From the Wrong Side of History
By Ed WestThe last World Cup hosts to treat homosexual relations as a crime were arguably even more controversial than Qatar. A repressive society where gay men were often driven to suicide by official persecution, where divorce and abortion were hard to access and strict decency rules governed what could be shown even on stage, this theocratic monarchy had a long history of colonialism and slavery, not to mention religious intolerance.
Still, we won, and that’s what matters.
The swinging London of 1966, of Bobby and Nobby, Revolver and Carnaby Street, was a different world, the early stages of a great cultural revolution sweeping across the west. Before this revolution — or transition — England was in some ways among the least tolerant of countries, one of just four World Cup host nations in which sexual relations between men were criminal offences, the others being Chile (1962), Uruguay (1930 – although it decriminalised only four years later) and, of course, Qatar.
France, the hosts in 1938, was quite conservative and 1934 host Italy was fascist, but homosexual acts had been legal in both Latin countries for a long time; in France since the Revolution and Italy from 1890. Although Mussolini’s regime persecuted gay men in various ways, it didn’t actually make homosexual acts illegal, as they had long been in Britain and Germany. Similarly, Argentina’s horrific junta of the late 1970s, while murdering over a dozen gay activists, didn’t outlaw relations.
In part this is the difference between Catholic and Protestant cultures. The former might disapprove of certain lifestyles, but the latter tends to be much more evangelical about it; if something is wrong, it must be illegal. It’s not enough that our house is in moral order, we must wipe sin out everywhere. It’s that almost literal-minded attachment to moral absolutes which makes the depredations of Protestant cultures gone wrong so much more extreme. (Chile was something of an anomaly, only legalising same-sex relations in 1999.)
Today, post-Protestant countries are similarly far more evangelical about homosexuality as a right, just as they are about progressive values more generally. It is why six of the seven countries that were planning to wear OneLove armbands to protest gay rights in Qatar are historically Protestant — England, Wales, Germany, Switzerland, Denmark and the Netherlands, Belgium being the exception. It is why the BBC has focussed so much on the issue, and why one of its pundits actually wore the armband.
Lord Reith, founder of the BBC, was famously the son of a Presbyterian minister, and those high-minded values that came to be called ‘Reithian’ were obviously Protestant in tone, with its duty to inform and improve, and to speak peace unto nation. The Beeb has always had a somewhat missionary fervour, reflected in its Charter and Mission of values, and it’s the issue of values which has placed the broadcaster under such enormous strain as Britain’s diverge.
Those values presumably informed the BBC’s decision to ignore the World Cup opening ceremony and instead focus on Qatar’s human rights record. I’m not sure how I feel about this, in all honesty. In some naïve way I feel that it’s important for the World Cup to bring humanity together and it’s a positive step that it’s been hosted by a MENA country; it was wonderful to hear the teams being announced in Arabic before the Star-Spangled Banner was played.
Morocco might have been the obvious choice for a historic occasion, but it would be considerably poorer than any host since the 1980s at least; Turkey and Egypt both have football infrastructure, history and passion, but they have also both experienced recent political instability, Egypt especially. But almost any Middle Eastern host would have had troubling issues about human rights, democracy, the treatment of women and sexual freedom.
That’s the world as it is; the problem with Qatar is not that it’s a conservative autocracy with a poor human rights record, but that it is totally unsuited to hosting the tournament, being a tiny petrostate with no infrastructure or footballing history, and which only got the World Cup due to bribery (allegedly). Yet, for better or worse, Qatar was chosen and various western countries with very different values chose to compete.
If we condemn Qatar, it means condemning much of the world outside of the West. China hosted the Olympics in 2008 and I seem to remember the BBC duly covered that, despite the People’s Republic being far worse by most metrics. Azerbaijan was one of the hosts at last year’s European Championships, and is far more oppressive than Qatar at least measured by the dubious Freedom House.
I don’t think Qatar is heavily criticised because it’s Arab and Muslim, despite some plucky claims to make that a real argument, but its conservative social mores do trigger one of the few moral issues on which post-Protestants have any cultural confidence — sexuality.
The balance between universal human rights and the right of self-determination is not an easy one to judge, a problem addressed in one of Scott Alexander’s classic posts. In a world where different communities are free to form their own laws and social norms, on what issues do we leave everyone to their own devices, and when are rights so sacred and central that we must intervene?
To post-Protestants, of course, sexual identity comes under the latter, and it is intolerable that a gay Qatari might suffer imprisonment or worse because of his or her desires. There is a pretty strong case for that argument, yet it’s notable how vociferous and culturally confident western post-Protestants are on that issue compared to the complete silence on the issue of religious persecution.
Qatar permits Christians to practise in private but proselytization is banned and conversion is technically a capital offence, although this is a theoretical punishment which isn’t enforced in practice (a bit like bike theft in England). But a Muslim-born Qatari who converted to Christianity or who openly prayed to the Christian God like Ecuador’s players on Sunday might be in trouble.
While Qatar’s intolerance towards Jews has been picked up in parts of the media, its absence of genuine religious freedom barely registers. But then the wider persecution of Middle Eastern Christians has barely registered in the West, even as one of the world’s oldest communities in Iraq was driven to near extinction following the 2003 invasion. The US State Department became notorious to Middle Eastern Christians for its lack of help or interest towards their suffering in Egypt and elsewhere; the US football team, meanwhile, is sporting rainbow colours to show its support for LGBT rights in Qatar.
This is not to engage in whataboutery, it’s just to compare how two forms of persecution register in the post-Protestant conscience, and which aspects of our humanity are considered sacred.