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An eloquent riposte to the jihadists

12 September 2014

Images from Iraq make grief personal, says Paul Vallely

I HAVE been haunted for weeks now by a single image. It is not a grim image, although it was part of grim event. It is the memory of a man in a football shirt, hurrying to keep up with his fellows - hurrying, as it turned out, to his death. And yet the image speaks plaintively of the richness of life rather than the closed cruel finality of death.

It was a Manchester United shirt. They are the team I support; so I suppose that might have touched something within me - though I felt something similar this week, when I saw a photo of a man in an Arsenal shirt lying on the ground.

The man in the Man. United shirt was a member of the Iraqi army. In June, he was taken prisoner by the jihadist zealots of the so-called Islamic State, when they captured a military base near Tikrit, the home town of Saddam Hussein, who now looks the lesser of evils compared with what has followed.

The Unislamic State, or ISIS as they were called then, posted the photo in a sequence which showed captured Iraqi soldiers who had changed into civvies in a forlorn attempt to escape the advancing jihadist tide. One man had donned a football shirt, and was being herded with his fellows to a patch of bare desert, where the men were told to lie down in a row, and then were shot by a febrile firing squad.

I found myself wondering when he had bought the shirt. What hopes had he had for his footballing hero? What had he thought about his performance in United's disastrous season that year?

All that may sound trivial and disrespectful, but it did not feel so at the time to me. Rather it connected me with this man, singling him out from the crowd, allowing me to enter into one particular seam of this far-away young life, summoning for me the hopes and dreams of the other dimensions of his life. In the killing of a man, the whole universe dies.

Then, this week, came the photo of the man who had escaped one of the fanatics' mass executions. He was ringed in the picture with the dead all round him. One of those who had not survived wore an Arsenal shirt, with the name Özil on the back.

It does not diminish the individual tragedy of the man, and yet that shirt is some small symbol of hope. Mesut Özil is a German footballer, but he is a third-generation Turkish-German and a practising Muslim, who recites from the Qur'an before his matches. His teammates know that they cannot talk to him during this brief prayer.

Speaking of the way he plays, he once said: "My technique and feeling for the ball is the Turkish side to my game. The discipline, attitude, and always-give-your-all is the German part." A few years ago, he won an award as an exemplar of successful integration within German society. All of this stands in contrast to the closed minds of the murdering jihadists. It is, in a melancholy way, a most eloquent riposte.

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