Britain is the traditional home of football where it has been played for centuries. It may be no surprise that for many people in the UK, football is like a religion, with clubs big and small almost everywhere that people live and there is space for a pitch. If you can't play the game, it is brought into your home online, on TV and on social media. Almost inevitably, though, when such passion is involved, the nastier sides of the oft-called "beautiful game" include violence and racism.
The history of football is a blend of passion, pride, violence and racism. A number of studies have exposed the growing racism in the game, including one from the University of Loughborough. Another recent survey found that "more than half of fans have witnessed incidents of racist abuse at games."
What is happening to the famed spirit of sportsmanship? Can football bring people together or does it, in fact, foster divisions in society? In Britain, at least, Brexit has apparently inflamed anti-Muslim hatred with Muslim players at a grass-roots level reporting Islamophobic incidents. Indeed, the Kick It Out campaign, which tries to promote community cohesion, has warned of increasing intolerance in post-Brexit British football. Nabila Ramdani rightly pointed out it that despite their generous charitable donations and the generally positive role played by Muslims in British society, "Nowadays the hate-mongers who seek to warp majority opinion tend to focus on religion. And they are by no means found only at football grounds; politicians and authors, mainstream media commentators and online trolls all get involved."
Are we witnessing an updated version of the late Edward Said's "orientalism", with European "us" and Muslim "others" played out in our own land? In the midst of the Brexit debacle, British media and politicians are polluting the public space with poisonous rhetoric that creates misunderstandings, antipathy towards Muslims and racial disharmony.
Indeed, such antipathy has extended over the past few years from the notorious "dodgy dossier" about Iraq's alleged weapons of mass destruction, which led eventually to millions being killed by war and sanctions, to the fabricated concern about human rights in the criticism of Qatar's hosting of the FIFA World Cup in 2022. If human rights are to be the benchmark for hosting major sporting tournaments, then neither Britain, the United State nor Russia, for example, would ever host anything due to their consistent abuse of human rights around the world over many decades.
Opinion polls ask people if Qatar should be allowed to host the prestigious World Cup finals due to its apparently poor record in the way it treats migrant labourers from the Asian Sub-Continent building the stadiums required for 2022. The very hot weather is also brought into play. However, do the major British and European football clubs which jet off to places like the UAE for winter training camps ever stop to ask if the labourers who built the magnificent facilities and seven-star hotels were paid a fair wage and provided with good working conditions? Or do the players complain about the weather? Aren't such camps meant to give players a break from inclement British weather? In any case, Qatar has already promised fans that will take the heat out of the 2022 World Cup using the latest technology.
Such polls are all too often skewed for political bias, especially with regard to Russia prior to the 2018 World Cup and, ever since it was awarded the right to host the tournament in 2022, Qatar. In a systematic manner, the media make negative references to reports and surveys that mention the issues of human rights and corruption.
Are the British — governments and people alike — really in a strong position to claim the moral high ground on such matters? When did Qatar ever invade or bomb another country, killing innocent civilians in the process? Britain's human rights record is fairly dismal, although it is good at paying lip=service to justice and fair play. Not, however, when it comes to buying goods from Third World sweatshops paying children and migrants rates well below a liveable wage. The left-of-centre Guardian asked earlier this, When will Britain face up its crimes against humanity?
"Upholding human rights" has become an empty slogan when the reality shows that Britain has a long history of treating "others" abominably. From colonialism to slavery to its own use of "weapons of mass destruction", Britain has no moral high ground from which to lecture other states. Sending humanitarian aid to the Palestinians and being critical of illegal Israeli settlements, for example, may salve Britain's collective conscience on one level, but the political, economic and military aid that successive British governments give to the State of Israel, which is the cause of the humanitarian crisis afflicting Palestine in the first place, demonstrates a keen degree of hypocrisy. We also need to look at Britain's role in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya and Syria to see that human rights play second fiddle to "national interests".
During World War Two, Muslim and non-Muslim soldiers from the Indian Army fought alongside British soldiers as part of the Empire's contribution to the war effort. Prime Minister Winston Churchill, meanwhile, allowed millions of Indians to starve to death when their food was "diverted" to British soldiers in the midst of a famine in Bengal. For this, politician Dr Shashi Tharoor has likened Churchill to "genocidal dictators" around the world. It was Churchill, remember, who was very keen to use "poisoned gas against uncivilised tribes" in the Middle East in the 1920s.
Perhaps a headline from the Financial Times — The UK must address its own human rights abuses — says it all. A similar report by the British Institute of Human Rights (BIHR) expressed the concern that the British government is trying to introduce rights legislation to suit its own agenda.
In previous years we have seen Qatari-owned news network Al Jazeera come under the Western spotlight. Calls have been made for it to be closed down, no doubt because it lets a global audience have an insight into matters that the Western media either gloss over or ignore altogether. What will it be next? "We" don't like the food in Qatar? Or the clothes?
Those involved in what is clearly an anti-Qatar campaign would be wise to pay heed to the fact that the tiny Gulf State has massive investments in Britain, particularly in London. Are the British prepared to risk that at a time when the government is looking to boost economic and other links beyond the EU?
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.