The Kurdish Struggle: An Interview with Dilar Dirik
George Souvlis: By way of introduction, could you explain what personal experiences strongly influenced you, politically and academically?
Dilar Dirik: As a Kurd, you can never run from your identity, because your identity is essentially political and the level of your political consciousness acts as a self-defense as the only way to secure your survival and existence. That is why insistence on the free expression of your self-determined identity is portrayed as political controversy, nationalism, or terrorism by the capitalist-statist system.
As an Alevi-Kurdish woman, who became a refugee as a child, and grew up as a Middle Eastern person in Europe, my personal story is absolutely not special or unique when put in the context of modern Kurdish history. Like many others, I come from a very leftist, politically active family. Knowing former or current political prisoners, militants, growing up around demonstrations and rallies was a normal part of my childhood, which is the case for millions of Kurds. Growing up in such a political environment, the militancy of elderly Kurdish women leading the forefront of demonstrations in the heart of capitalist modernity, in cities like Frankfurt, London, Paris, their wrinkled victory signs, their battle cry, determination, have a very educational and radicalizing effect.
But if I would have to pinpoint a single most specific turning point personally, it would be the murder of three Kurdish women activists, Sakine Cansiz (Sara), Fidan Dogan (Rojbîn), and Leyla Saylemez (Ronahî) on January 9th, 2013 in the heart of Paris. I knew these women personally and ever since their murder, like thousands of Kurdish women, we demand an answer to this question: “What was so dangerous about these women that the system had to eliminate them?” Sakine Cansiz was one of the co-founders of the PKK and played a historic role in the prison uprisings in Diyarbakir in the early 1980s. The Turkish secret services’ involvement in the murder of these three free women is an open secret. But it is clear that such a targeted attack on such revolutionary women is a sign of weakness of the system, it exposes its biggest fear: the organized, struggling, liberated woman. That is why an autonomous, radical women’s movement will be the pioneering force to build a more beautiful and free life.
Especially for Kurdish women, the slogan “Resistance is Life” gains historic meaning, considering the attacks of four fascist nation-states, western capitalist colonialism, and most recently feminicidal groups such as ISIS, alongside violence in the name of a perverse concept of honor.
Therefore, I believe that the only way to find meaningful and satisfying answers to questions on the meaning of life, on justice, on freedom, to understand oneself in relation to the world is through loving the community. And the best way to express this love is in the struggle.
Let’s speak a bit about Rojava. How did it become a de facto autonomous region? On the 17th March a Constituent Assembly, the “Rojava/ Northern Syria Democratic Federal System”, took place. Could you talk a bit about these political developments? Is it possible to have a democratic regime without a state? What are the intellectual, organizational and political paradigms from which the new federal system draws upon? Could this model to be exported to the ‘Western’ world?
Rojava’s revolution has a long and rooted history in the Kurdish struggle. For a long time, Rojava was merely seen as an extension of Bakur (northern Kurdistan/Turkey) or Bashur (southern Kurdistan/Iraq). Many political leaders and organizations from the other parts retreated to Rojava in order to re-gain their strength and to mobilize. Rojava is the smallest and the only part of Kurdistan that never led an armed struggle against the state. It is now one of the centers of attention in Kurdistan today but it was actually the least active part until recently.
In the Ottoman times, as well as in the early decades of the Syrian nation-state under and shortly after the French mandate in the first part of the 20th century, while always being in conflict with the central administrations, the Kurdish regions of Syria enjoyed relative autonomy and liberties from time to time. This was often due to the instable political administration in the early state-building periods of Syria, marked by military coups and unrests. This radically changed with the rise of the Baath party in the 1960s. In order to prevent Kurdish uprisings, the state imposed racist demographic policies especially on the Cizire region and the secret services actively incited conflict between the Kurds and some Arab tribes. The state also understood the art of pitting Kurdish political groups and tribes against each other to undermine Kurdish collective rights. This method of creating a collaborator class against the resisting Kurds has been the policy of all four states wherein Kurdistan lies.
