Tuesday, July 5, 2016

Rojava: To Dare Imagining

Published in "To Dare Imagining: Rojava Revolution", 2016, Autonomedia

In a capitalist world in which consumerism and individualism are increasingly taken to the extreme, where no cause seems worth fighting for, a collective resistance to the last bullet seems to be an inconceivably irrational act. Sacrifice, resistance, communalism, and the fight for justice and freedom have been pushed so far away from our consciousness that they seem only reachable as consumable commodities like vacuumed theoretical debates, occasional demos, adrenaline kicks on distortive screens, and sweatshop-fabricated rebel T-Shirts!                               
As refugee bodies kept being washed ashore and quickly diffused into statistics, many crimes against people’s hopes and dreams for a brighter future were committed in the name of “revolution” in the past couple of years. It is in this dark time in which yet another wave of trauma started invading the Middle East that the epic resistance in Kobanê against the so-called Islamic State ignited curiosity, excitement, and above all hope across the world. As dreams were brutalized and massacred in public spheres in the global south or preventively suffocated at birth in the advanced capitalist west, the willingness of an entire community to mobilize collectively to defend themselves against the dark doctrine of ISIS and beyond, to protect the diverse colors of the mosaic of the Middle East, to take their fate into their own hands resonated with struggling people around the world.
That women from a forgotten community became the fiercest enemies of the Islamic State, whose ideology is based on destroying all cultures, communities, languages, and colors of the Middle East, upset conventional understandings of political agency. It was not because men were protecting women or a state protected its “subjects” that Kobane will be written in humanity’s history of resistance, but because smiling women and men turned their ideas and bodies into the ideological front line on which the Islamic State and its rapist worldview crumbled apart. This resistance was not only a global victory against the most overtly fascist group of our time, but also a wake-up call for anti-system movements around the world, who, in the emergence of Rojava, saw theory and practice unify and find their most aesthetic manifestation in the smiles of the Kurdish women who fight rapist murderers with their philosophy.
Suddenly, Kurdistan turned into a pilgrimage site for anti-system movements and revolutionaries around the world. What is freedom, what is autonomy? Their eyes turned to Mesopotamia for perspective. The emergence of a radical democracy in the midst of an inferno constituted a moment of critical self-reflection of struggling people around the world. A popular systematic mobilization seemed to have been beyond the imaginary of the left for a long time, and now it should come from the Kurdish regions of war-town Syria? As if emerging from the secret, unwritten corners of history - with a smile nonetheless – was not enough, the Kurds are now given the task of passing the litmus test on behalf of all revolutions that ever existed. Is a revolution really possible? – The burden of proof almost besieges them.
See, I could give an overview of the complex council and communes system of the three cantons, I could speak of the military victories of the defense forces, I could sing about how life was like for women before the revolution and how they organize themselves in all aspects of life today, I could explain the legacy of resistance and uprising of decades, if not centuries or even millennia of struggle in Kurdistan against centralism, the communalist cultural trades of the region, and the uncountable acts of heroism that have prepared the stage for today’s historic moment, I could get into discussions on what kind of psychology the pan-Arabist state mentality of the Baath party and its pervasive intelligence apparatus has inflicted on the population of Syria, and how we can only grasp the meaning and value of Rojava’s project behind this backdrop, but let that be a story for another time. Instead, let’s ask: what does Rojava mean for history, present and past? What makes ideas turn to practice? What does Rojava mean in the age of hijacked and abused revolutions?                                                                                                  
Abstract, I know, but let me take you on a trip with me. Don’t worry, it’s for research purposes!

For a young person from North Kurdistan (Kurdistan in Turkey or Bakur), whose sense of Kurdishness has been shaped around a revolutionary leftist struggle of oppressed people, it is a bizarre feeling to arrive in the part that has globally been accepted as “Kurdistan” – the Kurdistan region of Iraq, or South Kurdistan (Başûr). The word Kurdistan is written out in public space, irritatingly next to Turkish company billboards, like everything was cool between them. Did really Kurds plant these trees? Did Kurds open these schools? Among the post 2003 US-imported shopping malls, designed after the universal sterile concept that makes you feel like you could be in London, Paris or New York, even though ISIS is just a few kilometers away, among the fake Christmas trees and holiday parks, the luxury hotels and businessy-looking people, you wonder if this is where the epic resistance against Saddam Hussein once took place. Kurds in Turkey, an existence having been denied, lived an existence in the struggle, gave an identity meaning in action, reshaped it, rearticulated it, completely politicized the identity called “Kurdish”, turned it into a platform of radical struggle for democracy. A similar wind used to blow in South Kurdistan too at some point, but a new “freedom” concept has replaced it.
Here, I look around and see two things that I am familiar with –Kurdishness whatever that means and on the other hand capitalism and its best friend, the state. But this is… capitalism, statism in Kurdish! Is that even ontologically possible?! Kurdistan, what’s in a name? Identity is clearly what you make it. Freedom is the system you choose to build. More later.

So there I was, leaving behind the glorious Kurdistan Regional Government which relies on yoghurt imports from Iran and chicken from Brazil, as if this geography hadn’t been part of one of the oldest civilizations, ancient Mesopotamia; I cross the Khabour, which leads to the Euphrates river that has nourished and given birth to so much life, to so many cultures, languages and civilizations and which now, in the current nation-state world order marks an arbitrary division between two artificial yet violently efficient monopolist constructs named “Iraq” and “Syria”.

I don’t know if you will believe me when I say I could physically feel the revolution. “How does one feel freedom on a body?” you may rightfully ask. But – goddess Ishtar be my witness – as soon as I stepped on Rojavan soil, suddenly, I breathed freely for the first time in my life. And though I found myself in one of the most dangerous places in the world, I felt safer than ever. I was in the hands of our decades old dreams, they hug me, dance with me, wipe my tears away. Somehow a giant weight seems to be lifted off my shoulders, it seems millennia old, despite my age, and the bizarre alienation between myself and society blurs into meaninglessness. Something insidious and subtle, yet intrusively oppressive seems to have vanished. As if the non-existent eyes I always felt on me had disappeared and I for once become a subject myself. This is when I realized that the omnipresence of the institution State was missing. That Kurdistan was inviting history for a reconciliation dance. I feel human, I feel at peace. I feel lost and found at the same time... Somebody hugs me: “Welcome to Rojava!”

