from Africa in Transition

Soccer: African Islamism and the “Beautiful Game”

June 27, 2014

Blog Post

More on:

Sub-Saharan Africa


Terrorism and Counterterrorism


Wars and Conflict

This is a guest post by Emily Mellgard, research associate for the Council on Foreign Relations Africa Studies program.

When al Shabaab, the violent Islamist group in Somalia, took control of the capital city Mogadishu, it actively destroyed buildings and overt displays of Western institutions and influences. This included outlawing soccer. The group destroyed cinemas and viewing centers in Mogadishu during the 2010 World Cup to stop residents from watching the matches. Their first successful international attack was the twin explosions in Uganda’s capital Kampala at viewing stations during the tournament.

When regional and international forces ousted al Shabaab from the city in 2011, the city’s soccer stadium was one of the first things to be restored. Al Shabaab had dug trenches in the field and used it as an operations base. Soccer is played and enjoyed throughout sub Saharan Africa, and is not commonly associated with Western or colonial influences, but is seen as thoroughly African. Al Shabaab’s condemnation of soccer as haram is also not a commonly held categorization among Islamist groups or nations with conservative Muslim governments. In Afghanistan under the Taliban, the game was discouraged but not outlawed for example. Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, and Iran all have national teams. The Iranian team is playing in the World Cup in Brazil this year; they tied in their match with Nigeria on June 16, and lost to Argentina on June 21.

Al Shabaab continues to hold territory in central Somalia and soccer is outlawed in those areas under its control. The proscription against the so called “beautiful game” is however not complete. Al Jazeera journalist Hamza Mohamed published on June 11 an article on al Shabaab’s “halal soccer.” The jihadi group even has their own team.

The rules of this “new” game appear to be the same as in “haram” soccer, the conduct of the players however must conform to al Shabaab’s sharia guidelines. Players must wear trousers that reach past their knees and jerseys that cover their elbows. Hamza noted however that many of the jerseys were the same as the “haram” national teams, such as Arsenal, Real Madrid, Manchester United, and Chelsea. Successful goals are celebrated with statement making or calls of "Allahu Akbar" (God is great). No one over the age of forty can play because it is “unsightly seeing an old man chasing a small ball,” and neither are commanders permitted on the field. This is apparently to prevent their command being undermined. If a player swears on the pitch, their tongue is removed. Most other offenses are met with flogging and a ban on playing. All games end fifteen minutes before prayers.

The tradition of sharing and spreading a game across cultural and national boundaries is ancient, and using that arena of friendly competition as a platform of diplomacy is just as old. While many fans and players outside al Shabaab would not react well to a flogging for misbehavior, perhaps al Shabaab fighters’ continued passion for the “beautiful game” presents an opportunity for rapprochement and reconciliation in the future.