However, the fundaments of the revolution that we see unfold today go back to 1979, the arrival of the PKK and Abdullah Öcalan in Syria. The cadres of the PKK not only organized for the struggle in Turkey, but organized the local Kurdish population as well. Öcalan personally gave educations to hundreds of ordinary community members. Most importantly, this era marked the beginning of women becoming politically active for the first time in Rojava. At that time, hundreds of women joined the guerrilla from Rojava. The experience with the revolutionary culture that the PKK introduced in Rojava at that time laid the groundwork for the revolution in Rojava, but also dialectically influenced the PKK itself towards more communalistic outlooks.
In 2004, a year after the PYD was founded, there was an attempt to launch an uprising in Qamishlo, but it was brutally cracked down upon by the state. Countless activists were subject to torture, disappearance, imprisonment, intimidation, and murder by the Baath party.
The Arab Spring, starting in 2011, was a powerful and radical moment in the Middle East, inspiring great hope for change and freedom of the people. However, soon, local and international powers understood how to manipulate elements of this revolutionary time for their own interests. One of the most devastating outcomes of these cruel calculations is the ongoing war in Syria, which left millions of people displaced, hundred thousands of people killed, and some of the most ancient sites and natural habitats completely destroyed and lost forever. One must respect the willpower and dedication of activists all across Syria, who defy the international community’s lack of conscience through their work in the dust and ashes. But it is also important to note that there was a general lack of a thought-out, far-sighted political plan of the democratic sections of these movements, alongside mass-murderous attacks which soon led to their dissolution or weakness and the rise of jihadist power.
On July 19th, 2012, the Kurds in Rojava seized the opportunity and drove the regime forces out of their regions. There was no active war in the region at the time, as the regime prioritized battles with rebels in other parts of Syria. Early underground council organization had already begun in 2011, but after 2012, for the first time, the Kurds of Rojava were able to be politically active freely. These photos were truly historic – the Kurdish flags had been banned before, as was the Kurdish language in official use. Women were among the first people to take down the regime signs and take up arms to protect their region. Self-defense units in Rojava are as old as 2011. But the YPG (People’s Defense Units) were officially formed in 2012, while the women in the YPG later formed their autonomous structure, the YPJ (Women’s Defense Units) in January 2013.
Soon, however, especially due to Turkey’s political interests, waves of Islamist terrorism began to attack Rojava. There is plenty of evidence to suggest collaboration between the Turkish state under Recep Tayyip Erdogan and groups like Jabhat al Nusra and later ISIS. Serekaniye (Ras al Ayn) was the battlefield for immense clashes with these jihadist forces especially in 2013.
During that time, the international community was preparing for the second Geneva conference for a peaceful solution to the war. However, it was clear that the handpicked Syrian “opposition”, patroned by the Turkish state was not representative of the Syiran people. The conference excluded the Kurds, although they make up an important section of the Syrian society. Thus, in the fall of 2013, the democratic autonomy system was announced in Rojava, as an act of defiance to the statist international order which deliberately silenced them. On the same week as the Geneva II conference, in January 2014, the three cantons – Afrin, Kobane, and Cizire were declared. The social contract of Rojava’s cantons was published then.
2014 also marked the year when ISIS entered the world stage, although the people in Rojava had long been resisting against them. Especially the massacre in August on the Ezidis in Sinjar (Shengal in Kurdish) exposed the cruel, disgusting rapist methods of this murderous group. However, when ISIS attacked Kobane in September 2014, it was met with a very different enemy. Here, the people of Kobane showed the world that an organized, mobilized, political community is undefeatable. Kobane became humanity’s first line of defense against fascism. Women liberated Kobane from ISIS rapists. This resonated with struggling people around the world.
