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Soccer: Battleground for Identity

The high-profile cases of regional soccer celebrities rising up to lead social change movements in the Arab Spring have thrust to the fore the importance of a highly-regarded sport in a highly contentious region (see Strategic Social’s earlier post about soccer as a battleground against authoritarianism).

In the second part of James Dorsey’s lecture “Soccer as an Engine of Change and Assertion of Identity,” he also described the paradoxical ability of soccer to create national unity and promote women’s rights, on the one hand, and to emphasize sectarian tension on the other. The stadium, he argued, is a battleground for identity.  For example, Israeli Arabs and Jews have rallied around the Israeli national team but, at the same time, fans of the club Beitar Jerusalem have been known to violently attack Arabs. In this sense, soccer can be a powerful unifier but clearly its societal effects are difficult to predict or control.

Dorsey presents these two options, unity and sectarianism, as fairly evenly matched. Strategic Social looked at examples from Jordan, Lebanon, Tunisia and Yemen to see in which cases soccer is unifying and in which cases it is divisive.  In Jordan, soccer is violently sectarian. For example, a soccer game in December 2012 between the Palestinian-backed al-Wahdat team and the Jordanian-backed al-Faisaly ended in a riot injuring hundreds after the Palestinian team won. An interesting and perhaps explanatory dynamic in Jordan is its lack of a common identity despite Palestinians accounting for at least half of the population.  As one result, soccer team loyalty appears to be a vehicle for expressing and preserving these competing identities.

Soccer in Lebanon also can be divisive as lines are drawn along sectarian lines (as are most aspects of politics and society there).  However the sport does not always turn to violence.  The relative peacefulness of Lebanese soccer may be due to the state’s banning of spectators over concerns about sectarian rioting after the 2007 war with Israel. The ban was extended when the country was unable to select a president later that year. The government feared the violent ultras could have forced the hands of their co-religionists if rioting got out of hand. Like Tunisia, which banned soccer spectators for a year after the Arab Spring of 2011, Lebanon’s fragile peace in the aftermath of upheaval required a ban on soccer. Just as in Jordan and Israel, soccer matches seemingly cannot be held in Lebanon without stirring up violent sectarianism.

Somewhat ironically, Yemen may be the only example of soccer bringing unity as its hosting of the Gulf Cup in 2010 produced a large turnout of female fans. It would appear soccer fans in Yemen used the sport to  trump sexism. For an already conservative country battling al-Qaeda, the soccer stadium provides a battleground that gives women a fighting chance.

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