Everything is sacred, but not in the classical sense: not sacred as in frightening, not sacred as in taboo, not sacred as in there to maintain a status quo. All is sacred because it belongs to me, to you, to everyone. Because its preciosity relies on all of us collectively taking up responsibility for it, on us claiming it as ours, as everyone’s.  Smiling people everywhere, so beautifully human you don’t dare looking. What is perhaps unintelligible between the written lines of official statements or social contracts to the outside world radiates from the eyes of the ordinary working people who see organization, mobilization as the only way to survive. The people who love life so much they are willing to die for it. 

Neighborhoods that decided to organize themselves in the form of communes consist of the wretched of the earth- politics is becoming alive, as children’s laughter becomes the melody behind which decisions on electricity hours and peace-making committees are made. How inefficient, inofficial – but that is the beauty of it. Giving power to people who never had anything requires courage, requires trust, requires love.
I stay at a family’s house – one son martyred, one son wounded in an explosion, one son a journalist, two in culture academies. The mother gets up at 5 to meet her friends at their cooperative women’s farm and brings home fresh vegetables, only to attend the women’s council meeting later. By mobilizing her community, she is declaring war on the nation-state system, living the autonomy that she desires, she deserves. The father goes off to the people’s house to listen to the neighborhood’s needs. Their home is always full. People randomly walk in with their children to criticize or discuss or suggest or share. Social issues become literally social, as they become everyone’s issue and everyone’s responsibility. A cleric explains to me the urgency of coexistence and his faith in women’s strength. The Syriac Christians teach me how to greet in their native language.  A Chechen YPG commander laughs and puts his fluffy papakha on my head before we take a photo. The young Arab men who defend the checkpoints near al-Yaroubia crack jokes as we stop by. The “tilililililiii”s, bursting out of the wrinkles lips of highly politicized women in colorful robes, who now learn to read and write in their language for the first time rings in my ears. I notice the missing arm of a tireless administration member explaining the struggle of creating a free and independent mentality in society, a culture of democracy. I watch a children’s theater in which the “laborer cat” emancipates itself from the two “golden cats”. I cry silently by the plastic flowers that decorate the plain make-shift gravestones of the thousands of fighters and civilians…

 The Mesopotamia academy of Social Sciences which was created in Qamishlo in September 2014, challenges hierarchical structures in academia, science, and thought. The academy criticizes the social sciences’ division into myriad parts and actively rejects status quo professionalism. Consisting of three terms, the school year begins with an introduction into history and sociology. Rather than memorizing established theories, the students discuss the importance of history and sociology to make sense of the world, as well as the subjectivity of the oppressor’s dominant history-writing. The second term deepens and focuses the readings and discussions. In the final term, students write a thesis or create a project, based on identifying a social problem in their community and come up with ways of resolving it. Social sciences are not merely seen as methods to categorize and analyze, but also as tools to serve the community. Students are not expected to have right or wrong answers, but rather to be able to interpret and criticize well and to produce solutions. Although students obviously learn from the teachers, people at the academy usually do not refer to each other as teacher or student, but as “heval” (friend or comrade), as hierarchies and power relations are trying to be eliminated. After each session, the teachers get criticized by their students. Students in their last term teach their fellows. Learning is then a constant process rather than something that can be completed. I hear stories of a 70-year old woman who recites traditional folk tales at the Mesopotamia Academy to challenge the history-writing of hegemonic powers and positivist science, a radical act of defiance against the former monist regime. Recovering wisdom and knowledge outside of the hegemony of the modern sciences is a central focus of Rojava’s attitude towards education. Knowledge is everywhere, it needs to be valued and shared.
Apart from this academy, art, film, women, youth, music, sports, economy academies etc. have been formed to communalize education.

Dr. Agirî, a medically trained doctor and a member of a health council of which there exist several across Rojava, explains how health issues are often related to perspectives on life in general and thus require the politicization of the population. He claims that the deteriorating public health around the world is due to the fact that in the current system, humans are not seen as part of life. The capitalist politics of companies and industries cannot be separated from their impact on our life styles and social relations. “If society’s mentality is ill, the body will be ill”. Therefore, health, education, the protection of nature, political activism cannot be separated from each other and must all be seen as one. He explains how cultural assimilation by nation-states is related to the erasure of collective memory, which in turn is related to alienation from nature and communalist life. The fact that stress is the main cause for most diseases and is related to life conditions requires a rethinking of the system in which we live in. Elaborating on the impact of unrestricted urbanization and technology on people, emphasizing that despite being in crowds, people are lonely nowadays, as even in families people isolate themselves on their smart phones, resulting in robotized, virtual friendships, he believes this state to be one of modern slavery, in which there is no need for whips. In an era in which obesity is treated for beauty rather than health, he firmly thinks that “Health is ideological issue.” Therefore, in an attempt to create a healthier and more politicized society simultaneously, their health policies want to develop green areas for ecological socialization, though this is often impossible due to the embargo and urgency of war. The politicization of society with the cohesion between the health of the individual, society, and the environment is crucial to Rojava’s health philsosophy.

The defense forces in Rojava illustrate how self-defense can work without hierarchy, control, and domination: In the midst of war, the People's Defense Units YPG and the Women’s Defense Units YPJ, as well as the internal security units, asayîş, focus on ideological education. Half of it is on gender equality. Academies educate fighters to understand that they are not a force of revenge and that the current militarization is a necessity due to the war. The asayîş academies work toward a community with an asayîş without arms, who verbally mediate disputes in the neighborhoods with the ultimate aim of abolishing the asayîş altogether by building an “ethical-political society” that will solve its own problems with the commune level being the most crucial unit of society. They reject the police label, because rather than serving the state, they serve the people, because they are the people. The asayîş academy in Rimelan used to be a secret service center of the Syrian regime. Some students who receive education in women’s liberation here and communally organize their sessions, gardening and kitchen work, have once been tortured by the Assad regime as political prisoners in the same building. There are disciplinary measures for those violating the military conduct of the forces. Fighting against an enemy like ISIS and maintaining ethics is difficult without a determined political agenda that commits to liberationist values. Commanders are elected by battalion members based on their experience, commitment, and willingness to take responsibility. This idea of leadership in the spirit of sacrifice is the reason why many of the martyrs of the YPG/YPJ were experienced, loved commanders.

