A brief history of Western ‘jihadists’

By Khaled Diab

From Guy Fawkes and Lord Byron to Ernest Hemingway and George Orwell, Westerners have an ancient tradition of doing ‘jihad' in foreign lands.

Wednesday 24 April 2013

Does this dandy Englishman qualify as a European "jihadist"?
Does this dandy Englishman qualify as a European “jihadist”?

After weeks of public debate about the small number of Belgian Muslims who have been lured to to join jihadist groups fighting the oppressive Assad regime, Belgian police recently raided 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 demonised 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 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 traumatised and possibly radicalised 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.

's Muslim Executive puts the number of fighters in Syria at somewhere between 70 and 100, while 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 's as yet uncrowned rightwing dictator Francisco Franco. Their ranks even included highly regarded writers and intellectuals, such as George Orwell, WH 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 scandalised 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 and feeling solidarity with their fellow Christians – took up arms against the 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 after the Ottomans failed to assert their dominance.

Just as there is nothing new about Europeans going to do battle overseas, stigmatising 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 have entered societies in which they are, in principle, equals. However, stigmatisation, 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 11 September 2001 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.


Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared in The Huffington Post on 16 April 2013.


  • Khaled Diab

    Khaled Diab is an award-winning journalist, blogger and writer who has been based in Tunis, , Brussels, Geneva and Cairo. Khaled also gives talks and is regularly interviewed by the print and audiovisual media. Khaled Diab is the author of two books: Islam for the Politically Incorrect (2017) and Intimate Enemies: Living with Israelis and Palestinians in the Holy Land (2014). In 2014, the Anna Lindh Foundation awarded Khaled its Mediterranean Journalist Award in the press category. This website, The Chronikler, won the 2012 Best of the Blogs (BOBs) for the best English-language blog. Khaled was longlisted for the Orwell journalism prize in 2020. In addition, Khaled works as communications director for an environmental NGO based in Brussels. He has also worked as a communications consultant to intergovernmental organisations, such as the EU and the UN, as well as civil society. Khaled lives with his beautiful and brilliant wife, Katleen, who works in humanitarian aid. The foursome is completed by Iskander, their smart, creative and artistic son, and Sky, their mischievous and footballing cat. Egyptian by birth, Khaled's life has been divided between the Middle East and Europe. He grew up in Egypt and the UK, and has lived in Belgium, on and off, since 2001. He holds dual Egyptian-Belgian nationality.

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3 thoughts on “A brief history of Western ‘jihadists’

  • Zvi,
    trust you to pose such a difficult question. Personally, I abhor all
    violence, but I am not naïve and am aware that a society – or even
    individual – who rejects violence completely, will probably not survive long.

    Your question basically touches on the thorny issue of what constitutes a “just” cause for violence – and this ethical swamp has defeated far better minds than mine. Personally, I accept defence as the only truly legitimate reason to resort to violence. But then the trouble here becomes the elasticity of the concept of “defence”.

    Did defending the Union and the rights of slaves by committing the worst atrocities of the American civil war make Lincoln a war hero or war criminal? Same goes for Churchill and Roosevelt when it comes to the fire-bombing of German cities. Regarding your specific question about individuals, though I don’t advocate that non-combatants should go off to fight in distant wars they have no stake in, I do believe there is a huge difference between those who go off to fight for a cause most people would accept as just (as long as they observe the humanitarian law and ethics of combat) to those who go out to wilfully kidnap, maim, kill or terrify innocent civilians.

    Though, of course, how sympathetically people view these volunteers depends on how much they agree with their cause – Hemingway and Orwell’s adventures in Spain are widely admired, European Muslims in Syria are feared. Certainly, there is a big difference between someone who goes out to Syria to fight Assad’s army and whoever set off the bomb at the Boston marathon.

    Even similar groups are sometimes admired or abhorred depending on the conditions of the moment: the Mujahideen fighting the Soviets in Afghanistan were heroes, al-Qaeda fighting the Americans in Iraq are terrorists.

  • We have recently had a spate of Canadian teens being involved in real
    terrorist operations. Would you make a distinction between those who
    participate in specific operations (the Algerian Oil Refinery attack, Mogadishu last weekend, etc.) and those who are fighting for some nebulous concept of “justice”? The Canadians were also “just normal kids” http://news.nationalpost.com/2013/04/11/xristos-xatsiroubas-ali-medlej-aaron-yoon-were-average-teenage-boys/


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