Home » Countering Violence, Extremism, Terrorism and Radicalization in the Middle East and Beyond … Using Sports as an Important Tool for Diplomacy

Countering Violence, Extremism, Terrorism and Radicalization in the Middle East and Beyond … Using Sports as an Important Tool for Diplomacy

I have been in the field of international sports diplomacy for well over three decades now. I have assisted in bringing these sports diplomacy programs to some of the most conflict-ridden areas of the world—from Damascus to Jerusalem to Amman and beyond. What I have found is this: Introducing a non-adversarial and non-controversial

tool into the diplomatic equation helps a great deal in curbing and deterring violence across the board. It also assists in promoting healthy living, fostering self-esteem, and balancing the inequalities of wealth. Furthermore, popular world sports such as soccer—if implemented properly at the youth level—can create feelings, postures, approaches and attitudes of cooperation and camaraderie. Sports often have the innate and built-in elements that make them great devices for allowing young people to develop an encouraging and optimistic outlook towards others, even when those “others” may have a much different point of view. One older approach that many of us can remember is this: Keep the kids on the sandlots and the playgrounds, and we can keep them off the streets. While that may produce some positive impact today, it is certainly not enough. It requires much more engagement from a variety of people who care, who are dedicated, and who are trained at advancing and nurturing constructive approaches and attitudes. Why? Because the sports field or the soccer “pitch” can be used as very effective, useful and valuable ground for shaping opinions, ideas and stances. The sports field of play is often an extension of education in the classroom. But it is not just the sport of soccer that can be utilized in this regard. We can see it in a variety of sports, and we notice it clearly and manifestly in the dojos across America and around the world; those karate or Tae Kwon dojos are where respect, honor, tolerance, temperance, prudence, integrity and perseverance are frequently taught in conjunction with many of the martial arts. By the way (and this is worth noting), the word “dojo” often means “a

hall or place for immersive learning or meditation.” Having said that (and as the old “Karate Kid” series would tell us), our approach in teaching these youngsters is very often the determining factor of whether they became benevolent or malevolent in their roads ahead. In fact, when considering martial arts as an example, we see this as just one approach: Analysts focused on the complexity of why youth radicalize often conclude that the most vulnerable struggle with matters of identity and thus related issues of belonging, purpose and connection. These variables are often coupled with insecurity at home, economic marginalization and mental health as obstacles that young adults are unequipped to solve by themselves. While sport cannot singly resolve these issues outright, it remains a key factor in youth empowerment and thus wider social development in communities. Empowerment from sport is intrinsically linked to lessons learned through practice and sensations of accomplishment. For instance, programs that include sport in some format highly focus on the development of confidence, self-esteem, self-control, teamwork and the continued breakdown of cultural stereotypes. Each of these characteristics and their maturation are extremely beneficial in both prevention and deradicalization efforts. Source: https://www.risetopeace.org/2020/05/15/sports/rlacroix/ Having practiced Tae Kwon Do over the years, I concur. At the same time, I have found so much of this to be the case

in my soccer-diplomacy experiences in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region, as well as in other parts of the globe. A concerted, focused, determined and well- designed educational sports program with a high level of

compassion and care goes a very long way toward combatting radicalization, extremism and violence—on the “pitch” and off. The concept of “teamwork” is also introduced, as are the fundamental building blocks of respect, tolerance, acceptance, decency and virtue. Additionally (and some may be incredulous in this regard), there is a way to incorporate religion and faith into these scenarios in a very positive way as well. I know because I have done this by using great sports leaders who are devoutly Muslim, Christian and Jewish. See, it is not sufficient in these areas to simply ignore religion. Most children—particularly in the MENA region—come from devout families. Setting aside faith as if it doesn’t exist is not a long-term or comprehensive solution. Rather, it is the positive attitude toward faith and religion that provides us with the additional tools and building blocks to allow for even greater penetration, convergence and influence. The sort of influence I am describing, though, is to develop a holistic and healthy attitude toward others—regardless of ethnicity, color or faith. And we can do this on and off the field of play. In this case, positive role models are imperative for the youth participants. As we know, kids so often emulate what they see. If they see a great role model as an athlete, they will try to be like that athlete. What does that mean on a granular and pedestrian level, though? It means that we must have the right coaches, teachers and mentors on the fields of play at all times.

That’s why the good quality and good nature of the mentor-coach are absolute necessities. So, we need to select our staffs with great care and attention; they make all the difference in the world. I have designed, organized and implemented many a program in difficult regions of the world where ethnic, religious and racial strife are of concern. In those circumstances, it is important to de-escalate tensions by introducing affirmative, uplifting and encouraging sports and educational programming that not only diverts attention away from conflict, but also that helps to transform the psychological association with negative images, views and outlooks. In warn-torn areas, it is imperative that we extract the children from these environments and place them in safe environments physically, emotionally and mentally. While sports is not the only solution in this respect, it is one that most certainly helps. I am obviously not the first one to think in this way, nor I am on the only one (by any stretch of the imagination). Entities as large as the United Nations, FIFA and UEFA have similar programs. Let’s just consider this from the UN: In recognizing that sport can offer a space for learning and improve mutual understanding and peaceful coexistence, UNODC promotes sport as a vehicle to strengthen youth resilience to crime and violence, including in the context of preventing violent extremism.

