There isn’t much difference between Britons who left to fight in the Spanish Civil War and those leaving for jihad in Syria and Iraq, both went with the intention to fight injustice and oppression, writes Yvonne Ridley.
There has been much speculation and hyperbole in recent days over young men who’ve travelled from Britain to fight in Syria and Iraq. Angst-ridden parents are begging their sons to come home while right-wing think tanks and other so-called terrorism experts froth at the mouth predicting the eventual return of radicalised young men who will wreak havoc in their communities.
It is, of course, complete nonsense but jihad is proving to be a nice little earner for those who’ve jumped onto the lucrative media conveyor belt in search of fame and fortune, and the ubiquitous cache of government funding. There is, of course, a historic precedent for such fighters, but not one that the “terrorism experts” like to consider.
Spanish Civil War and the International Brigade
A couple of my relatives left their pit village and went off to fight against injustice during the Spanish Civil War. They were joined by around a dozen other young men from the Durham Miners’ Association who wanted to show solidarity with the democratically-elected Spanish Republican government of 1936-1939.
The socialist jihad was largely organised through the British Communist Party which facilitated those who volunteered to fight with the International Brigade. Some went to war and others raised funds and gave material support through many networks, including the Miners’ Lodges around Britain. Like any other conflict, the Spanish Civil War became notable not just for the passion and political division it inspired but also for the atrocities committed by both sides.
Of course, today’s young men heading to the front line are not miners, they’re Muslims, and in the current Islamophobic climate their actions are questioned forensically by scare-mongering politicians, think tanks and “experts”.
My 87-year-old mum Joyce says that she can remember the young men who went off to fight and those who returned. “They were bits of lads in search of adventure and a cause and the Spanish Civil War fulfilled that but when they returned they settled down to normal life and most went back into the pits,” she recalled.
While she doesn’t approve of me being a Muslim neither does she approve of the demonising and scare-mongering tactics of those who are trying to put fear into communities about what will happen if and when the Muslim fighters return. “Propaganda was used to great effect during the First and the Second World Wars and my generation just doesn’t fall for this nonsense,” Mum added. She might not have a degree or carry the increasingly meaningless title of “counter-terrorism expert” but she does know her history and suggests that a quick dip into the history books should calm everyone down.
Human rights abuses and fighting for justice
Of course there is a witch-hunt now to track down the “preachers of hate” who “radicalised” these young men to go off and fight. I would call off the search now. Instead, politicians and “experts” alike should read a report by internationally-respected lawyers Carter Ruck, who have examined a massive dossier of human rights abuses carried out by the Assad regime since the war in Syria began.
The report concludes that there is “clear evidence” of torture and execution of prisoners by the Syrian regime. I defy anyone not to look at any one of the 55,000 photographs without shedding a tear; they invoke harrowing memories and images of the Holocaust. You can start with the press release (https://www.carter-ruck.com/Documents/Syrian_Regime-Press_Release-210114.pdf).
If I thought that I could make a useful contribution and stop the systematic and organised killing of those held without charge or trial in Assad’s torture dungeons, I would go off and fight right now. And I suggest that there are many others, of all faiths and none, who will feel the same urge.
Perhaps Britain’s counter-terrorism police and Interpol would be better employed at the moment investigating those in Britain and Europe who are supporting the war criminals in the Assad regime; they are living in the lap of luxury enjoying the spoils of a regime which is carrying out crimes against humanity as a matter of routine.
Now that the war has spilled into neighbouring Iraq – and who didn’t see that one coming? – there’s even more chest-beating and feigned outrage over the actions of ISIS. The group’s methods are indeed repugnant and shocking but are surely no more brutal than those of the Nouri Al-Maliki regime, which could explain the lack of resistance against the ISIS fighters in the Anbar province. Let’s face it, their arrival has been welcomed in some quarters, so bad had the brutality become for Sunnis living under Al-Maliki’s sectarian government.
A quick dip into the records of 2007 reveals that the Sunni tribal chiefs in that region did in fact rise up and kick out Al-Qaeda down to the very last man and then what happened? Al-Maliki’s soldiers went in and arrested the tribal chiefs and their fighters for the “illegal use of weapons”. After several years in detention being tortured for clearing out Al-Qaeda anyone would probably think twice about intervening again; that toxic legacy is now bearing fruit.
The message is simple. As long as there is injustice, cruelty, tyranny and torture there will be young men – and women – who will rise up and do whatever they can to try and right the wrongs. Some might not even have such strong ideals or beliefs but might be in search of nothing more than a little adventure, like the lads from my Mum’s pit village near Stanley, County Durham.
When the International Brigade was disbanded and the survivors returned home most were given a heroes’ welcome. There are monuments standing today in town centres as a tribute to and recognition of their contribution to the struggle – jihad by any other name ‑ for justice; being on the losing side doesn’t determine what is right and what is wrong.
Perhaps we should be waiting at the borders with garlands and not handcuffs if and when these young people return; they are, without doubt, fighting a tyrant cut from the same cloth as the vilest fascists Europe has ever produced.
This article first appeared in the Middle East Monitor website.