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Friendships in Iraqi soccer league show ‘contact hypothesis’ works, but has limits

Aug. 13 (UPI) — Christian soccer players who played alongside Muslim teammates in an interfaith soccer league in Iraq were more likely change their behavior for the better toward Muslim players.

The experiment, detailed Thursday in the journal Science, however, revealed the limits of the “contact hypothesis” — while players built relationships on the field, the benefits of the hypothesis did not extend far beyond the soccer-based relationships.


The contact hypothesis is the idea that intergroup contact, under certain conditions, can reduce prejudice between majority and minority group members.

Sectarian tension in Iraq has ancient roots, but those antagonisms have been exacerbated in recent decades by the destabilizing effects of the U.S. invasion, and more recently, by the violence of ISIS.

In the parts of Iraq where ISIS seized power, many Christians were forced to flea their homes to avoid persecution. Across the war-torn country, the ISIS invasion made tolerance more difficult.

“On the whole, neighbors became suspicious of neighbors,” Salma Mousa, a doctoral candidate in political science at Stanford University, told reporters during a telephone call this week. “These group boundaries really hardened and people really dug in.”

In an effort to understand whether intergroup contact can build social cohesion in the aftermath of war, Mousa intervened in a soccer league. She randomly assigned Christian Iraqi refugees to soccer teams that were composed of either all Christian players or a mixture of Christian and Muslim players.

Mousa said her experiment proved that the “contact hypothesis” extends to amateur sport.

Christian players who played on interfaith teams were more likely than those on all-Christian teams to vote for Muslims for sportsmanship and performance awards. Members of interfaith teams were also more likely to sign up for interfaith teams for the following season.

“They would invite each other for tea or coffee and hang out at the local cafe,” Mousa said of the Muslims and Christian players on mixed teams. “They described it as these brotherly love bonds that didn’t exist before.”

But Mousa found that the positive behavioral effects were limited to interpersonal relationships within the soccer league.

Christian players were not more likely to visit the area of Mosul previously controlled by ISIS, and surveys showed the positive feelings Christian players developed for their Muslim teammates did not extend more broadly to Muslim groups outside the context of soccer.

“Soccer can build friendships between Muslims and Christians without making Christians comfortable hanging out in the former ISIS capital,” Mousa said. “It’s much more challenging to extend these positive benefits to everyday life after a war.”

Mousa said to make lasting changes, interventions must address the structural causes of sectarian conflicts.

Melani Cammett, a professor of international affairs at Harvard University who studies sectarianism in Lebanon, said she thinks Mousa’s study is important and was well-designed, but that she wasn’t necessarily surprised by the findings.

“You can see the same kinds of limitations among Israeli-Palestinian youth groups,” Cammett told UPI.

Still, Cammett said Mousa’s work reveals sport to be an ideal setting for improving interpersonal relationships among members of rival groups.

“It is really valuable because people love sports and they can have a really unifying effect on people,” she said. “But I’m not surprised that it didn’t necessarily change underlying prejudice.”

Cammett agrees that long-term solutions to sectarian conflicts require interventions that address the roots of the problem — the larger political issues.

“You’re not going to see meaningful change until the underlying systems that sustain the politicization of sects is modified,” she said. “Unfortunately, this is very difficult because you have patronage structures that build up around this sectarianism.”

“Its very hard to form alternative political groups, because the resources are all monopolized by leaders who have vested interests in the sectarian status quo,” Cammett said.

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