By Zoe Tabary
LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Sport is a universal language that can help prevent extremism and racism among young people, London-born Pakistani footballer Kashif Siddiqi said on Friday, urging governments to do more to bring together players from different religions.
Siddiqi, co-founder of Football for Peace, a charity that puts on matches between communities of different ethnic or cultural backgrounds, said being born to a Ugandan mother and an Indian father had taught him a lot about cultural diversity.
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"The communities we bring together play in one team, so they have to talk to each other – just like in football you can't win if you don't pass the ball to teammates," said Siddiqi, who has played for Pakistan at international level.
Young people have been among the thousands of Muslims, including more than 800 Britons, who have left Europe for Iraq and Syria, many to join Islamic State (IS), while the deadly attacks in Paris, Brussels and Nice illustrate the risk posed by some lured to a violent Islamist cause at home.
Siddiqi said governments were missing a crucial opportunity to prevent youth extremism and racism because they did not think of sport as a solution.
"I feel like governments have hit a wall in the fight against extremism...," Siddiqi told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in a phone interview.
"I want to show them that sport is an avenue to explore," said the 30-year-old, who kicked off his career at the youth academy of Premier League club Arsenal and now plays for Football League One club Northampton Town.
"I played for Pakistan at international level while my father is of Indian heritage, so bridging social divides is particularly important to me," he added.
The more integrated young people are, the more resilient they will be in facing discrimination and extremism, said Siddiqi.
Talking about his own experience as a professional football player in Britain, Siddiqi said it had not always been easy for him as South Asian and Muslim player.
"You can get funny glances from other guys in the locker room when praying before a game, for example," he said.
Earlier this month, Siddiqi proposed to hold a "peace match" between Muslims and Catholics on St Peter's Square in Rome when he presented the charity to Pope Francis at the first global conference of faith and sport in the Vatican.
Football for Peace, which Siddiqi brought to Britain in 2013 after it was founded by Chilean footballer Elias Figueroa in 2006, also works with schools to put on educational workshops on conflict resolution, equality and empowerment.
"We get teenagers to think collectively about stereotypes they're confronted to in their everyday lives – like jokes about their race or religion," Siddiqi explained.
He acknowledged the peace matches' and the workshops' limitations.
"Getting more kids into football isn't an end in itself, it's more a means to get people to interact together who normally wouldn't," he said.
(Reporting by Zoe Tabary @zoetabary, editing by Astrid Zweynert. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, land rights and climate change. Visit news.trust.org)