time, the world soccer body’s decisions on what protests are legitimate during a World Cup, like in Qatar (LGBT, yes, Iran conditionally), will be seen as political.

The 2023 FIFA Club World Cup in Morocco in February and the Asian Games later that year in Qatar are not on par with the World Cup in terms of global reach. Nonetheless, they are litmus tests for hosts and activists alike.

The responsiveness of hosts to activists’ criticism of their adherence to human, worker, and LGBT rights will indicate the degree to which image is the foremost driver of hosting.

In doing so, the Moroccan and Qatari tournaments, and similar events in the region scheduled for later in the decade, will also test the validity of notions that reputation laundering or sportswashing, an effort to distract from tarnished rights records, is why autocrats host tournaments.

Finally, responsiveness will provide insights into what segments of global public opinion autocratic hosts care about, given that activists primarily impact public sentiment in democratic countries where the media report their campaigns that address abuse of rights.

A key determinant of activists’ effectiveness will be their willingness to distance themselves from critics whose positioning is not a concern for achieving and upholding rights but is defined by bias, prejudice, and bigotry.

Furthermore, the forthcoming events will suggest what lessons activists have learnt from their campaign during the 12-year run-up to Qatar’s successful hosting of one of the most exhilarating World Cups in the tournament’s history.

Activists’ pressure produced a significant enhancement of worker rights in Qatar, even if the improvements and implementation of reforms fell short of their demands.

Worker rights are low-hanging fruit.

As a result, the campaign to improve the working and living conditions of migrant labour in Qatar frames what may be achievable when it comes to far more complex, culturally sensitive issues that, in contrast to labour, evoke deep-seated passions such as gender and sexual diversity.

Qatar indicates what reforms autocracies, particularly in Muslim-majority states, may entertain; what compromises are possible to improve the well-being of discriminated or disenfranchised groups, even if they fall short of full recognition of rights; and what areas do not lend themselves to compromise.

Take political rights. Freedoms of expression, the media, and assembly are indivisible. One either can express oneself and organise, or one cannot. It’s black and white. There is no middle ground.

Worker rights are a different animal. The ability to freely change jobs, travel, seek regulatory and legal redress of employers’ abuse; enjoy proper working and living conditions; demand respect of rights; have a minimum wage as a benchmark; and elect worker council representatives, if adequately implemented, significantly improve a worker’s immediate circumstances and quality of life.

Demands for independent trade unions, the right to strike, and collective bargaining are legitimate and appropriate, yet unlikely to be negotiable because they would entail or open the door to a change of an autocratic political system, if not regime change.

If independent trade unions are allowed, why not political parties and pressure groups? If labour strikes are legal, so should protests and demonstrations. If collective bargaining is a fixture, why should other groups not be able to push for rights collectively?

These are issues that challenge the nature of autocracy. Of course, there is nothing wrong with that; on the contrary. Nevertheless, activists will have to keep in mind that workers are likely to want immediate improvements in their working and living conditions initially, and only once those have been achieved will they be more concerned about political rights.

A similar logic plays out on socially controversial issues, particularly LGBT rights, where government policy is aligned with public sentiment. With Muslim populations and Protestants in Africa deeply hostile to LGBT rights, activists will have to be creative in seeking to change a community’s circumstances.

One potential tactic may be to build on the positions of credible, albeit often controversial Muslim scholars, such as Tunisia’s Rached Ghannouchi, an Islamist politician and thinker, and Salman al Audah, a prominent and controversial cleric who has been languishing for years in a Saudi prison.

The two men denounce homosexuality as a sin but deny temporal and religious authorities the right to take punitive action. Instead, they position homosexuality as a sin for which practitioners should be held accountable in a next life.

Speaking in 2015, Mr. Ghannouchi said: “We don’t approve. But Islam does not spy on folks. It preserves privacy. Everyone leads his/her life and is responsible before his/her creator.”

Mr. Al-Audah argued that “even though homosexuality is considered a sin in all the Semitic holy books, it does not require any punishment in this world. One of the fundamentals of Islam is man’s freedom to act as he wants. But one must also take the consequences.”

Mr. Al-Audah went on to say that “homosexuals are not deviating from Islam. Homosexuality is a grave sin, but those who say that homosexuals deviate from Islam are the real deviators. By condemning homosexuals to death, they are committing a graver sin than homosexuality itself.”

Theirs is a formula that neither legalises or legitimises homosexuality nor removes the stigma. But it does avoid criminalization and significantly enhances the lives of members of the LGBT community.

It builds on arrangements in Muslim-majority countries like Indonesia and Turkey, where homosexuality has not been outlawed but remains socially fraught and challenging, as well as Qatar’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” approach during the 2022 World Cup that was rooted in former US President Bill Clinton’s attitude towards members of the LGBT community in the military.

It is likely a significant steppingstone to full recognition of LGBT rights in a Muslim world where success may only be achieved step by step.

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Dr. James M. Dorsey is an award-winning journalist and scholar, an Adjunct Senior Fellow at Nanyang Technological University’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, and the author of the syndicated column and blog, The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer.

By James M. Dorsey

is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies as Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, co-director of the Institute of Fan Culture of the University of Würzburg and the author of the blog, The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer, and a forthcoming book with the same title.