Creating Coexistence: Intergroup Contact and Soccer in Post-ISIS Iraq

Salma Mousa

Paper presented at the Research Conference on Forced Displacement 2020, co-organized by the Joint Data Center on Forced Displacement.


The ‘contact hypothesis’ proposes that intergroup contact can reduce prejudice if it is positive, cooperative, endorsed by communal authorities, and places participants on equal footing (Allport et al., 1954). This paper examines the causal impact of meaningful intergroup contact on attitudes and behaviors among Iraqis displaced by ISIS. The analysis is based on a field experiment among Iraqi IDPs and returned IDPs in Qaraqosh (an Assyrian town in the Nineveh Governorate of northern Iraq) and Ankawa (a predominantly Assyrian suburb of Erbil in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq). The author randomly assigned amateur soccer players to an all-Christian team, or to a team mixed with Muslims, for a two-month league. The experiment meets the following conditions for the contact hypothesis: (a) a positive experience (if teams perform well); (b) a common goal (within mixed teams, but not necessarily the case for all-Christian teams encountering Muslim players as opponents in the league); (c) cooperation to achieve that goal; (d) equal power status within the intervention; and (e) endorsement of communal authorities, customs, or laws (the leagues were endorsed by an NGO operated by the Syriac Catholic church).


Key findings:

  • Intergroup contact improved tolerant behaviors toward Muslim peers. Christians who had Muslim teammates were: 12 percentage points more likely to sign up for a mixed soccer team; 16 percentage points more likely to vote for a Muslim player (not on their team) to receive a sportsmanship award; and 34 percentage points more likely to train with Muslims six months after the end of the intervention.
  • The endorsement of local leaders and coaches played an important role in bolstering new norms, which spilled over to the close-knit residents of Ankawa and Qaraqosh in the short term.
  • A successful team performance was decisive in producing tolerant behaviors, with the top-performing teams being more likely to attend a mixed social event, and to patronize a restaurant in Muslim-dominated Mosul, an especially high bar for comfort around Muslims.
  • These improvements did not come at the expense of ‘backlash effects’ among all-Christian teams who encountered Muslims competitively as opponents in the league (as shown by match-level data on yellow and red cards).
  • However, prejudice toward Muslim strangers remained the same. Christians who had Muslim teammates were more likely to believe in coexistence, but did not change their beliefs about Muslims more broadly.

The author concludes that meaningful intergroup contact can build tolerant behaviors toward outgroup peers even if underlying prejudice seems to persist. The author posits that war entrenches latent prejudice and hardens group boundaries. Nevertheless, improving interactions with outgroup peers is a worthwhile and feasible goal, given that these secondary relationships are key to rebuilding social trust. She suggests that endorsement from communal authorities is needed, and that a positive experience is decisive in amplifying contact effects.