When trying to understand what is “revolutionary” about Rojava, it is first of all important to emphasize the conditions in which the people are trying to build an alternative – an oppressed, impoverished, colonized, and brutalized population of millions is combating jihadist rapists, a blood-thirsty regime, hostile states like Turkey, reactionary behaviors in the own community, all while suffering political and economic embargoes, and being located in the heart of the third world war, in between the claws of the same old imperialist forces. Within this context, the people of Rojava decided to say no to the nation-state system and rejected the two options that were given to the people in Syria by the system (the status quo embodied by Assad’s dictatorship or a regime change with an increasingly foreign determined or jihadist character) and decided to fight for the “third way”. All of Rojava’s proposals for a solution, have been accented around this call to reject the irrational “lesser evil” mentality and to rely on one’s own power instead. This is illustrated in the federalist system and its social contract, as well as the multicultural defense forces that liberate areas from ISIS and encourage the establishment of people’s councils in the free areas.
People sometimes forget that before the war in Kobane, all the imperialist forces were happy to see the Kurds in Syria being massacred. If today, strong armies are aiding the Kurds on the ground, it is because the latter have shown their fighting ability in action. Intervention in Kobane was an opportunity for Obama to show that his anti-ISIS concept is working, after all its failures. But in reality, the community of Kobane, including women in their 60s had pledged a life or death struggle to arm themselves to protect their homes, months before the coalition was formed. Their strength did not lie in their military equipment, but their political consciousness, organization, and commitment to defend themselves and their community. Tactical military cooperation with states during times of life or death with no other choice for survival are something, strategic political collaboration based on common interests are another. Many sections in the left have been very dogmatic regarding this issue. After the historic legacy of western colonialism in Kurdistan, the Kurds would be suicidal to trust the same powers with their future. There are not too many luxurious choices available in the fight against ISIS. What is important is to protect the revolution from corruption and co-optation by imperialism and capitalism. This is when internationalist solidarity comes in.
The big socialist experiments have resulted in deeply hierarchical power-abusing institutions of mass murder, censorship, and oppression. They betrayed the ideals of socialism and its promising recovery of deeply human values such as solidarity, justice and freedom. At the same time, the radical leftists, more precisely, anarchists often like to avoid the question of power like a hot potato. In the name of opposing authoritarianism and hierarchy, some refuse to coordinate power altogether, which results in a highly individualistic, apolitical, anti-social mode of being.
In Rojava, we can see a clear attempt at addressing of the question of power, which operates not by destroying it, but communalizing it, if you will. There is no point in denying that power exists, just as it is no use to talk about for instance gender equality, without acknowledging the 5000 year old legacy of patriarchy. Therefore, the communes, councils, cooperatives, academies, defense units, municipalities, and other new organizations and sites of resistance are methods of re-locating power, by diffusing it, decentralizing it, and ultimately democratizing it. While the commune is the direct democratic site of practicing your citizenship through active participation on everyday life issues that concern your existence, the delegates to the councils on the village, town, city, regional, cantonal, and now federal level, are there to come up with action plans and coordinate the policies adopted in the direct democratic structures. In the academies, the people, without age limit, learn about the new system, discuss it, criticize it, change, and challenge it. In their cooperatives, they exercise a communal form of economy, with increasing focus on ecological issues, by creating their self-sufficient material worlds, based on solidarity, respect for labor, and shared values. A vibrant civil society, a new art culture, a revival in cultural work is now decorating life in Rojava.
If we think of political self-management of active, free, and rational citizens in voluntary associations with liberationist shared values and commonly maintained resources, as performances of “self-defese”, we could also help overcome leftists’ hesitance of dealing with power. To abolish the state by minimizing its relevance, to decentralize power so much that it is no longer able to establish hierarchies, to radicalize democracy so much that it moves away from classical politics of voting and representation to being a social culture, these should be the premises on which our understanding of revolution should be based in today’s global capitalist economic order, legitimized by the nation-state and patroned by patriarchy.
But there is no copy-paste solution when we look at the possibility of implementing democratic autonomy outside of Kurdistan and the Middle East. For instance, democratic autonomy in Rojava operates differently from Bakur (north Kurdistan/Turkey). Every canton in Rojava has different structures. No commune is alike. The very point of democratic autonomy is that every context knows its conditions, needs, desires, problems, and solutions the best. Therefore, there could not possibly be any picture book way of going about affairs. Standardization of society is a concept that arose with the nation-state. So the very idea that democratic autonomy as implemented in Rojava could be applied in exactly the same way in a place like a metropole in Europe is against the notion of democratic autonomy, as it would deny the agency of the community concerned with all of its complex, unique, and particular dimensions that require creative and flexible solutions.