“We don’t want the world to know us for our guns, but for our ideas”, says Sozda, a YPJ (women’s defense units) commander in Amûde, and points at the pictures on their common room’s walls: PKK guerrilla fighters and Abdullah Öcalan, the imprisoned ideological representative of the movement. “We are not just women fighting ISIS. We struggle to change society’s mentality and show the world what women are capable of.”
Abdullah Öcalan articulates that women are the first historical colony and believes masculinity to be at the core of societal problems: “Man is a system. The male has become a state and turned this into the dominant culture. Class and sexual oppression develop together; masculinity has generated ruling gender, ruling class, and ruling state. When man is analysed in this context, it is clear that masculinity must be killed. Indeed, to kill the dominant man is the fundamental principle of socialism. This is what killing power means: to kill the one-sided domination, the inequality and intolerance. Moreover it is to kill fascism, dictatorship and despotism”. Furthermore, he explicitly states that patriarchy, along with capitalism and the state lie at the roots of oppression, domination, and power and makes the connection between them clear: All the power and state ideologies stem from sexist attitudes and behaviour. Woman’s slavery is the most profound and disguised social area where all types of slavery, oppression and colonization are realized. Capitalism and nation-state act in full awareness of this. Without woman’s slavery none of the other types of slavery can exist let alone develop. Capitalism and nation-state denote the most institutionalized dominant male. More boldly and openly spoken: capitalism and nation-state are the monopolism of the despotic and exploitative male”. The mass-mobilization of women in Kobanê did not emerge out of nowhere, but is based on a rooted tradition and regards itself as a continuation of the PKK’s women’s struggle. The same international order that praises the women fighting ISIS has for decades been using sexist derogatory language to characterize the PKK guerrilla women, who fight against Turkey, the second largest NATO army.

Today, the Kurdish freedom movement splits power equally between one woman and one man, from Qandil to Diyarbakir to Qamishlo to Paris. The Rojava system also applies this co-chair principle from canton presidencies to neighborhood councils. While this is often difficult to implement in the almost fully destroyed Kobane, the system is now rooted in the cantons Afrîn and Cîzre. Beyond providing women and men with equal decision-making power, the co-chair concept aims to decentralize power, prevent monopolism, and promote consensus-finding. Only women have the right to elect the female co-chair while the male co-chair is elected by everyone.
Apart from co-chairs and quotas, the Rojava cantons also created women’s defense units, women’s communes, academies, tribunals, and cooperatives in the midst of war and under the weight of an embargo. The women’s movement Yekîtiya Star is autonomously organized in all walks of life, from defense to economy to education to health. Autonomous women’s councils exist parallel to the people’s councils and can veto the latter’s decisions. Men committing violence against women are not supposed to be part of the administration and women are the primary decision-takers, judges, and policy makers in issues concerning women, such as gender-based violence. Gender-based discrimination, forced marriages, domestic violence, honor killings, polygamy, child marriage, and bride price are outlawed. Many non-Kurdish women, especially Arabs and Syriacs, join the armed ranks and administration in Rojava and are encouraged to organize autonomously as well.
For a meaningful freedom struggle, women's liberation must be an aim, but also an active method in the liberation process. In fact, democracy is defined radically around the degree of women’s liberation. This of course does not mean that a feminist society has already been created, but the women’s liberation agenda of Rojava is truly revolutionary. As a large banner in the city centre of Qamishlo declares: “We will defeat the attacks of ISIS by guaranteeing the freedom of women in the Middle East.”

We grew up conscious of the fact that Kurdish colors wouldn’t mean anything if they aren’t accompanied by the victory signs of our hands. But here in Rojava, these ideas are being turned into life. Rojava tries systematizing freedom, democratizing identity. Not its perfection, but its realness, its honesty, its courage strikes out. It doesn’t claim flawlessness, but it dares to imagine utopia and creates steps to turn it to life. Strangely enough, utopia feels so natural, so human.
Heval Kînem, who instructs at the asayîş academy in Rimelan says to me: “It’s okay. Everyone who comes to Rojava cries.”

Let’s talk a bit about ideas and the winds that carry their seeds then. About daring and living utopias rather than just theorizing on them. Let’s demystify the word “radical democracy”.
Clearly, there is no mathematic formula for freedom. But it has a lot to do with love for the community. It sounds so banal, but really, far more than theoretical ideas, radical democracy is becoming alive in Rojava due to the fact that unlike in advanced capitalist settings, the sense of community is simply not yet dead. I remember my first trip to Rojava – we had organized the first international academic delegation to the region. Although all of our members were leftists generally, I wondered how many could actually live in such a system.
How many people would dare to live in a system in which we share resources and solve our problems together with our neighbors, giving up the anonymity of state bureaucracies? Would we be fine with non-professionals being in charge of justice? Will we dedicate our energy to transforming the most marginalized and dehumanized people to political subjects without giving up upon spotting the first mistake? But not by “teaching” them, but just by being equal to them? Revolution fundamentally requires love and courage.
How many people actually believe that a poor domestically-abused mother of ten kids who cannot read could have a deeper political consciousness than them? How many would trust such a woman to become a decision-maker? How many of those who reject Öcalan's leadership so strongly actually put themselves and "the people" on the same eye level? How many would have the patience and sacrificial spirit to dedicate themselves fully to a community so much that they would die for them, without their names being known? We cannot simply expect that thousands of years old mentalities and internalized oppression will disappear with a few councils and assemblies or theoretical principles, unless we talk about machines, not society. Most struggles begin with a demand for recognition, a place in history.
The imagination of some leftists from advanced capitalist countries who expect Rojava to be a spotless, perfect, contradiction-free, smooth and accomplished revolution and throw it away when it doesn't look like they pictured it in their own versions, is quite illustrative of a broader issue of the left today: it is more occupied with talking about radicalism in an unaccessible way, assuming a group of fellow strugglers that enjoy the same set of privileges and vocabulary than it is with actually solving the Gordian knots of society. How radical is a struggle that fails to spread? As one friend in Rojava said “As much as we in the Middle East need to struggle to overcome the dogmatic authoritarian state-mentality, those in the west need to overcome their extreme individualism imposed by capitalism”.
In order to be in a more conscious and reflexive form of solidarity, people should reflect on their ideological purism which is an expression of privilege – not everyone can afford being ideologically pure, theoretically consistent, especially not in a life or death struggle. Even if we often do not receive the instant gratification, which the internalized capitalist mindset requires, in real life struggles, we cannot just drop historic moments of revolution very quickly if they don’t look perfect, while these politically mobilized mothers of ten kids continue to be the real threat to the status quo...
"Why do you travel alone as a woman? Where is your father, your brother? Why are you not married yet? How do your parents let you come here by yourself? So you think that your family allowing you to be on your own is something normal? So you think you are 'free' now?"
 Did I wake up from a dream? No, I simply crossed the Khabour river again. I was being interrogated simply because I am a Kurdish woman travelling alone, enough to make the KDP suspicious of me. I am back in the state system, the international order. The status quo reminds me of its validity with a metaphysical smack in the face.
After debating new epistemologies for freedom, after interviewing refugees who build autonomous structures after fleeing ISIS, I was now sitting across this aggressive man who couldn’t wrap his mind around the fact that I would dare to be my own woman. “Tell me, who is really with you!” I explained myself, but when I referred to Rojava as western Kurdistan, he widened his eyes in disbelief, yelled: "No, no, no. That is Syria, that is not Kurdistan! Kurdistan is here!" - Again, what is Kurdistan? I remember my conversation with students at the Mesopotamia academy, men who were receiving classes on jineolojî – the Kurdish women’s movement’s new epistemological paradigm… “I realized I had been just like the state with my patriarchal mentality”, one had said.

