JAN SOWA: In recent years, the Middle East has defied a lot of stereotypes, forcing many to rethink what is possible in the region, and what is not. Rojava is one of the key examples of how a radically democratic self-organization went absolutely against these stereotypes. It is not one of the typical forms of a national liberation movement. It makes me think of the early days of anti-colonial struggles, when people like Frantz Fanon fought for independence, though not necessarily in the name of nation-state projects. In the contemporary context it is something unusual. What path led the Kurdish people to this position?
DILAR DIRIK: A lot of these stereotypes are constructed from an orientalist perspective. Even today, we mainly see the perspective of those who have ruled the Middle East and still have got some sort of economic or political interests in that region. When we consider things such as nationalism, authoritarianism or religious fundamentalism, we need to make a distinction between the official image — the ideologies of ruling parties, governments or non-state groups — and the actual state of societies of that region. Orientalist images determine policies, as Edward Said has pointed out. They actually have material impact on people’s lives. While there is undeniable a deep system of patriarchy in the region, when it comes to the status of women US, UK and other governments had to construct in the media this image of a Middle Eastern woman that needs to be saved from oppression; therefore invasion, killing, massacres and extrajudicial torture are justified. It’s a war of ideologies; a war of images.
The example of Rojava seems to really defy that ideological vision of the region. However, the locally-rooted political self-organization you are talking about is not necessarily a new invention. It is rather founded on an underlying societal way of life that has always prevailed in the Middle East, in spite of the imposition of nation states, borders, neoliberalism and more recently religious fundamentalism. Of course, it is combined with political philosophy. As you rightfully pointed out, a lot of anti- colonial movements were not necessarily driven by the same nationalistic or statist ideas that led to the emergence of nation states in Europe. It was not so much about the accumulation of capital and international wars, but rather a struggle for resistance, dignity, liberation from occupation and colonization.
But to come more directly to your question, the Kurdish movement was indeed very much shaped by the anti-colonial struggles of the 20th century. It was at the time of the Cold War, a time when national liberation movements were also heavily influenced by the Eastern Bloc and enjoyed its support. They had to position themselves in these parameters of global politics that were already set. So the Kurdistan Workers’ Party — or PKK from its Kurdish name: Partiya Karkerên Kurdistanê — was founded as a Marxist-Leninist party and fought in the name of a Kurdish socialist state. There were also other Kurdish movements, especially right after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. They were more urban, comprised more of intellectuals and wanted to have the same state as everybody else. It was an elitist project based on a nationalist ideology. Contrary to that, the PKK had an internationalist perspective from the very beginning — they wanted to create a Kurdish state to improve the conditions of the proletariat (it was written in their manifest from 1978) and to contribute to world proletariat revolution, hand in hand with the Turkish people. It was never a chauvinistic Kurdish project. They were actually fighting against Kurdish nationalistic groups at that time. Among its co-founders were Turkish socialists.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Abdullah Öcalan, the leader of the PKK, along with other members of the movement increasingly critiqued the failures of state socialism. They saw how a bureaucratic and hierarchical system that is anonymous, mechanized and authoritarian was not functioning and was not bringing freedom to people. They started asking questions: What does freedom mean? What does political action mean? How does it provide answers to social problems such as poverty, ideological rule over the oppressed people or the position of women? There were attempts to think of the Middle East as confederal democracy already in the 1990s. That model would basically mean a solidarity association of various Middle Eastern communities. The Kurdish movement always thought of the region as a whole and never focused on the isolated Kurdistan; it rather saw it in relation with neighboring communities. The fact that Kurdistan is divided into four further confirmed the inherent problem of statehood. Could the state, the main cause of exploitation and violence, be a solution?
In the wake of the Iraq War of 2003, the consolidation of a Kurdish state-like structure, the Kurdistan Regional Government, which had been formed a decade earlier, occurred at the same time as internal struggles within the P K K, and soon after the imprisonment of Abdullah Öcalan in 1999. That experience from Northern Iraq of what an independent Kurdish state would look like contributed greatly to the new analysis and to the urge to think beyond the state form as such. Iraqi Kurdistan is not really a state, but it functions as one. It has its bureaucracy, a parliament, its own economy and an army. It does not actually guarantee freedom to the people. It brings freedom only to the social elite of a few wealthy families. It has created a bureaucracy which was not there before and which further limits the lives of people. It does not bring much in terms of class struggle, nor any betterment of the fate of women. That was a very enlightening experience and allowed the movement not only to distance itself from the project of a Kurdish nation state, but also to see more clearly a system of dependence, where the whole world system is determined by certain states. The Middle East is no exception. If you gain independence, are you really independent? Or do you simply become dependent in a new way, on parameters set by an outside agenda? Isn’t it better to have an alternative system, one that would not subscribe to the rules set by the existing one? Maybe the state is the root of the problem?
This is why the analysis went all the way back, reshaping the traditional leftist agenda as well. Rather than looking at the emergence of capitalism, Öcalan decided to look at the emergence of state, which happened in Mesopotamia. Together with the coming of state, 5000 years ago, the patriarchy was also born, as were the ideas of private property, accumulation, the centralization of the economy, hierarchy, monopolies etc. The history of the state-form is basically the history of hierarchy. In those matters, Öcalan was very heavily influenced by various authors, but I would emphasize also that his analyses very much rely on a deep reading of the non-state, non-capitalist, non-modernist modes of being, knowing and living that prevailed in Kurdistan in spite of the state.
JAN SOWA: That’s what I wanted to ask. One of the narrations is that Öcalan, while in prison, grew familiar with the writings of Murray Bookchin, and that changed the movement.
