The Master Race by Ziauddin Sardar

It was on live television. The great and good of world football were announcing the winners. Australia, Japan, South Korea, United States and Qatar were in the running - all were eager to host the 2022 Fifa World Cup. Qatar does not have a rich football history, and I must admit, I did not think it had a chance. But when Qatar won the bid, I jumped for joy. At last, I thought, a Gulf state is going to do something that will be seen around the world as good. But moments later, my delight evaporated as some disturbing thoughts came to the fore. The World Cup would need a string of stadiums and new venues. Qatar can certainly afford them, but who is going to actually, physically, build them? Images of toiling South Asian labourers I had seen on various building sites around the Gulf came into mind. This is going to increase their suffering manifold, I said to myself.

Sure enough, within months news of death and distress of expatriate workers began to emerge from Qatar. Between 2010 and 2012, more than 700 workers from India died on construction sites in Qatar. Some 40 labourers from Nepal have lost their lives in a single month in 2013 building the new stadium, which is shaped like a well-known part of female anatomy. And the death toll continues to rise. According to a report by the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC), 12 migrant workers will continue to die every week, taking the toll to at least 4000 migrant workers by the time we actually see the World Cup on our television screens.

I have watched some of these workers toiling in 50C heat on various building sites. They clearly work under hazardous conditions. What we can’t see is that they are paid a pittance, if paid at all. Employers retain their salaries for months, and retain their passports, so they can never leave, or change jobs without permission. God help them if they become sick, which they frequently do thanks to their overcrowded and insanitary living conditions. Their passports are held by their ‘sponsors’, who are usually their employers, and they are unable to leave the country without the permission, which is often denied, of their employers.

The tiny Emirate has 1.4 million migrant workers – from India, Pakistan, Nepal, Iran, the Philippines, Egypt and Sri Lanka - constituting 96 per cent of the total population.  Most Qataris themselves do not perform such job. One would thus expect the Qataris, amongst the richest people on Earth, to treat their guest workers with humanity and dignity. So why, one could legitimately ask, are foreign workers treated so inhumanly?

Perhaps the most important answer is because they are seen as less than human.

Human bondage is an integral part of both the philosophy and mental outlook of the Gulf Arabs. And it goes right back to the formative history of Islam. Consider, for example, the kafalasystem that ties migrant workers to their employers. It goes back to first civil war in Islam, the Battle of Camels in Basra, a war within the family of the Prophet, of 7 November 656. It pitted Aisha, the Prophet’s youngest wife, against Ali, his cousin and son-in-law and the fourth Caliph. Aisha was incensed by a number of issues. There was the question of the murderer of Othman, the third Caliph, who had not been brought to justice. Indeed, there were military commanders in the army of Ali who under suspicion. There was the rather important ongoing issue of who had the right to rule: those from the family of Muhammad or those who were elected by the whole community? After all, the Prophet had abolished claims of privilege based on blood. There was the subject of the treatment of women. And then there was this: why was it necessary for new non-Arab converts to Islam to accept the guardianship of Arab tribes? In other words, Aisha objected to the kafala system, which automatically made Arabs, because of their lineage and bloodlines, superior. The tribal Arabs were the guardians of the new converts to Islam, who either could not be trusted to be good Muslims or did not have the ability to look after their own needs. As we know, the Battle of Camels was a bloody affair; over 15,000 were killed within a few hours. Aisha was defeated heavily; and exiled to Medina, never to leave her house again. Some very serious questions of Islamic history were exiled with her; and the issues they have raised have been with us to this day.

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