The principles of democratic autonomy indeed have universal appeal, however, their implementation requires local proposals, adaptations, and actions.
You’ve written about the exoticisation of Kurdish women before, could you talk more about this? Is their participation in armed struggle a new phenomenon or does it have a longer history? Is there any feminist analytic prism that can help us to condense the lived experience of Kurdish women’s movement? How does it differentiate itself from the western, liberal feminism?
The most crucial element of the Kurdish freedom struggle, in Rojava and beyond, is the emphasis on the liberation of women, not as a positive side effect of the revolution, but as its heart and soul, its condition, its very method indeed. Many revolutionary struggles over the centuries have either completely erased women’s role in social justice, or they portrayed women’s elevated situation as some kind of outcome of the general shift towards freedom. However, as the Kurdish women’s movement, we believe that the first systematic overthrow of social justice, communal life, and freedom-based society was the rise of patriarchy and the fall of women. This is basically the history of Mesopotamia, a region once patroned by goddesses, now home of modern day sex slavery. The more one analyzes the mentality of capitalism, beyond mere economic reductionism, the more the mask of the state system will fall. The more the state is analyzed, not only as an institution, but as a mentality, the more one realizes the role of patriarchy in institutionalizing it. When you look at the nuclear family, you can see that it is modeled after the state and vice versa. And thus, there is a fundamental link between the oppressive patriarchal family and society, the state, and capitalism and their devastating effects on the environment, on communities, and on women.
As I said earlier, a lot of the social dynamics in Rojava changed upon the arrival of the PKK in Syria. But the section that experienced the most radical transformation are the women. The arrival of the PKK marked the beginning of women’s political activism in Rojava. They were doing underground illegal work for the organization, but also thousands of women from Rojava joined the PKK at the time and many assumed leadership positions in the PKK over the decades.
There is a tendency in the recent journalistic, academic, and even leftist-activist engagement with Rojava to treat the YPJ as a phenomenon that has nothing to do with the ideology of the PKK, which could not be further from the truth. The fact that women have liberated so many areas from the rapist hands of ISIS is a direct result of the legacy of the PKK.
Within the PKK, too an immense struggle for women’s liberation had to be led. Within the women guerrillas there were also class struggles. But soon, especially with Öcalan’s support, the women realized that in order to liberate their emancipation from the male gaze, they need to organize autonomously and separately to strengthen their internal solidarity first. Thus, the first women’s army, then a party, and soon, entire political and social structures were formed. All of this was accompanied by immense struggles of women in the prisons, on the streets, and in the mountains. Today, we see these guerrilla ideals spreading from the mountains to the communities in the cities and villages in Kurdistan.
Women are not mere participants in the Rojava revolution, they are in fact the pioneers and guarantors of freedom. They set the tone of the policies, they veto ill-measured decisions, they form their autonomous structures and create their own self-defense and decision-making mechanisms. They have created a political environment in Rojava that establishes that violence against women, misogyny, and patriarchal attitudes will no longer be tolerated as the norm. This increasingly impacts the society as a whole. No revolution can succeed without a fundamental shift in mentality away from hierarchy and domination but in favor of freedom. The oldest, thus most rooted, wired, and enshrined constitution of hierarchical civilization today is male domination. Subverting this legacy requires not only immense mental effort and necessary political and social institutions, but also self-defense.
