When Egyptian football legend Mohammed Aboutreika came out swinging against homosexuality in late 2021, he touched a raw nerve across the Muslim world.
The tit-for-tat between Mr. Aboutreika and supporters of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) rights laid bare a yawning gap.
For Mr. Aboutreika and many in the Muslim world, the issue is adhering to their values and rejecting attempts to impose the values of others.
For supporters of LGBT rights and LGBT soccer fans, at stake most immediately is LGBT people’s right to attend the 2022 Qatar World Cup without fear of discrimination or legal entanglement because of their sexuality.
Longer-term, it's about ensuring recognition of LGBT rights, including social acceptability, inclusivity, and non-discrimination.
Solving the immediate problem may be the lower hanging fruit. However, it may also open a pathway to what is realistically achievable in the middle term.
The reality is that what may be realistically possible is at best akin to US President Bill Clinton's application to gays in the US military of the 'don't ask, don't tell" rule or Indonesia's de facto 'live and let live' principle.
That may not be satisfactory, but it may be the only thing that, for now, is possible without putting LGBT communities at risk by provoking public hostility and backlash.
To be sure, autocratic Middle Eastern regimes like Saudi Arabia and Egypt often target LGBT communities for domestic political gain. In addition, the United Arab Emirates, perhaps the Middle East's socially most liberal society, recently backtracked on LGBT-related issues.
The trick in campaigning for LGBT rights is avoiding playing into the hands of autocrats while maintaining the pressure.
Simply attempting to impose recognition is unlikely to produce results. Instead, a more realistic strategy is to devise ways to stimulate debate in Muslim-majority countries and encourage social change bottom-up to ensure public buy-in.
That worked to a degree as human rights groups, and trade unions used the World Cup to pressure Qatar to make changes to its labour regime. LGBT rights are in a different category and relate more directly, rightly or wrongly, to perceived religious precepts.
As such, what worked with labour rights, even if human rights groups would like to see more far-reaching reforms, is unlikely to produce similar results when it comes to LGBT rights.
“Lobbying on behalf of a vast migrant labour force, which has historically been subjected to brutally exploitative practices, has yielded tangible results… But there is a long way to go before the rights of a mainly South Asian workforce, from some of the world’s poorest countries, are properly safeguarded,” The Guardian noted.
The paper backed proposals by human rights groups and British trade unions for the establishment in Qatar of migrant workers’ centres, which would offer advice, support and representation in lieu of a trade union, and compensation for relatives of labourers who died while employed in World Cup-related public works projects.
Going to extremes, Saudi Arabia, amid a push to encourage tourism, launched “rainbow raids” this month on shops selling children’s toys and accessories.
Authorities targeted clothing and toys, including hair clips, pop-its, t-shirts, bows, skirts, hats, and colouring pencils "that contradict the Islamic faith and public morals and promote homosexual colours that target the younger generation," said a commerce ministry official.
Earlier, the kingdom, like the UAE, banned Lightyear, a Disney and Pixar animated production, because of a same-sex kiss scene, and Disney's Doctor Strange in the Universe of Madness, in which one character refers to her "two mums."
The UAE ban appeared to contradict the government’s announcement in late 2021 that it would end the censorship of films. The country’s Media Regulatory Office said it would introduce a 21+ age viewer classification policy instead. However, that wasn't evident when the office tweeted an image of Lightyear, crossed out with a red line.
Human Rights Watch has repeatedly charged that Egyptian police and National Security Agency officers “arbitrarily arrest” LGBT people and “detain them in inhuman conditions, systematically subject them to ill-treatment including torture, and often incite fellow inmates to abuse them.
With the World Cup only months away, Qatar is caught in a Catch-22. In a country where the few gays willing to speak out describe an environment of social and legal discrimination, Qatari authorities would like to see the World Cup finals as an interlude of ‘live and let live.’
Qatari officials have insisted in recent years that LGBT fans would be welcome during the World Cup but would be expected to respect norms that frown on public expressions of affection irrespective of sexual orientation.
Paul Amann, the founder of Liverpool FC's LGBT supporters' club Kop Outs, met in 2019 with Qatari World Cup organizers before traveling to Doha with his husband to evaluate the situation.
“I’m very satisfied that their approach is to provide an ‘everyone is welcome’ ethos that does include respect, albeit through privacy. I'm not sure if rainbow flags generally will ever be accepted 'in-country,' but maybe in stadia," Mr. Amann said upon his return.
Mr. Aboutreika put Qatar on the spot when he asserted in November 2021 that “our role is to stand up to this phenomenon, homosexuality, because it's a dangerous ideology and it's becoming nasty, and people are not ashamed of it anymore. They (the Premier League) will tell you that homosexuality is human rights. No, it is not human rights; in fact, it's against humanity.”
The Qatari parliament and state-aligned media, imams in Saudi mosques, Saudi diplomats, and Al-Azhar, the citadel of Islamic learning in Cairo, rallied to reiterate Mr. Aboutreika ‘s condemnation despite his allegedly Islamist leanings.
Mr. Aboutreika’s remarks were in response to Australian gay footballer Josh Cavallo who revived the sexuality debate when he declared that he would be afraid to play in the Qatar World Cup because of the Gulf state’s ban on homosexuality and harsh legal penalties ranging from flogging to lengthy prison terms.
One of the few players to discuss his sexuality publicly, Mr. Cavallo expressed his concern a month after coming out as gay. Mr. Cavallo said other footballers had privately expressed similar fears.
What is evident in the sexuality debate is that few people, if any, will be convinced by arguments raised by the opposing side in what amounts to a dialogue of the deaf. Both sides of the divide feel deeply about their positions.
For proponents of LGBT rights, the challenge is to develop strategies that may contribute to change rather than insisting on a path that is more likely to deepen the trench lines than produce results for the people it is really about: the LGBT community.
Dr. James M. Dorsey is an award-winning journalist and scholar, a Senior Fellow at the National University of Singapore’s Middle East Institute and 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.