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May 23, 2017

This morning I don’t want to read the newspapers, because I know what they’ll say. I know what the police will say, what the politicians will say, what the eyewitnesses will say. I know the kind of things families will say, ranging through grief, fear, blame and anger.

I am no more or less shocked than I was after the Bataclan, Sousse, Nice and the countless bombings in Baghdad. And I’m not surprised. How could one be, when the techniques and the materials for bombing are freely available, and when the motivation among the few is undimmed?

I am relieved that my daughters, and the daughters of friends (as far as I know) were not caught in the explosion – this time. Next time, it might be them, me, anyone. And there will be a next time. This is not going to end soon. I think everyone whose eyes are open knows this, even though we hoped that it wouldn’t happen again in our country. As did the French, the Germans, the Americans, the Turks, the Spanish and the Belgians.

The strange thing is that as the explosion was doing its work in Manchester, I was at home taking a second look at Tom Holland’s documentary, ISIS – The Origins of Violence.

Holland shows footage from the Bataclan. We watch the reaction on his face as he watches ISIS execution videos. As he walks through the ruins of Sinjar, where ISIS killed the men and the old women and enslaved the girls, and where unexploded bombs may be waiting among the rubble, he doubles over with nausea.

He interviews a Salafi sheikh in Jordan, a man said to encourage young people to fight in Syria. With a face devoid of expression and a voice devoid of tonal variation, Abu Sayyaf tells Holland why it is acceptable – and indeed an obligation – to put unbelievers and apostates to death, according to his reading of the Koran.

Holland’s documentary is unusual in that as the narrator he finds it hard to maintain the mask of objectivity that seasoned journalists assume in dangerous locations. Perhaps that’s because he’s not a journalist.

He’s a historian, more steeped in the complexity of this story than most others. As the author of In the Shadow of the Sword, in which he discusses the origins of Islam and comes to conclusions that did not endear him to many Muslims, he has reason to be fearful for his own safety.

He’s a brave man. He must have known that his new work would result in messages of hate or worse via Twitter, where he’s an active presence. And I suspect that this is already happening.

Courage comes in many shapes. The sad-eyed Christian monk whose monastery overlooks Mosul exemplifies the kind of courage that comes from faith. As one of only two monks left in what since the third century CE has been a flourishing religious community, he tells Holland that he is not afraid of ISIS, because they cannot do worse than to kill him.

For those of us in the UK, digesting the consequences and implications of the Manchester bombing, the monk’s words are worth thinking about.

They cannot do worse than to kill us. That’s a hard mantra to live by. But it implies that we will not die inside before our time through fear, hatred and anger. That we will continue to live our lives, mindful of risks yet not dominated by them. That we will think the best of people before we suspect the worst. And that as a country we will not exclude, marginalise or persecute the many because of the actions of the few.

Pious words, platitudes even. You will hear them today from pundits, politicians and priests. And rightly so in my opinion. But can we live up to them? Only time will tell.

Meanwhile, life goes on. As it does in Lalish, the spiritual home of the Yazidis, considered by ISIS to be devil worshippers, and from where in Tom Holland’s film the smiling faces of the innocent shone out.

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