Unlike western liberal feminisms, the Kurdish women’s movement does not merely seek representation, recognition and rights. The struggle that we are engaged in is not one of being satisfied with bureaucratic reforms, cosmetic changes to laws, and illusions about equal opportunity. This model has been imposed by the nation-state conforming international system and its institutions and does nothing but de-radicalize struggles and resistance fronts. If the entire premises, pillars, frameworks, referents, operations, and mechanisms of the global order rely on the enslavement of women, the issue goes beyond any band-aid solutions that liberalism can at best offer. Liberal feminism, as some call it “corporate feminism”, is a sneaky attempt to chain the rage of women, who face an international culture of organized rape, violence, humiliation and harassment. It is racist and classist in nature, and further reinforces different structural violence systems. Our goal is not mere gender equality, but the destruction of patriarchy.
At the same time, radical feminisms also often failed to connect to the community’s problems and remained marginal. Despite their often honest and genuine intentions and militant means, they either alienated society by acting through methods that operate on a different frequency than the social realities, or by seeking very individualized freedom options.
Many culturally rooted feminist movements have often had to compromise the women’s struggle for the so-called “wider” cause, such as national liberation or anti-colonialism. While being deeply rooted in the community, these movements were often stripped off their radical elements for the sake of what is perceived to be “general” liberation, under the banner “our society is not ready yet”.
The Kurdish women’s movement takes all of these experiences as lessons and regards all women’s struggles as its heritage. It is radical, it is militant. But it is also full of love and compassion. It is very realistic and attached to the community, from which it derives its legitimacy. But it also implements its utopias in the here and now, rather than projecting ideals into a future that may never come. The freedom movement has shifted the women’s place from being the home to all spheres of life. We do not believe in overthrowing the system by turning it upside down over night. Above all, society must go through a fundamental mental revolution that sets the tone for the social revolution. How can a worker, conditioned by the factory, be expected to break with the mental walls that the excruciating workplace imposes on them? How can a woman be expected to pioneer society, if her worth has been measured by her sexuality and reproductive abilities and a perverted concept of honor all her life? Education, political literacy, direct action are the remedies to establish a democratic, empowering culture and social climate that will re-activate the stem cells of society and its communalistic, ethical, freedom-loving, creative core.
This is why our movement is so colorful and attracts millions of women in Kurdistan and beyond. From all over the world, women have gone to Kurdistan to seek perspective and learn. Our movement, while having strong principles, has a place for everyone and empowers a broad spectrum of the society without losing its radical core. We do not believe in elitist abstract feminist theory if it cannot touch the life of a rural woman. We also do not believe in approaches so apolitical and careful that they end up achieving nothing. We do not want to fall into the traps of reinforcing male concepts of liberation, but set our own terms. For that, we give everyone the tools to amplify their own voices and thoughts. This happens best by women forming their autonomous and separate structures in the form of communes, councils, cooperatives, academies, centres, and if necessary defense units. We rely on our own power rather than trusting the good heart of men or governments in a patriarchal-capitalist-statist society.
As young Kurdish women, we are very lucky to inherit this legacy. The knowledge that women in Kurdistan have led village uprisings, prison hunger strikes and rebellions, founded guerrilla armies, and risked their lives for political causes of course enriches our identity and breaks social chains and taboos. At the same time, it sets the standards of the struggle very high. Rejecting the backward, patriarchal notions of “honor”, our women’s movement redefined freedom as honor. Especially being surrounded and nourished by independent, strong-willed and freedom-loving women, who leave their private lives behind to struggle for revolution and freedom shaped our self-perception and does not confine us to a one-dimensional view of womanhood.
In Kurdistan there are refugee camps that follow a different logic regarding their function compared to these that European Union constructed recently in order host the flows of refugees from the middle-east. The Kurdish camps are based on the ideas of autonomy and self-management Would like to explain why these camps were built and in what ways these differ from those of European Union’s authorities?
