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.


Socio-Cultural Security

The other day I had to drive from Baghdad to Basra.  On the surface it might sound faster to fly, but with delays and limits on transportation upon arrival, I find it easier to drive.  Shortly before my trip began, I had a meeting in the International Zone of Baghdad with a man who was incredulous that a westerner would get into a vehicle and attempt the six-hour voyage to southern Iraq.  He was very concerned that I was engaging in unnecessarily dangerous behavior.  Then we started discussing the concept of Socio-Cultural Security.

At Strategic Social, we define Socio-Cultural Security as a way to maintain the safety of a person or group based on an intimate understanding of the people, culture and customs of one’s surroundings.  For years the personnel at Strategic Social have lived and worked in some of the most challenging and austere political climates on earth.  Our track record of safe and secure success is attributable not to guns and armored vehicles, but rather to understanding how to move, act and interact with various cultures.  This is not to say that we don’t take precautions; we have our protocols and we are very detailed in our adherence to them.  I just stress that our protocols are different.  They are based on a socio-cultural understanding of the geographies in which we live and work.

Strategic Social’s approach to socio-cultural understanding begins with history.  We first seek to understand how a people arrived at their current cultural and geographic reality.  This admittedly academic step is followed by tactile diligence: we get up close and personal with the audience to understand the grassroots of a people.  Initially, this consists of polls, surveys, interviews and simple conversations.  Over time we develop relationships enabling deep understanding and empathy.  We typically take a localized approach by finding partners from the community that we can work with and learn from.  For instance, our team in Kabul consists of men and woman from every major ethnic group in Afghanistan.  Each one of our team members is both a valuable employee and a cultural advisor.  The results include media products that resonate deeply with the audience, social science research that provides actionable information and technology products that are relevant and usable both locally and throughout our global enterprise.

Recently, we have been able to take this approach to our historic markets and expand into new lines of business.  We are now growing our core business to include infrastructure development and new areas of IT and technology services.  In the case of infrastructure development, our approach leads to safer and more productive work sites.  We know who to hire and how to train them.  We can build local capacity while growing our business.  As we build local capacity, it creates more opportunity both for Strategic Social and for the communities in which we work.  Our growth is fueled by an infrastructure that is less expensive than it would be with a traditional approach to security.  We also have a great sanity check on our products and services because our staff members are also our customers in many respects.  I am very proud of our efforts in each country, province and village in which we have team members.

As I drove into Basra earlier this week, I was struck by the surge of foreign nationals that have descended upon the governate.  As we expand our work in the area, I am just hopeful that the companies and individuals building the new Basra are mindful that socio-cultural engagement and empathy are a far greater source of safety and success than guns and armored vehicles.  Socio-Cultural Security is the key to developing the lasting partnerships that will lead to long-term success, be it in Basra, Kabul or anywhere else.


Defining Terrorism

A number of recently exposed terror plots and successful attacks are revealing an overlooked dimension in national security.  A small but dedicated number of American religious zealots have been beating the drums of holy war in our midst.  As this reality slowly begins to sink in, uncomfortable questions about the country’s security strategy begin to arise.  How we respond to the various aspects of our increasingly homegrown problem stands to have a lasting impact on American society.

First, let’s confront the problem of perception.  Who’s a “terrorist”?  The definition often depends on who you ask.  Is a terrorist necessarily affiliated with an organization such as Al-Qaeda?  Does an unorganized loner with the motivations and goals of a foreign terrorist qualify?  What are the relevant distinctions and similarities between attacks by foreigners and attacks by U.S. citizens?  Moving forward, will society view them as separate issues altogether, or different types of the same problem?

Consider the Virginia-born Army Major accused of the November 2009 Fort Hood shooting, Nidal Malik Hassan.  He allegedly murdered 13 people and wounded dozens of others.  A few months before that incident, Tennessee-born Abdul Hakim Mujahid Mohammad opened fire outside of an Army recruiting station in Little Rock, Arkansas, killing one soldier and injuring another.  Unlike Major Hassan, Mujahid Mohammad has claimed affiliation with Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and had lived in Yemen before being imprisoned and deported for overstaying his visa.

