By Rick Noack October 1
LONDON — A 14-year-old girl received a photo on Snapchat that showed a man holding a black placard with the message: “Are you British, or are you Muslim?”
She eventually told a mentor on her soccer team, Shamender Talwar, who said the girl was being recruited by the Islamic State. He urged her to decide what was more important: soccer or the militant group. She picked soccer.
Weeks earlier, reports that three British schoolgirls had run away to Syria to join the Islamic State had stunned the country. Blurry surveillance video shows them carrying bags at Gatwick Airport in February 2015, the last time they were seen on British soil.
“I suddenly realized what threat we faced,” Talwar said, recalling his decision to turn a sports club into something bigger.
Launched in 2014, the club was founded to give children in the west London district of Southall an opportunity to play sports in a supportive environment and to prevent them from joining gangs.
But last year, Talwar and co-founder Anna Prior decided to turn the club into a counter-radicalization program, focused on teaching children about gender and religious equality to make them less susceptible to Islamic State propaganda. Sponsored by the Unity of Faiths Foundation, the club also trains volunteers to spot the first signs of radicalization among its members.
In total, 3,300 members nationally have played at the club since the project was established 18 months ago. Open to girls and boys ages 10 to 17, it has attracted boys and girls from across the British capital and has about 300 members.
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At least once every week, the young players come to the club in Southall, a diverse area that is home to about 65,000 people. On the district’s vibrant main street, an Afghan bakery borders an English pub, and Bollywood advertisements hang next to a church. More than 150 languages are spoken in the schools in and around the area.
More than half of its residents are of South Asian descent, most of them from India and Pakistan. About 16 percent are Muslim — three times the U.K. average.
Some of the younger residents struggle with feelings of isolation and loneliness, and have questions about their identity, Prior said.
“These are confusing times for them,” she said.
Government counter-radicalization programs are often built on monitoring and surveillance. But Talwar says that trust and a sense of community are the best weapons against the Islamic State’s propaganda.
Britain’s governmental counter-radicalization approach, “Prevent,” also aims to identify young people who might be prone to radicalization, and to provide them with counseling and social support.
“But one main problem was always that the program was initiated and led by the police,” said Peter Neumann, the director of London’s International Center for the Study of Radicalization and Political Violence. “Among many Muslims, that created the perception that they were not treated as normal citizens, but rather as security threats.”
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Maina Kiai, the U.N. Special Rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association, agreed: “Initiatives that come from the communities themselves are best-suited to tackle radicalization. If they are fully supported, they are effective,” Kiai said.
Muad Hussein, a 13-year-old player of Somali heritage, explained that he preferred to focus on winning matches, rather than discuss radicalization. “It doesn’t matter what religion or ethnicity someone has. Here, we are all one tough family,” he said.
One of the volunteer coaches, Simon Agboola, said British authorities had alienated young people perhaps without even realizing it. Wearing a knit cap, the 39-year-old ambulance driver pointed at the fences surrounding the soccer field to give one example.
Children are often charged hundreds of dollars to join soccer clubs in the United Kingdom. In some of the more disadvantaged neighborhoods, it can be nearly impossible to find parks or public spaces that are suited to play in, members of the soccer club said.
“They build those beautiful facilities in the middle of their estates. But then they make kids pay hundreds of pounds to use them. It’s almost like a tease,” Agboola said.
“There are lots of kids in our teams who’ve been handed offending orders,” he continued, discussing punishments for minors. “But when you sit the kids down and ask them why, you realize they got them for climbing those fences to play soccer. And that’s why they’re labeled bad guys now.”
The club offers a safe haven that is free of charge, he said.
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As it began to get dark on a recent day, the players assembled in a building next to the field and Talwar started the second part of the practice: a discussion about fairness and democratic values, using soccer as an example.
“Who wants to explain what democracy means?” he asked.
“It means that everyone has the right to say something and to vote,” said 12-year-old Samil Mohammad.
“So, when I just decide what we do on the soccer pitch, is that democracy or am I a dictator?” Talwar challenged him.
“We always need to get everyone involved,” Samil responded, as Talwar nodded.
That, however, has proven more difficult with girls. “Sometimes, the girls left training and guys came up to them asking: ‘What are you doing there?’ ” coach Agboola said. “Some families were not okay with them playing soccer.”
But more parents have been willing to let their daughters play after discussions with the local mosque, Talwar said. “When they gave their ‘thumbs up’ to our project, pressure decreased.” There are now two girls’ teams, he said.
The British were recently reminded of the urgency to protect their children from extremist propaganda: The family of one of the three girls who left London to join the Islamic State fears she was killed in an airstrike, their lawyer said last month.