In Kurdistan, some refugee camps, especially over the last years, have modeled themselves on the ideal of democratic autonomy. Particularly Makhmour refugee camp in Iraqi Kurdistan has functioned as the picture book example of democratic autonomy. The camp consists of tens of thousands of Kurds whose villages were destroyed by the Turkish army in the 1990s and who had to settle in the Iraqi part of Kurdistan. The camp was collectively constructed and the inhabitants turned the hostile environment into a green paradise, despite attacks from all sides. A people’s council and a woman’s council coordinate the everyday affairs through committees. An autonomous educational system has been built up, as well as a health care system and economic structures. When ISIS attacked Makhmour in 2014, the people were able to defend themselves and evacuate the camp, due to their experience with self-organization and their political culture. Before Rojava’s revolution, our first experiences with our new system was this refugee camp. Similar experiences now emerge in other refugee camps in Kurdistan that become touched by the ideas of democratic autonomy. The Ezidi Kurds of Sinjar (Shengal in Kurdish), after experiencing the most brutal massacre by ISIS in 2014, leading to the sexual enslavement of thousands of women, today organize their society anew. They created people’s councils and women’s councils and practice self-determination for the first time in their history, after all the trauma, murder, and violence. This is the opposite to the liberal, humanitarian, apolitical approach of European governmental models of dealing with the refugee crisis.
The fundamental difference between the autonomous refugee camps in Kurdistan, that organize themselves according to the principles of democratic autonomy, and camps under the supervision of the international order are their attitude towards the nation-state, power, and autonomy. To exist, to be aware of the reasons why one has become a refugee requires political awareness and direct action. One cannot surrender one’s will and life to the state, which is the root cause of displacement and war. Empowerment of refugees does not work by pacifying them or trying to assimilate or integrate them into dominant systems.
There is a concerted effort to de-politicize the refugee identity, which is charged with politics. Refugees are expected to be nice, grateful, sweet, and ever submissive to the host country’s expectations. But refugees are not apolitical, blank pages that come to another country to start a new life, leaving everything behind. The refugee identity is something that follows you forever, it is extremely charged, it is fundamentally political. It is full of contradictions, ugly realities, and traumas.
It is completely useless to tell a refugee that they are welcome and to propagate that the world would be a better place, if we all loved and hugged each other. The images we see in the media about the “good refugees”, who are holding up signs “thanking” Europe, etc are typical instances of the dominant narrative trying to appease racism at home and depoliticizing the inherently political nature of the crisis. People who want to support refugees need to accept the autonomy of refugees, their right to exist and assert themselves and their sacred right to be political beings with their own agency. This does not mean to expect refugees to assimilate into the dominant culture of Europe with its pseudo-democratic, liberal pretentions, when it is European weapons in the hands of European allies and military alliances that bomb the homelands of people who become refugees. Supporting refugees means to be their comrade, to look at the root causes that lead people into displacement. It means to accept western responsibility for these people’s misery and to expose it. Nobody should have any illusions about the fact that the same EU governments which produce heavy arms to sell them to despotic regimes, and whose policies contributed to the chaos in places like the Middle East, are directly responsible for thousands of refugees drowning in the Mediterranean Sea.
As a person who became a refugee as a child, which is the case for the vast majority of my community, it is frustrating to see the hypocrisy of people shouting “Refugees Welcome” and trying to cut any political commitment out of that statement, as if the causes of the refugee crisis were not political. In the 90s, German tanks and weapons were destroying Kurdistan in the name of the Turkish nation-state. What is the difference today? History is repeating itself, no matter how many blankets we hand out, if we do not challenge the system that enables this circle of displacement.
Helping refugees is an internationalist, revolutionary task that begins by fundamentally questioning the state, capitalism, global arms trade, and the systems of power that enable all of these wars. It is important to make refugees feel welcome, but abolishing the causes that led them to become refugees is the ultimate road to justice.
That is why we must ensure to mobilize the radical potential that lies in the identity of the refugee. But this must happen organically. The democratic autonomy structures that the Kurdish freedom movement has created in Europe for instance (social centres, people’s councils, women’ councils, the youth movement, etc.) were pretty much set up by former refugees, who establish structures parallel to the states they live in.
In the last Turkish general elections the People’s Democratic Party polled at 13.12%, becoming the third largest parliamentary group. Do you think that the parliamentary means that it uses can advance substantially the interests of Turkey’s Kurds? What do you think about its proposals for a radical decentralization of Powers from Ankara to regional assemblies?
