• We are informed on a regular basis that people who are citizens of countries such as Britain or the US are citizens – whatever their religion or ethnic origin – and that being a good British or American citizen does not require either any giving up of other identities, nor any contradiction among these various values. But perhaps there should be concern about this. And not for the reason some people have given.

Those few broadcasters and papers which still bother to report news (as opposed to indoctrination or gossip) seem unperturbed by this consideration: "Who would you fight for?" But it is a question worth lingering over for a moment: beneath it lies some of the great problems of our time.

In recent months it has become clear that certain people are travelling from abroad to Syria in order to fight with – and on behalf of – the various "rebel" forces in that country. A number of people who have done so are British citizens. This summer, and before, a number of media outlets ran rather breathless, admiring pieces about this phenomenon. The impression seemed to have been even encouraged that these young men should be admired for going to Syria to fight against the Assad regime. Their reason for doing so was the reason we are expected to admire them – that the Assads are killing people with impunity, that this situation cannot go on and that an understandable response is to head out to Syria and fight on behalf of the suffering people.

It has a perfectly legitimate logic about it. And it is helped by a number of factors. The Assad regime is undoubtedly disgusting and behaving to type. It is also killing citizens of Syria even more prolifically than it has managed to do at any point before. But why should that involve people from abroad going to fight with those Syrians who are hoping to overthrow Assad? The almost unquestioned logic is that the people going out to do the fighting are Muslims: they cannot bear to see their "brothers" dying and have chosen to do something to stop it.

There is something admirable about this. One's sympathy always rather naturally leans towards the underdog. And few people can feel any sadness as they watch the Assad regime heading towards its inevitable endgame.

But why should this be the business of people who are, for instance, American or British? We are informed on a regular basis that people who are citizens of countries such as Britain and the US are citizens -- whatever their religion or ethnic origin -- and that being a good British or American citizen does not require either any giving up of other identities nor any contradiction among these various values.

But perhaps there should be concern about this -- and not for the reason some people have given. Already we learn that the UK's Security Services are worried about the potential of people who have been fighting in Syria returning to countries in the West with a store of knowledge and experience with which we may not be entirely happy when brought back to our societies. As events in Afghanistan in the 1980s, the Balkans in the 1990s, among others, have shown, a battleground that people may be sympathetic to at one time can act as a training camp for their worst nightmares in the near future.

But let that go for a moment. What seems most interesting is why there should be a group of people – any group of people – who it has become normal to expect to hold loyalties which are, at the very least, supplementary to those expected of everyone else as a citizen.

As some of the feeling about this quite probably goes back to the 1990s, one might draw a comparison from that time: in the former Yugoslavia, Bosnian Muslims were the victims of the worst murderous rampages to have taken place on European soil since the Second World War. For years Europe – and the world – did nothing, or next to nothing to stop this. From those days, a large number of Muslims began to feel that the world did not care, or turned a blind eye to such massacres. The problems and suspicions this stored up are only now perhaps beginning to be felt.

There can be no doubt that just as a lot of Muslims around the world felt shocked by what went on then, there are many who wish to help put a stop to any such thing now. But the question is, why should Muslims feel sympathy "as Muslims" rather than as human beings? What other group is not only expected, but – in a spirit of admiration – positively encouraged, to think in such a way?

Running through any possible counter-analogies shows how troubling, indeed viciously wrong-headed, our assumptions on these matters have become.

During the civil war in the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s, every side committed some variety of atrocities on the others. The worst, in brutality as well as numbers, were committed by Serbs, but, as in any civil war, nobody came away clean. To say that everybody did bad things is not to claim that everybody was equally guilty. But run the following thought around: It is early in the Balkan conflict. You are a British citizen. You happen to be a Christian and you are also – though this may not necessarily play a part – pale-skinned. Let us imagine that you have heard clear word of violence against Christian Serbs in parts of the former Yugoslavia. Or fast-forward two decades and say that this same person becomes aware of the suffering of Christians in Syria amid the recent violence. None of these parallels is exact, but then none ever is exact.

But what would we think of a person who in the 1990s had seen violence against Serbs in the nascent civil war and decided to go off and fight with – and for – them? What would we think if they then explained their reason for doing so as being that their "white, Christian, brothers were suffering, that being a bystander while such suffering went on was intolerable and that they and their kind needed to come to their aid"?

My own response would be that the person in question was clearly some very nasty variety of sectarian. Presumably a religious sectarian, though if the person referred clearly to some common heritage, let alone skin-pigmentation, then I might easily presume that they were also a nasty racist. My expectation then, as now, would be that the press would not regard them as being people of any honor. Certainly people would not write of their efforts with any kind of admiration – either sublimated or overt.

Which brings us back to the point we started with. Why should it be the case that some people while being citizens in free and democratic countries in the West are not merely expected to have, but are admired for having, loyalties that run deeper than those we share as humans or citizens -- loyalties so deep, indeed, that they are willing to travel, fight, kill and perhaps even die for them?

"Am I my brother's keeper?" asks Cain of God, after the man has murdered his own brother. It is the accepted belief of most Christian and post-religious societies that we are indeed our brother's (and sister's) keeper, and that the brotherhood is born of being human. The Western powers intervened in the Balkans to save the Bosnian Muslims and the Kosovar Albanians not because of shared religion or shared anything else other than shared humanity. This is, it seems, as it should be.

But what are we to make of the assumption that some people in our countries may not only feel this way (or not feel at all), but have, in addition, another family, another belonging and another bond – one that often appears to carry an impetus deeper than all others? And what are we to make of the idea that while some people who would feel such a loyalty would be classified in the most justifiably negative terms imaginable -- such as: guilty of "dual loyalty" -- there are others who are thought rather admirable for holding such impulses?

At the heart of that question, and the dilemmas that come from it, lie a whole pack of half-truths and untruths. They are ones we keep telling ourselves. Yet when they are even glancingly picked at, they raise more questions than even Cain would have had the gall to submit.

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