Friday, June 9, 2023

How Lionel Messi’s ‘Bisht’ re-exposed the racism of the Western media

On Sunday, billions of people collectively turned their gaze to Qatar’s Lusail Stadium as Argentina were crowned World Cup champions after a stunning final against France.

Yet instead of the world focusing on the glory of football, Western media chose to fixate on how the Emir of Qatar dressed Argentina captain Lionel Messi in the traditional Arab cloak known as a “bisht”. Wrapped up

The reactions of many pundits and journalists have reflected the same racism and Islamophobia that has been prevalent throughout the tournament and in the years leading up to it. But they also underscore the lack of diversity that marks most Western newsrooms—which limits their ability to understand much of the world beyond entrenched stereotypes.

“The bizarre act that ruined the greatest moment in World Cup history” read a, now edited, headline from the British newspaper, The Telegraph. “Absolutely serious” declared the headline on Fox Sports, and “outrageous” read Yahoo Sports.

Others opted for explicitly racist statements, with Mark Ogden, a senior ESPN reporter, saying: “All the photos are ruined by someone wearing a cape to him, who looks like he’s about to get a haircut”. Similarly, Dan Walker, a football television presenter, wrote in a now-deleted tweet, “I’m sure Mbappe is happy he managed to replace the weird mesh cloak with gold trim,” suggesting that Losing the World Cup final would have been better.

A bisht, also known as an aba or abaya in other Arab countries, is a symbol of prestige, honor and stature. It is worn on special occasions and only by senior religious figures, political or tribal leaders, representing immense success.

The honor of wearing a bisht, especially if it is draped over you by a dignitary – let alone by the leader of Qatar – is a rare privilege, in many ways a knighthood or a coronation. On Sunday, it added to the grandeur of the occasion and the recognition of what Messi has achieved.

This represented not only the victory of Argentina for the World Cup. This sealed Messi’s status as “the GOAT” (the greatest of all time) in the eyes of many – above not only his teammate Cristiano Ronaldo, but perhaps even the greatest former icons of the game such as Pele and Diego Maradona. . He has now won every prestigious trophy the game has to offer, including seven Ballon d’Or titles – awarded annually to the best player.

Now, I understand that since childhood it has been Messi’s dream to play for Argentina. Part of that dream probably included the hope of one day lifting the solid gold World Cup trophy in an Argentina jersey like Maradona. It’s reasonable to wonder whether Macy’s wishes were overtaken by what happened on stage. But the Western media outcry is not about Messi’s dream. It’s about an unwillingness, steeped in racism and Orientalism, to accept that football and festivities can look different in different parts of the world.

Messi at no point showed disdain towards Bisht. Nor was his number 10 Argentina shirt – a jersey so iconic it sold out globally ahead of the final – beyond recognition.

It is not uncommon for victorious athletes to be given gifts or items of clothing that reflect local cultures. The most fitting example is Pelé’s 1970 World Cup victory in Mexico, where a sombrero was placed on his head. Was Pele’s moment “hijacked”, as Australia’s 7 News claimed was the case with Messi?

Indeed, since the day Qatar was awarded the right to host the World Cup, Western outlets have displayed their “shock”. Eurocentric and hypocritical objections persisted in the build-up to the epochal tournament and continued through it. The outrage over Macy’s Bisht was one last display of ignorance.

The success of the Moroccan national team at the World Cup represented a point of pride for many Arabs and Africans around the world. For me, as an Iraqi Arab, it was really inspiring to see the victory of another Arab nation and to see culturally similar celebrations. But, like Bisht, the Western media once again displayed anti-Arab ignorance after Morocco’s series of shocking victories.

After eventually losing to France in the semi-finals, ESPN posted a photo of Moroccan players prostrating, a symbol of submission to God for billions of Muslims around the world. But the caption read: “The Moroccan players and staff applaud their supporters who came out in force”.

Welt, a German news outlet, compared Moroccan players to ISIL (ISIS) fighters celebrating by raising a finger to the sky. No Western outlet shows such an affinity for Messi when he celebrates by raising his fingers to the sky after scoring a goal. A reflection of the importance of family in African and Arab cultures The affectionate images of Moroccan players were mocked by a Danish television channel: Moroccans were compared to a family of monkeys Went.

Yet such racism, ignorance and outright incompetence in journalism is not entirely surprising given the lack of representation in most Western newsrooms. In the United States, 40 percent of the population is not white. But a 2020 Reuters Institute study found that nearly 90 percent of top editors are white. Improving diversity at senior levels in the newsroom would help Western media outlets build safeguards against displays of ignorance – though these organizations need to acknowledge their own failure to remove barriers to growth for non-white journalists. will be needed.

In the Arab world, some are cheering the besotted Argentina captain as “Sheikh Messi”. That too is a reflection of the affection he enjoys. Let us not taint their – and Argentina’s – brilliant victory with a racist slur over a gesture of appreciation and respect.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial position of Al Jazeera.

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