On 21 September 2016 The Mirror reported that police in Iraq’s ISIS controlled Al-Furat Province forbade people from wearing football shirts made by Adidas and Nike. Wearing shirts from Premier League teams like Manchester United, Chelsea, Manchester City, West Brom, and Sunderland were also banned, along with the national team shirts of England, Germany, and France. Additionally, wearing the Cross of St. George—as well as American, French, and German flags—have all been banned. Violators face 80 lashes in public as punishments, and leaflets regarding the new policy have been distributed in northern Syria. As bizarre as this news sounds, the policies were actually enforced in Iraq’s Mosul according to Iraqi news. Three men were arrested for playing football and given thirty lashes each in a public square, while the ISIS members tore the Messi shirt that one man was wearing. Its certainly an odd coincidence that it was a Messi shirt that was deemed offensive, given Messi’s role as a UNICEF ambassador and the publicity elicited from his decision to send a young Afghan child two signed jerseys in April 2016 . Of course, Messi’s move was not without complications—the young Afghan family had to move because of the attention they got.
MEMRI’s Post of ISIS’ announcement. Image Courtesy Of: https://www.thesun.co.uk/news/1825004/isis-thugs-ban-citizens-wearing-england-football-tops-and-clothes-made-by-sportswear-giants-nike-and-adidas/
Lionel Messi helped young Murtaza but it was more reminiscent of Western aid to the developing world–a small band-aid that could never address the over-arching structural problems. Murtaza’s family ended up having to move following this publicity; meanwhile, Messi’s shirt gets ripped in Iraq. Image Courtesy of: http://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-37350970
ISIS have taken moves against football in the past and therefore this latest development—though absurd—is not surprising. As a commentator from CBS Sports notes, “One could speculate that perhaps ISIS does not one [Sic. Please excuse cbssports.com’s poor editing job; I can only assume they mean “does not want anyone”] anyone indirectly supporting big companies of the western world.” Certainly, this is part of the issue. One element that fostered a climate where ISIS could attract recruits is the failure of Western-style capitalism in the Middle East; petrodollars led to cronyism, and normal citizens did not feel like they were actually benefiting from the economic system. When people feel like the cards are stacked against them economically and socially, it can lead them to joining a group that promises to fight against the system. So certainly the opposition to “Western” consumer culture is an important selling point for ISIS; one need only look at various pictures from the Syrian conflict to see just how many knock off Ronaldo and Messi shirts are being worn to understand their ubiquity. But here is where we get to the second motive for ISIS’ actions. These shirts are not true Adidas or Nike shirts; they are knock offs. Thus I believe that ISIS’ new law is not based only on economic concerns, rather it is based on cultural concerns as well.
After the latest military operations, led by the Turkish army under the name “Operation Euphrates Shield”, it seems that the so-called Islamic State has been put on the back foot. Nothing in the region is certain, of course, but the latest mi challenge to ISIS’ hold on territory in northern Syria is not insignificant. Therefore, there is another way to look at the latest ISIS decrees regarding soccer shirts: the group may be looking to consolidate their rule and have become wary of splits within the movement.
Any football fan knows that the fan identity plays a major role in how an individual sees themselves in the world; football allows for a group identity that transcends the individual. Football also creates an opportunity for a global society to form, one that appeals to all people regardless of nationality, religion, or ethnicity. ISIS’ leadership may be aware of this and are now trying to stamp out identities that compete with their agenda. The simple act of wearing a football shirt, in this case, may not be seen as identification with a particular team (Manchester United or Barcelona, for instance); it may be seen as identification with a particular culture. In this case, it is Western culture (which football represents). This is why, as bizarre as the ban on football shirts may seem, it may in fact represent an attempt at ideological consolidation at a time when wider splits may be appearing within the so-called “Islamic State” as they come under attack.