Instances of violent extremism, such as the recent attacks on Chinese workers in Pakistan, are on the rise around the world. These incidents have forced nations around the world to take serious action, including declaring zero-tolerance policies, to curb the violence.
Violent extremism tolerates violent actions based on political or religious ideologies, and young people are particularly vulnerable. In some countries, they are at even greater risk: Pakistan, home to nearly 120 million young people, is the scene of recurrent targeting, manipulation and recruitment of vulnerable young people by extremist groups.
Young people can be vulnerable to violent extremism for several reasons, including social exclusion, discrimination, hatred, trauma, racism and forced displacement. These reasons often accumulate over time, leading to heightened frustrations among young people and making them vulnerable to exploitation by extremist groups who promise them a better life and a sense of community.
Our recent research explored the reasons for youth involvement in violent extremism in the South Punjab region of Pakistan and found that sport can help prevent it through building resilience. Sport is a powerful tool that can help change lives if used in an organized way.
Promotion of positive values through sport
When young people experience positive interactions, it increases their sense of belonging, improves their mental health and strengthens community bonds.
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 teach young people positive values through organized activities that lead to better resilience. It can also help young people believe in equality through mutual acceptance.
Read more: How sport for development and peace can transform the lives of young people
Experiencing fairness and integrity during 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 human beings. It can also influence honesty, responsibility, respect and trust in their life outside of these activities. The resilience gained through sport empowers young people and they become difficult targets for extremist groups.
Prevention of violent extremism through sport
We explored the implementation by two non-profit organizations of sport for development and peace programs in Pakistan. We have found that the vulnerability of young people can be changed by developing life skills and developing social and moral values through sport.
These programs aim to use various sports or physical activities to promote peace, health and social cohesion, including everyone to help foster community bonds. As inclusion prevents discrimination, these programs promote a safe and stress-free environment for young people to let loose.
For example, Swat Youth Front uses football, volleyball and cricket to promote the values of peace among war survivors. Similarly, Kafka Welfare Organization uses team sports to promote peace among young people in Pakistan.
Sport has not only helped prevent the involvement of vulnerable young people in violent extremism, but has also been used to reintegrate radicalized, excluded or forcibly displaced people into communities. The programs have also helped reduce the mental health consequences of exposure to trauma.
The sport 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 have engaged with in these sports have helped them build support systems while bonding with their teammates.
Building resilience against violent extremism
Our research also explored two sports-based social programs – the Parvaz e Aman (PeA) program and early adolescent development – working in South Punjab, Pakistan.
South Punjab is a marginalized area where young people are considered more vulnerable due to lack of economic and educational opportunities. This area has been used by the Taliban to recruit people into violent extremist activities. Sport-based social programs use sport to build the resilience of young people and help them stay away from such recruitment of violent extremism.
The young people we interacted with – as part of our research – mentioned that they “often felt alone and neglected, but now feel important and have a purpose in life”. Many were delighted to feel respected by their teammates, it helped them feel equal.
A global threat requires a broader solution
The United Nations has for years promoted the role of sport in preventing violent extremism within communities.
It is often seen as an effective tool for promoting peace between communities. The United Nations Counter-Terrorism Office has stated that sport:
“Help build the resilience of at-risk youth, building their life skills to minimize risk factors and maximize protective factors.
Violent extremism is a global threat that must be seriously addressed.
Investing in sports programs could be part of a larger solution. Sport can offer a strategy to reintegrate young people who have been involved in violent activities into society. It can also help prevent the recruitment of new targets.
Sport has the power to promote pro-social behavior in young people. Neglecting its role in social development can increase young people’s risk of involvement in violent activities.
Governments in developing countries, such as Pakistan, must adopt these practices and integrate them into their policies, as violent extremism cannot be stopped by long-term military action alone. We also need to support young people and vulnerable people, and this is possible through sport.