DILAR DIRIK: As I’ve said already, in the 1990s, before Öcalan knew about Bookchin, PKK was announcing that they no longer wanted to create an independent state. This had been about a decade be- fore Öcalan read Bookchin. This is public knowledge, available in the congress resolutions, etc. In addition, the idea of a configuration like democratic confederalism in the Middle East goes back to the 1990s. And particularly the question of women is much more radical in Öcalan than in Bookchin. However, it is true that Öcalan, while languishing in prison, had time to read, so to develop and deepen his philosophy as well. It was not only Bookchin, he also read the works of many different scholars of the Frankfurt School. He also came to really like Nietzsche and Braudel, and many feminist and Middle Eastern authors; various authors from a range of different places. It is also important to realize that a person has only limited access to literature in prison. His work often gets censored. Bookchin’s primary influence on Öcalan is related to the former’s writings on ecology and municipalism.
JAN SOWA: I’m surprised that Bookchin’s books were allowed in prison at all.
DILAR DIRIK: Yes. Especially the idea of ecology. One of the most inspiring of Bookchin’s ideas is the concept of social ecology: to think of society in terms of an ecological rather than a mechanical system, where politics is no longer needed because it’s so bureaucratized. That is very subversive in the context of Turkish state.
It should be noted that the inspiration went both ways, as Bookchin looks at the history of ancient Mesopotamia, which is basically also the history of Kurdistan. Looking at the history of hierarchy, the history of domination, rather than just class or national oppression, this is a very significant inspiration from Bookchin. However, as I’ve said, there is another element as well: the forms of actual resistance practiced in Kurdistan, by which I mean a nonhierarchical social organization embedded in the traditional way of life in the Kurdish Mountains. Not so much in the cities, where urbanization, capitalism and the state have remodeled people’s way of living and thinking about the world. This is an influence that you can see in Öcalan’s biography. He went to Syria in 1979 and stayed there until 1999. For these 20 years, he was actively engaged, especially with the people of Rojava. People from other parts of Kurdistan would come to see him either in Lebanon or in Syria. There are pictures of him having people’s assemblies and education programs with women only sometimes. Those were working class people, peasants, people who had no formal education, basically the wretched of the earth. And they were taken seriously by him.
JAN SOWA: When you talk about this traditional element — traditional in terms of always being there as a way of life — do you refer to indigenous forms of organization that had been there for millennia, or to some element of Islam like the institution of al-shura — the Arabic term for “consultation” — where you need to consult those affected by a decision before taking it? Ernest Gellner, in his book Muslim Society, along with other scholars, point to these and other elements of Islam that make it close to a modern democratic organization, and that could be used in establishing a different political world, not the one that is ruled by political elites and very centralized. How do you see this interplay of Islam and an egalitarian indigenous way of life that predates it?
DILAR DIRIK: The nation state has imposed a new way of how individuals think of themselves as citizens of a nation state. Your loyalty is to that nation state — its economy, its bureaucracy, its army. But nation states have existed in our region for less than 100 years. People have still not really come terms with that. In many places they don’t really care what the state is. In many areas, Kurdistan people didn’t realize what state they lived in until the 1970s even. If you asked people in the mountains and villages, they would have no concept of what a republic is. It bears little significance for their daily lives. The idea that your belonging to a nation state is the primary political relation you have has not penetrated deeply into the fabric of Middle Eastern societies. This is partly to do with the role of religion. For Muslim com- munities, the idea of Ummah is basically a community based on ideals, beliefs and a certain way of life. Ethnicity and nationality is far from central. The notion of a democratic nation advanced by the Kurdish movement — i.e. a nation that includes all nations, ethnic and religious groups and is based on shared values — is in line with that idea. The principles of democratic con- federalism correspond quite well with indigenous practices of self-organizing that have existed in the region for a long time. And this applies not uniquely to Islam.
Councils also exist in the Alevi culture. Among the Alevi there are people who are trust- ed, have charisma and have a strong feeling of justice. When two families have a dispute, these trusted people bring them together and organize consolation ceremonies. In Kurdish culture, for example, when there are two people or two families arguing and the women take down their scarves, laying them on the floor, the argument has to be over. There are all these cultural phenomena related to our „way of life”: a sense of community, of collective identity based on ethical values. It remains in stark contrast with identity imposed by the state, which is based on abstract concepts: rules, laws, regulations and bureaucracy. Various religious or ethical value systems, no matter how we judge them, contain some elements of morality and ethics. People lose that when the nation state arrives. Their way of life — especially its economic dimension — has been based on solidarity and subsistence on a much smaller scale.
JAN SOWA: A mutual self-help?
DILAR DIRIK: Yes. People often ask us questions about Rojava and how they can implement these solutions. Do you know why the communes in Rojava can organize themselves so well? One reason is because they are all related, they’re all family, they all know each other, they have lived in that place for hundreds of years. Everybody builds houses together. There are entire villages where everybody built every house. Because the scale was much smaller, where face to face democracy actually worked, we are not talking about an anonymous society where people don’t know their neighbor’s name. We’re talking about a place, where the community ties are very strong, in the villages especially, where people have love, empathy and solidarity with each other.
Obviously, this can be quite oppressive sometimes. I’m not trying to idealize that, I’m just pointing to a sense of mutual responsibility, of seeing yourself in somebody else. This attitude is getting lost as capitalism and neoliberal individualism are slowly coming into our region. This is why this direct form of democracy is so important, and why it resonates with people. In interviews I did as part of my academic research, people were describing the Rojava revolution as bringing themselves back to themselves, regaining their essence and going back to their roots and their identity. Regaining the right to shape and create the society that they want, the right to work in a way that is productive and helps to sustain and protect the community. Not useless and meaningless work. It really gives people meaning and a place in history. I think that the feeling of history-making is closely linked to the ability to beautify the place you live in, to be in harmony with nature, and to be a meaningful person in a collective community. In this system, various communities, whether ethnic, religious or linguistic, are being encouraged to participate on their own terms, while democratizing them- selves from within.