Both men were very public in their disdain for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan:  Lots of nonviolent people are.  Both perceived the U.S. Military operations as unjustified attacks on Muslims and Islam.  Again, this idea isn’t unheard of and is far more likely to incite debate rather than violence.  So, what pushed them over the edge?   Hassan’s lawyers have pointed to psychological issues, unrelated to any jihadist intentions.  Though he claims no terrorist group affiliations, he frequented sermons in Virginia by radical American-born Imam Anwar Al-Awlaki (who also preached to three of the 9/11 hijackers) and they communicated via email shortly before the shooting.  He allegedly yelled “Allahu Akbar” before he began firing.  If we take Mujahid Mohammad at his word, he was motivated by his faith and ideology as espoused by AQAP.  “He told the detective he wasn’t guilty of murder, that the shooting was an act of jihad.”  Both are facing murder charges.

Further than simple religious zealotry and having strong opinions about American foreign policy, both men allegedly escalated their ideology to violence.  Still, many of us feel uneasy about categorizing them as Islamic terrorists.  The uneasiness may come from the implication of American Muslims and the perceived backlash that this could incite against them.  Those fears aren’t without some warrant.  But explaining the attacks away as isolated psych cases or random acts of violence becomes difficult as a theme begins to materialize.  The recently attempted attacks in Oregon and Maryland have eerie similarities to the first two.  In Portland, Mohamed Mohamud (born in Somalia, raised the US) is charged with attempting to detonate a bomb near the city’s Christmas tree-lighting ceremony.  In Baltimore, Muhammad Hussein is charged with trying to blow up a military recruiting office.  Both were unambiguous about their jihadist intentions leading up to and during their would-be attacks.   If they believe what they say they believe—the evidence suggests that they do—then we should take these warnings seriously and not obscure the threat.

Al-Qaeda and other groups are openly seeking American and western converts to their cause.  To a small but unavoidable extent their strategy seems to be working.  The people most susceptible to this appear to be young, devout Muslim males.  Because anti-Muslim sentiment already stands to make them feel isolated from their neighbors, simple kindness and engagement from non-Muslims can go a long way to breaking barriers. Within the American Islamic community, reaching out to at-risk youth is especially important as they have the opportunity to shape their understanding of Islamic texts.

As with Christian and Jewish fundamentalists, Islamic zealots will have lots of violent and disturbing passages to bolster their cause.  It’s not enough to simply call them “bad Muslims” or “un-Islamic” while pointing to a majority of peaceful Muslims.  To stop the problem of radicalization, we have to address a big part of what makes it so convincing in the first place:  Devout religious faith.  If children (or new converts) are taught to endorse a book as inherently good and entirely true, then the violent and problematic verses may not seem very violent or problematic.  These should be discussed and explained in the most candid way without omission or euphemism.  Where needed, teaching should be infused with a healthy dosage of doubt.  Otherwise, terrorists groups, extremist websites and radical Imams are left to fill in the gap.

Homegrown terrorists need not be members of an organization so much as they consider themselves members of a movement.  To combat this movement, we cannot be evasive about its implications, composition or motivations.  “What I am trying to do in this interview is to make people aware of the fact that the threat is real, the threat is different, the threat is constant.” In disseminating that message, Attorney General Eric Holder may have his work cut out for him.


Candidates for Wolesi Jirga seats in Kabul

Despite Taliban threats dissuading Afghan people from participating in the elections, on September 18th, 2010, Afghanistan held their second Wolesi Jirga election. The Wolesi Jirga (or “House of the People”) is like the Afghan parliament. The Jirga members’ primary responsibilities are ratifying laws and approving the actions of the president. They represent different districts within the 34 provinces that make up Afghanistan.

Candidates vying for seats in the Wolesi Jirga use many different tactics to attract public attention. Over the summer I visited Kabul and saw posters of all shapes, sizes and colors strewn across buildings, fences cars and utility poles; and even on top of advertisements and other campaign posters!

How are all these candidates positioning themselves to the general public? Below are a few descriptions of the different candidates’ campaign posters who ran for seats in Kabul.

The intent of these pictures is to demonstrate the positioning of each candidate visa-vie each other via a description their election posters.

These posters all have a few things in common. They all contain a picture of the candidate, their name, their voting number and their voting symbol. This symbol helps illiterate voters identify their candidate of choice. In addition to these bits of information, candidates also use the following phrases to distinguish themselves and communicate their message to their target audience:

Hajji Khan Jan

This candidate is calling for civil rights and equality among all people and says that he will work to build a better Afghanistan.

Rubina Jalali

The Afghan constitution guarantees that at least 64 delegates will be female. In this poster, Ms. Jalali is calling for justice, wellbeing and development in Afghanistan, as well as social security for all Afghans. In this way, she is appealing to those that need social security—most often women and the disabled. The Olympic rings in the upper left hand corner also indicates that she is appealing to the young through sports.

