Playing for Peace: How This Researcher Improved Ties Between Christians and Muslims in Post-ISIS Iraq Through Soccer | Pollack Peacebuilding Systems

January 7, 2021by Anupriya Kukreja
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Summary of:

Mousa, S. (2019). Creating coexistence: Intergroup contact and soccer in post-ISIS Iraq. GLD Working Paper Series, 26.

Background & Theory

According to the contact hypothesis, interpersonal contact across group lines can reduce prejudice if it is positive, cooperative, and endorsed by communal authorities (Allport, Clark and Pettigrew 1954). The author cites that less than 3% of the 515 contact studies reviewed by Pettigrew and Tropp studied groups who were already in conflict. This creates an odd gap in the literature as these are the very groups who can benefit from successful contact interventions. This study hence is an attempt by the author to reduce this gap: he stimulates a field experiment among Iraqis displaced by ISIS, and investigates the intermingling of Christian and Muslim participants via a soccer game. The historical context is that Christians felt wronged by Muslims as they believed that the latter did not try to protect them during ISIS persecutions and attacks.

Research Question(s)

The author tried to answer the following questions:

    1. Can intergroup contact build social cohesion after war?
    2. How can social cohesion be rebuilt in the wake of violent conflict?

The author’s hypothesis is that meaningful contact based on a shared interest, where ethnic identity and politics take a backseat, can breed tolerance between hostile groups.


As part of the author’s experiment comprising of four soccer leagues, each of the two leagues took place in the cities of Ankawa and Qaraqosh. In these cities, amateur sports teams are often largely segregated by religion. Hence, the research staff randomly recruited a total of 51 Christian teams out of a possible 60 teams across both sites.

The participants were told that there were 2 conditions for participating: each team would be allocated an additional 3 players who may or may not be Christian, bringing their team from 9 to 12 men. Second, all players would have to agree to complete a brief survey on the displacement experience and their views on Iraqi society before and after the league.


The author found significant changes in behaviors by Christians toward Muslim peers, acquaintances, and friends: Christians with Muslim teammates were more likely to sign up for a mixed soccer team in the future, vote for a Muslim player (not on their team) to receive a sportsmanship award, and train with Muslims six months after the intervention ended. Due to repeated social contact that yielded a positive experience, the existing social norms of the players were clearly challenged. These findings give hope for the potential for positive and cooperative contact across social lines to build coexistence after conflict.

How This Translates for the Workplace

  • Connect employees with similar interests: One way to drive organizational inclusivity is to highlight things that people have in common with each other, that do not include factors like race, ethnicity, nationality or religion. As the author’s hypothesis states, “meaningful contact based on a shared interest, where ethnic identity and politics take a backseat, can breed tolerance between hostile groups.” Managers can start by creating a database of their employees’ interests, such as music, sports, art, etc., and match them into groups where employees with similar interests can bond over the same. Such activities can lead to icebreaking and build cohesion in large companies where employee interaction between departments is rare or has to be especially initiated.
  • Organize games and activities with other organizations: Companies are more often than not in competition with other companies. In competitive markets and cut-throat industries, this may build hostility and lead to unhealthy tensions and conflict with employees from rival firms. It may be useful to try to build familiarity, and later on empathy, and cooperation with these “rival” firms through meaningful activities based on shared interests. Intergroup contact within a sector that is beyond conferences, but over games and art forms can lead to innovative collaborations and a unique form of trust-building that rarely exists in an aggressive industry environment. Team building within an industry is rarely thought of as a virtuous signpost, but may soon be the future of organizational maturity, transformation, and a sign of healthy workplaces in the postmodern era, where unethical monopolies are looked down upon.

Anupriya Kukreja

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