Cases of violent extremism, such as the recent attacks on Chinese workers in Pakistan, are increasing worldwide. These incidents have forced countries around the world to take serious measures — including enacting a zero-tolerance policy — to curb the violence.
Violent extremism condones violent actions based on political or religious ideologies, and young people are particularly vulnerable to it. In some countries they are even more at risk: Pakistan, home to nearly 120 million young people, faces recurring targets, manipulation and recruitment of vulnerable young people by extremist groups.
Young people can be vulnerable to violent extremism for a variety of reasons, including social exclusion, discrimination, hatred, trauma, racism and forced displacement. These reasons often accumulate over time, leading to greater frustration among young people and making them vulnerable to exploitation by extremist groups who promise them a better life and sense of community.
Our recent research examined the reasons behind youth involvement in violent extremism in the South Punjab region of Pakistan and found that sport can help prevent it by building resilience. Sport is a powerful tool that can change lives if used in an organized way.
When young people experience positive interactions, it increases their sense of belonging, improves mental health, and strengthens bonds with the community.
Meanwhile, discrimination, harsh words, gestures or behavior negatively impact their mental health and cause feelings of isolation.
Studies have shown that sport can provide a safe environment to instill positive values in young people through organized activities that lead to better resilience. It can also help young people believe in equality through mutual acceptance.
Experiencing fairness and integrity in sports – through the repetition of sporting values and principles, including respect for others, cooperation and teamwork, problem solving, conflict resolution, fair play and resilience – makes them better people. It can also affect honesty, responsibility, respect and trust in their lives outside of these activities. The resilience gained through sport empowers young people and makes them a difficult target for extremist groups.
Preventing violent extremism through sport
We examined the implementation of Sports for Development and Peace programs by two non-profit organizations in Pakistan. We found that young people’s vulnerability can be changed by building life skills and developing social and moral values through sport.
These programs aim to use a variety of sports or physical activities to promote peace, health and social cohesion, including all to foster community ties. Because inclusion prevents discrimination, these programs promote a safe and stress-free environment for young people to let go.
For example, Swat Youth Front uses football, volleyball and cricket to promote peace values among war survivors. Likewise, the Kafka Welfare Organization uses team sports to promote peace among youth in Pakistan.
Sport not only helped prevent the involvement of vulnerable young people in violent extremism, but was also used to reintegrate radicalised, excluded or forcibly displaced people back into communities. The programs also helped reduce the mental health effects of trauma exposure.
Sports did this because:
- Physical activity can protect and promote positive mental, physical and spiritual health.
- Fun activities, such as sports, help reduce stress and anxiety.
- Team sports help young people make friends and develop social bonds. The young people we engaged with these sports helped them create support systems while bonding with their teammates.
Building resilience against violent extremism
Our research also examined two sports-based social programs – Parvaz e Aman Program (PeA) and Youth Adolescent Development – operating in South Punjab, Pakistan.
South Punjab is a marginalized area where young people are considered more vulnerable due to the lack of economic and educational opportunities. This area has been used by the Taliban to recruit people for violent extremist activities. The sports-based social programs use sports to build resilience in young people and help them stay away from such violent extremism recruitment.
The young people we interacted with – as part of our survey – said they often ‘felt alone and neglected, but now feel important and have a purpose in life’. Many were excited to be respected by their teammates, it helped them to feel equal.
A global threat needs a broader solution
The United Nations has for years promoted the role of sport in preventing violent extremism among communities.
It is often endorsed as an effective tool to promote peace between communities. The UN Counter-Terrorism Office stated that sports:
“Help build the resilience of at-risk youth, strengthening their life skills to minimize risk factors and maximize protective factors.”
Violent extremism is a global threat that needs to be addressed seriously.
Investing in sports programs could be part of a broader solution. Sport can provide a strategy to reintegrate young people involved in violent activities into society. It can also help prevent new targets from being attracted.
Sport has the power to promote pro-social behavior in young people. Neglecting its role in social development can increase the likelihood of youth involvement in violent activities.
Governments of developing countries, such as Pakistan, must adopt these practices and integrate them into their policies, because long-term violent extremism cannot be stopped by military action alone. We also need to support young and vulnerable people, and that can be done through sport.
Umair Asif, PhD Student, Health and Society, Université du Québec à Montréal (UQAM); Simon Rosenbaum, Associate Professor & Scientia Fellow, Discipline of Psychiatry and Mental Health, UNSW Sydney, and Tegwen Gadais, Professor, Département des sciences de l’activité physique, Université du Québec à Montréal (UQAM)
This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.
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