IN AN early episode of the MI5 drama Spooks, c.2004, an agent tries to talk a boy suicide-bomber out of exploding his lethal jacket. He notes that the boy is wearing an Aston Villa shirt. “Suicide is a bit extreme, even for a Villa supporter. Football is one of the better things of life — don’t leave the human race.” The agent is unsuccessful, unlike the Iraqi policemen who, late last month, disarmed a teenage boy in the streets of Kirkuk. He had been wearing a Barcelona shirt. We don’t know what type of shirt was worn by the suicide-bomber who killed 56 people, most of them children, at a Kurdish wedding in Gaziep, south-eastern Turkey, a few days before. The Turkish authorities said that the attacker had been a 12-14-year-old boy, though later reports expressed some doubt.
It is sometimes possible to understand acts of terrorism by looking at the bigger picture, and comparing them to acts of war. The harming of anyone, even an enemy combatant, is evil, but can be understood, and occasionally condoned, if it is part of a campaign to prevent greater harm. The motivation that drives the Islamic State movement is a confused mixture of political, religious, and territorial objectives, but none of these could possibly justify the group’s methods. The double assault on innocence — using what must be viewed as teenage victims to attack men, women, and children at moments of greatest joy — is repulsive, and undermines any incentive there might be to understand the people who commission such acts. The past week alone has brought a detonation at another wedding in Iraq, killing 15, and an attack on a church in Indonesia which was thwarted when the teenage assailant’s bomb failed to go off. And, of course, the murder of Fr Jacques Hamel in his church in Normandy is fresh in the memory. The perpetrators and their supporters show no signs of wishing to negotiate, compromise, or accommodate, and thus opposing them with arms appears to be the only option available — even when this risks destabilising the region further, as President Erdogan, President Assad, and their allies pursue different agendas.
Beyond this, the best approach is to combat the glamour that the IS continues to have for a few young, disaffected Muslims. Football, at least the professional kind, might not be a strong enough draw to offset the narrow, dualistic world-view of the terrorist. But there are other, more powerful forces that can be appealed to: a right understanding of a God of mercy as well as justice; a warm, enlightened faithful community; a sense of purpose; convincing evidence that the evils of the world are being tackled by people of different faiths or none at all; the realisation that the followers of one faith do not have a monopoly on virtue; knowledge that the wonders of the world have been created for all to enjoy. . . Such a list contains two challenges: to find a means to communicate these values to young people who feel alienated from much of contemporary society; and to ensure that such values are truly evident in the way ordinary people live their lives.