Can Soccer Heal The Social Divisions Of Post-ISIS Iraq? A New Study Finds Out

Mosul, Nineveh Governorate, Iraq - 10 September 2017: Kurdish soldier in uniform watches over a border. lmascaretti/Shutterstock

It’s a much-touted cliche to say that football is like an international language capable of transcending social barriers. But does this optimistic idea remain true in a country struggling to recover from years of displacement, intense hardship, and bloodshed?

In a new study, a political scientist at Stanford University took a close look at the relationships between Christian and Muslim players in an amateur soccer league in post-ISIS Iraq, where tensions between religious groups still remain raw. The research found that this sports league helped to promote more open-minded attitudes and built some sense of social cohesion between many of the players. However, although promising, the study did also find that some of this progress was not felt outside of the friendly realm of football. The findings were reported in the journal Science today.

“Even if intergroup friendships and sport can’t fully overcome the legacy of war, they can leave a small but important dent in people’s everyday lives,” Dr Salma Mousa, lead study author and a post-doctoral fellow at Stanford’s Immigration Policy Lab and Center for Democracy, Development, and the Rule of Law, explained to IFLScience.

In 2014, among the ruins of the US-led war in Iraq, the radical Sunni Islamist militant group ISIS captured the Iraqi city of Mosul. Under this horrific rule, many Christians were killed, subject to mass atrocities, or violently driven from their homes. Many returned to their homes in the years following the demise of ISIS, but the Christians still held deep resentment towards the Muslims. 

“There is deep distrust toward non-Christians, especially Sunni Arabs who are commonly perceived to be ISIS collaborators and Shi’ite Shabak who are seen as encroaching upon historically Christian strongholds given their pattern of migrating from neighboring towns and villages into Christian cities,” added Mousa.

“These misgivings are understandable in many ways, but the end result is a suspicion toward several Muslim groups.”

In a bid to see whether these deep social scars could be healed, Mousa turned to an idea known as “contact theory,” a widely recognized concept that suggests social prejudices between groups can be eased through meaningful intergroup cooperation. In the simplest sense, people often find they shed some of their prejudices against a disliked social group simply by spending more time with said people in the right environment. It’s a powerful idea, but it's never been clear whether it works in a scenario involving violent intergroup conflict. 

Mousa teamed up with a local community organization to set up a series of soccer leagues in which Iraqi Christian players were randomly assigned to either an all-Christian team or a team mixed with Muslim players. They then assessed how much the Christians' attitudes had changed towards Muslims after the season. 

It was found that Christian players were 49 percent more likely to train with Muslims six months after the league's end and 26 percent more likely to vote for a Muslim player to receive a sportsmanship prize. However, there were significant limits on how far this social tension was eased. The majority of the Christian players did not want to extend this change in attitude outside the safe domain of football. For example, most remained extremely hesitant about the thought of eating out at a Muslim restaurant or attending a public social event alongside Muslim strangers.

“I had hoped that I’d find positive effects across the board because I could see how meaningful these leagues were to the players, but the reality was more nuanced than that,” explained Dr Mousa.

“The legacy of the ISIS devastation is still very real and will not be forgotten easily. One can befriend individual Muslims that one personally knows and grows to trust, but making the leap to feeling comfortable around all Muslims might be too big of an ask – at least in the absence of structural protections to safeguard Christians,” she added.

Of course, it would be naive to think an amateur sports league can undo years of intense social division; this isn't a Disney movie, after all. Nevertheless, the research does show how deep-seated rifts between communities can be eased via a relatively simple and low-cost means. In time, perhaps this can be used as a foundation to build a more meaningful and deeper connection between groups divided by a tarnished past. 

Similar projects are being rolled out to build intergroup cohesion between underprivileged Lebanese and Syrian youth, as well as between Venezuelan migrants and Colombian natives in Bogota.

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