Islamism As Internationalism?

10 Oct


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.


How many of Jenny Marx’s successors today would don a hijab in solidarity with the Syrian uprising? How many men would grow a beard?

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, imageGeorge 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.

Past Posts:


21 Responses to “Islamism As Internationalism?”

  1. mkaradjis October 10, 2013 at 3:08 pm #

    Wow, what a fantastic article. Well-done comrades.

  2. williamlambton October 13, 2013 at 3:32 am #

    Have stuck a remark over on YS, under your comment there (as per link above).

    • Not George Sabra October 14, 2013 at 1:13 pm #

      You wrote: “Very interesting article – thank you. It made me think of this video, which I have always rather liked – a fair cross-section here, including the raised finger:


      “‘When, where, and how internationalism died among Western progressives – liberals and radicals alike – is difficult to say,’ you state. Indeed. But what we’re talking about is the death of the concept of principle, this in turn derived from difficulty in perceiving with purpose the difference between right and wrong. I think that’s the source.

      “I suggest the rise of a type of sceptical atheism may have weakened the authority of the West’s essential moral code, which traces its origins in part to the Christian philosophy. The missing bit is the authority, not the code itself, the authority derived from mythological concepts – God’s will, etc.

      “What’s interesting is how dependent the code was on myth, despite the robustness of the code’s rules: help the weak, love your enemy, etc.

      “I read somewhere that within mysticisms or mysteries which predated Christianity the knowing were careful to keep the truths they knew secret, to the point of never writing them down. Those shown these truths were carefully vetted, the reason being that truth was ostensibly laughably simple and, if articulated openly, would be ridiculed. Authority is the counterbalance here. Such truths can be expressed, if it is accepted that a great and mysterious authority lies behind them.

      “So, in the West, the simple knowledge of right and wrong lacks the force required for people to live by that knowledge. Without that force, the courage cannot be found to do something simply and only because it is right, without any other considerations – as was the motive of the letter writer whom you quoted.

      “If another authority, and another code, enable principle to be adhered to by Syrians, and their helpers, and thus cause them to fight on regardless ‘in order to pry their freedom from Assad’s cold, dead hands’, the Western equivalent as dead as the hands to which you refer, then this can be seen as an element necessary to the gradual unravelling and diminution of Western civilisation – the fate met by all previous civilisations of great power – and thus in itself not necessarily a bad thing, if that process is part of the natural order.

      “One would of course prefer not be part of the civilisation thus afflicted! But one did not choose how one’s dice were thrown, in the avenue of time.”

      I disagree, for many reasons.

      1.) Internationalism is more than a concept or a principle, it is an emotion, a feeling, an impulse. On a micro scale, when people see a kid hit by a car, their first reaction is emotional: they feel compelled to help, to spring into action, to find out of the child is OK, to call the parents, the ambulance. On a macro scale, it involves helping people far away, perhaps in a disaster situation like Hurricane Sandy or the Spanish civil war or Syria.

      Internationalism as an emotion has died because it has been smothered by another emotion: indifference. I suppose that’s actually a lack of emotion, but you get the point.

      2.) Atheism has little to do with anything here. The communists and anarchists who flooded Spain were not exactly the most religious, God-fearing people. Neither was Jenny Marx or her father, for that matter.

      3.) That being said, I think atheism and secularism in the Arab Spring are at a distinct disadvantage against Islamism because the latter provides a moral code to guide one’s conduct and behavior in everyday life in a way that secular-democratic liberalism does not and was never “designed” to do.

      • williamlambton October 14, 2013 at 5:35 pm #

        I was trying to identify the cause of the indifference! And I was careful to avoid using the word religion, referring just to a moral code (which happened to spring in part from a religion) underpinning a society, all members – including communists and atheists – weaving their way through it. Moral apathy stems from an absence of a moral benchmark. The impulse to help is not enough on its own; you need to know you are right to. It’s that absence of knowing right from wrong which saps courage. And, as you say, this will be seen as weakness by those, such as practising Muslims, who measure themselves against a functioning benchmark. So, the next question is what gave birth to modern “secular-democratic liberalism”? Is it the preserve of those of us who were still young children or not born come 1945, or a subconscious expression of those who fought in the last war, and suffered its horror, brought to the surface in us? I note Paddy Ashdown (British politician/peer, once a soldier) also complained that internationalism was dead, in England, after that unfortunate House of Commons vote, and asked rhetorically, if so, “What have we got armed forces for?” He described his being obliged to observe that vote as the most politically depressing moment of his life. His thoughts on intervention, I think, echo yours: Apologies if that article/video are old hat.

        • Not George Sabra October 14, 2013 at 5:54 pm #

          My remark re: secular-democratic liberalism is about the left-liberal milieu within the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), not a global remark that covers Europe and other places. There is no shortage of internationalism (as Islamism) in MENA, but for the Syrian people it has been completely absent beyond MENA. I don’t know enough about politics in the rest of the world to say why that is, but in the Americas and Western Europe I attribute it to the triumph of neoliberalism which has progressed to such an extent that even its erstwhile opponents have adopted its framework without even knowing it, a kind of unconscious loyal opposition almost. I’m still wrapping my head around this, so this is my provisional guestimate.

