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How Football Survives on Islamic State’s Turf

Football is effectively banned in areas controlled by the Islamic State group. Nevertheless, the sport survives among defiant locals – and even some foreign jihadis.
April 5, 2016, 1:37pm
Illustrations by Pierre Thyss

This article originally appeared on VICE Sports France.

A horrifying news story broke in January 2015. A group of 13 children from the Iraqi city of Mosul had been executed, watched by a large crowd that included their parents, and their bodies left for all to see. The killings were a brutal warning from the so-called Islamic State (IS).

The exact reason for the children's deaths was unclear, but it was widely reported that they had been caught trying to watch an Asian Cup game between Iraq and Jordan. However, no reliable source is able to confirm that football was the sole reason for their execution. Ali al-Ahmed, a Saudi national who is an expert in both terrorist organisations and Wahhabism, urges caution: "Sometimes [IS] use excuses to brutally show their leadership, so I don't know if these children were only killed for watching this match."

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But, in the Iraqi sections of the territories controlled by IS, who are also known as Daesh, football would seem to be well and truly banned. Speaking on condition of anonymity, an Iraqi civil servant from the region of Bassora, who has links with the country's NGOs, confirms as much: "There are lots of things that are impossible to do on Daesh's land," he explains, "and football is one of them."

You hear the same story from Baghdad, where a senior civil servant, also speaking anonymously, agrees wholeheartedly: "They do not like something that is a vehicle for development, so football [is not permitted]. Like you, we heard about the sad execution of these young children. But we cannot confirm it. We do not know what happened there. Our representatives are thin on the ground and are concentrating on other matters. But you have to pay attention to these rumours. These children, we don't know if they died just because they were watching football."

What is clear is that the sport goes against the doctrine of the terrorist organisation. "To leave one's legs, thighs, knees and shins uncovered is not allowed," Ali al-Ahmed emphasises. The group's doctrine also bans anyone who could replace or compete with Allah's supremacy (for this same reason, 'Jihadi John' – the notorious jihadist icon – ceased appearing in the group's videos shortly before his death). Large adverts featuring foreign footballers or posters of players put up in cafes are not only torn down because they showcase kouffars (non-believers), but because they are liable to disrupt the religious order.

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Football's role was also called into question 20 years ago in Saudi Arabia. Though the outlook of the Saudi authorities has dramatically changed since, Ali al-Ahmed has observed the same mistrust of the sport from reverent Wahhabis in his country. The Wahhabi doctrine followed by some Saudis is considered close to the Salafist movement of IS. Former imam of the Great Mosque of Mecca, Sheikh Adel al-Kalbani, confirmed as much, saying, "Daesh has the same beliefs as we do," in a TV appearance.

"Religions didn't encourage football in Saudi Arabia," says Ali al-Ahmed. "It could be [used as] a way of uniting groups and creating personal fulfilment, [so] to ban it was a better way to control society."

In Iraq, areas from Fallouja to Bakouba – including Tikrit, Tal Afar, Rutba and Qaim – are occasionally occupied, then liberated by bombing from coalition forces and the Iraqi army. In former Mesopotamia, football has died on multiple occasions due to violent suppression and aerial assaults.

But in the Iraqi capital Baghdad, where IS does not hold influence, football lives on. On 29 January 2015, the people of the city celebrated their under-23 squad's qualification for the Rio Olympics so loudly that there were calls for calm on social media from exiled Iraqis, who feared for their families who still lived in the country. "It's a football country. When Real Madrid and Barcelona play, the entire country is buzzing," says Claude Gnakpa, a French player who spent time at an Iraqi club before the first IS invasions.

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In Syria, the situation fluctuates more. Tim (not his real name), is a Syrian who works for Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently, a website set up to expose IS crimes in Raqqa, capital of the self-proclaimed caliphate. He explained what he knows about football in the occupied area: "The question of football isn't written down anywhere by Daesh. There is no written law telling people that football is banned, but it is stated in the street, in mosques, and at media points [internet booths where IS-supported content can be seen]. So their ban is quite muddled. For example, in Manbij, children who are older than 12 are not permitted to play football, but that isn't the case in Deir ez-Zor. It differs depending on where you are in Syria," he said.

