Once upon a time, it was ubiquitous among progressive-minded people in the West. Once upon a time, Western progressives practiced automatic solidarity with people battling their oppression and exploitation. Borders didn’t matter. Skin colors didn’t matter. Religions didn’t matter. Jenny Marx, daughter of Karl Marx, used to wear a Crucifix not because she was Roman Catholic but to demonstrate her solidarity with the Polish uprising against Russian oppression in the 1860s.
When the peasants and workers of Spain took up arms to defend the republic against a fascist uprising led by Francisco Franco in the 1936, Western progressives didn’t sit around bemoaning the fact that extremist, totalitarian Stalinists were a major force on the republican side – they acted. They poured into Spain and joined the fight. As one of them explained in a letter:
“You see, Mom, there are things that one must do in this life that are a little more than just living. In Spain there are thousands of mothers like yourself who never had a fair shake in life. They got together and elected a government that really gave meaning to their life. But a bunch of bullies decided to crush this wonderful thing. That’s why I went to Spain, Mom, to help these poor people win this battle, then one day it would be easier for you and the mothers of the future. Don’t let anyone mislead you by telling you that all this had something to do with Communism. The Hitlers and Mussolinis of this world are killing Spanish people who don’t know the difference between Communism and rheumatism. And it’s not to set up some Communist government either. The only thing the Communists did here was show the people how to fight and try to win what is rightfully theirs.”
Those that stayed in their home countries held meetings and fund-raisers to support the brave men and women fighting on the front lines. They blasted “their” governments – France, England, and America – for not intervening militarily to stop fascism from defeating democracy. And they sure as hell didn’t say “hands off Spain” or march around with people waving Franco’s flag or portrait. They would never dream of celebrating “their” government’s refusal to arm republican forces or shoot Hitler’s planes out of Guernica’s sky as some kind of victory for human progress or as a life-saving measure for Spaniards. Had they done so, George Orwell would’ve written Homage to Idiocy instead of Homage to Catalonia.
When, where, and how internationalism died among Western progressives – liberals and radicals alike – is difficult to say. That it is dead is indisputable. In its place stands a thinly veiled national chauvinism, Eurocentrism, America-onlyism, and not-our-problemism that led thousands to come out into the streets under the slogan “no war in Syria” – not to stop the actually existing war in Syria, oh no! – but to stop the United States from using its military power to impede Bashar al-Assad’s war on his own people. When President Obama called off military action if favor of appeasement, these clowns seriously thought they stopped a war in Syria and celebrated – meanwhile, the war in Syria ground on, killing thousands.
Forget justice; now, it’s “just us.”
In the union movement, they have a word for people who think like this: scabs.
Syria proves that neoliberal Reagan-Thatcher Thought lives on in the minds of the West’s progressives-in-theory/scabs-in-practice who, in place of “every man for himself” have substituted its international equivalent: “every people for themselves.”
The utter absence of an internationalist spirit or even instinct among the obnoxious, arrogant left-liberal milieu in the West did much to give rise to a peculiar form of internationalism among a wholly different demographic – Muslims – in the form of Islamism or political Islam. “Politics, like nature, abhors a vacuum” and if the ‘left’ is asleep at the helm, the ‘right’ will drive ideologically and practically in its place.
Revolution, that great locomotive of history, waits for no one.
[Abraham Lincoln Brigade, one of the many International Brigades in Spain. ]
[Al-Favares, a Libyan brigade in Syria.]
The parallels between the Spanish and Syrian civil wars are striking and similar material conditions have a funny way of producing similar political trends even within ideological frameworks that could not be more different from one another. Instead of Marx’s vision of the global proletariat as the “chosen people” or the central protagonist in the revolutionary drama, for Islamists, it is the global ummah; instead of the class struggle to topple the capitalist order, the struggle of the faithful (jihad) against godless tyrants and their wicked acts of blasphemy; instead of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, the Jesus Christ Brigade; instead of “¡No pasarán!,” “Allahu Akbar!”
The first thing to understand about Islamism as internationalism is the way the modern practice of Muslim foreign fighters flocking to a given battlefield is grounded within the history of Islam itself. When the Prophet Muhammad was exiled from Mecca to Medina, he labeled the Meccans who followed him migrants (muhajireen) and those who welcomed him in Medina supporters or helpers (ansar). Fighters from around the world in Syria see themselves as modern muhajireen while their Syrian counterparts are ansar, hence names like Jaish al-Muhajireen wal-Ansar which is affiliated with Al-Qaeda’s Islamic State of Iraq and Levant (ISIS) or the al-Ansar or Ansar Dimachk brigades of the Free Syrian Army.
The second thing to understand about Islamism as internationalism is that it is a very broad spectrum. On one end, its adherents can be almost apolitical or strictly humanitarian and on the other end, intensely political and incredibly narrow, with a singular, overriding drive to establish a Caliphate, even at the expense of human lives. Al-Qaeda draws undue attention as the most reactionary force on the latter end of that spectrum while those on the former end go largely unnoticed, at least until idiotic stories such as women travelling from Tunisia to partake in “sex jihad” are exposed as total fabrications. (The women in question were nurses.) To complicate matters, many who are lending the Syrian people a hand against their oppressors on a religious or humanitarian basis end up radicalized and drawn to Al-Qaeda or, in the case of American Muslim convert and U.S. army war veteran Eric Harroun, end up fighting on Al-Qaeda’s behalf without agreeing to their extremist, austere vision.
The third thing to understand is how the ongoing democratic revolution is forcing all kinds of tensions and internal contradictions within Syria’s traditionally conservative society and the increasingly religious, Islamist rebellion to the surface. When Assad’s security services detained and tortured children and teenagers back in 2011, it was 500 women in Douma, all in veils, some of whom had never left their houses alone, who came out into the streets to demand their release, surprising themselves and the police. One of them explained:
“Sometimes I feel like a man working among men. There’s no more differentiation between men and women in Douma. On the contrary. Men now let women take care of the injured because they know better how to deal with them.”
Above: milicianas. Below: Nazek Obeid.
As in Catholic Spain, women were not content with their traditional positions as mothers or wives bound to the kitchen and the nursery and took up arms, and the same is true in Syria where we see completely veiled women doing the same in special units like Nazek Obeid, a subsection of the Free Syrian Army Sawt al-Haq (Voice of Rights) based in Aleppo.
[Um Jaafar, right, sits next to her husband, Abu Jaafar, a Sawt al-Haq battalion commander, as she undergoes military training with other women in Aleppo. A group of women including Um Jaafar are undergoing military training to form the Nazek Obeid group as part of the Sawt al-Haq battalion, which is based on the front line of Aleppo’s Sheikh Saeed neighborhood. Um Jaafar was a women’s hairdresser before the revolution and was trained by her husband to be part of Sawt al-Haq. Muzaffar Salman / Reuters]
[Yesterday’s hairdresser, today’s thuwar.]
Those who claim the revolution is losing fail to understand the transformation that has taken hold of the Syrian people. Against all odds, they are enduring shelling, starvation, sarin gas, and the betrayal of the entire world – peoples and governments – for years on end in order to pry their freedom from Assad’s cold, dead hands. Just because their women are veiled and their men bearded doesn’t mean they’re not freedom fighters and just because they are Muslims or Islamists doesn’t mean their struggle is not our struggle.
The rules of internationalism still apply.