What marks such striking differences west and east to the river is an understanding of freedom and a perspective on life and its meaning. These two lines in Kurdistan did not develop coincidentally. It is a millennia old struggle – beginning with the Ziggurats of Sumer, the first standing army in the world, accompanied by the plots against ancient goddesses, which symbolizes the fall of the woman and community as well as the beginning of the end of human harmony, and finds its latest expression in the feminicide against the women of the Middle East by yet another self-proclaimed “state”.
Sometimes it feels impossible to believe in the utopias that we dream about, yet sometimes the line between the system and a revolution is just a river. But after all, the fight between the forces of resistance and the system of domination are almost just as old as the Euphrates.

I spend a few months in Iraqi Kurdistan; my body begins to normalize the constant harassment around me. How dare I be a woman? But ideas spread like polen, if the wind is right, even if their flowers are often cut, because the human mind tends to tame beauty sometimes, scared of its own creativity. I remember the curious eyes of the girl working at the border-crossing on the Iraqi side where I had been interrogated: “Is it really true what they say about Rojava? Are women really that strong?”
Near Kerkuk, only a couple of minutes drive from ISIS, a young men who used to be a KDP peshmerga tells me how young people here view the PKK guerrillas who have a presence in the area since last year: the way women and men interact as equals, their way of life (“We see what their table looks like, we see how they eat. They don’t own anything for themselves”), and the fact that they actually fight and die, not for oil, money, or land, but for the people. I have tea at an Arab family’s house, who don’t want me to publish their photos, who don’t let me record their voice, who even prefer to handwrite their story into my notebook themselves, because their home has been attacked three times by ISIS. The mother of the house, a woman who seems to be in her late 60s, gives me a beautiful scarf as a present, she got it from Mecca. We need translation but we love each other. She cannot express her affection for the guerrilla openly due to the security situation, so she secretly bakes and sends them bread.
In Slemani, I sit in a taxi and the driver, an old man, after simply looking at me in the mirror briefly and listening to the two sentences I said in my dialect, pulls out an old photo from his glove box: "My son was a PKK guerrilla and he was martyred in Botan in 1997". He trusts me because he thinks I am a heval.
The Khabour may divide system from revolution – but who could underestimate the uniting power of the lawless wind that knows no borders? 

Rojava’s story sounds like an epic tale of heroism, the storyline of a novel.
But it is in no way a coincident that, just when the global order is diving into yet another existential crisis, these two lines -smiling, hopeful women on one side, and murderous, violent rapists, who build their hegemony of darkness on destruction and fascist brutality on the other side, clash in the place where the first state-like structure began to emerge, where women first lost their status in society. There is no clash between two civilizations the way the dominant system wants us to believe. In the meaning of Rojava, despite its shortcomings, we see another clash– the choice between enslavement or freedom. Between subjugation and domination or resistance and love. It is not a coincidence that those whose history has never been written have the heart to fight those who want to erase history altogether. Just like it is no coincidence that a couple of inches can divide two ideas of freedom in Kurdistan, if we conceptualize freedom as a system. The current order may be the legacy of millennia-old systems of hierarchical power, there may have always been oppression, but at the same time, there have also always been revolutionary, rebellious, resistance struggles.
So if freedom is nothing that can be granted or just claimed, but needs to be built, through sacrifice and solidarity, it is a task of people around the world to defend this revolution so it can achieve its potential and nourish our emancipatory human creativity.
Rojava is not the answer to everything, it cannot be described with one adjective. It may not be a perfect system, but it is a manifesto of life. Rojava is truly a revolution of the people, an attempt to dare imagining another world.

Challenging privilege: On Solidarity and Self-reflection

Originally published by ROAR Magazine 

A German man is not impressed with the grassroots democracy project in Rojava because he has seen something similar decades ago in Latin America. A French woman reproaches Kurdish women for a lack of preparation for her visit because they are not as organized as the Afghan women she observed in the 1970s. A person passes as Rojava’s revolutionary insider after a one-week trip and without access to media and literature in any Middle-Eastern language, but his opinion is regarded as more legitimate and authentic than that of struggling people.
What do these people’s experiences have in common?
They all show genuine interest and care, and their efforts deserve due credit. But there’s something more: the element that underlies a system that enables people to complete the checklist of revolutionary tourism — in the past decade especially in Palestine and Chiapas, now in Rojava. This element is something that revolutionaries must actively problematize: privilege.
To clarify from the start: as someone who writes mostly for an international audience, who facilitates communication and encourages delegations to Kurdistan, I belong to the people who fundamentally value such exchange and work. But people who claim solidarity and who are in a privileged position that enables them to travel and be listened to have a moral obligation to use this privilege for the better. The intention of this article is to contribute to a conversation about problems that emerge when hierarchical relationships are established in the name of solidarity.