In Raqqa, those under the age of 15 can play football. Past this age, the sport becomes impractical. "They say that football distracts adults from their religious duties and their prayers," Tim continues. "But I know that some people play discreetly in Raqqa, far from the eyes of Daesh, so as not to take any risks."

In the heart of the city, Tim has witnessed several scenes of violence against locals who pack together in cafes to watch matches. But, from one game to another, permission can be granted for premises to show a match. "You cannot watch football freely. Sometimes they give us permission, other times they burst into cafes and beat people as they haven't asked for the right to watch a game… It's chaos," says Tim.

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He recalls the Clasico between Barcelona and Real Madrid on 21 November 2015, eight days after the Paris terror attacks. Strangely, IS bosses authorised the match to be shown but, at kick-off, a minute's silence was observed at the Bernabéu. "After seeing that, they became angry and started to violently remove people from the cafes, and they closed all the places that were likely to show the match." Tim cannot understand the group's inconsistencies when it comes to football. At the start of the occupation in Raqqa, you were allowed to kick a ball about regardless of age, on the condition that you covered your legs. "But one day they said that these games distanced people from their God and their duties," he explains.

This ban does not apply to foreign jihadists from Europe or the U.S., however. Regarding this, Tim says: "I know that Westerners watch football in their homes, or in private places here. Many own decoders for sports channels. The people in Daesh are contradicting themselves. They ban us from playing and watching football, but will watch the game freely at their own place, and even play PlayStation."

Ali al-Ahmed says that this makes sense for IS bosses: "For Daesh leaders, the foreign soldiers are more valuable. They are often more motivated, more fanatical, and are worth more to their own media machine as well as the foreign media. So it is normal that they allow them some of the things they want."

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In big Syrian or Iraqi cities, jihadists who have travelled from France, Belgium, Germany, Tunisia, Saudi Arabia, and the rest of the world share big houses in rich areas, which have been abandoned by fleeing owners. The majority of Syrians and Iraqis do not wish to put up with the arrogance, violence and the significant power of the "new" Muslims who come from elsewhere. "They do not watch any games with us," says Tim. "They all stay in their fiefdoms and sometimes make use of places that normal citizens are banned from."

According to a former translator who worked in intelligence services for Bashar al-Assad's regime from 2011 to 2013: "A fatwa was instigated by IS against showing football matches, but not against playing."

Syrian journalist Louai Aboaljoud, speaking while in Paris to talk about the horrendous situation in Aleppo, wants to put matters into perspective. He has spent time in several Daesh jails, and is keen to emphasise the extent of what is happening in Syria today: "People in Syria think more about everyday issues – finding water, food, or knowing where the latest explosives have fallen – than playing or watching football," he says.

The few football grounds still standing have been requisitioned by the jihadists as hideouts. "The big stadium in Raqqa has become a den for the Islamic police," says Tim. "They've called it 'The 11 Points'. That has happened since the bombings from the coalition. A stadium is practical for them: there are plenty of bedrooms, it's sheltered, and there are car parking spaces."

A short distance from Raqqa, there are areas held by the Free Syrian Army (FSA) where football is viewed differently. Here, the game does not result in bitterness and beatings. Orwa Kanawati, founder of the Free Syria national team, proudly describes the determination to play the game in the areas liberated by the FSA: "We can play without the risk of being executed. Despite the war, people play football in the areas controlled by revolutionary forces: in Homs, Idlib, Deraa, Aleppo and the countryside surrounding Damas – in stadiums big and small. We have more than 75 teams in our areas, and there is a league with several divisions and 40 clubs based in Idlib," he explains.

Despite the many challenges currently faced by the region, it will clearly take more than bombs and blades to kill what people in the Middle-East phonetically refer to as kurat alqadam. Football remains a powerful universal language.

@MllerQuentin

Translated into English by Nick Roberts