The martyrs of Louth and Meath
ElSayed, a naturalised Irish citizen, was well known within the Muslim community for his involvement in youth projects. A Facebook page titled Hudhaifa’s Legacy, set up in his memory, contains numerous tributes from relatives, friends, colleagues and others, including a Catholic chaplain at DCU.
ElSayed and several other men from Ireland joined the Syrian rebels as part of Liwa al-Umma, a brigade founded by a Libyan-Irish man named Mehdi al-Harati, who also commanded a rebel unit during the Libyan revolution.
ElSayed did not leave Drogheda with the aim of becoming a rebel fighter in Syria. After attending a conference in Turkey last April, he volunteered to work with Syrian refugees in the country. Several weeks later, he decided he wanted to do more.
I met ElSayed in Jarjanaz, a small dusty town in Syria’s restive Idlib province, last July. His wire-rimmed glasses seemed incongruous alongside his military-style fatigues and the Kalashnikov slung across his back.
Softly spoken and earnest, ElSayed had none of the swagger of other rebels. He justified his presence in Syria in philosophical terms. “I see my life as being about three things: searching for the truth; defending the weak against injustice and the oppressors; and helping to build peace in the world,” he said, as we watched hundreds of anti-regime protesters gather after Friday prayers. “The battle here in Syria combines all three.”
ElSayed talked about his parents’ initial worries but said their concerns were eased somewhat when they learned he was joining al-Harati’s brigade.
“He never did anything without our blessing,” recalls his mother, Asmaa. “When he decided to go over the border into Syria, he called us to ask for our permission. We told him it is okay if you really want to do that. We believe in God’s fate and that everyone has a time to leave this life.”
The issue of young men such as ElSayed and Gaidan joining the ranks of the Syrian rebels prompts mixed feelings among Ireland’s 40,000 Muslims. Some oppose it outright, others admit to feeling uneasy, but several compare it to the International Brigade during the Spanish Civil War.
“These youths see what is happening in Syria. They see that the big countries are not doing anything to stop it, and they want to do something themselves,” says ElSayed’s father, Abdel Basset. “People like Hudhaifa are not brainwashed, they are not manipulated, they are not extreme. It is a human response. They feel they have to act, even if it endangers their life.”
Last year Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi, a prominent Egyptian religious scholar linked to the Muslim Brotherhood and with strong connections to the Dublin-based Islamic Cultural Centre of Ireland, used Twitter to call for people to go to fight in Syria or send weapons there, describing such assistance as obligatory.
In October, however, an influential Saudi cleric, Salman al-Ouda, who has visited Ireland a number of times, advised Muslim youths against going to Syria to fight “so as not to give the regime a pretext” that it is battling “terrorists” who have infiltrated the country.
Last weekend Syrian state media reported Shamseddin Gaidan’s death as “new evidence of involvement of foreign parties” in the conflict.
“The movement of young people from Libya, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Iraq and Egypt to Syria to fight against the regime will complicate the issue, and the Afghanistan crisis will be repeated,” al-Ouda wrote on his personal webpage. “Leave Syria to the people of Syria; they do not lack courage or numbers.”
Senior Irish Muslims have echoed al-Ouda’s message in an attempt to discourage others from going to fight. Those efforts have been given fresh impetus in the wake of Shamseddin Gaidan’s death at such a young age, says Adam Argaig of the Muslim Association of Ireland.
Argaig, a Libyan who knew both Gaidan and ElSayed, is concerned about the number of foreign fighters, many with no experience, streaming into Syria. They include dozens of young men, a large number of them teenagers, from his birthplace of Derna, a town in eastern Libya well known for sending its sons to Afghanistan and Iraq in the past.
“They are young and idealistic, and they talk about doing jihad but don’t realise that they could help the Syrian people in other ways, by raising funds or highlighting their cause,” he says. Like many others, Argaig raises the spectre of what happened after the war against the Soviets in Afghanistan in the 1980s ended. The “Arab Afghans”, men who had joined the so-called mujahideen, returned to their home countries steeped in more radical ideologies. “We are still dealing with that legacy,” he says.