In a world of capitalist, patriarchal nation states, regarding oneself as a world citizen and opposing ideas of nations and states is an act of defiance. However, understanding oneself as an internationalist revolutionary does not erase unequal conditions and privileges. One has to go further than that.
First of all, there is a series of material privileges and resources that one benefits from: passports of states that help one travel almost everywhere; speaking international languages and possessing a theoretical vocabulary that enables one to articulate and shape a discourse; mastering intellectual tools due to basic education, as well as sufficient time, security and money to provide for most of these things. The absence of war, death, destruction, displacement, starvation and trauma enables one to safely and comfortably conduct research, make long-term decisions and plans, and live by principles without much interference.
The very fact that one is able to sit down with some coffee, read up on a topic through sources written in Western-centric historiography, theory, language and epistemology is a privilege that the vast majority of people of color and workers do not have. And even if they did, they often lack the safe political environment to be able to discuss their findings.
The very fact that I am writing this piece also indicates the privilege of someone who is from an oppressed and marginalized group but who, relative to my own people, has access to some resources and advantages. Wherever there is privilege, there is an associated responsibility to challenge that privilege. The mere existence of privilege is not so much the problem, as is the creation of hierarchical relations and — unintentional — patronizing and appropriating behavior in solidarity work, which disrupts mutual understanding and progress.
Some people have expressed their astonishment about local people’s ignorance concerning struggles similar to theirs on the other side of the globe, and have attempted to tone down a victim’s discourse because his or her everyday reality is too much for soft Western ears to bear. Others have refused any form of self-reflection when being criticized for distorting the discourse on a people’s struggle through imposing narratives in a way that is alienating to the people in question, suggesting instead that oppressed people should just be glad to receive any attention.
The problem lies in the ease of a privileged person’s sense of entitlement with which they can write entire books on an entire region without ever visiting the place. It is the male whiteness of entire “radical” conference panels on struggles led by people of color. It is the famous white person’s expression of sympathy for a cause that gives a heads-up to their followers to jump on the bandwagon. It is the speed with which causes concerning struggles over life and death are dropped like a hot potato if they appear to be more complicated than anticipated.
How convenient for a revolutionary, being able to brush responsibility and identity off one’s shoulder without further complications! While many leftists from privileged countries often militantly stress that they do not represent any state, army, government or culture, they can easily analyze millions of people as one gigantic monolithic block. In erasing their own contexts, they often allow for themselves an individualistic, complex agency, thus feeling rather generous and charitable when discussing among themselves who “deserves” their support, while the Other is blurred into some abstract identity.


The ways in which solidarity today is designed for the Western gaze has another devastating effect on movements: the competition between struggling people for attention and resources. Instead of building solidarity ties between each other, struggling people are forced to fight for Western leftists’ care first, which pits communities against each other and is destructive to internationalism. As Umar Lateef Misgar, a Kashmiri activist, points out: it is like an evolved form of colonial divide and rule.
Especially the white educated male has the luxury and privilege of being able to visit any site of revolution, to appropriate it as he likes, and then provide his critique of it, with no strings attached and without ever feeling the necessity of looking at his own backyard. Often with a sense of ownership without responsibility, he can attach himself internationally, detach himself locally and vice versa.
His identity transcends ethnicity, nationality, gender, class, sexuality, physicality, ideology, because he is the embodiment of the default, the status quo — barely does he live or know the meaning of deviance. He does not know that most struggles begin with a demand for recognition, a place in history, because he is the one writing it. Thus he often cannot grasp revolutionary motivations beyond theory.
That is why ideological purism allows him to so easily give up solidarity with struggles, which is perhaps one of the biggest expressions of his privilege: he can afford to be dogmatically ideologically pure; he can preach theoretical consistence, because his concern for a struggle is not a matter of survival but one of mere interest to him. He does not have to get his hands dirty. He can roll his eyes on the people who struggle for life, because he is not the one who has to balance ideals against all kinds of geopolitics, socio-economic realities, ethnic and religious conflicts, violence, war, tradition, trauma and poverty.
And that is why people can discard a cause just as quickly as they adopted it, because solving the mistakes, shortcomings, and obstacles that revolutions necessarily face would require an effort they are not willing to make — theoretical discussions or conferences with cake and coffee are more convenient sites for radical rants than the inferno called Mesopotamia.
When people do not receive the instant gratification, which their internalized capitalist mindset requires, in real-life struggles, they can drop historic moments of revolution quickly. The option to leave, to drop out of a cause when the initial romantic charm of it passes and the rawness emerges, is simply not available for people who struggle for life or death. True comradeship, after all, becomes meaningful not in sunshine, but in the coldest night.


A while back, people on the far-left were writing articles on Rojava back and forth in a way that was out of touch with realities on the ground, through assumptions and themes that were non-issues to the people affected. Soon it turned into an exclusive inter-Western and heavily orientalist leftist discussion, where one white man was addressing the other, with neither having been to the region concerned or read more than the opinions of other white men online — with Rojava simply serving as the Third World trope on which all ideologies and assumptions could be projected.
Of course international critical analyses and perspective are crucial to revolutionary processes, but dogmatism, chauvinism and arrogance serve an opposite purpose. Nevermind the fact that these people were far from organizing revolutions in their own locations, yet they still felt in a position to authoritatively judge what makes a revolution and give guiding advice to people who form autonomous women’s communes while fighting ISIS.
In a way, such misrepresentation and distortion is necessary to legitimize orientalist images and colonialist intervention. As Sitharthan Sriharan, a Tamil activist elaborates, “privileged leftists often help produce and reproduce the very forces they claim to be against in the actions they perform.”
It is interesting to see how struggles that have been legitimized over the course of decades by the thousands of people participating in them are being put to a leftist litmus tests that must pass Western judgment before qualifying for care. Such assumptions harm liberation movements in the sense that they refuse to give appropriate attention and accurate representation; they can actually cause significant political, social, economic and emotional damage, perpetuate misinformation, and delegitimize whole struggles through the domination of discourse by detached groups.
These attitudes fundamentally stem from Eurocentric ideologies that established their cultural imperialism through colonialism, modernist dogmas and capitalism. The symbolic violence that portrays Western history as modern and universal manifests itself in the form of orientalism in the social sciences today and affects the way wide sections of the Western left understand solidarity.


