In 2014, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) was killing members of religious minorities in Iraq, including Yezidis, Shia Muslims, and Christians. The thousands of Christians who were displaced had difficulty trusting Muslim neighbors, who some believed were complicit in attacks. After the war, Salma Mousa wanted to understand how trust could be rebuilt among Christians and Muslims in Iraq. So she turned to a great group unifier: sports.
Soccer is popular among both Christians and Muslims in Northern Iraq, and in many ways soccer teams are an ideal way to test theories developed in U.S. based research labs about intergroup relations. Psychological theory suggests that intergroup contact will be more effective at creating better relations between the groups when (1) participants are on an equal footing, (2) the activity is endorsed by community authorities, and (3) participants have a common goal. Soccer teams with a mixture of Christian and Muslim players check all the boxes.
So Mousa and her research team contacted captains of local Christian soccer teams in Northern Iraq and asked if they’d be willing to participate in a study of people displaced by war. Importantly, they agreed to be randomly assigned to one of two research conditions: continue playing on an all-Christian team, or have three Muslim players—who had also been displaced by ISIS—added to the team.