JAN SOWA: This a kind of fascinating convergence or synergy be- tween universal ideas that were drawn up in a completely different context, and the local experience of how people actually lived. The way I see it is that it’s not a process of changing society according to some imported rules, but a situation where one tradition is enriching another in its conceptual and practical aspects. I will come back later to the question of scale and applicability, but I would like to ask you about the very practical aspects of this self-organization. I mean procedurally. How is it run? What are the procedures or practical solutions in this democratic organization? Maybe you could also describe it from the perspective of a directly participating person? How is it built from bottom up? What kind of structures does it imply?
DILAR DIRIK: I grew up in Europe, as a part of the Kurdish minority in Ger- many, and we have had the same model of democratic autonomy. In Germany, the Kurdish population is spread out over all the parts of the country. Wherever there is a Kurdish population they establish a council — a people’s assembly. In Hamburg, there are actually three of them because the population of Kurds there is very large. In addition, for each assembly there is always a corresponding women’s council consisting of the same women that are also part of the general assembly, but they also have autonomous decision-making mechanisms. There are committees on education, social affairs and whatever else they need, depending on the current situation.
JAN SOWA: These are a kind of general assembly that happen regularly and where everyone can bring his or her problems?
DILAR DIRIK: It’s a council of people who have assemblies. This is how we organize our political lives. This is something new, that has taken place only in the last decade. I’m giving an example from Eu- rope, specifically because of the question of applicability. This is a place where we don’t all live on the same street. It’s different from Kurdistan. Before, in the 1990s and later, the Kurdish struggle in Europe was just focused on mobilizing for Kurdistan. Then, with the advent of democratic confederalism, with the need of self-organization wherever we were, with all connections wherever you lived, an urgency developed that we had to resolve our social problems here as well. We’ve been living in these countries for ten, twenty, thirty years, so we also need to organize ourselves, not just for Kurdistan.
Now let’s look at Turkey. When democratic confederalism was announced in 2005, people didn’t really know what it meant. Were people giving up on independence? What was that supposed to be? Then they started founding people’s councils and, later, communes. They engaged in having their own economic cooperatives: agricultural, textile, artisanal etc. They started forming their own academies for self-education. The state cracked down on these structures, calling them terrorist and separatist, and in 2009 10,000 people were put in prisons. These people were simply activists, mostly from the lower classes, who were organizing themselves. That is another instance of how this works or does not work in the middle of an authoritarian state like Turkey.
JAN SOWA: Are there any structures built above those self-governing communities? I’m especially interested in the question of representation: do you elect representatives, and how is their mandate organized?
DILAR DIRIK: In some places yes and in others — no. In the mountain areas, people can organize in the form of communes and nobody can do anything against that. Whereas in big cities you can’t really do that, because you don’t live in the same place. Communes have their own economies and basically everybody is a part of it. These are usually people who fully support Kurdish freedom. In places like Cizre or Nusaybin, people have had people’s councils or people’s assemblies (it’s a matter of translation), where anybody can be a part of it, if they want to. Then they would elect co-presidents — one woman and one man — on a rotating basis. After that they would elect committees, which also rotate. The overarching structure in Turkey/northern Kurdistan is the Democratic Peoples’ Congress, with delegates from the local structures. Similarly in other parts of Kurdistan and abroad, from small to higher units, autonomous bodies relate to each other horizontally and vertically in a confederal manner. But ultimately, the communes are the most direct way in which people shape their daily lives and politics.
JAN SOWA: These committees are designated to deal with particular issues?
DILAR DIRIK: Yes. For example, the economy, education, women’s issues, youth, health, peace and reconciliation, justice, social and organizational matters, security etc. While women’s committees exist in the mixed structures, women also have their parallel autonomous structures, which all have these committees as well.
JAN SOWA: How do people get on these committees? Are they elected?
DILAR DIRIK: You should not think of these structures as bureaucratic, standard institutions. Much depends on the respective size and format, but usually anyone can recommend themselves if they are an active part of the council or commune. Depending on how many people are in the structure, the number of people on a committee is determined at the assembly meeting. In assemblies, the structures approve the recommended people. If more than enough people sign up, people vote for the people on the committees. In matters relating to women, men do not get a vote.
JAN SOWA: But the committees do not have any actual power, do they? They only provide expertise, advice, opinions etc., yes?
DILAR DIRIK: I’m talking right now about Turkey. I will come the situation in Rojava later. It is the state that provides municipal services in Turkey. So the councils functioned more like a radical section of the community. They were kept from implementing things on the scale that they wanted, because technically they are illegal and are not officially recognized. However, when Kurdish par- ties won some municipalities in official, state-organized elections they were working with the councils. This is one of the reasons why so many Kurdish mayors are now in prison, because they are charged with supporting separatism. In the peace process from 2013 to 2015, there was some room for these kinds of parallel power structures and that’s when most of them developed, but they have been shut down ever since.
In Rojava, the revolution erupted in 2012, but it’s important to recognize that people had had this experience of self-organization all the way from 1980s, when they started secretly organizing underground. The umbrella women’s movement — the one that is leading Rojava right now — was formed in 2005 illegally, and women’s activities began as early as the 1980s, so people were already prepared. It wasn’t like that in other parts of Syria, where people had to spontaneously do things. People al- ready knew each other, they had some former organizational experience. The first thing that happened after the regime forces withdrew and people took over government buildings in 2012 was the re-emergence of the councils and later on of communes as well.
JAN SOWA: What is the relation between a council and a commune?
