The world’s only out gay Qatari has warned that there will be a “retaliation” against LGBT people in the Gulf state after the World Cup to “cleanse the Western influence” — despite hopes that the tournament could have a liberalising effect.
Dr Nas Mohamed, who publicly disclosed his sexuality this year, told i that this crackdown is likely to be mounted by the Qatari regime as the spotlight wanes on the country post-tournament.
“First of all, there’s going to be more extreme censorship,” he said. LGBT people revealed to i this month that they are being tracked by the Qatari government through apps, especially gay dating apps. Some are then lured to hotel rooms by the authorities — who use fake profiles as bait — only to be arrested, imprisoned, and sometimes beaten and raped before being deported (in the case of foreign workers).
“They will double-down on that,” said Dr Mohamed, adding that there has already been an increase in sting operations in the lead-up to the World Cup.
When fans leave and international attention turns elsewhere, “it’s going to be us [LGBT people] suffering with the consequences,” he said. “Because that’s what an authoritative regime does. They strip away freedoms and expect everybody to submit. And they call that traditional culture. It’s not. It’s abuse of power.”
Some have argued that Fifa’s decision to grant Qatar the 2022 World Cup offers an opportunity to raise human rights abuses in the country and affect change, but discussion has mostly focused on how visiting spectators will be treated.
“When people talk about LGBT rights, they really need to see a little bit more than the fans — they need to see all of us,” he said referring to Qatari nationals and residents. “We’re not okay there.”
But even the spectators could have problems, he warned. While Fifa insists it has brokered agreements with the regime to enable fans to enjoy matches without being arrested, there has been little mention of how Qatari nationals themselves might react to visibly LGBT people in their country.
“The locals were not addressed by the Government on this issue. They didn’t tell them, ‘Don’t attack gay people’.” There could be hate crimes at street level, he said. “And then who’s going to protect them? There are no resources for that.”
Anti-LGBT hate crime laws don’t exist in Qatar. Homosexuality is illegal, imprisonable and subject to sharia law, which enables lashing as a punishment. Some gay Qataris have also described being severely beaten by their own family members.
Fans who want to demonstrate against homophobic oppression in Qatar – perhaps by waving rainbow flags or kissing — could find themselves a target “because it will be perceived as an attack by the locals,” said Mohamed. “Gay fans need to protect themselves.” But, he added, “I think some visibility is helpful, because what I want the locals in Qatar to feel is that there is more love than hate, and that there is hope.”
Considerable criticism has been levelled at public figures taking Qatari money, such as David Beckham in a reported £150m deal to be an ambassador for the 2022 World Cup, and Gary Neville for accepting a deal to broadcast on Qatar’s state TV network.
“I think the heroic acts need to be done by the David Beckhams and the [football] teams,” he said. “Not the average fan that’s visiting. They’re not going to be able to protect themselves. And them getting hurt is not going to help in the long run. We don’t want the local community to see more gay people being attacked.”
But even the idea that a World Cup with a few Western LGBT allies speaking out against oppression in Qatar will transform the plight of this minority is unrealistic on its own, he said. “It’s not going to just magically happen. It’s an effort, it needs to be intentional. We’re going to need advocacy and that needs to be a team [of LGBT activists]. It can’t just continue to be me.”
Mohamed has established two organisations: the Alwan Foundation to fight for LGBT rights in the Gulf region, and this week he launched Proud Maroons (after the colour of the country’s flag), a Qatari fan club for LGBT people and their allies, which calls itself “the only national football supporters’ group that can’t have fans from its own nation — because joining would send them to jail”.
The Proud Maroons website has begun to release anonymised stories of LGBT Qataris. Among them is an older gay man given the pseudonym Faisal.
“I’ve always loved drag,” he said, “And I’ve been doing it for so long, but it is a very dangerous hobby. Thankfully, I managed to find a small trusted community in Qatar where we can express our art. We’ve been doing it together since the 70s and slowly we decided to share it with more people.
“It was fun and expressive, but one night an undercover cop showed up to one of our events. All of us were arrested. I was taken to an underground dungeon somewhere in Qatar where they kept me for a little more than two months. I was beaten and humiliated. They couldn’t let me leave unless I signed a false confession. Ever since that experience I felt empty and I suffer from PTSD. I suffer from intense depression and occasional suicidal thoughts. I see no hope on the horizon.”
