As the militant group calling itself the “Islamic State” killed and rampaged across northern Iraq in recent months, a former street artist from the Baghdad neighborhood of Sadr City began to notice something on Facebook: messages of peace and religious tolerance, cartoons courageously mocking extremism and photos of aid deliveries for people driven from their homes by the violence. The missives were posted by his former colleagues in the USIP-supported “Salam Shabab” television reality show.
More than 150 Iraqi youths from 16 of Iraq’s 18 provinces participated directly in Salam Shabab, Arabic for “Peace Youth,” since it first began recording in 2009 to promote peaceful approaches to conflict resolution. The show was intended to educate and strengthen Iraq’s next generation, young people who often feel alienated and disillusioned with their leaders and governing institutions and are searching for ways to contribute constructively.
Like reality series in other countries, participants competed in a series of contests ranging from sports to mental challenges to short film and theater performances. The key difference is that the Salam Shabab program was backed by a peacebuilding curriculum crafted with Iraqi educators and youth organizations.
In June 2012, Salam Shabab won a special prize from the PRIX JEUNESSE Foundation and the United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). By 2013, the program had spawned an online community on Facebook and Twitter and on a website that reached hundreds of thousands of teens in Iraq, Egypt, Jordan, the Palestinian Territories, Tunisia and Libya. While Salam Shabab was produced specifically for Iraqi audiences, the breadth of the online interest from youth in other countries suggests the great demand for interaction on peacebuilding. USIP last year began supporting a similar radio drama in South Sudan, Sawa Shabab, which began broadcasting in May this year. Horrific violence that broke out in December 2013 in that newly independent African nation has killed thousands of people and forced one of every seven residents from their homes.
In Iraq, a core team of Salam Shabab bloggers has maintained a dedicated fan base by engaging youth about the TV show as well as on other peace-oriented themes that resonate with young people throughout the region. The number of Facebook users who have become fans of Salam Shabab by clicking the “Like” button on the page has grown to more than 83,000, from 30,000 in March 2013.
But the messages that the young artist from Baghdad was seeing this year were on personal pages of youth who participated on the Salam Shabab TV show, indicating engagement on a more personal level.
One photo shows graffiti on a concrete wall opposing the “Islamic State” offensive that drove Christians from their homes in Mosul. Another Facebook post features a professional cartoon ridiculing the twisted interpretations of Islam often used by extremists – a black-masked terrorist wearing an explosive belt standing in front of a classroom writes “Islam” in English and Arabic, but upside down and backwards.
Another post garnered more than 100 “Likes” and a stream of comments supporting a Salam Shabab participant who was lamenting that his extended family couldn’t celebrate his new child with him because he was a refugee from Tikrit.
“The fact that they’ve stayed in touch like this is really amazing,” said Theo Dolan, a senior program officer in USIP’s PeaceTech Initiative who spearheaded the Salam Shabab project. “The youths who have participated in these programs have formed this trust network, supporting each other and supporting this one friend who has a baby in a city overrun by ISIS.”
For the young artist who participated in the first season of Salam Shabab, the program not only influenced his creative choices, but also created an enduring connection with other youth across the country.
“The most important thing is that I got to know a great group of friends from different places, nationalities and religions, which is an important and a difficult thing in Iraq, where the violence and division has dominated,” he wrote in an email recently.
USIP has commissioned research on each season of the TV show to measure how the program changes youth knowledge, attitudes and behaviors. Qualitative research conducted after Season 3 in 2013 indicated that youths in focus groups clearly accepted the emphasis of the Salam Shabab curriculum on fostering respect for diversity in Iraq. Many respondents specifically acknowledged how naturally the contestants from different religious backgrounds got along, how the teams with Arab and Kurdish contestants found ways to overcome language barriers, and the opportunity created for boys and girls to interact and work together.
One 16-year-old male respondent from Basra in Iraq’s south noted: “One of the teams included Arab and Kurdish contestants, and they managed to work together and succeed despite their differences.”
Aside from formal research results, an informal test of the effects of the show is to determine whether interaction online can lead to positive activity offline with local peacebuilding initiatives. Several of the Facebook posts reference volunteer work to help families forced from their homes. Others discuss ways Salam Shabab youth can support the beleaguered Iraqi army, which has struggled as units collapse in the face of brutal offensives by the “Islamic State,” also known by the acronyms ISIL or ISIS. One Salam Shabab participant showed a photo of himself participating in a peace march in an area that later became the subject of fighting between ISIS and Kurdish forces.
Encouraging constructive action on the ground is “what we’re trying to do with our work, not just in Iraq, but also in South Sudan,” Dolan said. “This trust network provides some evidence that this is happening on a small scale.”
Viola Gienger is a senior writer at USIP.