DILAR DIRIK: The communes are basically neighborhoods or streets or even villages, since some villages are very tiny, just 15 houses or something. They are directly organizing the things that they actually have some impact upon: whether they want to have a park in a certain place, whether they need more teachers for their kids, questions of security, settling disputes between neighborhoods, providing health services etc. These are the things that communes decide and everybody is a part of the commune. Everybody who lives on that street is part of a commune. Communes meet regularly, every two weeks or something like that. They again have two co-presidents, two spokespeople (a woman and a man) and they rotate every year. Councils function on a larger scale than communes. Several communes send their delegates to the council. If a town has — let’s say — seven communes, they all send their delegates to the council. These councils have their committees and two co-presidents. Now several councils elect a council for a region, which again has two co-presidents. It allows people to embark upon large-scale projects. For example when a commune is talking about a highway, it concerns not only the given commune, but the neighboring ones, and most likely the closest city as well. Councils are places of exchange and negotiations between them.
We can say that in Rojava there is something like a dual system that emerged because of the war situation. So there are official municipalities dealing mostly with public services like street maintenance, buildings, garbage disposal etc. And then there is an official canton administration. In order to represent and provide for people who do not necessarily agree with all these principles, this representative system emerged over the years.
Delegates from the commune are represented in the people’s and women’s councils of towns and cities. The councils, too, have committees, like the communes. Which means that, for in- stance, there are as many security committees as there are communes in a place, but there is also a security committee for that city’s council. In other words, committees for the same dedicated subject exist vertically and horizontally. The councils are less direct, since they represent a wider scale of people, but they too, implement direct democracy. They engage in topics that exceed the concern of one street, but have a larger scope of activities. Several people’s councils then eventually make up regional and then cantonal councils. The same logic of the system continues to the level of the Democratic Federation of Northern Syria.
JAN SOWA: And a woman position is only elected by women, right? While the male position is elected by everybody. That’s a very cunning strategy for women’s empowerment.
DILAR DIRIK:Yes. It’s to make sure that the women actually choose a woman, instead of symbolically enacting what men want. Whenever women are in certain positions, it means that the collective willpower of women is behind her. She is less likely to be co- opted for men’s ambitions this way. It also constitutes a strong organized solidarity of women among themselves, to make sure their demands are not compromised.
JAN SOWA: This is a political system that encompasses about 2.5 million people.
DILAR DIRIK: It’s very difficult to estimate right now, because there are hundreds of thousands of internally displaced people and refugees in Rojava, and many people have also left. But we’re certainly talking about millions, including many outsiders like refugees. To organize this number of people you need a lot of planning and also a kind of ideological unity. You cannot impose self-rule and force people to create communes if they don’t want to. So activists initially literally went from house to house to ask peo- ple if they want to join and to explain how this project works, because some people, especially in larger settlements, had no concept of self-organizing.
On the other hand, there still exists a system of regular representative democracy, where Kurdish parties are also included and which are against the confederalist democratic system. Most of them are influenced by Iraqi Kurdish political par- ties, but there are also many different ethnic groups that might not want to be a part of communes, believing that if they do and the regime comes back then their marriages, diplomas etc. will not be recognized. All these things need to be considered. Such tensions are resolved through the dual democratic-representative system. For outside diplomacy there is something like an elected parliament with quotas for various ethnic groups and for Kurdish parties that are outside of the system of direct democracy. This is very difficult, the question of implementing an anti-authoritarian system, because how do you do that without imposing it, and thereby becoming authoritarian?
JAN SOWA: So the representatives in this official system function just like representatives in any regular parliamentary system. It’s not a delegation where you can actually control your representatives. Unlike in the communes-council system. Is this what you mean by this dual power?
DILAR DIRIK: It is a representative democratic system where parties are dominant, but the social contracts and foundational documents are highly progressive, including commitments to rule out dis-crimination and the oppression of women, nationalistic or religious chauvinisms, etc. In January 2014, there was a social con- tract agreed in three cantons: Afrin, Kobanî and Jazira. This was a very revolutionary document. It said that the representative system that we will have, will still be revolutionary in terms of not engaging in any compromise regarding the liberation of women, being against the monopoly of power, neoliberalism and nationalism. It is actively encouraging the promotion of solidarity and various ideas of a decentralized democracy where women play an equal role. All these things are still enshrined in this system. Although it is a representative system, the principles behind it are still equality and justice. However, this is naturally very attractive to people due to their class base. For example, the more privileged of Rojava are naturally more attracted to representative systems than direct democratic ones. In particular, conservative parties and groups don’t care about organizing themselves in communes. Or people from different ethnic back- grounds, for whom democratic self-organization is very new. For revolutionarily organized Kurdish people, self-administration and women’s autonomous structures, etc. has been their tradition for decades.
There is yet another difficulty that has emerged in in the areas newly liberated from ISIS rule. How do you organize people there? It’s very difficult, as you cannot simply roll up and say: you have to do it this way now. People need to find their way. This is why they first organized councils and then slowly encouraged people to form into communes to take control over their daily lives. At the same time, of course, people have alliances with various parties outside of Syria. Some people have loyalties to the regime. Many ordinary people say: „What is this?
At the end the regime will come back so why bother?” It’s very difficult to politically induce some kind of mental transformation among people. It works to some degree and in some places more than in others. In rural areas it works well, but less so in the cities — rural areas just don’t have the economic, political and infrastructural means for individuals to do what they want under the embargo of the war; self-organization and self-help also make the most sense.
JAN SOWA: Let’s go back to the technical aspect of the system. The communes are also economically organized in a democratic way, yes? They take democratic participatory decisions concerning the economic activities they want to pursue.
DILAR DIRIK: They organize themselves in cooperatives. If one cooperative is going to grow tomatoes and eggplants, another one is making cheese so they can have an exchange between each other. There are hundreds of very small women’s cooperatives, some only consisting of 5-6 people. I have personally stayed with a family where the woman had no formal education and 6 or 7 already adult kids. She would get up at 5 o’clock every few days, go to cooperative with friends from her neighborhood and then go to the fields to work. At the end of the day, she has ownership over the fruits of her own labor, which makes her more independent and self-reliant.
