The historical and political context of Rojava has led to the development of what, to the untrained eye, might appear to be a random, isolated, and completely antithetical leftist community. Click here to read Part I. of this in depth look at the Revolution in Rojava.
When Abdullah Ocalan, a leader of the PKK (Kurdistan Worker’s Party), was imprisoned in 1999 for reasons concerning his political dissidence, he wasn’t defeated. Rather than waste away, he decided to use this time as an opportunity to read, learn, and work towards finding a solution for the Kurdish people–his people–who had been oppressed for generations. The ideas that he encountered and developed while in prison set the groundwork for a complete overhaul of the political systems in the region of Rojava.
“Being in solitary confinement in a prison on a lonely island, in which you are the only prisoner, you tend to have a lot of time on your hands.” Explains Janet Biehl, “So he requested that his lawyers ask his comrades for recommendations about books to read.”
Among the books brought to Ocalan in prison was the work of anarchist thinker Murray Bookchin, whose philosophies resonated with Ocalan. He then insisted on getting his hands on more.
“Everything that had been translated to Turkish was brought to Ocalan,” Explains Biehl, “and after reading them he concluded that this stateless approach was the way to go–It’s about building a policy from the bottom up instead of the top down.”
Metin Guven is part of the Social Ecology Group (SEG) in Turkey, which was founded in 1995, with an aim to propagate the ideals of the theory. One of the ways that they did this, was to oversee the translation of much of Bookchin’s work from English to Turkish. In doing so, they made the work accessible to Ocalan.
Guven explains to BTR, “We organized ecological campaigns at the beginning and tried to disseminate ideas of Social Ecology.” When the work reached somebody as influential as Ocalan, this goal was greatly realized. Guven goes on, “Ocalan was inspired by Bookchin’s writings and developed his ideas parallel to Bookchin’s ideas. He led the ideological transformation of Kurdish liberation movement. First they rejected nationalism and developed a new critique of state.”
Eleanor Finley says that Ocalan’s interaction with Bookchin’s work is based in the pre-existing climate of the Kurdish people and their history, “It’s not just that Kurd’s didn’t have an ideology and Ocalan happened to find Bookchin. No, he found an author who spoke to their particular context in a meaningful way.”
Finley continues, “That gave him an opening to develop his own interpretation. He engages critically with Bookchin and builds on Bookchin’s thoughts about the origins of hierarchy in a really original and interesting way.”
Finley actively warns against the inclination to classify this the Middle-East as the type of place where a radical politics would not arise organically. Approaching the example of Rojava with that type of a state of mind, the reaction may be one of amazement and utter disbelief. She says, “I think it’s important to know that that ignorance, and that perception of the Middle-East as backwards, as traditional…those perceptions have been deliberately produced by the socioeconomic and geopolitical system that we live in.”
In an interview Finley conducted with Sherhad Naaima, a young Kurdish activist, Naaima echoed those exact sentiments, and said following, “In their [westerner’s] minds the Middle East is still ‘backwards’, and this duality between East and West is the root of orientalism. To overcome it, we must view society as an organic development.” Naaima mused, “History is a river, it cannot be cut. We have no West or East, but rather one history which is moving and retaining all human culture.”
After building on Bookchin’s ideas in prison, Ocalan and his followers had already become devoted to the idea of statelessness when an incredible opportunity presented itself.
During the Arab Spring, in 2011, civil uprisings broke out throughout the Middle East. The Kurds in Rojava were confronted with a unique moment. Demonstrations which ultimately overthrew the violent Assad regime pushed Syrian security forces from Rojava. The absence of governing forces, coupled with the momentum from passionate struggle, created the perfect storm.
In this power vacuum, the Kurds in the area saw an opportunity for great change, and they seized it.
Rather than side with the state, or with the opposition–both of whom had proven over time that granting rights to the Kurdish people was not a priority, they opted for another route. The Democratic Union Party (in Kurdish: Partiya Yekîtiya Demokrat, or PYD) took a third stance: they would use a self-administration model, rejecting oversight or interference from either preexisting alternative. They would instead officially implement “non-state political administration”–the approach Ocalan had been advocating for since his intermingling with Bookchin.
Naaima told Finley in their interview that there is simply no longer a push for a nation, “In the past, the Kurdish Movement was seeking a separate Kurdish nation-state, however, after reading Bookchin’s ideas this ideology has changed. Kurds have become aware that the nation-state does not make sense, for they do not want to replace old chains by new ones and even possibly increase repression.”
Rojava now has multiple levels of self-government; a bottom-up approach within which local neighborhood tribunes elect representatives and make decisions on policies that directly effect them. Local interest groups, and neighborhood assemblies have been created to facilitate cooperative decision making.
Biehl explains, “The lower level of the local people’s meetings send mandated delegates to confederal councils, and represent people over broader areas. From there, these delegates go to councils above them, and it continues to go up several tiers.” she says, “They aim for something called Democratic Autonomy Enclaves,” which has resulted in an area which still considers itself part of Syria, but operates outside of the regulations of the nation-state.
There is also a huge emphasis on gender equality in Rojava, There is even a clause in their Social Contract–essentially a constitution–that women can not be discriminated against because of their gender. Contrary to popular belief, such a stipulation does not even exist in the US constitution.
Guven elaborates on the initiatives for the emancipation of women in Rojava,“Apart from 40 percent quota for women participation in all levels of social organizations, all leadership positions include a male and a female co-chair.”
This means that there is a 50/50 ratio of men and women occupying positions of power in the society. Guven goes on, “Also, alongside the mixed-gender councils, there are corresponding all-women councils that have veto power over decisions that affect women.”
Additionally, there is an all-female militia faction, which defends the area against the encroaching threat of ISIS, called the The Women’s Protection Units (in Kurdish; Yekîneyên Parastina Jin, or YPJ).
Though the measures appear to be somewhat drastic, the goals of Rojava and the Kurdish people aren’t outlandish or untenable. Beihl explicates, “They just want to be able to manage their own community affairs, and to be able to speak Kurdish in public, and to be able to publish Kurdish books, to have cultural human rights. They want to have political human rights.”
Given expands, “They are trying to create an egalitarian and democratic society free from oppression–gender, class, national, bureaucratic and all other types of oppression–in difficult conditions.”
Rojava is succeeding in doing so; proving that alternative forms of community government can in fact work, and begging the continued re-imagination of the ways societies can and should evolve.