Notes From the Margins…

My life as a Fascist Sympathizer

  • December 05, 2015
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No writer can be entirely assured that readers will understand  what they write in the way that they want, but there are times when you really wonder whether some of the people who read what you have actually written have any interest in even trying to understand what it is you’ve said.  Take my piece about Hilary Benn’s speech this week, in which I    attacked Benn’s politically-slanted reference to the International Brigades and the Spanish Civil War on the following grounds:

To evoke the international brigades in support of Cameron’s bombing campaign requires real audacity, bad faith, and an indifference to history or the political realities of the 21st century. Benn does not even seem to realize that the jihadist movement that ultimately spawned Daesh is far closer to the spirit  of internationalism and solidarity that drove the International Brigades than Cameron”s bombing campaign except that the international jihad takes the form of solidarity with oppressed Muslims, rather than the working class or the socialist revolution.

I also pointed out that

It is obvious that not all Muslims who have gone to fight in Iraq, Syria, Chechnya and other places have gone to these countries to obtain sexual slaves and throw homosexuals off balconies.   Understanding these distinctions would make it a lot easier to understand the wellsprings of “radicalization” than the fatuous inanities emanating from Cameron and his ministers.

These observations have produced twitter comments such as the following:

‘It’s total bollocks to compare International Brigades to Daesh. Just as bogus as Benn’s original comparison.’


‘Don’t recall International Brigade throwing gays off tall buildings.  Grow up.’



‘Is this from a parody account.  Insult to those that fought fascism.’


Not to mention

‘ memory of the Int’nal brigades were disgraced by @MattCarr55.  ISIL are not defending a people’s gov against a military coup.’



‘ Making any link between Daesh/Jihadism and the people who gave their lives fighting fascism is shameful.  Beyond words.’

This outrage has also spilled over into the Stop the War UK website, which has posted my pieces, where you can find comments like ‘Stop the War have actually just claimed that Jihadism is ” closer to the spirit of solidarity and internationalism”, as it stands in solidarity with ” oppressed Muslims.”

Some of these respondents are clearly from the ‘ Stop the War is decadent and corrupt’ crowd, and such people will always read what they want to read and nothing else.  But the suggestion that I have ‘insulted’ or ‘disgraced’ the International Brigades is also a personal smear.

Just to clarify: Back in 1996 I interviewed surviving members of the International Brigades in Barcelona on the sixtieth anniversary of the Spanish Civil War.  I celebrated their role in the war in a radio programme and also in a number of articles.  This year I have also been reading and writing about the International Brigades as part of an ongoing book project.   So I need no lectures about what the International Brigades stood for and what they fought for.

I also despise Daesh and organizations like it.  I have made that clear in numerous pieces on the subject for this blog, for example  here. and  here.   Directly above the paragraphs in my Benn piece referring to the International Brigades  I wrote: “Whether Daesh is fascist or not, it is certainly a savage and dangerous movement which needs to be defeated”- a sentence that some of these respondents seemed to have skipped over in their eagerness to score their ‘gotcha’ moment of moral outrage.

I’m not sure whether this determination to put sentiments into my mouth that I don’t have is politically motivated, or whether it stems from an inability to understand the English language, but either way it displays a complete ignorance of the historical roots of the modern jihad.

In my piece I refer to “the  jihadist movement that ultimately spawned Daesh.”

Please note those words ‘jihadist movement’ readers, because some who came before you seem to have missed them.   What we now call ‘jihadism’ is a transnational movement that came into  the world during the Afghan war against the Soviets.  Its various members have drawn on the writings of Ibn Taymiyyah, Sayyid Qutb, Maulani al-Maududi and others to recast older notions of jihad into the modern world.

Crucial to this enterprise was the notion that Muslims had an obligation to defend oppressed Muslims anywhere in the world. Obviously that is a very narrow concept of solidarity and internationalism in comparison with the International Brigades,  in its emphasis on Muslims rather than the international working class, and it was also driven by very different political aspirations.

I didn’t argue that jihadism was aimed at bringing about international socialism.  On the contrary, the modern jihad has been dominated by viciously reactionary, chauvinistic and bigoted religious zealots who have waged sectarian war against the same ‘oppressed Muslims’ they are supposedly fighting for.  As all the world knows, some of these groups have committed gross atrocities and crimes against humanity, which Daesh has taken to a whole new level.

