Khaled Diab Headshot

A Brief History of Western 'Jihadists'

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What the hype over European Muslims fighting in Syria overlooks is that Westerners have been volunteering for what you can call "jihad" in foreign lands for centuries.

After weeks of public debate about the small number of Belgian Muslims who have been lured to Syria to join jihadist groups fighting the oppressive Assad regime, Belgian police raided, on Tuesday, 46 homes in the country's second-largest urban area, the port city of Antwerp.

Authorities across Europe are also on a similar high level of alert.

The sting was said to be targeted at groups suspected of recruiting volunteers to fight in Syria. The arrests included at least Fouad Belkacem, the leader of the notorious fringe salafist group, Sharia4Belgium, the Islamic equivalent of white supremacists. It remains unclear whether Belkacem will be formally charged.

The police said that they had been planning the operation for months and were not spurred into action by all the media reports of young Belgian jihadists in Syria.

No one knows exactly how many Belgian Muslims -- including converts -- have landed themselves in Syria, but estimates tend to be on the very low side. Among the latest, two teenagers, described as "model youth" by their school, managed to make their way to Syria, the Belgian media reports.

This could suggest that, far from their demonized image as mindless fanatics and nutters, at least some of the young Belgians fighting in Syria are idealists there to fight against a gross injustice which their government condemns but the world has done nothing to arrest.

While I do not advocate that people should take up arms in this way, even as a pacifist, secular, flower-power type of liberal watching the civil war in Syria with growing frustration, I understand what their motivation could well be.

As someone who recalls the disruption caused by returning jihadists from Afghanistan and the former Yugoslavia in my native Egypt, I also understand why the Belgian state, like other European countries, would be concerned about the security risk posed by traumatized and possibly radicalized fighters when they return.

The Muslim community is also concerned about the risk posed to their sons, as reflected by the preacher who risked his life to go to Syria to convince young Belgian fighters to return to their anxious families, only to be abducted by a radical group for "betraying Islam."

Worrying as this trend may seem, it is important to place it in its proper perspective, and not allow bigots, racists, Islamophobes, or those with vested interests, including radical Muslims themselves, to blow the situation out of all proportion.

Belgium's Muslim Executive puts the number of fighters in Syria at somewhere between 70 and 100, while Britain estimates a similar number of its nationals are taking part in the civil war.

In contrast, large waves of indigenous European "jihadists" -- for, ultimately, jihad, regardless of its Islamic connotation, is a struggle for justice, not to mention an inner spiritual struggle -- have been wandering off to foreign lands for centuries, lured by a heady mix of idealism, romance and rebellion.

For example, the Spanish Civil War in the 1930s was a major draw for foreign fighters. In fact, it is estimated that some 18,000 foreign volunteers, mostly anti-fascists from Europe and the Americas, joined the International Brigades against Spain's as yet uncrowned rightwing dictator Francisco Franco. Their ranks even included highly regarded writers and intellectuals, such as George Orwell, W.H. Auden and Ernest Hemingway.

Moreover, while the trickle of European fighters to Syria is unlikely to pose a major security threat for Europe, the thousands of volunteers who fought on the side of the Republicans and the backing Franco's Nationalists received from Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy could easily have become the trigger for World War II, rather than Poland.

Going further back, Lord Byron was not just Britain's most famous romantic poet and dandy who scandalized conservative England with the tales of his sexual misadventures, including his quest to find homosexual love in the fabled "East." Byron's career as wealthy agent provocateur and freedom fighter has some rich-boy-turned-revolutionary parallels with Osama bin Laden's early mujahideen days in Afghanistan.

Byron was perhaps the most prominent of the Philhellenes, volunteers from the European and American aristocracy who -- besotted by visions of classical Greece and feeling solidarity with their fellow Christians -- took up arms against the Ottoman Empire in the Greek War of Independence.

In 1823, Byron spent an enormous £4,000 -- around $15 million in today's money -- of his own fortune to refit the overstretched Greek fleet and increase its fighting capacity. But as he sailed to do battle, his life was cut short by a fever. Even if he personally didn't see combat, Byron's intervention, which was regarded as unhelpful trouble-making at the time, drew Britain reluctantly into the conflict after the Ottomans failed to assert their dominance.

Just as there is nothing new about Europeans going to do battle overseas, stigmatizing minorities as fifth columns and potential traitors also has an ancient pedigree. In Europe, before the Muslims, the Jews were there, as were the Catholics in Protestant lands and vice-versa.

Speaking of the Catholics, security services were able to foil a conspiracy to blow up Parliament and destroy the government by a fanatical sleeper cell of religious zealots led by a foreign-trained British convert.

But unlike today's headlines, the foreign-trained convert in question was not a Muslim but a Catholic who went by the name of Guy Fawkes. Born a Protestant, Fawkes converted to Catholicism at the age of 16 and went off, in the 1590s, to fight for the Spanish in the Spanish-occupied Netherlands.

When he returned to Britain, equipped with the explosives training he had received in Europe, he became involved in the Gun Powder Plot of 1605 to blow up the Houses of Parliament. The plot was a reaction to both the harsh anti-Catholicism instated by Queen Elizabeth I and the so-called Hampton Court Conference.

The plot served the interests of the Puritans very well and set back the cause of Catholic emancipation for at least another two centuries.

The risk we run today is in the other direction. Muslims in the West have entered societies in which they are, in principle, equals. However, stigmatization, ignorance, prejudice, fear and vested interests are conspiring to keep many Muslims on the margins of society, and on the constant verge of suspicion, unable to take full advantage of their legal emancipation.

More troublingly still, since the tragic 9/11 atrocities, the pretext of security has been used to reduce the civil liberties of some Muslims and to keep the community under close surveillance.

But like the Catholics and Jews before them, and with time and effort on the part of inspired grassroots activists, the West's Muslim minorities can become accepted and valued threads in society's colorful, multicultural tapestry.