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The World Cup, orientalism, and power in the World of Journalism

By Saad Ul Haque, MA Postcolonial Studies

When Russia held the World Cup in 2017, the BBC provided full coverage of the tournament’s opening ceremony. There was no criticism nor lecturing, while by this time, Russia had already annexed the region of Crimea and was occupying Eastern Ukraine. Fast forward four years, the BBC’s coverage of the World Cup began with Gary Lineker speaking out against Qatari human rights abuses, and the opening ceremony was not shown. Besides the irony of a celebrity presenter such as Lineker criticizing the regime, the Western coverage of the World Cup was another reminder of the racial dynamic which still dominates journalism. Criticism of Qatar’s human rights record may well be justified, yet it should not take away from the clear racism and stigma that was on show during the World Cup. The racial and Orientalist coverage of non-Western events is a major issue today.

The Moroccan team won many hearts as it went on a fathomable journey to place fourth, the highest position ever for an African country at the world cup. Their heartfelt celebrations, camaraderie, and dances captured millions of fans’ love and attention worldwide. Yet, German media outlet ‘Welt’ attempted to sour their journey by claiming the Moroccan players posed with the ‘Islamic State gesture’ after their win against Portugal. The gesture in question is a raising of the index finger to the sky, a testament to there being one God, and a very common gesture amongst Muslims worldwide. The racial accusations did not stop there. A Danish TV channel attempted to draw comparisons between the Moroccan players dancing with their mothers after the match with pictures of monkeys. The Moroccan team also faced criticisms by Israeli media, who claimed their waving of the Palestinian flag was an antisemitic gesture aimed at “orchestrating hostility towards Israel”. These are but a few examples of the racist and Orientalist hostility shown by Western media. The strength of Western journalism allows these media outlets to create and circulate racist and discriminatory claims and accusations with free reign.

Coverage of the World Cup and the Moroccan team is also a testament to the anti-Muslim and anti-Middle Eastern coverage that the media has been perpetuating for more than two decades. The construction and circulation of ethnic stereotypes among journalism today is a result of this type of coverage. Ethnic and racial stereotyping is a pillar of Orientalist and racial journalism today. For more than 20 years, Western journalism and media have helped to perpetuate the idea that Muslims and Arabs are backward, extremist, and uncivilized. Much of this perspective stems from colonial-era prejudices against minorities. The British and French both ruled over parts of the Middle East during the zenith of their administrations. They governed with the impression that they were above the natives. These ideas of cultural superiority were ingrained in Orientalist scholarship and have remained the status quo since then. After the rise of Islamic extremism, these ideas have been reinvigorated by Western journalism and brought back into the spotlight. Furthermore, these racist and orientalist ideas can be utilized in a manner that is dangerous to the group. Some examples we see are the activities of Tommy Robinson’s English Defence League and, on a larger scale, President Donald Trump’s tenure in power. As journalism functions as a tool to circulate ideas and events, Western superiority that is based on an Orientalist and colonial legacy controls the narrative and ensures the hierarchy remains. 

“There is a clear ‘othering’ of the non-Western world and a cultural superiority when it comes to discussing ideas and concepts that are non-Western

 The fact of the matter is that Orientalism and racializing still exist within journalism today. There is a clear ‘othering’ of the non-Western world and a cultural superiority when it comes to discussing ideas and concepts that are non-Western. The journalistic hegemony that the Western world holds critically limits the effectiveness of journalism in places such as Asia, Africa, South America, and the Middle East. The hierarchy at play doesn’t just focus on narratives but also culture, race, ethnicity, language, and religion. The reach of mass media outlets allows the power to remain in Western journalism and for a successful undermining of attempts to break the status quo.  The damage that Orientalism has done to the colonized world is unquantifiable, but there needs to be a greater drive among new journalists today to ensure a plurality. The ‘othering’, racial stereotypes, and cultural superiority that exists in Western journalism need to be eradicated to allow greater diversity in the field.

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