The assumption that solidarity is one-directional, something one “gives” and the other “takes”, is flawed from the start. Solidarity today, especially in the age of information and digital technology, is expressed in a way that articulates a dichotomous relation between an active, thinking subject that “provides” solidarity with a cause and a group that can only react as a passive object without the right to give critical feedback about what kind of solidarity is required.
The solidarity givers can appear from nowhere, erase their own contexts and entitle themselves to dominating the discourse. They are granted an observant bird’s eye view, enabling distanced analytical perspectives and authority, due to supposedly being “impartial”. This immediately creates a hierarchy and the expectation that the group receiving the solidarity is supposed to demonstrate gratitude and deference to the solidarity giver, leaving the group “receiving” solidarity to the mercy of the person granting help. This often marks the end of solidarity and the beginning of charity.
However, oppressed groups are under no obligation or responsibility to provide anything back. As my dear friend Hawzhin Azeez points out from Kobane: “We should not thank privileged people for checking their privileges and doing the right thing. We should expect no less from them because this is the underlying unspoken assumption about ‘solidarity’.”
People claiming allyship must be willing to take up the burden of hard work. They should remind themselves of their privileges and constantly challenge and undo them in order to use themselves as tools to amplify the voices and the principles of the movements they claim to stand in solidarity with — instead of becoming the voice or the embodiment of the struggle themselves. They should not expect gratitude and medals of honor for being ethical, certainly not from marginalized people who are just glad someone is speaking about their existential struggle.


The Kurdish freedom movement utilizes “criticism and self-criticism” as productive and ethical mechanisms to improve oneself, the other, and the group. Criticizing another means also being able to criticize oneself. Criticism is not meant to harm others, but is fundamentally based on empathy, honesty and problem-solving.
Solidarity work certainly does not immunize anyone from criticism. On the contrary, it requires it. It even fundamentally relies on it, in order to be ethical. But, to date, solidarity work from the Eurocentric left has been largely devoid of this type of criticism, highlighting the stumbling blocks in the Western left and its inability to organize or even discuss on grassroots premises. Fundamentally, a true revolutionary is one who begins the revolutionary process internally and who starts with themselves.
Solidarity is not a charity undertaking, but a horizontal, multidimensional, educational and multidirectional process that contributes to the emancipation of everyone involved. Solidarity means to be on an eye-to-eye level with one another, to stand shoulder to shoulder. It means to share skills, experience, knowledge and ideas without perpetuating relations based on power. The difference between charity and solidarity is that one calls you “inspiring” and wants to teach you, while the other calls you “comrade” and wants to learn.
To tackle these issues, it is not enough for every individual to just self-reflect. We actually need a new solidarity paradigm within which we systematically challenge appropriation and power abuse and secure mechanisms of mutual education and perspective exchange.

Solidarity fundamentally means to empathize and respect each others’ struggle and to understand ourselves as fighting on the same side when engaging in a process of mutual self-liberation, without ignoring the different starting points, backgrounds, identities and contexts. The greatest reward of genuine solidarity is that everyone involved will learn from each other how to organize. Thus, ultimately, as people from places like Chiapas or Kurdistan stress, solidarity means to “go make revolution in your own place!”
Identity politics without internationalism will always remain limited, as it cannot bring about wider emancipation in a global system of oppression and violence, just as internationalism without respect for locally rooted struggles will remain superficial and unsuccessful, as it does not recognize the deep complexities of the different frequencies of the cries for freedom.
Strengthening my shoulder will strengthen yours as well — and this is the only formation in which we can fight against the sexist, racist, imperialist, capitalist, murderous world order.

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Building Democracy without the State

