World Cup season isn’t just about the football. In recent years in Africa, it also means extra vigilance, as the threat of terror attacks rises several notches higher.
A deadly reminder of this came Tuesday, when an explosion ripped through a football viewing centre in Damaturu, northern Nigeria as fans gathered to watch the World Cup.
The blast at the Crossfire venue, in the Nayi-Nawa area of the state capital of Yobe, happened shortly after tournament hosts Brazil kicked off against Mexico at 8:00 pm.
Medical sources said at least 21 people had been killed, and 27 injured.
Sanusi Ruf’ai, police commissioner for Yobe state, told news agency AFP: “There was an explosion outside a soccer viewing centre here in Damaturu at around 8:15 pm.
But perhaps the biggest single World Cup killing by terrorists so far came in 2010, when 76 people died after two bombs exploded in the Uganda capital, Kampala, as fans were watching the World Cup final. The Somali militant group Al-Shabaab claimed responsibility for the attacks.
This time the attacks aren’t waiting for finals night. In addition to Nigeria, just three days into the competition, 48 people were killed at the Kenyan coast when gunmen raided the small town of Mpeketoni, the majority of those who lost their lives were gathered at various entertainment spots watching the World Cup 2014.
In Nigeria, public screening of the games at “viewing centres” had already been banned in the face of heightened terror threats: In May, three people were killed in a blast in the city of Jos in central Nigeria as they watched the Champions League final between Atletico Madrid and Real Madrid.
Obviously, football fans provide an easy target for any attack, as a terrorist is assured of a “captive” audience for at least 90 minutes.
But even more than the fans providing an easy target, the game itself seems to be a favourite grouse of many Islamist terror groups, militias and ultraconservatives in Africa, from al-Shabaab in Somalia to the rebels in Mali, Salafis in Egypt to Boko Haram in Nigeria. What is it about football that terrorists hate so much?
Radical Islamist clerics have put forth various arguments why true Muslims should shun football. The most common argument is that it is a frivolous pursuit that takes away precious time that could be spent performing religious duties. Football captures the mind with trivial statistics and consumes the imagination, they argue, leaving little time or energy to pursue holiness.
For example, Saudi cleric Sheikh Abdel Rahman Al-Barrak warned in his latest fatwa, a religious opinion, that soccer “has caused Muslims to adopt some of the customs of the enemies of Islam, who are (preoccupied with) games and frivolity.”
Other militant clerics, argue that football is actually a Masonic game, part of a Jewish conspiracy to keep Muslims distracted from their faith.
But more than being a time-waster, football does something else—It encourages admiration, even love, towards non-believers – people who are very different from you - directly threatening the divide between Muslims and non-Muslims which radical Islam depends on to make its case. Being a football fan means being devoted to players and teams that can be far different from yourself, and this ends up blunting the hatred that radical Islam encourages Muslims to feel towards non-believers.
“Most of those who follow (soccer matches) are loyal to the infidels… A man who watches a game, God forbid, is watching deviant criminals and sinful infidels, even if they are Muslims,” argued another Saudi militant cleric, Sheikh Suleiman Al-Alwan in a fatwa two years ago.
Football is also a subversively democratic enterprise, and generates admiration – and even adulation – for people whose power is not conferred by a divine authority, privileged birth, money, or race, for the same reason they play the game beautifully.
In the end, then, the real problem with football is simple—it makes people happy. In his fatwa, Sheikh Al-Barack argued that football should be shunned because it sparked “unwarranted displays of joy”. Militant Islam, it seems, wants people melancholy and contemplative, or else they might find too much joy in this life, and not be too keen on blowing themselves up for the 72 virgins promised in the next world.