Source: https://www.unodc.org/documents/dohadeclaration/Sports/PVE/P VE_TechnicalGuide_EN.pdf

Even U.S.-based educational institutions have created entire programs designed to studying the impact of sports on diplomacy. Here is a brief description of just one of these programs at the University of Denver: SIÉ CENTER RESEARCH Sport for Peacebuilding and Preventing Violent Extremism (PVE) Sport, Peacebuilding, and PVE is a research project to explore the role of sport in peacebuilding and preventing violent extremism (PVE) through a series of targeted interviews with leading specialists and practitioners. This project engages specialists and practitioners in sport-for-peace … Source: https://www.du.edu/korbel/sie/research/sisk_sport_and_peacebuil ding.html

We might say that sports diplomacy is becoming more mainstream in our approach toward overall peacebuilding initiatives. It is most certainly important to have a variety of highly respected institutions that participate in this regard, but it is equally significant to collect real life data through programs that involve “boots on the ground.” That is the sort of data that I have collected over 30+ years of designing these programs, projects and initiatives. I have

personally seen and witnessed the positive outcomes, not just in the MENA region but even right here at home and within the confines of the Walt Disney World Resort as well. See, back in 1999, a small group of us created the first World Youth Soccer Academy (WYSA) at Disney’s Wide World of Sports Complex in Orlando. (That complex is now the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex.) At that time (1999 to 2003), we—the coaches working at the WYSA—were interested in bringing together youth soccer players from around the globe to participate in an advanced training camp at Disney in Florida. As you might imagine, the backdrop was spectacular. The concept was to create a positive impact on these children, and we were allowing them to experience the “magic of Disney” at the same time. Indeed, that environment—as well as the many exceptional internationally-renowned coaches we had—helped to create an experience like no others. We even offered scholarships to underprivileged children from various parts of the globe, and we were able to host some of them from Mexico and Venezuela. We later took this concept on the road and applied it to other soccer camps around North America and throughout the world, and we noticed that the results were nothing short of spectacular. I am convinced that the creation of positive images and attitudes in the minds of young people have ripple effects that help advance society as a whole—whether those experiences are at Disney, on a small dirt field in Damascus, or at a park in Jerusalem. I know this personally as the father of six young children, and I also know it from the many years of experience I have had in this sector. What counts is the

approach, the program and the quality of staff. More importantly, though, it is the understanding, compassion, sensitivity and kindness of the frontline worker that matters the most. For as we all know, we can have the very best program and the best environment, but we may not have the right folks to implement the program. I would argue that both the program itself, as well as the folks working it, are fundamental to the outcome; in fact, the two are inextricably linked. That is why it is important to carefully select the people who conduct the work on the ground level. Again, I will refer to a UN article for confirmation: Sport is synonymous with values such as tolerance, respect and team work, and aligns with the UN’s founding goal of creating a better world for all, the

head of the Organization’s Office of Counter- Terrorism, Vladimir Voronkov, told participants.

This explains why terrorist groups seek to hijack sporting events, with incidents such as the March 2009 attack against Sri Lanka’s cricket team, and the Boston Marathon bombing in the United States some four years later, serving as stark reminders. A ‘critical shelter’ for youth “In today’s particularly volatile world, sport is a critical shelter for young and vulnerable people. Sport helps children and teenagers across the globe to build the psychological and emotional strength to be better, more tolerant and respectful citizens. Sport equips them

with the right tools to resist terrorist propaganda,” said Mr. Voronkov.

Source: https://news.un.org/en/story/2020/09/1072762

Photo Source / Photo Credit: http://www.unicri.it/News/High- Level%20meeting%20on%20Sports%20Preventing%20Violent%20Extremism

This concept can be summarized in this statement by the UN as well:

A significant component of the UN Office of Counter- Terrorism and its partners’ work will be devoted to

promoting sports and its value as an important tool to prevent radicalization and violent extremism conducive to terrorism. Source: https://www.un.org/counterterrorism/sports

Finally, there is this from the Journal of Deradicalization: In recent years the use of sport as an intervention to reduce crime in the community and prisons, and to

reduce radicalisation of young adults, has become more common. Studies suggest that participating in sport may improve self-esteem, enhance social bonds and provide participants with a feeling of purpose. The introduction of an education element can improve outcomes … Although it is recognised that sport may form only one aspect towards the reduction of crime and radicalisation, effectiveness, may be enhanced with a combination of other services … Source: https://journals.sfu.ca/jd/index.php/jd/article/view/123 Ultimately, we are spreading love, compassion, education, sensitivity and understanding. That is a language that all people understand across the board. Human dignity is at play, and that cannot be compromised on any level. Sports are used as effective building blocks and tools, but those sports cannot be devoid of good mentoring and teaching. As stated above, the quality of the people implementing these programs is what is at issue. If you create the right program with the right people, you will have a great outcome.

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