The scale of the task is huge, said Mohamed. As well as state violence and imprisonment — conducted by the Preventive Security Department — conversion therapy techniques, which refer to any attempts to make LGBT people heterosexual or cisgender, are being forcibly used in Qatar, according to both Mohamed — who is in direct contact with dozens of LGBT people — and Human Rights Watch, which has been investigating the treatment of LGBT people overall in the country. All major international medical institutions condemn conversion therapy as ineffective and harmful, often causing mental illness and suicidality.
“One of the victims is trying to go in [to the conversion therapy appointment] and call me from a session so that I can hear a conversation that’s going on,” said Mohamed. “But one of them told me that they were told to go watch straight porn or lesbian porn until they’re not gay anymore.”
Forcing gay men to watch lesbian porn because homosexuality isn’t acceptable isn’t only nonsensical to Mohamed. “That is exact hypocrisy,” he said. The Qatari government denies conversion therapy is imposed on LGBT people.
But according to Mohamed and others, it’s just the start. Those who’ve been arrested, imprisoned, and later released are subject to ongoing infringement on their civil liberties.
“They have extra surveillance on them after they leave to make sure they don’t speak,” he said. One of the men he has been talking with “was driving to go to the grocery store and was stopped by one of the regular police cars.” When the man asked why he had been stopped, police said, “’Well, you’re flagged in the system. Now whenever we see your car, we have to stop you and search you.’”
Employment and immigration laws, laws against extra-marital sex, and widespread social stigma in Qatar mean that people with HIV are also subject to restrictions and fear of disclosure. Foreign workers are banned from Qatar if they’re HIV positive. “I know a handful of people that have lost their jobs and were deported because they were positive,” said Mohamed. Qataris who can afford it go to a secret clinic where their medications and HIV status won’t appear on their medical records, “because they don’t want it to get out”, he said. And if it does, some face either losing their job or being consigned to a desk job so they’re “not touching people”.
Now 35, Mohamed left Qatar for the US in 2011, after training to be a primary healthcare doctor. Realising he was gay while still in his home country prompted a fear of being discovered so great that he was unable to even try to meet other gay people. “I struggled a lot,” he said. “I was fading. When I went back home to finish medical school, I was feeling myself fade — who I am, my personality, my well-being. I was just slipping away.”
To mark this, after he left Qatar, Mohamed moved to San Francisco and had a tattoo inked onto his side in Arabic, the translation of which is: “I pleased others with a life that led to my demise.”
“That’s how I felt in Qatar,” he said, “that it was killing me to live for them.” He hasn’t returned in eight years.
Coming out, however frightening, has transformed Mohamed’s life and wellbeing, enabling him to connect with others that he was too afraid to while in Qatar. Now, he said, “I don’t feel alone. I started a little group for Qatari refugees, the ones that have successfully claimed asylum. It’s growing slowly. A couple of them want to come out.” This might be this year, he said, but more likely after the World Cup. But even talking among themselves, before saying anything publicly, helps.
“We feel validated, we don’t feel like we have to chop a piece of our identity off to be LGBT anymore. We’re reclaiming part of our identity. And it feels good, it feels liberating, it feels validating.”
But there’s a cost for Mohamed. His family haven’t been in contact with him since he revealed his sexuality publicly in May. “It’s pretty frightening for them to be this quiet,” he said. “I think it’s partially down to protecting themselves.”
When asked by i which members of his family he particularly misses, he declined to answer. “I think it will put them in danger to talk about anybody specifically.”
But Mohamed also fears that certain relatives might travel to the US to harm him. Other gay Qataris have experienced the same. “Our families come after us,” he said.
In the meantime, he concentrates on liberating his community back home long after the World Cup ends. “The hate and abuse of people doesn’t belong in any culture. We need to fight it together everywhere,” said Mohamed.
Although the steps to freedom aren’t clear, he said, along the way, LGBT people and their allies across the world can offer at least one thing to this community living in Qatar. “You can just give them hope. That hope will help them wake up every day and keep trying.”
A Qatari official told i: “Qatar does not tolerate discrimination against anyone, and our policies and procedures are underpinned by a commitment to human rights for all.”