  3. williamlambton October 14, 2013 at 6:44 pm #

    If you’re suggesting an insidious thread has sapped the West, you are right – especially the extent to which it is not perceived. So, a nanny state, for example, is criticised, but its critics then connive in its perpetuation. That this has wound its way into “MENA” is depressing, despite a countervailing force. I suppose if doing the right thing risks war, this subterranean canal of apathy in society declares that war is worse than the wrong it addresses, the original righteousness thus not upheld, which probably boils down to a simple fear of war, rather than a principled objection to it – as, if principle governed it, it would also uphold the right thing, and see a war supporting that as a necessary evil, reluctantly engaged, not something to be avoided at any cost (Obama’s thinking). Also, principle would understand wars start and stop. A bad thing, such as a régime, can linger for decades or even generations.

    I am not sure where this comment is going to appear on your blog, as the green reply button was absent from your last!

    • Not George Sabra October 14, 2013 at 7:27 pm #

      Yeah, I’m new to this. I don’t understand why buttons end up anywhere.

      There are no Western European-style welfare states in MENA. Secular-democratic liberalism might be similar ideologically in the West and MENA but their roots and social contexts are utterly different and it’s important not to conflate what are, in fact, very different phenomena.

      • williamlambton October 15, 2013 at 1:52 am #

        Thanks for that. Are you an Arab (or Arabist)? Secular-democratic liberalism in MENA is a phenomenon I have never encountered, apart from hearing, online, Libyans and Syrians talk of democracy – the nuts and bolts of it. The Western version seems to have no ideology, apart from what NOT to do. If the MENA version is something else, especially something which seeks to depoliticise Islam, but not negate the entire faith (the Western version seeking to negate Christianity at its root, as the religion has long ceased to hold political power, this thus possibly overkill), should the same epithet, secular-democratic liberalism, be used for both? Written from Ireland, where not that long ago no bill was introduced without a nod of approval from the hierarchy.

    • Not George Sabra October 15, 2013 at 1:37 pm #

      “Secular-democratic liberalism in MENA is a phenomenon I have never encountered, apart from hearing, online, Libyans and Syrians talk of democracy”

      I would say that is not what I am referring to here.

      Look at Egypt where secular liberal forces — Mohammed El Baradei of the Constitution Party, Hamdeen Sabbahi of the Popular Current, Amr Moussa of the Conference Party, and Tamarod (Rebellion) — have all actively plotted and collaborated with General Sisi to overthrow the democratically elected Muslim Brotherhood government led by Mohammed Morsi. For them, secularist principles trump the democratic process, and those politicians, parties, and Tamarod have the support of millions of Egyptians, mostly urban, educated middle-class (and above) types. This social layer is positively vitriolic against all Islamists, denouncing Morsi as a terrorist, cheering the bloody persecution of the Brotherhood, and the scapegoating of Palestinians and Syrians that has been going on since the July 3 coup. Bashar al-Assad was supported for many years by this social type in Syria and many of them oppose the uprising over the issue of its ‘Islamicization’.

      • williamlambton October 15, 2013 at 11:22 pm #

        It would seem fundamental Islam will create many enemies! And not all of those enemies will be each other’s friend. So far as I can see, Sisi and Assad just share two s’s. One maybe needs to look beyond the labels and at the human motive. Assad’s people killed Syrian peasants and shopkeepers in cold blood during the first few months, a horror I don’t think Sisi has approached. So much of today’s Syria hinges on those callous acts, especially Assad’s need for the excuse of fundamentalist infiltration, to smother those murders. Some say he let AQ in; he certainly released some from prison. But the cosmopolitan middle class of both Egypt and Syria may share common ground, if a different style of local champion.

        If militant Islamism is a devil, then its opponents may rate its defeat a greater issue than the nature of the thing which replaces or removes it, if it cannot be worse; and some crazed caliphate in Syria would be worse than Assad. The theoretical possibility of it is of great value to him. But Morsi was the product of the ostensibly democratic Muslim Brotherhood, the Assads’ oldest enemy.

        Are we seeing an Arab shift away from religion per se? Is, though, Arab religion a guard against the Arab despot, whereas secularism supports any type of drive against the politically religious? Clearly a compromise is required. It is interesting that Saudi Arabia supports Sisi. That monarchy must know of its impermanence. Eventually that country may become an example of a secular state housing a religious faith, and the faith’s holiest site, the faith and its moral code tempering the Arab tendency to secular despotism, but unable to replace it with its own diktat, to which humility it would eventually accustom itself.

  4. dyj April 28, 2014 at 9:30 pm #

    You forgot to mention a country which is the most successful example of authentic, internationalist revolutionary Islam & the most consistent supporter of the Islamic cause in the world. And that country is not a supporter of the sectarian Islam front & plutocratic March 14 you so idolized.


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