Cooperatives sell their produce on the market at much lower prices than asked for by smugglers or traders. This is also to encourage people to buy from cooperatives, but they mainly distribute the products between their families and other villagers. There is naturally some coordination between them, be- cause people had to coordinate, especially in 2013-2014, when the war embargo was so bad that even bread had to be rationed. There was a central mill in the Jazira canton where wheat was processed, and then they were making bread and giving it to people. Now things are much better, but it’s still a war economy. People have to look after hundreds of thousands of refugees. Everything is changing all the time. In this sense, it is hard to expect a perfectly democratic economy under such conditions. Likewise, outside capitalist interests are trying to penetrate the economy there, which will cause even greater challenges in the future.
JAN SOWA: Is there any constitution of Rojava?
DILAR DIRIK: Is there any constitution of Rojava?
JAN SOWA: Is it written down expressis verbis as a document that everybody can consult? Is it used in discussions about how should people proceed?
DILAR DIRIK: Yes. It has also been translated into English. First, it was the social contract of the Democratic Autonomy of Rojava agreed among the three cantons. They don’t call it a constitution, they call it social contract on purpose. To say, that this is something that we agree on, not issued by a state but be peoples. And it is a result of 6-7 month-long discussions. And then there were women’s laws that were written by women. The committee of women who drafted the preliminary version travelled to councils, committees, communes and academies to discuss it with women, both Kurdish and Arabic. Then they took all suggestions and they redrafted the final version that was announced on 8 March, i.e. on International Women’s Day, in 2014, then was heavily discussed and drafted, and issued around the various cantons about a year later.
In 2016, there was a decision to organize as a federal unit — the Democratic Federation of Northern Syria. The name “Rojava” was dropped, because it means west Kurdistan, and re- placed with “Northern Syria” so that Arabs, the Christian community and the Turkmen can also identify with it, but also be- cause it is now an area that goes beyond majority Kurdish regions. Because of that, now it is called the Democratic Federation of Northern Syria, though Rojava is an area within it. We use the abbreviation DFNS. It also has a social contract and deals with the economy, women’s liberation etc. It promises not just equality but an active fight against any form of discrimination and violence against women, in order to encourage the liberation and activism of women in all spheres. This document was also created in the process of discussions with various groups and communities.
In the communes, the same principles of ecology, democracy and women’s liberation apply, but more on a face-to-face scale. For example, there exists a kind of self-organized justice system based on a constitution-like document: if there is a dispute in the commune, people solve it with the local peace committee first. They try to solve it there first, and if that does not work they go to the people’s house, or the women’s house if it is a case of violence against women. If it concerns women’s rights, only women can decide upon this case. Only when it’s not re-solved at these direct levels will they go to court. Most of the time, people can resolve their problems face to face. It’s about promoting the idea that you, as a society, can solve your problems. You don’t need some higher institution.
JAN SOWA: Are there any security forces in terms of militia? I’m not talking about a military, because it is a war situation, but a kind of democratic police controlled by the commune or by the council?
DILAR DIRIK: There are People’s Defense Units or YPG (from Kurdish Yekîneyên Parastina Gel) and Women’s Defense Units or YPJ (from Kurdish Yekîneyên Parastina Jin) that are fighting at the borders and on fronts against I S I S , as well as against Turkey, for example, in occupied Afrin. Then there is an internal security force called Asayish, which means security in Kurdish. People needed a complex security system in the region, mainly because of frequent suicide attacks and other kinds of violence in cities. They deal with terrorist sleeper cells, random violence and loot- ing. A large part of these security forces operate not in war zones but in cities. There is also the women’s Asayish. In the cases of violence against women, it’s women who go to the house and capture the male perpetrator.
Apart from that, Civilian Defense Forces or HPC (from Kurdish Hêza Parastina Cewherî) were established a few years ago. They are members of the communes who rotate on night watches etc. You have to remember that it’s a dangerous place. That’s why they need so many people who can watch the neighborhood. When you see the aesthetic of it, it’s quite impressive, because many of them are older men and women carrying weapons and wearing vests over their normal clothes. They are watching the neighborhood on a rotating basis. So it’s every- body’s turn at some point. It’s all done locally, not by outsiders — you can be trusted with defending this community be- cause it’s your community. In Germany, when we have big demos, local governments import police officers from all over the country. In our Kurdish demo in Cologne, just a few weeks ago, they brought police from various regions. The idea is to anonymize security and establish a distinction between the civils and police officers. The latter will never meet the former again. In the case of Rojava, they meet every day, they are neighbors, the police officer sometime bakes cakes for people when he is not defending his community.
The rotation mechanism prevents the militarization of communities by people who constantly have weapons. With weapons rotation, everyone has a sense of why it’s important to defend and to protect, while preventing the same people from having constant and unmonitored access to weapons for years.
In an academic publication, Turkish sociologist Nazan Üstündag, who went to Rojava, wrote that the more YPG and YPJ became internationalized, the more the local security grew localized. It prevented the sense of a loss of control in the com- munity. I did one interview with the Asayish academy and their training is very interesting. Everybody who gets a weapon needs to get political training. They learn about women’s history, ecology and the concept of a democratic nation, to better understand why we are not fighting against another nation, but against an idea like ISIS (they’re not fighting against Arabs or Islam, but against fascism). So when they hold their weapons, they know why. They instill an idea of responsibility when holding a weapon. Someone who was teaching at the Asayish academy said that the idea is to have a community where they’re not needed anymore. Firstly they want to exist without weapons as tools of resolving conflicts. But ultimately they want to get rid of themselves altogether, so that the community can deal with conflicts on its own. It seems very idealistic now, but that’s the perspective at least. Fighters who fight against ISIS and the Turkish state also receive education from women on women’s history, on the history of Kurdistan, the history of the Middle East and world politics, to put into context why is this war happening. Instead of just having people with lots of weapons, they want to make them understand why we have them, where they come from, and who is importing them. I think the pedagogy, the training of these people is also important. I’m not idealizing it, because we’re talking about people who have lost their entire families, who have seen members of their family being raped. There will still be people who want revenge. There will still be people who abuse their situation. But there is also this incredible system of accountability, of democratic checks and balances. They make sure that if somebody acts wrongly, they are punished for that. The areas controlled by the Y P G , Y P J and the later formed Syrian Democratic Forces are the only places where there is no evidence of sexual violence being used as weapon of war in Syria.