It needs to be well understood that the Kurds in Turkey never relied on parliaments and party politics only. The approach of the Kurdish freedom movement towards states is one of “negotiation and struggle”. This means that one needs to create and express their own existence by building their autonomous structures without reliance on the state, but cannot just pretend like the state does not exist.
Hence, the question is not whether parliamentary gains will bring about change. They will not. Many cases illustrate that. The question is, as long as the state exists, what kind of other resistance centers one can organize and what kind of self-defense mechanisms ones has in place to protect oneself from attacks on one’s political agency.
On one hand, parliamentary politics can serve a strong purpose. The very act of bringing Alevi and Ezidi Kurds, Armenians, Assyrians, leftist Muslim Turks, women and men, into this parliament, which denies all of these identities, is a historical political statement. In a parliament with a constitution that states that every citizen of this country is a Turk, the HDP is representing the “others” of the country.
But on the other hand, the same Kurds who voted for the HDP have build barricades and dug trenches against the state today. People voted in an atmosphere of intimidation, harassment, and death by the state. Nobody had any illusions about the intensions of the state, especially after the first elections in June. They rooted their faith in their own power and organization.
Several things can be learned from the experiences of radical or leftist legal-official politics over the last few years, especially with the rise of wars, austerity, and racism in different parts of the world. Official or statist politics in the form of elections and party politics certainly have mobilizing value and can pose limited threats to the system by using its own means. However, we should think in terms of “centres of resistance”, where every person has a role to play and embodies a different part in the struggle – identity is part of this (women, workers, minorities, students, youth, etc.). And every place and method is one area of struggle. For example, elections is one (and obviously among the least radical) area, but the street, the university, the trench/barricade, the family, the workplace, etc. are also areas of struggle, deriving their legitimacy from different sources and requiring different methods and approaches. Each area of struggle needs its self-defense not only against the system but sometimes also against other struggle areas. So in that sense, methods of struggle do not need to contradict each other. They go hand in hand. Contradictions and conflicts within struggles can actually provide them with more democratic characters internally. But what is damaging to a struggle is the reliance on only one area of struggle (for example only elections, or only identity, or only violence, etc.). Thus, if a movement can establish a dialectical relationship between many sites, it can be more successful in finding solutions to social issues. At the heart of movements must be the focus on creating solutions by building alternatives to the status quo. If one only defines one’s political alternative in the form of “anti” something, it will always remain in the passive and reactionary position. What one fights “for” must take the centre of the stage.
As envisioned by the Kurdish freedom movement, the state cannot be abolished over night. Therefore, the right method cannot be to completely ignore the state’s existence by refusing to acknowledge it. This might work for individual life choices or small autonomies. But this cannot liberate a population of millions of people. Because when we talk about the state, we do not just refer to a specific state with a specific government at a specific time and space. The state is a thousands of years old institution, which has manifested its hegemony in economy, science, ideology, religion, culture, arts, and media. It is a mentality. Overcoming such a mentality means to create a system that can truly be an alternative to it. Relying on statist politics without revolutionary alternatives means to fall into the tragic trap of reformism. Rejecting the system without realizing a feasible alternative means to become marginal and weak. So while the state is there, one needs to adapt to the existing conditions and re-create oneself constantly in order to minimize the state’s influence on everyday life on a daily basis, without losing the focus on the greater goal of dismantling the state altogether.
And this is why decentralization is so crucial, even if hard to achieve under such circumstances as under Erdogan’s authoritarian, fascist rule in Turkey. In the era following the coup in July 2016, we have seen a brutal crackdown, not on the coupists, but on whatever was left of Turkey’s civil society. Journalists, human rights activists, lawyers, teachers, community organizers, artists, unions – nobody is spared from the purge. This sort of raid would have been impossible without the year-long war that preceded the coup, in which the Turkish army completely destroyed entire towns in Kurdistan and murdered hundreds of civilians. The state attacks regions such as Sur in Diyarbakir (Amed), Cizre, Silopi, Nusaybin, Yüksekova, etc. especially, because these were areas where the HDP received more than 90% of the votes and where the project of democratic autonomy had developed fruitful grassroots institutions, such as communes, cooperatives, alternative academies, ecological projects, schools, athletic and artistic work, people’s councils, and a immensely strong autonomous women’s movement. Before Rojava’s revolution, the democratic confederalism system was implemented in Bakur (north Kurdistan).