Where the International Brigades fought in defense of a revolution (some of them anyway), jihadism has often been a tool of imperial realpolitik or regional power struggles, national secret services etc.  Nevertheless, that is not all there is to it.   Without the notion of pan-Islamic transnational solidarity, tens of thousands of  Muslims would not have fought in Afghanistan, Bosnia, Chechnya,  Kashmir, Iraq… and Syria.

Back in the 1980s, the  Pakistani general Mohamad Yousaf described the volunteers who went to fight the Soviets in Afghanistan as “the first Islamic international brigade in the modern era.”  Things have long since moved on from the ‘American jihad’, when all this was seen as a positive ‘freedom fighting’ phenomenon by western leaders, as I’m sure I don’t need to remind anyone.   But I suspect that there are men – and women – who have gone to fight Assad in Syria with very similar motivations.

To recognize this does not mean that I regard  this movement as a positive or noble phenomenon, or that I place the organizations that they fought with on the same moral level as the International Brigades.   But it is absolutely indisputable that many Muslims who have fought in these wars were driven by their own form of internationalism, whether in response to Soviet or Indian occupation, ethnic cleansing in Bosnia or the Anglo-American occupation of Iraq.

To those who say that the International Brigades didn’t throw people off buildings or massacre civilians, well thank you for enlightening me.  But jihadists haven’t always done this either, and they didn’t always fight in these wars in order to be able to do so.   Not all of them wanted to murder office workers in the twin towers or kill ‘kuffar idolators.’

Read about the conflicts between Osama bin Laden and Abdullah Azzam that gave rise to al-Qaeda and you can see entirely different conceptions of what the jihad was supposed to achieve – and the methods that would be used to achieve these aims..  That’s why I used the words “movement that ultimately spawned Daesh.”

Read accounts of some of the Muslim volunteers who fought during the Afghan war in the 1980s or in Chechnya and you will find men motivated by the same idealism, loathing of injustice and oppression, and spirit of adventure that I once encountered when I interviewed veterans of the International Brigades nineteen years ago.

But on the other hand, maybe you don’t want to read or even think about any of this, and you would prefer to regard me as a supporter of fascism or  a ‘terrorist sympathiser’.   .

If so, good luck with that.  And you might accuse me of ‘disgracing anti-fascists’, but as far as I’m concerned, people who make such dim, dishonest and ignorant observations disgrace themselves.

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  1. Julietta Schoenmann

    5th Dec 2015 - 9:41 am

    I’m new to your writing Matt but find your opinions and line of enquiry very compelling, supported as they are by your obvious expertise in these subject areas. Very much looking forward to reading more of what appears to be a sane viewpoint in a current sea of madness!

    • Matt

      5th Dec 2015 - 1:22 pm

      Thank you very much indeed Julietta. Much appreciated.

  2. Sei

    5th Dec 2015 - 1:42 pm

    I imagine that what people sympathetic to the idealism of the international brigades may have taken exception to is your use of the present tense, twice: “the jihadist movement that ultimately spawned Daesh ***is*** far closer to the spirit of internationalism and solidarity that drove the International Brigades than Cameron’s bombing campaign” and “the international jihad ***takes*** the form of solidarity with oppressed Muslims”.

    Had you chosen to use the past tense, it might have been easier for people to entertain the possibility that this might once have been the case. I imagine that it is hard for people to discern any notion of idealism in the gory theatrical exploits of the allegedly jihad-motivated actors with their Crusades-inspired costumes. And since the intensive video campaign advertising these antics was designed to produce a hysterical reaction, the general onlooker may not be capable of any reasoned analysis of them and may be offended even by the attempt to dignify them with meaning. This could be why rationalising them attracts such vituperation.

    To borrow from Shakespeare, ISIS/Daesh/ISIL/IS/”moderate terrorists”/Free Syrian army/”our friendly pet terrorists” or whatever other name they are assigned are part of “a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing” and best ignored. Failure to do so has the unfortunate effect of both enabling an illegal bombing campaign and obscuring under yet more hot air its horrendous consequences for the remaining Syrian population.

