Rojava: Paradoxes of a Liberatory Ideology

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by Janet Biehl
1st December 2015
Kurdish Question

Since 2014 solidarity activists, independent leftists, and others have been crossing the Tigris to study the developments in Rojava, the independent multiethnic enclave in northern Syria. Here the Kurdish people, whose aspirations have been stomped on for generations throughout the Middle East, are building a society structured institutionally around an assembly / council democracy and a commitment to gender equality. Most remarkable of all, they do so under conditions of brutal war (defending their society against the jihadists Al Nusra to Daesh) and economic and political embargo (from Turkey to the north).

Anyone searching for a utopia on earth is bound to be disappointed, given the nature of human beings. But Western visitors who admire the remarkable accomplishments they witness in Rojava quickly also notice something that many find disquieting: seemingly every interior space (a notable exception being the self-government buildings) features an image of Abdullah Öcalan, the imprisoned PKK leader, affixed to the wall. The disquiet arises from memories of assorted twentieth-century dictators—Stalin, Hitler, Mao Zedong—whose images, in the many nations they long tormented, were similarly ubiquitous.

Visitors with personal experience of tyrannies may be especially uneasy. A Cuban-born delegate, on my October 2015 visit, said the images called to her mind those of Castro, while a delegate from Libya was rudely reminded of the omnipresent images of Gaddhafi.

Visitors’ unease may deepen as their visitors frequently praise the charismatic Öcalan. The Tev-Dem co-leader Aldar Xelil notes that “the philosophy of our administration is based on the thought and philosophy of the leader Öcalan. His books [are] the basic reference for us.” Pamyan Berri, co-headmaster of the Kurdish Literature and Language Academy in Qamislo, told my recent delegation, “Öcalan is the most important person. We depend on his books to teach history, language, everything.” His writings are integral to the curriculum there and in the other academies, as the local educational institutions are called. (And terms at these academies last only a few weeks or months—not long enough for in-depth research and evaluation and critique, but long enough to inculcate a belief system. Is this education or indoctrination? One begins to wonder.) One of the delegates took to calling the many invocations of Öcalan’s ideas “received pronouncements.”

The general reverence is particularly startling because of Rojava’s commitment to democratic self-government. But then, the source of this grassroots democracy was Öcalan himself, who conceived it in prison and recommended it to the Kurdish freedom movement, which after several years of debate committed itself to it and began to implement it, both in Syria and in Turkey A bottom-up system generated from the top down: by now the paradox is enough to have the visitor’s head spinning.

* * *

But the earnest high-mindedness of the people of this tiny, beleaguered society gives the visitor pause as well. No signs of dictatorship, of gulags, are in evidence—on the contrary, the prevailing ideology, the one prescribed by Öcalan, abhors the state as such. At the New World Summit in Derik in October, the Cizire canton co-governor Hadiya Yousef summarized the dominant ideology for us: it rejects capitalist modernity because it values money and power over people and because its overlord class enslaves the majority, replacing community with exploitation and domination. It imparts messages of “anti-community, individualism, money, sex, power. It is Leviathan, she told us, the monster.

On the premise that human life is indelibly social, Yousef continued, Rojava seeks to build an alternative. Against Leviathan, it mobilizes people for self-empowerment. Against Western individualism and anomie, it prizes communal solidarity; against colonial rule and racism, it supports the self-determination of peoples and inclusiveness. Against the state (including constitutional republics and allegedly representative “democracies”), it teaches the practices of democratic deliberation and decision-making; against capitalist competition, it teaches economic cooperation. Against the capitalism’s “enslavement” (as she put it) of women, it teaches gender equality.

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