JAN SOWA: Is there any technical platform for discussions and debates? Like an internet forum, some kind of messenger or social media profiles?
DILAR DIRIK: Not really. There’s no internet access all the time in the way that people are used to in Europe. People usually have S I M cards from Turkey and can get a signal from there or sometimes from Syria. It’s a civil war and all means of communication, however limited, are still tightly controlled by the states. In addition, a lot of engineers and people who have technical expertise fled very early on. But it does not seem to be an important issue or a major limitation. People usually just call each other or engage in direct communication. They do have radios and there have been several radio stations established in the region. Press and media have developed and there are women’s radio and T V stations as well women’s magazines and newspapers.
JAN SOWA: What is the temporal intensity of engagement in this political process? Do you need to participate every day, weekly, monthly?
DILAR DIRIK: It really depends what level we are talking about. Councils meet once a month; their committees meet every two weeks. Their members do the work that is required and then report to each other. Then there are cases where there is a state of emergency so people need to meet every day. For example, when lots of refugees arrive. Problems like that appear on a regular basis and it’s not a quiet place where things happen in a routine way. In principle, however, people decide themselves and declare how much time they can commit to this common political process. For example, a woman with a lot of little children would say that she can’t come very often to the meetings and people will respect that. So there is no established way of how it’s done. Some people have less obligations and can devote more time, others do not have that luxury.
JAN SOWA: Do people get paid in any way for public service in communes or in councils? I’m not talking about the parallel official state administration.
DILAR DIRIK: Those who travel to the place where they meet and work the costs reimbursed. They receive a small fund for basic needs, a kind of per diem, but it’s very basic. Nobody really gets paid extra, including the fighters. They all get the same amount to help them sustain their families. In the communes nobody gets paid, because it’s just you being part of your community.
JAN SOWA: In the text Radical Democracy: The First Line Against Fascism, which you wrote for “Roar Magazine”, where you presented Rojava as a bold democratic experiment, you started with a very interesting anecdote. A woman was approached by someone who came to her house talking about the need to organize a commune. She started throwing stones at them. But later she became engaged in the process and it was a kind of self-education that made her change her mind. It reminded me about the documentary that Naomi Klein and Avi Lewis did in Argentina after the 2001 crisis. It’s called The Take and tells the story of workers overtaking factories closed by their private owners. There is a female character who says that when she was employed as a regular worker she was coming back home tired and didn’t want to engage in anything, but instead she just watched soap operas on TV. When they took over the factory and she was responsible, alongside other workers, for running it, she felt she had something to say and that something depended on her, so she felt a need and a pleasure in educating herself. She started reading Marx and she wanted to learn about the history of workers’ movement. Have you seen much of this kind of subjective change among the self-governing people in Rojava? Does exercising power, in terms of direct engagement, change the people implicated in the process?
DILAR DIRIK: When people ask if there is a revolution in Rojava, I think it is happening exactly at that level, especially for women and for young people. This painful feeling of being completely useless, having a meaningless existence, being just a producer of babies that cleans the house — all that is gone. Now, especially women have a sense of dignity, of being valuable members of society, of doing something important for the community and the world. I have spoken to a lot of people who feel like that. Interestingly of all ages. One thing that both traditional patriarchy and capitalism do to older people is that, when they are too old to be a la- borer, they become a burden on society. Now women in their 60s are going to academies where they are learning about concepts and ideas that they have never heard of before. They learn to articulate what they want. Even the act of speaking is important, seeing that your voice has an actual impact. I stayed in an academy like that for one week. It was a one-month education program when women come together to learn, cook, look after the place, do gardening, dance, sing and discuss. They do every- thing together for one month, having seminars and social activities on a daily basis. As a matter of fact, they build an ad hoc community for that month. Of course, they stay in touch with each other afterwards. In many places young girls and older women share their experiences, learning from one another. It’s about evaluating knowledge and putting it to the service of the people. A lot of young women say that they have always thought that they would just sit at home and one day they will get married so they were passively waiting for that to happened. Now, they have become proactive and they even influence other people’s lives. They say: „My life? I have so many options in front of me, which I didn’t have before. I can be a filmmaker, I can go to an academy, I can be a fighter, I can also be a mother.” This complexity of options available to people, of ways of life they can have, has really expanded in an enormous way despite the war.
Going back to the problems of alienation, capitalism and responsibility that are related to this question: I think people like to work if they see that their effort is dedicated to some- thing good for themselves and the community. It boosts your initiative and your individuality. This is creation, so the very essence of what it means to be a human. Whereas, when you work in a machine-like system, then you grow alienated. If you actually make yourself and other people happy by what you are doing, you are eager to assume responsibility. Capitalism is taking away our sense of value. You’re only valuable to the extent to which you can produce profit. And if you don’t, you’re just use- less. This impacts our psychology — we feel isolated and lonely.
Once I stayed with an older woman for a few days. She was very busy, always going somewhere. She was doing lots of things and it made her very lively: she would say “Hi!” to every- body on the streets, through her work, her world expanded. This is how you gain a sense of self-confidence and pride. You can see it in the way people move and speak. It is just so different now. Before they wouldn’t even look in a man’s eyes, they would look down, but now they hold their heads high. I think in that sense it really expands their universe. Of course there is still conservatism, there are internalized fears, there is stigma. But at least in public, in the political system that they want to establish it is no longer normal that women should be op- pressed. The social contract makes it clear, the fighters affirm it, the media, the journalists and activists repeat it every day. Men are proud of women who are strong.