Hajji Quadrat Allah

This candidate’s name translates roughly into the power of God. He appeals to religion in his poster by saying that, if he is elected, he will protect Islam. He also mentions that he will bring justice to Afghanistan.

Syed Mohammed Khalb Zui

While the previous candidates on this page indicate they are Sunni by the title Hajji, combined with the black turban, the title Syed indicates that this candidate is Shia. He states his goal is to serve his country.

On October 30th, the final Wolesi Jirga election results are scheduled to be released.


Social Networking can be an Antidote for Siloed Organizations

Is anyone else old enough to remember that classic TV advertisement Cher did for Jack LaLanne Fitness Centers?  The provocatively clad Cher remarks, “If it came in a bottle, everyone would have a great body.”

Jack LaLanne Health Spa Commercial with CHER

It’s interesting to note that Jack LaLanne is no longer around but Cher sure is.  She’s still out there working it at sixty-four!

The point of the ad—anything worth having takes effort—is appropriate to many common challenges in the more mundane world of business.  Recently I’ve been thinking about the pervasiveness of siloed or stove-piped organizations and how challenging it is to get teams of people working across functional lines and outside of established frameworks.  Of course, many see the benefits of this but breaking old habits is hard work and takes committed, concerted effort.

Social Networking and the tools that enable it can be an effective solution to the problem of siloed organizations.    Information and resource siloes occur for many reasons but the principle reason is they are just plain easier to manage.  Functional heads act as gatekeepers of information, employees are instructed to “stay in their lane”, information flows up and down the line or is made accessible on a “need to know” basis.  For organizations that are geographically dispersed, the effect is more pronounced and the flow of information or the availability of shared resources poses an even greater challenge. More often than not the effort of cross-functional teamwork just doesn’t happen, because it is just “too hard.”

So, yes, matrix-style,  non-siloed organizations can be more difficult to manage and introduce new layers of complexity and perhaps a certain measure of uncertainty and risk.  But in my experience there are a few steps companies can take to “ease the pain” of breaking down established organizational hierarchies and tap into the creative power of the organization at large:

1)     Organize key initiatives around cross-functional project teams.  Most big projects require the efforts of staff across the entire organization, but too often, results are tracked and evaluated within the functional framework and priorities.  But when project teams are established, with goals and milestones clearly understood, collaboration and problem solving can happen more seamlessly.

2)     Reward employees thinking and working outside of information silos. Breaking the habit of siloed thinking requires a cultural shift in some companies.  Everyone throughout the organization needs to see that cross-functional effort is valued and rewarded.  Lessons learned—both positive and negative need to be captured and shared.

3)     Set boundaries & define roles.  A matrixed organization is not a license for anarchy.   Team members still need to have clearly defined roles everyone needs to know who is in the role of decision-maker, and who is mainly in the assist role.  If everyone thinks they are merely contributing to the project, but not ultimately accountable for anything, chaos can ensue.

4)     If there is friction, or if toes get stepped on, try not to sweat it.  Business can be a contact sport and there is bound to be a little body-checking from time-to-time.  Things can get heated at times but learn to accept that this is part of progress.

5)     Cross-train as many people in your organization as possible.   I am a huge proponent of cross-training.  It can have the profound effect of breaking people out of siloed thinking.  It broadens employees skill sets, creates a more resilient organization and promotes a more stimulating work environment.  It’s hard, and even disruptive, but it pays big dividends.

6)     Make sure your organization has the right tools to enable Social Networking and cross-functional  teamwork.    Here at Strategic Social, we understand the importance of technology for streamlining and enabling a cross-functional culture. For example, MediaMAS is a robust web-accessible, permission-based database is essential for getting far-flung teams “on the same page.”  Likewise the Strategic Social Platform is communication and collaboration portal, designed to facilitate information dissemination, and speed-up decision-making. It features a customizable dashboard that provides access to shared files, discussion boards, and feeds to external sources such as RSS, Flicker, Twitter and YouTube.

None of these steps is a guarantee for success.  There are organizations out there that succeed at some level with the same structured, siloed habits they’ve had for decades.  But they will find it increasingly difficult to compete with matrix organizations that are learning and refining the art of working across clearly defined verticals.  It can be hard work.  Not everyone is going to do it.  But the organizations that perfect the skills will be better equipped for the long-haul.