Opinion: A View from the Stands at the World Cup

The World Cup in Qatar and its effect on Muslim consciousness

By Khaled A. Beydoun

March/April 2023

I was still young, but I vividly recall Diego Maradona lifting the golden trophy after winning the World Cup in 1986. This image claimed a permanent spot in my mind for reasons that supersede football. He was an Argentine who would become a legend in Estadio Azteca, while I was just another Arab child trapped within the crucible of war in Lebanon. 

Maradona and I were on opposite sides of the world, and even further axes of existence. But I saw my brown face and black locks in him in that moment in Mexico. It screamed hope — no matter his distance and how tenuous that hope was — into a place surrounded by war. That portrait of possibility became a centerpiece in my mind. Maradona became a figure of transcendence for a child who struggled to find symbols of resemblance on screens where war monopolized our relevance. 

For that reason, the 1986 tournament in Mexico was my greatest World Cup. It introduced me to the beautiful game during the ugliest stage of my childhood and acquainted me with the small brown lion who darted past white giants, roaring hope into my heart with that signature black mane. 

Thirty-six years and nine World Cups later, that very image of Maradona being hoisted up by his teammates in Mexico City rose in my mind as my plane landed in Qatar. Mexico and Maradona were my benchmark, and I left the plane rushing to catch the final stanzas of Morocco’s tilt against Spain. 

A Muslim team, in a Muslim nation, both poised to make history on the biggest of world stages — during a moment when Islamophobia was high and the morale of Muslims low. 

The images in the airport were surreal, colored by Croats donning traditional Arabic thobes (gowns) and green Mexican jerseys matched together with the Qatari headdress. These were only appetizers to the smorgasbord of cultural fusion I took in on the streets of Doha and the heart of its souks, where Brazilians celebrated alongside Saudis and British fans congratulated jubilant troupes of Moroccans. The flavors of ethnic exchange were overpowering, and the cultural blends unfolding in a part of the world inextricably tied to war and woe told a radically different story. 

What was taking place on the streets, in the souks and at the stadiums was magical. Instead of having to impose an Arab face on an Argentine or find phenotypic and physical resemblance in a mythical figure, I just had to open my eyes. The World Cup was actually taking place in Qatar, an Arab nation, a Muslim society, where the azan (call to prayer) summoned believers to prayer and sounded to the world, and everybody in it, that Muslim nations were part of the global community that Muslims could excel on the world stage. 

The football matches, up through the electric final between France and Argentina, were gripping. But what set the World Cup in Qatar apart were the events and images, sights and sounds beyond the stadiums. The network of museums hosted programs showcasing Islamic history and interrogating modern Arab identity. Visitors from every point of the globe tasted Yemeni and Egyptian cuisine for the first time and toured the nation’s desert and coastline in between football matches. Fans from every background flocked to fan zones, where the absence of alcohol made way for the formation of friendships, safety for children and the freedom for women to walk freely, without fear.

Arab and Muslim culture was on full display, and the world was fully immersing itself in both — from home as they took in the World Cup matches and revelry, and especially on the ground in Qatar.

As an Arab living in the U.S., the World Cup in Qatar reversed the course of daily life for me and millions of immigrants in the West. We are perpetually told to “assimilate” and “conform,” commanded to accept values inimical to our own and to shed symbols sacred to our faith. That ongoing process of sacrifice and surrender marks the very essence of being an immigrant in the West, particularly for Muslims in nations where Islamophobia is enshrined into law. Immigrants are incessantly told to conform and conceal, to assimilate and adapt or “go back to where you come from.” 

However, the very same British and French, German and American voices that demand conformity from immigrants in their own countries show — very lucidly — that they were unwilling to do the same as passing visitors in Qatar. These Western voices, and the arrogant cultures they embody, refused to follow a standard during four weeks of a World Cup that they imposed on others for life. 

As if we needed reminders of white supremacy or remnants of imperialism, the unilateral demands on Qatar and indictments that followed from Western media outlets piled on. Like colonial excursions and modern wars, they sought to flatten what unfolded in Qatar into savage stereotypes and doctored misrepresentations. They conspired to supplant the realities taking place on the ground in Doha with nefarious narratives crafted in London, seeking to steal the achievements and joy of this World Cup from the small Arab nation and the millions who flew to the Middle East, for the first time, to see it with eyes untainted by Orientalist myths and political mirages. 

The event, after all, is called the World Cup. Not the European or American Cup, or what many in Britain or Denmark may be led to believe, the White World Cup. The tournament, if it truly seeks to live up to its name, is meant to travel to nations where customs are dissimilar to those of our own and converge with cultures that, for many, hold disagreeable values. 

That discord is at once the beauty and struggle of cultural exchange. It is a dissonance that enables immigrants in the U.S. or Muslims in Europe to navigate a cultural terrain uneven with their identity free of the impulse to remake it wholly in their own image — an impulse that drove many white pundits raging from Western Europe to condemn the World Cup in Qatar before it kicked off, and far more desperately, after another diminutive Argentine was held up high by his team. 

How refreshing was it for Palestinians to see their flag being waved in the stands and then championed by Moroccan players as they made history. As some wrote, “Palestine won the World Cup” by simply being dignified on the world stage and honored as the ceremonial 33rd nation in the tournament (Middle East Monitor, Dec. 8, 2022). 

The Moroccan players thrust their Muslim identity into the center as they made history in Qatar. They prayed on the pitch after every match, win or lose; honored their mothers in line with Islamic custom and culture; and lifted the spirits of Muslim nations around the world with each goal, with each historic step toward the semifinal. 

It was sublime to see, and even more sublime to experience in person. As I reflect back on the World Cup, I only wish that every Muslim could have been there to see it and to live it as our faith and cultures flourished for all to see. 

As I wrote in CNN, “Things fall apart for Muslims, particularly as the War on Terror has stigmatized their identity and silenced their prayers. The Moroccan team did not defeat Islamophobia, but the World Cup stage, curated by Qatar, enabled a new stanza of resilience, and sublime chapters of resistance where Muslim identity stood tall, proud and victorious in the center of the world stage” (“Opinion: The day the football gods reversed the tide of history,” Dec. 8, 2022).

It was history. Muslim history. History that we wrote with our hands and on our own terms, free from the skewed pens of Western journalists and the scowling Islamophobia of biased politicians. 

Messi is not Maradona, and Qatar is not Mexico. And I am no longer a nameless Muslim child living through another Middle Eastern war, but rather an author crafting history at the first World Cup the region has ever seen. For reasons tied to resemblance and resilience, this subaltern unity standing against and silencing Western supremacy made this World Cup the greatest one ever. 

Khaled A. Beydoun is a law professor at Wayne State University in Detroit and the Berkman Center at Harvard. He is the author of “The New Crusades: Islamophobia and the Global War on Muslims” (University of California Press, 2023). You can find him on his socials at @khaledbeydoun.

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