No writer can be entirely assured that readers will understand what they write in the way that they want, but there are times when you really wonder whether some of the people who read what you have actually written have any interest in even trying to understand what it is you’ve said. Take my piece about Hilary Benn’s speech this week, in which I attacked Benn’s politically-slanted reference to the International Brigades and the Spanish Civil War on the following grounds:
‘To evoke the international brigades in support of Cameron’s bombing campaign requires real audacity, bad faith, and an indifference to history or the political realities of the 21st century. Benn does not even seem to realize that the jihadist movement that ultimately spawned Daesh is far closer to the spirit of internationalism and solidarity that drove the International Brigades than Cameron’s bombing campaign – except that the international jihad takes the form of solidarity with oppressed Muslims, rather than the working class or the socialist revolution.’
I also pointed out that
‘It is obvious that not all Muslims who have gone to fight in Iraq, Syria, Chechnya and other places have gone to these countries to obtain sexual slaves and throw homosexuals off balconies. Understanding these distinctions would make it a lot easier to understand the wellsprings of ‘radicalization’ than the fatuous inanities emanating from Cameron and his ministers.’
These observations have produced twitter comments such as the following:
This outrage has also spilled over into the Stop the War UK website, which has posted my pieces, where you can find comments like ‘Stop the War have actually just claimed that Jihadism is ” closer to the spirit of solidarity and internationalism”, as it stands in solidarity with ” oppressed Muslims.”
Some of these respondents are clearly from the ‘ Stop the War is decadent and corrupt’ crowd, and such people will always read what they want to read and nothing else. But the suggestion that I have ‘insulted’ or ‘disgraced’ the International Brigades is also a personal smear.
Just to clarify: Back in 1996 I interviewed surviving members of the International Brigades in Barcelona on the sixtieth anniversary of the Spanish Civil War. I celebrated their role in the war in a radio programme and also in a number of articles. This year I have also been reading and writing about the International Brigades as part of an ongoing book project. So I need no lectures about what the International Brigades stood for and what they fought for.
I also despise Daesh and organizations like it. I have made that clear in numerous pieces on the subject for this blog, for example here. and here. Directly above the paragraphs in my Benn piece referring to the International Brigades I wrote: ‘Whether Daesh is fascist or not, it is certainly a savage and dangerous movement which needs to be defeated’ – a sentence that some of these respondents seemed to have skipped over in their eagerness to score their ‘gotcha’ moment of moral outrage.
I’m not sure whether this determination to put sentiments into my mouth that I don’t have is politically motivated, or whether it stems from an inability to understand the English language, but either way it displays a complete ignorance of the historical roots of the modern jihad.
In my piece I refer to ‘the jihadist movement that ultimately spawned Daesh.’ Please note those words ‘jihadist movement’ readers, because some who came before you seem to have missed them. What we now call ‘jihadism’ is a transnational movement that came into the world during the Afghan war against the Soviets. Its various members have drawn on the writings of Ibn Taymiyyah, Sayyid Qutb, Maulani al-Maududi and others to recast older notions of jihad into the modern world.
Crucial to this enterprise was the notion that Muslims had an obligation to defend oppressed Muslims anywhere in the world. Obviously that is a very narrow concept of solidarity and internationalism in comparison with the International Brigades, in its emphasis on Muslims rather than the international working class, and it was also driven by very different political aspirations.
I didn’t argue that jihadism was aimed at bringing about international socialism. On the contrary, the modern jihad has been dominated by viciously reactionary, chauvinistic and bigoted religious zealots who have waged sectarian war against the same ‘oppressed Muslims’ they are supposedly fighting for. As all the world knows, some of these groups have committed gross atrocities and crimes against humanity, which Daesh has taken to a whole new level.
Where the International Brigades fought in defense of a revolution (some of them anyway), jihadism has often been a tool of imperial realpolitik or regional power struggles, national secret services etc. Nevertheless, that is not all there is to it. Without the notion of pan-Islamic transnational solidarity, tens of thousands of Muslims would not have fought in Afghanistan, Bosnia, Chechnya, Kashmir, Iraq… and Syria.
Back in the 1980s, the Pakistani general Mohamad Yousaf described the volunteers who went to fight the Soviets in Afghanistan as ‘the first Islamic international brigade in the modern era.’ Things have long since moved on from the ‘American jihad’, when all this was seen as a positive ‘freedom fighting’ phenomenon by western leaders, as I’m sure I don’t need to remind anyone. But I suspect that there are men – and women – who have gone to fight Assad in Syria with very similar motivations.
To recognize this does not mean that I regard this movement as a positive or noble phenomenon, or that I place the organizations that they fought with on the same moral level as the International Brigades. But it is absolutely indisputable that many Muslims who have fought in these wars were driven by their own form of internationalism, whether in response to Soviet or Indian occupation, ethnic cleansing in Bosnia or the Anglo-American occupation of Iraq.
To those who say that the International Brigades didn’t throw people off buildings or massacre civilians, well thank you for enlightening me. But jihadists haven’t always done this either, and they didn’t always fight in these wars in order to be able to do so. Not all of them wanted to murder office workers in the twin towers or kill ‘kuffar idolators.’
Read about the conflicts between Osama bin Laden and Abdullah Azzam that gave rise to al-Qaeda and you can see entirely different conceptions of what the jihad was supposed to achieve – and the methods that would be used to achieve these aims.. That’s why I used the words ‘movement that ultimately spawned Daesh’
Read accounts of some of the Muslim volunteers who fought during the Afghan war in the 1980s or in Chechnya and you will find men motivated by the same idealism, loathing of injustice and oppression, and spirit of adventure that I once encountered when I interviewed veterans of the International Brigades nineteen years ago.
But on the other hand, maybe you don’t want to read or even think about any of this, and you would prefer to regard me as a supporter of fascism or a ‘terrorist sympathiser’. .
If so, good luck with that. And you might accuse me of ‘disgracing anti-fascists’, but as far as I’m concerned, people who make such dim, dishonest and ignorant observations disgrace themselves.