Many Muslims will undoubtedly have a thrilling memory of the 2022 World Cup. Qatar became the first Middle Eastern country to host the event and Morocco became the first team from an Arab and Arfican country to reach the semi-finals. However, while some Islamists joined in the international excitement, many others lamented Muslims’ rejoicing about such frivolous subjects as soccer and were furious about what they viewed as Qatar’s “double game” of pandering to the West while pretending to uphold Islamic law.
The World Cup was Qatar’s chance to showcase large-scale dawah [proselytism] efforts. This might seem like an initiative that should have received Islamist support. Instead, many disapproved of what they saw as an opportunistic public relations operation.
British Islamist Abu Yusuf Al Hanbali acknowledged “that Qatar overall has created very much an Islamic atmosphere” but wondered what would have been the effect had Qatar reserved the funds it had spent on events for issues such as world poverty or climate change. Al Hanbali concluded that Qatar’s true interest is “to showcase itself to the World, to enter what I believe is the elite race in the [Middle East].”
Meanwhile, UK-based Islamist Taji Mustafa expressed his weariness that “Qatar’s government is using these ‘dawah events’ to whitewash bringing #WorldCup2022 (alcohol, music festival, wasting ummah’s wealth and all sorts of [illicit activities]. Now they are saying ‘at least there’s dawah!’”
Criticism of Qatar’s decision to allow alcohol was repeated elsewhere. Roshan Salih, editor of the British Salafi publication 5 Pillars, told his followers not to “be fooled by the headlines around Qatar banning alcohol in stadium” as “alcohol will be widely available elsewhere.” He concluded that this was “as usual the Qataris playing double games” and that they had “sold out Islamic law for the World Cup.”
“Margarita,” a pseudonymous Twitter account popular among Western Salafis, also posted a reminder that Qatar was serving alcohol and that the Gulf country “didn’t ban LGBT flags out of Islamic zeal” but only “out of fear of their people.” According to Margarita the “World Cup being in Qatar has been nothing but humiliating, they spent millions on it as Afghanistan starves & Muslim fighters all over the world are neglected.”
U.S.-based Islamist Shadee Elmasry, a well-known imam with nearly 60,000 followers on Twitter, wrote that he didn’t “understand the logic of Qatar hosting the World Cup, spending billions and billions + all that time and energy on a game.” He described Qatar’s hosting of the event as “an example of the law of Islam w/o its spirit.” For Elmasry, if the spirit of Islam were truly being applied, “then we would not expend all this time and energy on a sport.”
For Deobandi jurist Abdullah Moolla, who regularly writes in the hardline Muslim Skeptic, Qatar was guilty of “only promoting the Liberalized version of Islam that the football body will be pleased with.” He concluded that “Qatar does not deserve any [prayer] or sympathy from the Muslim Ummah.”
As jokes circulated on social media that the Muslim unity around the Morocca team and its successes rendered Hizbut Tahrir’s (HT) attempts to unite Muslims and form a caliphate obsolete, certain HT members expressed their displeasure at the World Cup. British HT official Khalid Abu Aishah was unhappy about alleged attempts to make Muslims celebrate the prayers of soccer players at the end of the “frivolous” game, while forgetting about the prayers of Muslim imams who are “in the Dungeons (sic) of the rulers of those nations.”
Other Islamists were disturbed by the attire of the players. French Salafi Samy Chaouche deleted a much-denounced tweet thread in which he had declared that it was impermissible to watch the soccer games as the players’ shorts revealed their thighs. The same discussion played out among English-speaking Islamists. Siraaj Muhammad, founder of the Muslim Matters publication, wrote that “as a practicing Muslim man, I feel awkward simply seeing pics of [the players’ short shorts]” and added that he “definitely shouldn’t be giving sisters a green light to check this out.”
Later on, as many elated Muslims joked that Morocco’s successive victories over Spain and Portugal were reminiscent of the Umayyad’s 8th century conquest of the region, several quietist Salafis were horrified. Chaouche denounced those who made Morocco’s “ascent” during the World Cup into a “kind of modern jihad,” a “triumph of Islam over unbelievers.” He reminded them that “it’s only soccer: 22 players running behind a ball with their thighs showing.” A very desperate Chaouche wondered how many Muslims “would be ready to abandon Netflix, Spotify and one’s PlayStation to invest all of one’s belongings and life in the path of God?”
Another account noted that “the over-exaggeration of Morocco’s victory in the World Cup represents something sad.” He bemoaned that the “high ambitions” of the ummah [community] had been replaced by rejoicing over football rather than over “victories in the battlefield.”
This view was shared by yet another Salafi, who warned that his would be an “unpopular opinion” before asking why Muslims didn’t pray for Taliban in Afghanistan “IN THE WAY THEY ARE DOING for a football game? Why did the ummah not rejoice when the mujahideen defeated the world’s current superpower?”
Well-known British Islamist Moinul Abu Hamza shared a post enumerating Qatar’s faults, including the death of migrant workers and the US presence at the Al Udeid air base, and hinted that these were signs that the Day of Judgement was approaching.
Not all Islamists dismissed the World Cup. The United States Council of Muslim Organizations, which is close to Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, praised Qatar for “its Islamically stellar and unprecedentedly visionary accomplishments in winning, organizing, and hosting the very best FIFA tournament by far in the Federation’s 92 year history.” Echoing this line, influential Deobandi cleric Yasir Nadeem Al Wajidi, who is based in Chicago, congratulated Qatar “for organizing the best #FIFAWorldCup without compromising with the Islamic principles.”
The modernist Salafi institute AlMaghrib changed its Facebook profile picture to one of the Moroccan flag and even the reliably hardline Muslim Skeptic publication posted a piece describing the match between Morocco and France as “a symbolic battle of ideas, values and beliefs.” Admittedly, this view wasn’t shared by all of Muslim Skeptic’s readers. The most liked comment under the article complained that “if people were as fanatical about their [religion] as they are with football, they wouldn’t have been colonized in the first place.”
While the critical reactions are not, of course, representative of all Islamists, they do provide evidence that Qatar’s generous funding and support of Islamists in the West does not exempt it from their criticism. Indeed, many are frustrated by what they perceive as Qatar’s hypocrisy as the country touts its Islamic credentials while still striving to “feel accepted on the global stage.” Qatar will undoubtedly remain one of the main patrons of Western Islamists, but this does not mean that it can count on their unconditional support. As it is perhaps precisely Islamists’ high expectations of Qatar that have resulted in their virulence against Qatari compromises, Doha may find it increasingly difficult to appease its Islamist critics.
Martha Lee is the research fellow of Islamist Watch, a project of the Middle East Forum.