Skip to Content


Righteous indifference and how to fight it.

29 September 2013

10:59 PM

29 September 2013

10:59 PM

Last week I wrote in the Observer about Qatar’s treatment of the hundreds of thousands of migrant labourers, who will build the stadiums and hotels for the 2022 World Cup. They were dying at a rate of one day. They had to cope with inhuman conditions and labour laws that treated them as serfs by giving employers the power to break contracts and stop them leaving the country if they complained. The absolute Qatari monarchy ran a kind of apartheid system, I said. It denied rights it granted the natives to poor workers from Nepal and India. If the image of the old South Africa did not appeal, I offered Sparta as an alternative – ‘but instead of a warrior elite living off the labour of helots, we have plutocrats and sybarites sustained by faceless armies of disposable migrants’.

After publication, a couple of people contacted me to say that the Open Democracy website had published a ‘reasoned’ critique of my article.

Maybe I had got my facts wrong, I thought. I did not seem to be wide of the mark. The next day Robert Booth of the Guardian ran a tough and well-sourced piece on how Qatar’s World Cup building programme would cost 4000 lives by 2022. The International Trade Union Confederation denounced Fifa’s culpability in the scandal, and the International Labour Organisation said that Qatar was refusing to follow basic standards.

But the misnamed “Open Democracy” was more interested in making excuses for a closed and absolute monarchy than the vulgar business of ascertaining how many corpses were piling were up in morgues. If one must talk about the bodies, it said as it began its reproof, one must abjure vulgar emotion and adopt a polite tone. I had ‘overstepped some lines’, and forgotten that ‘the way one words a critical piece about Qatar affects the way it is perceived’.  (Not perceived by the 1.7 million migrants in Qatar, of course, but by the 225,000-strong group of natives above them.)

Open Democracy believes that reform is coming – although a little late for the maimed and dead, it concedes. We should put our faith in the ‘young emir’ – in much the same way that credulous Russian peasants once hoped that young Tsars would ease their burdens. Outsiders, however, must bite their tongues and mind their p’s and q’s as they wait. My critic, a British ex-pat, who teaches in a local university, said that even liberals in the Qatari elite would respond to my piece by saying:

Who are you Westerner, who built your power on the extermination of locals across the globe and the exploitation of human beings for centuries, to lecture us on how to treat people?

You criticise us but are more than happy to take our money when you need it for everything from paying off your debt, to your shops, to your skyscrapers, and your football teams.

When your western construction companies come into Qatar they are the first ones to hire teams of cheap Asian labourers to do the job. Look at yourselves first before criticising us.”

The writer was all for this notion that Western outsiders were too compromised to complain. But notice how he packages his justification: indifference to the suffering of exploited workers is what you would expect to hear from a PR man in a global corporation. But here it is dressed up in the clothes of anti-colonialism and anti-capitalism – of righteousness, in short. Righteous indifference is still indifference, but it makes doing or saying nothing sound like the liberal course to follow.

As Open Democracy raised the question of tone, I should say I loathe its tone of voice more than any other. It is the note you hear when you are told to forget about secularism or women’s rights (especially women’s rights) as religious conservatives march. It is the throat-clearing used to justify tyranny and excuse the barbarism of radical Islam. It is that sing-song, world-weary note that makes shrugging your shoulders and turning away appear virtuous.

Let me take what is wrong with it from the top.

1. “You’re a hypocrite” is not an argument

Suppose a property developer in Qatar were to condemn the treatment of migrant workers. If a man in the audience were to reveal that the developer on stage worked his labourers 12-hours a day and left them to suffer heart attacks in hot, unventilated barracks at night, he would prove that the speaker was a shameful hypocrite. But he would not prove that it was right to leave work labourers 12-hours a day and leave them to suffer heart attacks in hot, unventilated barracks.

2. You are responsible for your actions – no one else’s

As it happens the international trade union movement is not developing stadiums and hotels for the World Cup. Nor am I.  We do not support the crimes of the British Empire either. Indeed, there no longer is a British Empire for us to support.  Yet large numbers of Westerners still believe that they must atone for the crimes of their ancestors, real and imaginary, by keeping silent and pulling their punches. If you are one of them, you ought to read Pascal Bruckner’s discussion of the difference between repentance and remorse in his Tyranny of Guilt.

‘All modern thought,’ he says with a little hyperbole, ‘can be reduced to a mechanical denunciation of the West, emphasising [its] hypocrisy, violence and abomination. The duty to repent forbids the Western bloc, which is eternally guilty, to judge or combat other systems, other states, other religions. Our past crimes command us to keep our mouths closed.’

But keeping your mouth closed is not an act of true repentance. When you repent, you resolve to find absolution by doing better. Western thought is not dominated by an urge to repent for past crimes, which would mean standing up against exploitation, oppression and religious fanaticism, but by remorse, which the Catholic Church rightly identifies as a sin because it is so easy and unproductive. Remorseful Westerners are meant to wallow in perpetual penitence and do nothing beyond asking what right we have to judge any ‘other’ when Western culture has sinned so grievously.

3. Identity politics is always reactionary

As soon as you start accepting categories like “the West”, “the Muslims” etc. you fall into a trap. To stay with the 2022 World Cup, there are people who support the exploitation of labour and people who oppose it. You can find them in all countries and cultures. What unites supporters and opponents of workers’ rights is more important than what divides them. Accept that no one but an Arab from the Gulf can criticise the rulers of the Gulf, and you play into the hands of the remarkably greedy Qatari royal family and its equally rapacious developers and gang masters. They must be delighted that supposed liberals are supplying them with arguments they can use against their subjugated workers. Delighted – and I suspect astonished.

Show comments