“When people first came to our house a few years ago to ask if our family would like to participate in the communes, I threw stones at them to keep them away,” laughs Bushra, a young woman from Tirbespiye, Rojava. The mother of two belongs to an ultra-conservative religious sect. Before, she had never been allowed to leave her home and used to cover her entire body except her eyes.
“Now I actively shape my own community,” she says with a proud and radiant smile. “People come to me to seek help in solving social issues. But at the time, if you had asked me, I wouldn’t even have known what ‘council’ meant or what people do in assemblies.”
Today, around the world, people resort to alternative forms of autonomous organization to give their existence meaning again, to reflect human creativity’s desire to express itself as freedom. These collectives, communes, cooperatives and grassroots movements can be characterized as the people’s self-defense mechanisms against the encroachment of capitalism, patriarchy and the state.
At the same time, many indigenous peoples, cultures and communities that faced exclusion and marginalization have protected their communalist ways of living until this day. It is striking that communities that protected their existence against the evolving world order around them are often described in negative terms, as “lacking” something—notably, a state. The positivist and deterministis tendencies that dominate today’s historiography render such communities unusual, uncivilized, backward. Statehood is assumed to be an inevitable consequence of civilization and modernity; a natural step in history’s linear progress.
There are undoubtedly some genealogical and ontological differences between, for lack of a better word, “modern” revolutionary communes, and natural, organic communities. The former are developing primarily among radical circles in capitalist societies as uprisings against the dominant system, while the latter pose a threat to the hegemonic powers by nature of their very survival. But still, we cannot say that these organic communes are non-political, as opposed to the metropolitan communes with their intentional, goal-oriented politics.
Centuries, perhaps millennia of resistance against the capitalist world order are in fact very radical acts of defiance. For such communities, relatively untouched by global currents due to their characteristic features, natural geography or active resistance, communal politics is simply a natural part of the world. That is why many people in Rojava, for instance, where a radical social transformation is currently underway, refer to their revolution “a return to our nature” or “the regaining of our social ethics.”
Throughout history, the Kurds suffered all sorts of denial, oppression, destruction, genocide and assimilation. They were excluded from the statist order on two fronts: not only were they denied their own state, they were simultaneously excluded from the mechanisms of the state structures around them. Yet the experience of statelessness also helped protect many societal ethics and values, as well as a sense of community—especially in the rural and mountainous villages far from the cities.
To this day, Alevi-Kurdish villages in particular are characterized by processes of common solution-finding and reconciliation rituals for social disputes based on ethics and forgiveness to the benefit of the community. But while this form of life is quite prevalent in Kurdistan, there is also a conscious new effort to establish a political system centered around communal values—the system of Democratic Confederalism, built through democratic autonomy with the commune at its heart.
The Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), like many national liberation movements, initially thought that the creation of an independent state would be the solution to violence and oppression. However, with the changing world after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the movement began to develop a fundamental self-criticism as well as a criticism of the dominant socialist politics of the time, which was still very much focused on seizing state power. Towards the end of the 1990s the PKK, under the leadership of Abdullah Öcalan, began to articulate an alternative to the nation state and state socialism.
Upon studying the history of Kurdistan and the Middle East, as well as the nature of power, the current economic system and ecological issues, Öcalan came to the conclusion that the reason for humanity’s “freedom problem” was not statelessness but the emergence of the state. In an attempt to subvert the domination of the system that institutionalized itself across the globe over the span of 5,000 years as a synthesis of patriarchy, capitalism and the nation state, this alternative paradigm is based on the very opposite—women’s liberation, ecology and grassroots democracy.
Democratic Confederalism is a social, political, and economic model of self-administration of different peoples, pioneered by women and the youth. It attempts to practically express the people’s will by viewing democracy as a method rather than an aim alone. It is democracy without the state.
While it proposes new normative structures to establish a conscious political system, Democratic Confederalism also draws upon millennia-old forms of social organization that are still in existence across communities in Kurdistan and beyond. This model may seem far-fetched to our contemporary imagination, but it actually resonates well with the strong desire for emancipation among the different peoples in the region. Although the system has been implemented in Bakur (North Kurdistan) for years, within the limits of Turkish state repression, it was in Rojava (West Kurdistan) that a historic opportunity emerged to put Democratic Confederalism into practice.
The system places “democratic autonomy” at its heart: people organize themselves directly in the form of communes and create councils. In Rojava, this process is facilitated by Tev-Dem, the Movement for a Democratic Society. The commune is made up of a consciously self-organized neighborhood and constitutes the most essential and radical aspect of the democratic practice. It has committees working on different issues like peace and justice, economy, safety, education, women, youth and social services.
The communes send elected delegates to the councils. Village councils send delegates to the towns, town councils send delegates to the cities, and so on. Each of the communes is autonomous, but they are linked to one another through a confederal structure for the purposes of coordination and the safeguarding of common principles. Only when issues cannot be resolved at the base, or when issues transcend the concerns of the lower-level councils, are they delegated to the next level. The “higher” instances are accountable to the “lower” levels and report on their actions and decisions.
While the communes are the areas for problem solving and organizing everyday life, the councils create action plans and policies for cohesion and coordination. At the start of the revolution and in the newly liberated areas, assemblies had to erect people’s councils first and only later began to develop the more decentralized grassroots organizational structures in the form of communes.
The communes work towards a “moral-political” society made up of conscious individuals who understand how to resolve social issues and who take care of everyday self-governance as a common responsibility, rather than submitting to bureaucratic elites. All of this relies on the voluntary and free participation of the people, as opposed to coercion and the rule of law.
It is of course difficult to raise society’s consciousness in a short span of time, especially where war conditions, embargoes, internalized mentalities and ancient despotic structures have been deeply institutionalized and can lead to power abuses and apolitical mindsets. An alternative education system, organized through academies, aims to promote a healthy social mentality, while self-organization practically reproduces a conscious society by mobilizing it in all spheres of life.
The women and youth organize autonomously and embody the social dynamics that are naturally inclined towards more democracy and less hierarchy. They position themselves “to the left” of the democratic autonomy model and formulate new forms of knowledge production and reproduction.
Today, the Kurdish freedom movement splits power equally between one woman and one man, from Qandil to Qamishlo to Paris. The idea behind the co-chair principle is both symbolic and practical—it decentralizes power and promotes consensus finding while symbolizing the harmony between women and men. Only women have the right to elect the female co-chair while the male co-chair is elected by everyone. Women organize their own, stronger, more ideologically conscious structures towards a women’s confederation, starting with autonomous women’s communes.
Another important principle articulated by Öcalan is the “democratic nation”. Unlike the nation state’s monist doctrine, which justifies itself through a chauvinistic myth, this concept envisions a society based on a common social contract and fundamental ethical principles such as gender equality. Thus, all individuals and groups, ethnic, religious, linguistic, gender, intellectual identities and tendencies can express themselves freely and add diversity to this expansive, ethics-based nation in order to secure its democratization. The more diverse the nation, the stronger its democracy. The different groups and sections are also in charge of democratizing themselves from within.
In Rojava, Kurds, Arabs, Syriac Christians, Armenians, Turkmen and Chechens try to create a new life together. The same logic underlies the project of the People’s Democratic Party, or HDP, across the border in Turkey. The HDP united all communities of Mesopotamia and Anatolia under the umbrella of “free togetherness” in the democratic nation.
Among its MPs it counts Kurds, Turks, Armenians, Arabs, Assyrians, Muslims, Alevis, Christians and Yazidis—a greater diversity than any other party in the Turkish Parliament. Contrasted with the monopolism of the nation-state ideology, the concept of the democratic nation serves as an ideological self-defense mechanism of diverse peoples.
