From International Brigades to the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria

We need to stop speaking nonsense when understanding Muslim fighters in Syria

Abdullah Hamidaddin
Abdullah Hamidaddin
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Between July 1936 and April 1939 a brutal civil war devastated Spain. The country was divided into two main factions: right wing nationalists and leftist republicans. External actors also divided their support. The fascist regimes of Germany and Italy supported the nationalists providing them with arms and air support; while the Soviet communist regime supported the republicans. Needless to say that the reality was much more complex and roots of the conflict already existed decades before. Deep frustrations and strong factionalism had already been fermenting and the moment came for those to come out and express themselves in the most violent means possible. And by the end of the civil war two percent of the population – 25 million at the time - was killed. Half a million victims of utter ruthlessness; and two hundred thousand of those were executions of civilians. The atrocity committed by both sides continues to haunt and divide the historical memory of Spain today.

The Spanish civil war attracted thousands of foreign fighters who wanted to support the republicans against the nationalists. Their contribution was quite significant, most importantly in defending Madrid against the Nationalists until the end of the war. They were collectively known as the International Brigades and their numbers were estimated to reach 60 thousand individuals from more 55 countries such as Belgium, Canada, Cuba Germany/Austria, France, Italy, Poland, and the United Kingdom. According to some sources 10,000 were French, 5000 German, 3500 Italian, 2800 Americans, 2000 British, 1600 Canadians, 1000 Cuban… and they were divided into battalions such as The Commune de Paris Battalion and the Abraham Lincoln Brigade among many more. Some ten thousand of those would lose their lives in Spain and if the numbers are accurate then the total number of fighters comes close to 0.25 percent of the Spanish population. In Syria the number is still than 0.1 percent.

It would be difficult to accurately assess the motivations of such a large number of individuals of diverse ethnic backgrounds, individual temperament, personal stories, and ideological inclinations. There were those who were disappointed for failures of revolutions in their own countries and thus they decided to contribute in another revolution. Some were oppressed in their own countries and found the fighting away to vent their frustration. Others may have been fleeing from dire financial challenges due to the Great Depression. There were those who were infuriated by the injustice committed by the authoritarian military and saw themselves as part of a universal struggle against injustice wherever it existed. There were those who wanted to support their socialist brethren. Whatever one says, no one would claim that the foreign fighters in Spain were motivated by religion or a promise of the afterlife. But if those fighters happened to be Muslims, then suddenly everyone would be sure that they were only fighting for heaven.

It is estimated that there are 6,000-7,000 foreign fighters in Syria from 74 countries such as Libya, Tunisia, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Belgium, Britain, Holland, Germany, Chechnya, and Pakistan. Despite their diverse backgrounds many of us are quick to conclude that they only came for religious reasons; martyrdom and the afterlife. And we make that conclusion for what seems to be an obvious and valid reason. The fighters themselves say that, so why should we question them? If someone says I am fighting for God’s sake; then he/she must be fighting for that. Moreover why else would anyone from a faraway land get himself killed if not for heaven?

It is estimated that there are 6,000-7,000 foreign fighters in Syria from 74 countries such as Libya, Tunisia, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Belgium, Britain, Holland, Germany, Chechnya, and Pakistan

Abdullah Hamidaddin

I would not totally exclude the quest for martyrdom theory from the analysis. I would, however, be careful in generalizing it to every Muslim fighter in any context, any place. I would also consider the following before making sweeping generalizations about the motivations of large numbers of Muslims.

First: people do all sorts of things for one reason; and then justify it with whatever moral language is at their disposal. The fighters in Syria may have been motivated by a set of reasons – just as those who fought in Spain – yet they need to justify it by resorting to a language of piety. Such justification helps them in giving meaning to what they are doing; it helps them communicate the significance of what they are doing; but it does not necessarily explain to us or even to them why they are doing what they are doing.

Second: there has been important research which shows that religion plays little role in motivating most foreigners fighting in countries not theirs. David Malet in “Foreign Fighters: Transnational Identity in Civil Conflicts” studied 70 conflicts in which foreign fighters participated and he showed that what seemed to be a main motivation was a sense of “dire threat to all members of a transnational community” shared by the foreign combatants and the local insurgents. An identity can have many faces and religion is one of those faces; but understanding behavior related to identity – even a religious one - remains firmly about identity and not about religion.

Third: Robert Pape in two of his important books - “Dying to Win: The Strategic Logic of Suicide Terrorism” & “Cutting the Fuse: The Explosion of Global Suicide Terrorism and How to Stop It” – shows that most suicide bombers were not Muslims nor driven by religious zeal not even heaven and the so called 72 virgins waiting; and that the main impetus behind suicide bombers was a strategic logic of extracting concessions from local governments or driving a foreign occupation out.

We are indeed facing a complex and threatening situation which needs accurate intervention to be effective; and we need to stop speaking nonsense when understanding Muslims. Not that I want to exclude religion from the analysis. But I do suggest that we pause a little before ascribing to the fighters the motivations they ascribe to themselves. I also suggest that we do not conflate identity with religion. The motivations of the foreign fighters in Syria should be understood in reference to the dynamics of transnational identities and not in reference to what Islam says about jihad. Finally we should really consider disconnecting the ‘will to death’ from the religious impulse. A belief in a heavenly after-life is not a predictor of one’s willingness to die.


Abdullah Hamidaddin is a writer and commentator on religion, Middle Eastern societies and politics with a focus on Saudi Arabia and Yemen. He is currently a PhD candidate in King’s College London. He can be followed on Twitter: @amiq1

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.
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