“All men dream, but not equally,” writes TE Lawrence in his memoirs of the 1916-18 Arab revolt. “Those who dream by night in the dusty recesses of their minds, wake in the day to find that it was vanity: but the dreamers of the day are dangerous men, for they may act upon their dreams with open eyes, to make them possible.”
The British army officer who has gone down in history as “Lawrence of Arabia” – further transformed into a Western hero by the 1962 epic film starring late actor Peter O’Toole – has inspired many scholars of the Middle East.
Yet nearly a century after he supposedly led 5,000 Arab Bedouin through the desert on camel-back to fight for their freedom and dignity against the Ottoman Turks in a liberated Damascus, hundreds of young European men have joined the ongoing “Arab awakening” battles across the Middle East.
For each person who goes, there must be personal reasons - perhaps religion... That said, there is probably a sprinkling of pure adventurers - the kind of people who might otherwise become mercenaries.
Are these volunteers idealist dreamers or “dangerous men”?
Last April, a survey by King’s College London found as many as 600 people from 14 European countries have taken part in the conflict in Syria, since it began three years ago. The figure includes Muslim-born Europeans with ancestral links to the Arab world, but also non-Muslim youths with no family or cultural ties to the region.
The actual breakdown remains unclear, but according to Mathieu Guidere, a professor of Islamic Studies at the University of Toulouse in France, “About a third – at least 30 percent – are converts who have no links with the Arab or Muslim world.”
The motivations of these Western volunteers, who leave behind all that is familiar and enter armed conflicts in faraway lands, remains an enigma.
For Jeremy Wilson, an authorised biographer of TE Lawrence, a possible parallel lies in the personal backgrounds of such combat volunteers.
“Lawrence did not fit easily into British society because he knew he was an illegitimate child, at that time a devastating social and career handicap… So he was an involuntary outsider,” Wilson says.
“Would [these Western volunteers] fight in the Middle East if they were content at home? I don’t think the temptation would be very strong. For each person who goes there must be personal reasons – perhaps religion, perhaps some deeply held political conviction like the foreign volunteers who fought in the Spanish Civil War. That said, there is probably a sprinkling of pure adventurers – the kind of people who might otherwise become mercenaries.”
French revolutionary spirit
In Lawrence’s case, there was also the anti-French angle at the height of World War I. Ironically, according to French intelligence sources, there are some 220 men from France who have gone to Syria – 40 converts to Islam – not to protect French colonialism this time, but to fight the regime in Damascus.
Guidere, who has interviewed fighters from foreign conflicts across French-speaking Europe, says these men have played into traditional French revolutionary aspirations.
“In France, there is a certain revolutionary mindset,” he explains. “Since the French Revolution, the French have waged a lot of revolutions, and each generation aims to wage its own. The problem is there is no ideology or possibility to do this now, even though in the media and the education system the myth of the revolution is still going strong – the idea of radically changing the world through armed revolt. During the 1970s, because it wasn’t possible to revolt in France, aspiring French ‘revolutionaries’ went to South America, inspired by legendary figures such as Che Guevara or Fidel Castro.”
Today, such motivated elements might be trekking to insurrectionary hotspots in the Muslim world. And if Guevara and Castro inspired the generation before them, Guidere says today’s Western volunteers – such as Belgian-born Brian de Mulder (now Abu Qasem Brazili) – find an answer to their aspirations in political Islam and the fight for it.
“You have to add to this the fact that young French people and Europeans in general are opposed to the system as a whole right now,” he says. “They want to radically change the [global] system because they are not happy with it… And there is no other ideology today that promotes revolution and offers the possibility of armed rebellion.”
Guidere says some young men may also be motivated by humanitarian reasons, or a desire to “save” the Syrian people, as he puts it, but those concerns do not find an avenue within current crises.
“The Free Syrian Army rejects them because they don’t want trouble with European governments. The secular groups don’t accept them, either. The only groups that welcome them and train them to wage battle are the Salafi ‘jihadi’ groups. But they require them to convert – because they say they are fighting and dying for Allah.”
For Brian McQuinn, a researcher from the University of Oxford who conducted field research in Misrata, Libya, during the 2011 revolution, it‘s important to distinguish events in Syria from those in Libya.
“There were very few men who fought in Libya that did not have a family connection to the country… Syria might be a different matter,” he says. “Of the individuals who were living in Europe or the UK before the revolution began, the vast majority had family in Libya.”
I was motivated by a combination of personal reasons - I had good Libyan friends there whom I had known for years who needed help - and ideological reasons.
McQuinn points out that motivations were varied and personal, but the family component was a common one.
“Most of them had family members who had suffered at the hands of the Gaddafi government and believed that the revolution was just,” he says. “They wanted to contribute to this moment in Libyan history and to their vision of Libya as a free and democratic country.”
McQuinn is wary of labelling any armed battle waged by men who happen to be Muslims as a “jihad” – doing so, he says, verges on “Orientalism”. “Technically, a jihad can only be called by the imams and Muslim scholars of the country involved, and as such it is limited only to that country.”
Freedom fighters or fame-seekers?
Many young Western men fighting in Libya, Syria or elsewhere are equipped with video cameras and are savvy social media users, so their exploits are broadcast widely. Some have achieved instant stardom as a result of their escapades abroad. Do they risk facing accusations of being fame-seekers?
Wilson points out that during World War I, Lawrence‘s activities “were virtually unknown outside a very small circle of British officers”. “He planned to write a book about the campaigns, if he survived, but he had always wanted to be a writer, and he rightly saw the Arab revolt as a magnificent subject,” he says.
American Matthew VanDyke, 34, describes himself as a revolutionary activist and combat veteran of the Libyan Revolution. He’s also a documentary film-maker and media commentator who joined the rebels in Libya in March 2011 before moving to Syria a year later. In Syria he began to “help the revolution, filming, advising rebels, and some other projects that I haven’t talked about publicly”, he says.
“I was motivated by a combination of personal reasons – I had good Libyan friends there whom I had known for years who needed help – and ideological reasons. I travelled the region for years by motorcycle and saw the effects of authoritarianism on the region and its people,” he says, adding he is Christian and has never converted, although some rebels suggested he do so.
VanDyke rejects accusations of being a seeker of fame or thrills, citing his academic background and “years of experience in the region and solid reputation as an analytical analyst, media commentator and public speaker”.
|A 21-year-old from Denmark poses for a photo inside Syria [AP]|
Now and then
Meanwhile, several new books on the legacy of Lawrence have recently hit the market and the renewed interest is partly due to the cataclysmic events in the Middle East today, making it fair to ask whether the “Arab world” for which Lawrence fought has reached its shelf-life and is coming undone.
Wilson says there is more to this than commemoration of the centenary of World War I – and the drawing up of the borders of the modern Middle East.
“Lawrence took a long-term view of history. He never believed that the specific political solutions set up in the new states in the Arab world would last. He expected the states to try different forms of government until eventually they found something that worked for them,” he says, adding the frontiers drawn up on the ground – on the basis of the Sykes-Picot map – weren’t those recommended by Lawrence.
“Lawrence could not have foreseen the two factors that have dominated Middle East politics since the 1930s – the discovery of oil in the Arabian Peninsula and the State of Israel,” Wilson says.
Perhaps this is the most appropriate lesson that Western fighters can draw from the experience of the original “saviour of the Arabs“: Be careful what you fight for – the end result might not be what you had in mind.