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Building social cohesion through football in post-ISIS Iraq

Published online 18 August 2020

Promoting contact between members of different groups can build tolerance within an intervention, but building broader social cohesion is more challenging.

Kira Walker

Nordicphotos / Alamy Stock Photo
A field experiment in a northern Iraqi amateur football league demonstrated that sport-based contact improved Christian players’ behaviour towards their Muslim peers.

The study, by Salma Mousa of Stanford University, California, sought to assess whether intergroup contact can build social cohesion in post-ISIS northern Iraq by analysing the contact hypothesis: a psychology theory that suggests social prejudices between groups can be reduced through meaningful intergroup interaction. The contact hypothesis is often used as the basis for peace-building strategies, yet it is unclear if intergroup contact can build lasting real-world behavioural change, particularly after war.

Using four football leagues spread across two periods and study sites, Mousa randomly assigned Christians displaced by ISIS to all-Christian teams or to teams mixed with three Muslims for a two-month league. To investigate intergroup social cohesion, Mousa focused on Christian players’ interactions with out-group peers and out-group strangers. On-the-pitch outcomes captured tolerant behaviours towards Muslim teammates or league mates, while off-the-pitch outcomes focused on behaviours towards Muslims outside of the intervention.

The study found mixed teams consistently improved on-the-pitch behavioural outcomes. Christians with Muslim teammates were more likely to give Muslim players sportsmanship awards, register for a mixed team the following season, and train with Muslims up to six months after the intervention ended. Qualitative evidence further demonstrated the positive effects of contact, including the emergence of intergroup friendships. 

Highlighting the difficulties of building broader social cohesion and the potential limitations of intergroup post-war interventions, the observed behavioural changes did not extend to social contexts off the field among Muslim strangers, such as frequenting a Muslim-owned restaurant or attending a mixed social event.

Mousa says there is much promise in grassroots interventions that aim to improve everyday interactions between people, but notes they need to be paired with policy changes to have a significant, lasting impact. “Contact isn’t a silver bullet that will improve intergroup social relations, especially if you don’t address the structural sources or roots of the conflict.”

Sarah Hillyer, director of the Centre for Sport, Peace, and Society at the University of Tennessee, says the findings are significant, as billions of dollars are spent globally on peace-building programs focused on exposure to out-groups, but notes that emerging research through grounded theory shows that contact is only the first step. “Participants would gain the most from exposure to ‘the other’ if they are also equipped with new knowledge and skills, like empathy, non-violent communication and reflecting, and can then engage in the context of physically, emotionally and psychologically safe spaces through, for example, role play, scenarios and group discussions.”


Mousa, S. Building social cohesion between Christians and Muslims through soccer in post-ISIS Iraq. Science 369, 866-870 (2020).