Qatar thinks all your questions about human rights violations are just Islamophobia in disguise

On June 29, Qatari Sheikh Nassir bin Jassim al-Thani, member of Qatar’s delegation to the United Nations, began speaking into the microphone in a sparsely populated room in Geneva, Switzerland. It was the 29th session of the United Nations Human Rights Council, and Al-Thani was speaking during a General Debate session on racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia, and related forms of intolerance.

“As it is well known,” he began, “equality and anti-discrimination form the cornerstone to all human rights.”

True that, sir.

But it was an interesting opening if you consider the alleged human rights violations leveled at Qatar over the last few years from various corners of the globe, ever since the Gulf state was given the 2022 FIFA World Cup.

He continued, “In this regard, my country’s delegates would like to express their deepest concern about the recent spread of Islamophobia in multiple countries and the increased harassment towards Muslims due to their faith and sometimes their race as well.”

Last month I wrote about the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) — the second largest inter-governmental organization, after the United Nations — and the Arab League, speaking out against “hateful” campaigning to challenge Qatar’s right to host the 2022 FIFA World Cup. I outlined what certainly looks like Qatar’s broader strategy: fighting specific allegations of wrong-doing with broad claims of Islamophobia.

It’s no accident that the OIC passed a resolution asking its 57 member states to use their media institutions to push back against the Qatar allegations. Qatar has effectively mobilized governments around the Arab world to not just protect Qatar’s right to host the 2022 World Cup, but to protect the image and reputation of Islam.

Within that context, let’s return to Sheikh Nassir bin Jassim al-Thani’s comments at the United Nations.

“Human rights are clearly interrelated, integrated, and unbeatable. And so, the calling to practice some freedoms like the freedom of expression cannot be used to discriminate, hate, or disrespect others due to their religion or race. These practices do not undermine the numerous rights that were approved by international charters for human rights, however, these practices fuel hatred, violence, and threaten the peace and the integrated coexistence between individuals and societies.”

All good here. Then came the pivot:

“Not far from what I mentioned, events and meetings organized by different countries, especially those related to sports activities and events, represent a precious opportunity to promote diversity, tolerance, and equality, and to fight racism, racial discrimination, and other related types of intolerance.”

Yeah, so this isn’t so much about general intolerance that Muslim or Arab populations face in, say, France. It’s about … I’ll just let the Sheikh wrap this up. Drop the hammer, sir. (Emphasis mine.)

Unfortunately, some of the campaigns that inspire to deprive countries of their right to host these events, like what my country Qatar is being exposed to after it had a well-deserved victory to organize the 2022 World Cup, a first for the Arab and Middle Eastern region, is derived from racism and discrimination, which is contrary to the spirit and goals of these sports activities. This forms a pattern of racism and racial discrimination that must be stopped and fought, so as not to become an excuse for intolerance and discrimination against Arabs, and remove the goals of these activities from their noble objectives.”

What you’re reading is a continuation of the narrative Qatar is masterfully weaving. A representative of the Qatari government sat in a United Nations session on discrimination talking about Islamophobia and the World Cup. If that sounds like a bizarre venue for and framing of an Islamophobia debate, that’s because it is both. When you think of all the possible avenues to take a discussion of Islamophobia at a United Nations session on discrimination, the World Cup doesn’t immediately spring to mind. But Qatar seems intent on fixing that, much in the same way governments around the world peddle similar rhetorical nonsense when called out by the West.

Let’s take a quick detour to Africa.

Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir is seen during the opening session of the AU summit in Johannesburg, Sunday, June 14, 2015. A South African judge on Sunday ordered authorities to prevent al-Bashir, from leaving the country because of an international order for his arrest, human rights activists said.(AP Photo/Shiraaz Mohamed)AP

Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir during the opening session of the AU summit in Johannesburg, Sunday, June 14, 2015. (AP Photo/Shiraaz Mohamed)

Sudanese president Omar al-Bashir was just in South Africa for an African Union summit. That’s kind of an issue because al-Bashir has International Criminal Court (ICC) warrants for his arrest over, you know, alleged genocide and war crimes in Darfur.

As a signatory to the Rome Statute, South Africa is required to arrest individuals wanted by the ICC. But shortly after his arrival in Johannesburg, while South African courts were deciding whether he should be detained, al-Bashir hopped on a plane and left South Africa.

The South African government subsequently issued a statement decrying the ICC constantly targeting Africans while refraining from pursing others around the world. (This came after a South African court ruled that al-Bashir should have been detained.) The National Executive Committee of the African National Congress, the ruling party in South Africa, noted that the ICC is “no longer useful” because “gross human violations committed by non-signatory countries go unpunished.”

This isn’t a novel position, but there’s a dangerous precedent set when governments refuse to address egregious human rights violations in the name of regional bias.

While points about international institutions disproportionately seeking to prosecute black and browner hues have merit, simply pointing that out, absent any initiative to address very legitimate and specific human rights questions, is a disservice to those people on the ground in those countries who are actually suffering, the very people government agents claim to be standing up for as they challenge international institutions based the West.

Okay, back to Qatar.

The same challenge faces the people of the Arab world. Are there elements of Islamophobia in the Western reaction to Qatar hosting the 2022 World Cup? Probably. Are they worth discussing and exploring? Without question. But that still doesn’t address the labor issues tied to the billions of dollars worth of Qatari infrastructure projects. That doesn’t answer questions about corruption. It doesn’t answer questions about discrimination toward women or LGBTQ communities.

Al-Thani is smart enough to know all this. Yet he’s perfectly comfortable closing with the following at the United Nations, on behalf of the Qatari government:

“Finally, we re-confirm our commitment to continue the cooperation with the various branches of the United Nations, including the Human Right branch, to fight all types of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia, and other related types of intolerance. And we aim to spread a culture of peace, tolerance, and mutual respect between different cultures, societies, and nations and to build a humane society based on the principles of justice, equality, and respect for human rights.

His performance was professional. His words: delivered evenly and diplomatically, as if his government hadn’t been accused of systematically discriminating against migrant laborers, or as if a United Nations agency didn’t just find fully state-owned Qatar Airways guilty of systematically discriminating against women. (The Qatar Airways chief executive called the ruling bullshit.) But still, Qatar remains committed to fighting intolerance. Just don’t say otherwise, because critique of Qatar 2022 is quickly being re-packaged as Islamophobia. In the long run, that’s not a good outcome for anyone.