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Iraq: Sport and Politics - ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive
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Will sport mend what politics has ruined?

This is what some parties have indicated and others have hoped for following the victory of the Iraqi “national” team in Asian Nations Cup tournament.

The Iraqi team had played the game with an enthusiastic spirit, an Iraqi “sense of honor” and under one banner that encompassed the north and the south, the Arab and the Kurd, and the Sunni and the Shia. Ultimately, the team waved one flag and that was the flag of Iraq.

I observed the emotional statements of players after they won the cup. These statements, as well as those of the Iraqi public at home and abroad, served the same meaning which is the unity of Iraq and the rejection of sectarianism.

Of course, this is nice. One Iraqi fan told Al Arabiya with a trembling voice that “These are the real leaders of Iraq.” This comment summarized the Iraqi perspective of the national team’s players.

There is a spreading sense of a loss of symbols among Iraqis. Everything is eroding, dividing, struggling and even the national flag itself has become a controversial issue as well as borders, the identity of the country, the distribution of wealth, the administration of the country, security measures, the military command, resisting the Americans, the relationship with Iran, the status of women, the constitution and ministerial quota [based on sects] . Everything in Iraq is subjected to division. And contained in this diversity of gaping holes are ambushed cars and equally ‘trapped’ slogans and countries that are at war through the appointment of proxies, which find fertile ground to flourish in the holes and chasms in Iraq.

Therefore, it is for this reason that the football team had become a legend and its players had become the “real leaders of Iraq” in the words of the enthusiastic fan. Furthermore, it is not strange to hear the team’s captain, Younis Mahmoud, who scored the winning goal talk in a similar manner to that of a political leader or national hero rather than a football player whose team had won many games before.

It is the exceptional and abnormal Iraqi status and the dire need of a “uniting” moment that assures the frightened being who fears the unknown future and affirms that Iraqis can unite not only in football but because of football.

The truth is that the relationship between sport and politics is a complex and exciting one and is actually embroiled in politics to a large extent. The president of the sports council in South Africa Ibrahim Joe said, “The sport boycott, besides the political struggle, was one of the factors that contributed to the elimination of apartheid.” He had given this statement as he talked about the boycott adopted by FIFA (1976) and the Olympics (1970) against the apartheid government in South Africa, which played a part in forcing the racist government to change its policies, as Ibrahim stated in an interview with the German news agency last January.

Sport has been used politically on numerous occasions. Sometimes, the endeavor had succeeded in South Africa for example, and at other times it failed as in Hitler’s attempts to endorse the creed of Aryan racial superiority during the famous Olympic Games in Berlin in 1936.

Sports and politics often mix even on the local level. Supporting one club could be a “political and social indication” in which affiliations are conveyed in an athletic form. This matter is beyond the ability of states to control. This is why we find that the field of sports, especially football, is the field that is increasingly slipping out of the control of even totalitarian regimes, for example, Al Jaish and Teshrin football clubs in Syria.

When reading up on the history between the Ahli and Zamalek football teams in Egypt, we find that politics has played a significant role. Zamalek was a mixed club and was founded by the Belgian judge to the Supreme Court, Merzbach. In contrast, Ahli football club was the idea of a group of traders and figures from the national movement led by Mustafa Kamel. On the club’s official website, one can read the explanation for the name of the club that reads, “The Ahli football club was named as such because it was founded for students who formed the main support behind the revolution against the British occupation.”

But this is a story that has disappeared over time. The supporters as well as the players and administrators of Zamalek are all Egyptians and there is no difference between them and Ahli from this perspective.

In Jordan, there is fierce competition between two clubs: Wahadat and Faisali. This competition goes back to politics since Wahadat was the club representing Jordanians of Palestinian origin, whereas Faisali represented Jordanians of east Jordanian origin, despite that one can find players and perhaps supporters from various backgrounds. This is how some social and political manifestations find their way in sport.

Does this mean that sport consolidates social division and promotes internal conflict? No. However, it is a path and a bridge, perhaps a healthy one towards such tendencies, not sectarianism, that find an offsetting “peaceful” and useful arena in which they can express themselves. It is good that negative energy can have a positive outcome and produce fruitful talent. In a national team, all subsidiary affiliations should melt in one pot.

Let us return to our issue of the Iraqi “national” team and the popular belief that it would be an additional reason, even if a humble one, to stir national sentiment. Is such talk realistic?

What happened was undoubtedly a beautiful demonstration that was wanted by many who dream of this example being applied to the field of politics. If only politics included legal, peaceful and public competition as in football.

Politicians in Iraq disagree on everything. Currently, we see that Nuri al Maliki has threatened to empower Shia militias if General Petraeus supplies western Sunni clans with weapons. Note that this is the Prime Minister of Iraq in its entirety! The strange thing is that Maliki had expressed his joy for the victory of the Iraqi team and suggested that the Iraqi people learn from this lesson and fight the “takfiris and assassins.” On the other hand, the vice-president and one of the leaders of the Sunni consensus which is in conflict with Maliki’s government, Tariq Hashemi, called the champions of the Iraqi team to lead a peaceful demonstration in front of the Green Zone to teach the Iraqi people about unity and fight sectarianism.

People advocate whatever they want.

The reality of division in Iraq is more significant than the reality of unity. According to a recent study [entitled The Case for Soft Partition in Iraq] by the American Brookings Institution conducted by Edward Joseph from the Johns Hopkins University and Michael E. O’Hanlon who specializes in American national security policy at the Brookings Institution, the future of division in Iraq is that despite the keenness of “most” countries in the region for Iraq to remain as one and although Sunni Arabs fiercely stand against the division of Iraq, a “soft partition” according to the terminology of the report, will take place in Iraq. The 18 Iraqi governorates will be re-divided into three major regions: Shia, Sunni and Kurdish regions that are run by local governments and managed by centralized and “soft” administration. The issue of oil is a major problem, since Sunni Arabs, who represent 20% of Iraqis, according to the report, can only benefit from 10% of oil revenues, not to mention the loss of real influence in government. However, all other scenarios, other than soft division, are less likely.

The study does not encourage division, whether it is a smooth process or otherwise, because it will not take place unless the Iraqis feel the dangers of deadly civil war as a result of sectarian division. Thus the only solution would be a “soft partition” despite that there are major obstacles that obstruct the option of a smooth process of partition including a demographical mix among Iraqis themselves. There are no purely composed territories. It is enough to know that out of all Iraqi marriages, 30% are mixed marriages between different sects.

The Iraqi scene is messy and depressing since there are internal ambitions regarding wealth and power, and there are major historic fears between Sunnis and Shia. There are also some other interferences from regional states in Iraq as well as American interests. If all these obstacles and barriers are overcome and if the aim of victory was achieved by Iraq, then we would be on the verge of a larger and greater victory than the victory in Jakarta. But nobody can achieve this victory except for the people of Iraq who alone hold the keys for victory. Do they have the same spirit of Younis Mahmoud, Hawar Mulla, or Karrar Jassim?

Mshari Al-Zaydi

Mshari Al-Zaydi

Mshari Al-Zaydi is a Saudi journalist and expert on Islamic movements and Islamic fundamentalism, as well as on Saudi affairs. He is Asharq Al-Awsat’s opinion page editor. Mr. Zaydi has worked for the local Saudi press, and has been a guest on numerous news and current affairs programs as an expert on Islamic extremism.

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