JAN SOWA: Before we get to the last thing that I would like to dis- cuss, which is applicability and scalability, I would like to ask you about the most important rifts in the movement. What are the issues that are contested and discussed, particularly in connection with nationalism. We started this conversation with the relationship between emancipation and the nation state project. That’s something that I find particularly important in the Polish context, where you can see that there is a need for dignity and recognition among people who would like to be more appreciated and richer, but these aspirations have been completely captured by the nationalistic imagination. I would like to know how you see it from the Rojava perspective. Is it a danger that people talk about or try to counter somehow? If so, then how? And what are the other important rifts in the movement?
DILAR DIRIK: I think that, in the context of Rojava, a much greater danger than nationalism would be liberal individualism. In the Kurdish context, except maybe now for Iraqi Kurdistan, there has never been a possibility of any chauvinistic nationalism due to a lack of power and authority among Kurds. The fragmentation of Kurdish people between four countries has led to a variety of developments, contexts and experiences. The geography and cultural landscape is not very fruitful for nationalism. This is one reason why typical urban nationalism, a new concept for the region, has never been a mass popular idea in Kurdistan. The idea of a united Kurdish nation is very new. In today’s international state-normative, capitalist world, the only thing that would, unite Kurdistan is democratic confederalism for the whole region. It has the potential to bring about a solidary coexistence peoples that respects autonomies and differences based on democratic principles. This would go beyond state borders or notions of intendance in the form of states.
JAN SOWA: So it’s not a project to cut a part of Turkey, a part of Syria, a part of Iraq and a part of Iran to create a new state.
DILAR DIRIK: No. It’s a project to have autonomy in Kurdish regions of those countries and also to democratize these states, to draw them into a system of democracy . This would ideally render state borders obsolete. It is an attempt to overcome nationalisms without denying national features, cultures etc. To create a commonality based on ethics, not ethnicity. This is what Öcalan refers to as “Democratic Nation Solution”.
Öcalan’s proposals of democratic confederalism are deeply anti-nationalist and anti-statist. The aim is to re-configure the idea of freedom in a more meaningful manner through direct politics and action. From the beginning, the PKK was formed together with Turkish people and there were Turks among its founders as well. It was also a way to pay tribute to Turkish revolutionaries who were killed in 1968. Nationalism has always been something that was considered petit bourgeois. Öcalan’s thinking was close to what Rosa Luxemburg thought of national self-determination: its most important components have been workers’ unity, women’s unity and solidarity of the people against the forces of capital and imperialism. Öcalan believes that a true social revolution that can constitute a democratic revival of the Middle East must be anti-modernist as well, it must be inspired by regional sources of knowledge, wisdom, ethics and politics and democratic, solidary ways of coexistence, rather than mechanically imposing the ideologies and systems of capitalist modernity and European orientalism. We need a new mentality, a new “democratic modernity” to strive for.
JAN SOWA: That’s very interesting because the Polish lower mid- dle class is one of the most important bastions of nationalism. I would say even more so than people from lower classes. The lower middle class, the petit bourgeois want to be proud of the nation. Lower classes want to have their material problems solved and dealt with. It’s precisely this petit bourgeois that is striving for recognition and pride.
DILAR DIRIK: Rojava’s case is special because of ethnic diversity in northern Syria. You have the most ancient Christian communities living there, Yazidis, Alevis, Muslims, Kurds, Arabs, Circassians, Assyrians, Syriacs, Armenians and Turkmen. People see how they can nourish each other. That is a why a bigger rift could be the class division. There are obviously different levels of material status and of education in Rojava. War often equalizes these things, but not always. What is worse, liberal bourgeois individualism is not something that necessarily stems from material status. Sometimes it is a psychological phenomenon.
There were many Kurdish businessmen, from all over Kurdistan, who wanted to rebuild Kobanî when it was destroyed. The fighters who died there were revolutionaries and came mainly from the local poor population. These business- men who want to rebuild it, want to bring capitalism where Kurdish revolutionaries were fighting against fascism in the name of socialist ideals. In Turkey, young Kurdish people from poor neighborhoods dug trenches and built barricades against the state. They were working class revolutionaries and they’re imprisoned now. But many elected members of local government were bourgeois. They have been silent.
In my opinion, such class divisions will be among the factors determining the future of Rojava. If capitalism penetrates the fabric of society symbolically as well as materially, then everything will be wasted. There would be no meaningful autonomous organization anymore. In that sense, I think this is a bigger danger than any form of nationalism in Rojava. There is a genuine commitment to solidarity among the common people, but there are different ways in which class can express itself.
The recent recognition that Rojava has enjoyed in the eyes of international media — with the BBC and CNN going there, filming women fighters and taking them seriously — made people feel happy and proud. In the psychology of oppressed people this things mean a lot. But when you think about it, it’s the very same media that stood by or even applauded the destruction of Middle East by the war in Iraq in 2003. They come from the same countries that have been providing weapons to all sides of the many conflicts in the region for decades. People should be aware of that and have more political consciousness of the limited benefits that international recognition brings. However, I do think that few people believed in the genuine- ness of international powers in the bringing about of peace.
Above all, people rely on their own power.
JAN SOWA: Being at the same time in two traditions and two places — Kurdistan and Europe — do you see any room for transfer of these democratic arrangements from Rojava to the Western context? Or for some practical inspiration at least? People who are interested in radical democracy are looking at Rojava with a lot of hope, awe and inspiration. However, after what you’ve said, I have a feeling that not everything could be directly transposed or transferred to Europe.
DILAR DIRIK: I think in the idea of democratic autonomy — within the philosophy of the Kurdish revolutionary movement — the important thing is that no place is the same. Even in Rojava’s system, each village and canton is organized in a slightly different way because there are different ethnic and religious groups or differing economic and geographical conditions. This also means that you cannot compare it to Europe, which is, for example, a much safer place. You cannot equate material, psychological and social conditions, so you cannot simply copy & paste; even within Kurdistan we don’t do that.