Note that the Turkish state is much more concerned with eradicating these sites of people’s self-management than trying to rid itself of the coup mechanism that has prevailed in the state structures for decades. The only true and powerful opposition to the state currently is the left which gravitates around the Kurdish freedom movement. That is why all three mainstream parties can ally against the HDP, even if some of them are affected by the crackdowns themselves. What all of them hold in common is the desire to preserve the establishment of the Turkish nation-state which is founded on the denial and rejection of the “other” through massacre, genocide, and assimilation. Therefore, it is clear that the real threat to the authorities is the organized, politically aware and active community and its autonomous structures. One ought not to expect that the state will give local autonomies and rights, as these would merely be reforms that maintain the system ultimately. One needs to take it through collective action through self-reliance and self-defense. And now that so many HDP members, including the co-presidents and several MPs, are in jail, the people resort back to alternative, more radical means of politics and action, beyond the ballot.
Do you believe that Abdullah Öcalan should be released?
Of course. Not only is Abdullah Öcalan’s capture a result of an international conspiracy, led by a group of collaborating states and their secret services, his process and current conditions also fundamentally violate international human rights standards. He has been kept in solitary confinement for over 18 years and was the only prisoner on the Imrali prison island, guided by 1000 soldiers, for more than a decade. He has not met his lawyers for more than 5 years. For more than a year and a half, until recently, no family member was allowed to see him. Millions of Kurds have made it clear on several occasions that they consider Öcalan to be their representative in the peace talks with the Turkish state. He announced several ceasefires and came up with a comprehensive road map to peace in Turkey and north Kurdistan, for a just solution in which the peoples of this geography can look each other in the eye again after all the pain. By marginalizing Öcalan’s voice, not allowing him to see his family, lawyers, and political delegations, the state is putting an embargo on a peaceful solution. Öcalan’s intentions are clear, he has written thousands of pages on his thoughts on peace and justice in this conflict, but it is the state that keeps sabotaging a life in dignity. The system does not have a problem with a Kurdish collaborator state-like entity, but a democratic free Kurdistan that is an antidote to the nation-state is brutally attacked. In Öcalan’s personage, the identity of the free Kurdish people and their democratic will is being held hostage.
But Öcalan is not only a political leader, he is also a thinker, who managed to popularize radical and unusual causes such as ecology and feminism among millions of oppressed people. Today, you can find Turks, Arabs, Persians, Armenians, and people from around the world finding inspiration in his ideas and deeply appreciating his leadership. Especially for Kurdish women, Öcalan has been the most reliable comrade. The fact that the Kurdish women’s movement is one of the most organized forces of women’s liberation in the world today owes much to Öcalan’s full support for women’s rage, anger, and uprising. Kobane, the bastion of resistance against ISIS fascism was liberated with the slogan “Bijî Serok Apo!” (Long live leader Apo – nickname for Abdullah). His leadership, especially after the paradigm shift, created an entire community of millions of leaders. That is why today, the Kurdish freedom movement that organizes itself around his ideas makes up a radical, revolutionary force in the Middle East and is willing to fight no matter what it takes for a region that can give women their smile back.
To initiate the renaissance of the Middle East, to lay the fundaments of a free life based on solidarity and friendship of all communities, to see the women of our region regain their rightful place in history again, Abdullah Öcalan must be free!
Dilar Dirik is from northern Kurdistan (Turkey). She is an activist of the Kurdish women’s movement and writes on the Kurdish freedom struggle for an international audience. She is currently working on her PhD at the Sociology Department of Cambridge University.
George Souvlis is a doctoral candidate in history at the European University Institute in Florence and a freelance writer for various progressive magazines including Salvage, Jacobin, ROAR and Lefteast.