    • Matt

      5th Dec 2015 - 2:14 pm

      All good points Sei. I’m not sure the past tense would have made that much difference. And bear in mind that not all readers have interpreted this paragraph the way that some more outraged and hostile observers have. The trouble with your past tense idea is that it imagines a ‘good’ or ‘idealistic’ jihad’ in the past, followed by the ‘bad jihad’ of Daesh. There are clearly jihadists in Syria who are not that different from the Afghan ‘muj’, who see themselves fighting a noble international fight, defending oppressed Muslims against a corrupt and evil enemy, in this case Assad. I’m not referring to Daesh, but some of the other groups. Nevertheless even Daesh has also attracted Muslims using the same appeal eg. the Austrian Muslim woman of Bosnian origin who was beaten to death by Daesh with a hammer because she tried to leave the group. So clearly this ‘Islamic international brigade’ fighting on behalf of oppressed Muslims is part of the appeal that these groups have. Is it propaganda? Well yes, quite often it is, and with Daesh no question at all. Are many of these Islamic ‘international brigaders’ chauvinistic, homicidal, religious bigots? Too right. But that is not how they present themselves, and more importantly, that is not how many of the people who have fought in the various wars where the transnational jihad is present have seen them. So they should be ‘rationalised’, because if you can’t understand them, you can’t defeat them, and you end up justifying neo-imperialist bombing offensives that end up strengthening them.

  3. Michael Barley

    5th Dec 2015 - 1:58 pm

    Thanks for this broad history lesson. I’m on the other side of the world and sometimes miss what’s happening in the UK and what politicians have said there. It seems your piece is in response to, as you say, people who can’t read English. I read it for the headline – we need more people like you who bother to read history properly and can give incisive arguments. I enjoyed this and I’ll keep my eyes open for more of your articles. Thanks again.

    • Matt

      5th Dec 2015 - 2:15 pm

      Cheers Michael. Thanks for your support.

  4. Daniel Margrain

    6th Dec 2015 - 2:24 am

    I’m afraid in the infotainment age of saturated media and soundbite, an understanding of nuance and the ability to be able to read between the lines can no longer be taken as a given.

  5. Rilke

    6th Dec 2015 - 10:25 pm

    You are utterly misguided and ignorant about the International Brigades. You should check the Blue Shirts. These were the ultra Catholic blood and soil fascists that volunteered to fight for Franco and against the ‘godless socialists’.. They have more in common with the theocratically motivated atavistic anti-modernity espoused by ISIS. Do some research before you mouth such ignorance. My gradfather fought in the Brigades and was wounded at the Ebro and I can tell you what he would have said to your witless analogies if you had dared to say it to him. Shame on you.

  6. Rilke

    7th Dec 2015 - 8:15 am

    Can I ask why you keep using the word ‘Muslims’, as when you use the phrase ‘oppressed Muslims”? Do you not even realise that ISIS are a sectarian movement and Shi’ah Muslims flee from ISIS as their deadly and oppressive enemies? Are the recent ISIS attacks in Lebanon really designed to garner support from ‘Muslims’? I do hope that you have not been fooled by ISIS propaganda that Shiahs are ‘not Muslims’. Please try and be more precise in you work.

    • Matt

      7th Dec 2015 - 11:46 am

      Dear David. I think I’ve made my position clear now, and I’m not going to defend positions that I don’t have. I’ve apologized for my ‘imprecision’, and I don’t see how anyone can still think that I attempted to put Daesh on the same moral level as the International Brigades. I once interviewed Bill Alexander and a number of brigaders, who are all dead now. I had the greatest admiration for them. I have none for Daesh. The end.

  7. Freddie

    10th Dec 2015 - 9:55 am

    Hi Matt, just wanted to say that I’ve really liked your original piece and your response and that its a shame you’ve been subject to such vacuous moral outrage from those looking for an excuse to kick at StW.

    I think its also worrying that portions of the left don’t seem to be able to think thoughtfully or critically anymore (did they ever?), illustrated by how easily they’re able to become fanatical on completely unsubstantiated grounds fostered by an online sharing culture that resonates playground gossiping. Its cheap and its embarrassing – i’m sorry you had to get drawn into it.

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About Me

I’m a writer, campaigner and journalist.  My latest book is The Savage Frontier: The Pyrenees in History and the Imagination (New Press/Hurst, 2018).  The Infernal Machine is where I write on politics, history, cinema and other things that interest me.

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