Football pitches emerge as new battlegrounds for control of Iraq

Football pitches emerge as new battlegrounds for control of Iraq

Football pitches emerge as new battlegrounds for control of Iraq

Iraqi Shi’ite youths play football in the streets of Baghdad. Football can be seen as a symbol of defiance against the domination of ISIL in Iraq these days. REUTERS photo

Iraqi football pitches have emerged as an alternative battleground in the struggle for the control of Iraq between the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), the jihadist group that controls chunks of northern Iraq, and the embattled Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.

Iraqi officials said the broadcasting the World Cup final between Germany and Argentina in Baghdad’s Al-Shaab International Stadium was intended as a show of defiance against ISIL, which now calls itself the Islamic State (IS), who has banned football in territory it controls and reportedly ordered the closure of sports facilities and forbidden the wearing of shirts with images imprinted on them, including football jerseys.

In addition, Iraqi Football Association (IFA) officials announced that they would be organizing football matches across areas of Iraq under government control in protest against ISIL’s targeting of players and fans. They said they would focus on areas that have been attacked by ISIL including:

- Diyala province where five people were killed and 17 wounded by a bomb planted under the seats of a stadium in Ballour as boys aged 10 to 17 were playing;

- Al-Nahrawan where nine people were killed and 21 wounded in a bomb explosion during a football match;
- Al-Madaen where a bomb in a stadium killed one and wounded six others, including an Iraqi member of parliament;
- Al-Zafaaraniya where a bomb killed four people, including three players, and wounded 11 others;
- Al-Qalaa where a bomb in a stadium killed one and wounded 11;
- Kirkuk where two players were killed and four others wounded;
- Al-Qaim where police foiled a stadium bombing by discovering a vehicle rigged with explosives.

ISIL further signaled its dim view of football in a purported letter to FIFA demanding that the group deprive Qatar of the right to host the 2022 World Cup.

ISIL has positioned itself with the spate of attacks and its letter to FIFA squarely in the camp of those jihadists and Salafists, puritan Muslims who want to emulate life at the time of the Prophet Mohammed and his immediate successors, who oppose football as an infidel creation intended to distract the faithful from their religious obligations.

Attacks by Boko Haram in Nigeria and al-Shabaab in Somalia and Kenya spiked during the World Cup with both groups targeting venues where fans gathered to watch matches on huge television screens.

Anti-football jihadists

The anti-football jihadists are strengthened in their resolve by fatwas or religious opinions issued by one segment of the Salafist clergy opposed to any form of entertainment, which they view as a threat to performance of religious duties. The views of those clergymen are opposed by other Salafist imams who argue that the Quran encourages sports as long as it is in line with Islamic precepts.

They are also opposed by those militant Islamists who recognize the recruitment and bonding advantages of football and unlike groups like ISIL, Boko Haram and al-Shabaab attribute some importance to garnering public support rather than seeking to impose puritan Islamic rule by sheer force.

“In Nigeria, football is a religion. It is one of the few things that bring the country together across ethnic and religious lines… Football is often an escape from the ugliness of everyday life, and that is even more true in a region under a cloud of insecurity for the last few years… [Terrorism] forces a change in lifestyles. Public gatherings in North Eastern Nigeria, even to celebrate a festival of football…are likely to attract a high price. You cannot watch a game without looking around nervously from time to time,” said Nigerian journalist Joachim MacEbong.

Mr. MacEbong could have said the same of Iraq or East African nations where football fans are targets. ISIL, despite its anti-football campaign, has not shied away from using football in recruitment and propaganda videos.

And there are signs that opinion about football is divided even within its own ranks as well as
within the larger community of those who empathize with the views of the likes of ISIL, Boko Haram and al-Shabaab.

The mosque in Mosul, the major Iraqi city occupied by ISIL, where self-declared caliph Ibrahim
Bin Awad Alqarshi aka Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who as a student was known as a talented football player, made a rare public appearance earlier this month with men, many of whom were sporting football jerseys.

Similarly, an online review by Vocativ of jihadist and militant Islamist Facebook pages showed that many continue to be football fans. They rooted for Algeria during the World Cup but switched their allegiance to other non-Muslim teams once the Algerians had been knocked out of the tournament despite their condemnation of the Europeans as enemies of Islam. “Jihadis are in some ways like any other fans – they support the local favorites,” wrote Versha Sharama, who conducted the review.