However, the principles through which people are trying to achieve a sense of dignity and the urge to self-organize are universally human. The bringing out of each individual’s power in the act of participating in collective decision-making, becoming a meaningful political agent, having an impact on one’s life, the ideas of direct democracy, direct initiative, direct action, as well as the complete commitment to dismantling all forms of oppression and authority, especially against historically op- pressed groups like women, young people, old people — all of these things are applicable in a different context. But not this liberal idea that we are all equal and we don’t see color and we don’t see differences. We should actively make steps that enable these different groups to autonomously organize and bring out their collective identities, but also to democratize them internally and to give space for the individual realization of identity.
Treating society as an ecological system, a dynamic force, a his- tory-making and world-creating force, rather than a ma- chine — that is a universally human attitude. The same is true when we talk about labor or our relation to nature. If we look at human history as a whole from the perspective of freedom, we will see how racism, sexism and colonialism are linked with each other. I think an analysis of history will then bring us back to this universal form of counter-organizing.
What capitalism, patriarchy and states are doing is saying that there is no alternative. This is a neoliberal policy, it’s actually a slogan of neoliberalism, that there is no alternative. People just start to believe that. If you tell them, through education or through the media, that resistance is something that can only be consumed passively in hero movies and subcultures with printed t-shirts, then this is the furthest you can go. Capitalism, especially its surveillance culture and technology really limits our vision. And I think that this is why we need to re- mind ourselves that people have resisted, people shed their blood and gave their life for a different reality. We need to respect that and we need to keep that legacy going. You find it in some form or another in most places around the world. It is not a kind of knowledge that needs to be imported.
It actually is not that difficult, as long as basic things are explained to people in a transparent manner that everyone can understand. We need to fight against confining this knowledge to the limits of elitist institutions; we need to share that with the people; we need to make it more transparent and accessible. So many ordinary people agree that the system is so bad and something needs to change, but they feel hopeless. I think it’s everybody’s role to do something, to make sure this happens.
I want to give an example, also as a kind of wrapping up to what we were talking about. In August 2014, when the Yazi- di Kurdish community was attacked in Sinjar in Iraq, the Iraqi Kurdish forces that were in the area withdrew and ran away faster than the wind. Many were killed. It was the guerrillas of the PKK from the mountains and the fighters from Rojava that came and fought a corridor to save tens of thousands of Yazidis. Why? Because they didn’t wait for political approval, they just came and did it through their direct decision. The people that I interviewed one year after the massacre were saying that the massacre happened because they didn’t understand why this was happening. They didn’t understand why the Iraqi Kurdish forces ran away and why ISIS was coming. They were not in- formed, they simply didn’t know what they were up against. One year after the massacre, they have organized themselves, with women forming the women’s council and forming women’s autonomous fighting units.
One month after the August attack on the Yazidis, Kobanî was attacked in Syria. And there the same kind of people, also Kurdish people, also mostly poor people, waited for ISIS with weapons. They knew what was happening, they knew they needed to defend themselves, they knew that nobody was going to come and rescue them. They say that they know why this was happening. It’s all about political consciousness.
So why did the many communities get killed in such large numbers? Because they didn’t have any political organization — they weren’t prepared. In Kobanî, on the other hand, there had been an established culture of resistance. Now this culture of resistance has reached the Yazidis and many other communities, especially women. It’s up to awareness, knowledge and understanding of the system, connecting the dots.
JAN SOWA: People in Europe are much more educated and they have the tools to understand the situation; however, their reaction to neoliberalism has been reluctant — it took them some time to realize that there is no trickle- down, that this is all ideological bullshit, that mostly the rich are getting richer and that we need to self-organize. This is where Indignados, Occupy movement and later Syriza or Podemos have come from. Unfortunately, there is also a lot of trust placed in nationalism and nationalistic projects as a way of saving us from neoliberalism. But I don’t think it’s going to work.
DILAR DIRIK: The problem is that the West is much more individualistic. You have the luxury to simply withdraw, if you don’t like something. Under neoliberalism in Europe, you can continue your existence somehow. If you don’t feel that your life, your dignity, your community depends on political engagement you can just say: „Whatever! I’m going to be an apolitical person.” This is a luxury that many people have. But it shouldn’t be the case, especially when it is all of humanity that is facing ecological catastrophe.
JAN SOWA: I think it’s an illusion that you can distance yourself from the consequences of capitalism. It’s a fantasy popular among people living in the West, especially from the middle and upper class, because they have more resources. If you are gifted, you see that there are cracks in this system. Individuals with talents and initiative are offered individual careers. That’s a very corruptive aspect of neo- liberal capitalism. But still the dream of purely individual and disconnected happiness remains a fantasy. At some point it’s going to get to you, in one form or another: debt, limited life chances, pollution, climate change, antibiotics and hormones in food or something else. I don’t think this individualistic isolationist position is tenable in the long run.
DILAR DIRIK: Of course, I agree that it is not tenable, but people still have these kinds of illusions. I think this is why, in the past, there were so many more people willing to organize and fight for something. They didn’t feel disconnected and they knew that they depended on the communities they lived in. They didn’t have this option of withdrawing to some safe heaven. Now we are so anonymized and so individualized under neoliberalism that you actually can benefit from this fascist system. But it will not work in the long run, as we are starting to see in Europe, with new waves of fascism and right-wing extremism. We need to rediscover our embeddedness in the community, and to learn how to draw political power from it. This is what everyone can learn from Rojava, no matter where they live, what religion they practice or what their skin color is.
The conversation comes from the book “Solidarity 2.0, or Democracy as a Form of Life” ed.by Jan Sowa, Biennale Warszawa, Warszawa 2019.