Although many different communities actively participate in the Rojava revolution, long-standing resentments prevail. Entire tribal confederations of Arabs unilaterally expressed their support for the administration, but in some parts, Arabs remain suspicious. Secret service documents reveal that already in the early 1960s, Syria’s Baath party made highly sophisticated plans to pitch different communities against one another, especially in Cizire. On top of the pre-existing tensions, external forces additionally fuel and instrumentalize conflict between different communities to further their own agendas. The establishment of unity between the different ethnic and religious groups of Syria, and in the Middle East more generally, would make it more difficult to divide and rule the region.
One Arab member of the Rojava administration explained why this democratic model counts on so little support from the established as well as newly formed political groups in the region and beyond:
The democratic autonomy system in our three cantons shakes and upsets the whole world because the capitalist system does not want freedom and democracy for the Middle East, despite all its pretensions. That is why everyone attacks Rojava. The different forms of state exemplified by the Syrian Arab Republic under Assad and the Islamic State are two sides of the same coin as they deny and destroy the diversity mosaic of our region. But more and more Arabs from the rest of Syria come to Rojava to learn about democratic autonomy because they see a perspective for freedom here.
The effective system of self-organization, combined to some extent with the embargo, which necessitated self-reliance and thereby fueled creativity, spared Rojava from economic corruption through internal capitalist mindsets or external exploitation. Yet in order to defend revolutionary values beyond the war, a calibrated economic vision is needed for a socially just, ecological, feminist economy that can sustain an impoverished, traumatized and brutalized population.
How to engage wealthy people, who do not care for cooperatives, and avoid being charged with authoritarianism? How to arrange emancipatory and liberationist principles in the urgency of war and a survival economy? How to decentralize the economy while securing justice and revolutionary cohesion? For the people in Rojava, the answer lies in education.
“What does ecology mean to you?” a woman at the Ishtar women’s academy in Rimelan asks her peers in a room decorated with photos of women like Sakine Cansiz and Rosa Luxemburg. An older woman with traditional tattoos on her hands and face responds: “To me, being a mother means to be ecological. To live in harmony with the community and nature. Mothers know best how to maintain and organize this harmony.” Perhaps it is the ecological question that most clearly illustrates Rojava’s dilemma of having great principles and intentions and the willingness to sacrifice, while often lacking the conditions to implement these ideals. For obvious reasons, survival often has priority over environmentalism.
For the moment, at least, it is possible to speak of a transitional dual system in which the democratic self-administration of Rojava lays out revolutionary and ecological principles, carefully maneuvering them in war and real politics, while the grassroots movement organizes the population from below. At the cantonal level, especially with regards to foreign policy-related issues, centralist or at least non-revolutionary practices are to some extent inevitable, especially because Rojava is politically and economically between a rock and a hard place. It is the democratic autonomy system arising from the base that people generally refer to when they speak of the “Rojava revolution”.
The decentralizing dynamics of the grassroots organization, most notably in the communes, even serve as an internal opposition to the cantons and facilitate the democratization of the latter, which, due to their complicated political geography—further limited by non-revolutionary parties and groups within—can tend towards a concentration of power (though the cantons, as they currently are, are still far more decentralized and democratic than ordinary states).
Far more important than the exact mechanisms through which the popular will is expressed, is the meaning and impact of democratic autonomy on the people themselves. If I were to describe “radical democracy”, I would think especially of the working class people, the sometimes illiterate women in neighborhoods who decided to organize themselves in communes and who now make politics come to life. Children’s laughter and games, cackling chicken, scooting plastic chairs compose the melody for the stage in which decisions on electricity hours and neighborhood disputes are made. One should also note that the structures function better in rural areas and small neighborhoods than in big and complex cities, where more effort is needed to engage people. Here, power belongs to people who never had anything and who now write their own history.
“Do you want to see our vegetables?” Qadifa, an older Yazidi woman asks me in a center of Yekîtiya Star, the women’s movement. She appears to have little interest in explaining the new system, but she is keen to show its fruits instead. We continue our conversation on the transformations of everyday life in Rojava while eating the delicious tomatoes of a women’s cooperative in the backyard.
Self-determination in Rojava is being lived in the here and now, in everyday practice. Thousands of women like Qadifa, women previously completely marginalized, invisible and voiceless, now assume leadership positions and shape society. Today, in the mornings, they can for the first time harvest their own tomatoes from the land that was colonized by the state for decades, while acting as judges in people’s courts in the afternoon.
Many families dedicate themselves fully to the revolution now; especially those who lost loved ones. Many family homes slowly start to function like the people’s houses (“mala gel”) that coordinate the population’s needs: people walk into each other’s houses with their children to criticize or discuss or suggest ideas on how to improve their new lives. Dinner table topics have changed. Social issues literally become social, by becoming everyone’s responsibility. Every member of the community becomes a leader.
The slow transition of social decision-making from assigned buildings to the areas of everyday life is a fruit of the efforts to build a new moral-political society. For people from advanced capitalist countries this direct way of being in charge of one’s life can seem scary sometimes, especially when important things like justice, education and security are now in the hands of people like oneself, rather than being surrendered to anonymous state apparatuses.
One night I am sitting near Tell Mozan, once home to Urkesh, the 6,000-year-old ancient capital of the Hurrians. Nearby is the border between Syria and Turkey, less than a century old. While drinking tea with Meryem, a female commander of Kobane, we watch the lights of the town of Mardin in North Kurdistan, on the other side of the border.
“We fight on behalf of the community, the oppressed, of all women, for the unwritten pages of history,” she says. Meryem is one of the many women who met Abdullah Öcalan in her youth, when he arrived in Rojava back in the 1980s. Like thousands of women, in a quest for justice beyond her own life, one day she decided to become a freedom fighter in this region that is at the same time home to thousands of honor killings and thousands of goddesses, worshiped in all shapes and sizes.
What attracted anti-systemic movements around the world to the historic resistance in Kobane were perhaps the many ways in which the town’s defense mirrored a millennia-old current of human struggle; the ways in which it carried universal traits that resonated with collective imaginaries of a different world. Many comparisons were made with the Paris Commune, the Battle of Stalingrad, the Spanish Civil War, and other almost mythical instances of popular resistance.
In the ziggurats of Sumer, massive temple complexes in ancient Mesopotamia, many hierarchical mechanisms began to be institutionalized for the first time: patriarchy, the state, slavery, the standing army and private property—the beginning of the formalized class society. This era brought about a far-reaching social rupture characterized by the loss of women’s social status and the rise of the dominant male, especially the male priest, who seized the monopoly on knowledge. But this is also where amargi, the first word for the concept of freedom, literally “the return to mother”, emerged around 2,300 B.C.
Öcalan proposes the idea of two civilizations: he claims that towards the end of the Neolithic Age with the rise of hierarchical structures in ancient Sumer a civilization developed based on hierarchy, violence, subjugation and monopolism—the “mainstream” or “dominant civilization”. By contrast, what he calls “democratic civilization” represents the historic struggles of the marginalized, the oppressed, the poor and the excluded, especially women. Democratic Confederalism is therefore a political product and manifestation of this age-old democratic civilization.
The democratic autonomy model it has given rise to, in turn, is not only a promising perspective for a peaceful and just solution to the traumatic conflicts of the region; in many ways, the emergence of the Rojava revolution illustrates how democratic autonomy may actually be the only way to survive. In this sense, the revolutionary commune is a historical heritage, a source of collective memory for the forces of democracy around the globe, and a conscious mechanism of self-defense against the state system. It carries a millennia-old legacy and manifests itself in novel ways today.
What unites historic moments of human resistance and the desire for another world, from the first freedom fighters of history to the Paris commune to the uprising of the Zapatistas on to the freedom squares in Rojava, is the unbreakable power to dare to imagine. It is the courage to believe that oppression is not fate. It is the expression of humanity’s ancient desire to set itself free.

Bijî komunên me! Vive la commune!