Ex-boxing champ steers young Belgians away from extremism

Belgium lawmaker and former international middleweight boxing champion Bea Diallo, right, leads a boxing training class in Brussels on October 26, 2016. He was one of the best middleweight boxers of his time and says he understands what turns youngsters to the dark side but is hoping to motivate young Belgians and steer some away from Islamic extremism. Emmanuel Dunand / AFP
Belgium lawmaker and former international middleweight boxing champion Bea Diallo, right, leads a boxing training class in Brussels on October 26, 2016. He was one of the best middleweight boxers of his time and says he understands what turns youngsters to the dark side but is hoping to motivate young Belgians and steer some away from Islamic extremism. Emmanuel Dunand / AFP

BRUSSELS // He was one of the best middleweight boxers of his time and is now a Belgian lawmaker, but Bea Diallo says he understands what turns youngsters to the dark side.

Diallo, a Liberian-born Muslim, says he is using the lessons he learned in the school of hard knocks to motivate young Belgians and even steer some away from Islamic extremism.

“Boxing helped me become the man that I am today,” Diallo said after arriving from parliament to don a red bandana and boxing garb for a coaching session at his gym.

“Now I am trying to transform this force and this teaching that I have received for a generation that feels that it is lost and dropping out of society.”

Diallo, the child of a Guinean diplomat father and a Senegalese mother, was caught up in violence in his own youth.

He became “ultra-violent, violent in the extreme” after an attack by skinheads in France in which a friend lost an eye, he said.

“If there had been the same context as today, where people are able to come and brainwash you, I could have ended up waging jihad.”

Since those dark days, Diallo has turned his life around.

After boxing, the 45-year-old married father of four became a coach, involved in running a gym, as well as serving as a city alderman and an elected member of the Brussels-capital parliament.

A familiar presence on Belgian TV, the socialist politician works on youth, employment and social integration while calling for democracy in Guinea, the country of his father’s birth.

Meanwhile his gym has given him a ringside seat at the growth of militant Islam in Belgium, the European country with the highest per capita number of fighters who have joined extremists in Syria and Iraq, a figure estimated at 465.

Diallo said some martial arts gyms even train young Belgians to wage “jihad” – a phenomenon confirmed by Belgian judicial sources.

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SOURCE: News Now/The National

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