The Kurdish experiment: democracy and freedom in the 21st century

Thousands of Yazidis were rescued in August by terrorists. Wait, I thought ISIS (Daesh) were the terrorists?

Oh they are, to be sure. Just that the United States government hasn’t been eager to admit that it wasn’t United States humanitarian intervention that saved these people hidden in those Iraqi mountains. It was the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, best known by their acronym, PKK.

Three PKK fighters pose with an captured ISIS tank.  Taken August 25, 2014.
Three PKK fighters pose with an captured ISIS tank.
Taken August 25, 2014.

The PKK has a history of violent conflict with Turkey, which earned it a spot on the Foreign Terrorist Organization list. The past few years have seen one of the most radical political transformations in modern history. Led by their imprisoned leader, Abdullah Öcalan, the PKK has ended their armed conflict and replaced that struggle with another. Something special is happening in parts of Kurdistan- the most daring democratic experiment of the 21st century.

Writing for The Guardian, David Graeber gives an idea of the political transformation led by the PKK and its Syrian sister party, the PYD:

But what has happened in Rojava, where the Syrian revolution gave Kurdish radicals the chance to carry out such experiments in a large, contiguous territory, suggests this is anything but window dressing. Councils, assemblies and popular militias have been formed, regime property has been turned over to worker-managed co-operatives – and all despite continual attacks by the extreme rightwing forces of Isis. The results meet any definition of a social revolution.

These assemblies start at the lowest level, electing higher levels. Diversity is mandated, including women in positions of authority. Radical literature is discussed frequently in meetings. In some places, the non-state assembly structure is more powerful than the regular government. In some sense, the PKK is replacing the independent country they cannot have with a new sort of free society- one that comes from direct democracy and an end to oppressive institutions.

As Reflections on a Revolution (ROAR) published earlier this year, the PKK has gone through a earnest transformation thanks in part to the honesty of its leader:

Öcalan embarked, in his prison writings, on a thorough re-examination and self-criticism of the terrible violence, dogmatism, personality cult and authoritarianism he had fostered: “It has become clear that our theory, programme and praxis of the 1970s produced nothing but futile separatism and violence and, even worse, that the nationalism we should have opposed infested all of us. Even though we opposed it in principle and rhetoric, we nonetheless accepted it as inevitable.” Once the unquestioned leader, Öcalan now reasoned that “dogmatism is nurtured by abstract truths which become habitual ways of thinking. As soon as you put such general truths into words you feel like a high priest in the service of his god. That was the mistake I made.”

So many hardline Marxist-Leninist militias are unable to break out of their dogma, and they either forsake socialism altogether, or ossify into obscurity. Perhaps there is another way to move forward, to transform from a failed revolution to a thriving one.

Everything that is reprehensible about ISIS is countered by the Kurdish revolutionaries. Clearly they are not terrorists of the same ilk.

Female and male PKK fighters pose during training.
Female and male PKK fighters pose during training.

Thankfully the past day has seen CNBC post a short editorial with a simple title- “Why the US should take PKK off the terror list“. Put simply, the United States has gotten its ass saved by the PKK showing up to save Yazidi- especially after the US-trained peshmerga forces ran away after a brief fight with ISIS. For Western powers, the story of PKK should be positive- an enemy has become a friend. Not due to shifting alliances (the old Cold War mentality), but the transformation of a strong, dedicated group of people.

ROAR ends their feature with a call to action:

those of us who value the idea of civilization owe our gratitude to the Kurds, who are fighting the jihadists of Islamist fascism day and night on the frontlines in Syria and Iraq, defending radical democratic values with their lives.

The Kurds, in particular the PKK and the PYD, should be the talk of the radical left, and any that oppose what ISIS is doing to Iraq and Syria. But the Kurds are often ignored, and even moreso the democratic revolution that is going on in some areas. Let that not be the case. The Kurds are a stateless people, their history is one of cultural loss, genocide, and struggle- armed and unarmed. They have a story to tell us all, we only need listen.

The rage is not over in Turkey.

Well, it appears that the funeral of Berkin Elvan was just the start. Widespread anti-government protests swept Turkey yesterday and today, with two dead, several wounded, and many arrests. This comes before key local elections on March 30th that would lead Prime Minister Erdogan (so he promises) to step down if his party, AKP, loses.

Riot policeman in Istanbul, March 12th, 2014 (credit; Getty Images)

An encore for Occupy Gezi

Riot police in Istanbul fight off fireworks thrown by protestors. March 11th, 2014
Credit: REUTERS/Stringer

After the death of a boy put into a coma during last year’s anti-government protests, most notably the occupation of Gezi Park in Istanbul, protestors returned as thousands gathered for his funeral.

While unlikely to spark a similar wave of anti-government protest- which last year spread to much of Turkey and posed an unusually strong challenge to the rule of Recep Erdogan- the funeral was a conduit for all the rage that propelled events which led to Berkin Elvan’s injury. The resentment has not been yet answered. The conflict is always right beneath the surface, ready to burst forth.

Resistance in 2013: Gezi Park

https://i2.wp.com/www.danieletter.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/11/de_130601_8830_web11-1024x682.jpg
A protester in Gezi Park, Istanbul. June 1st, 2013. Credit: Daniel Etter

2013 was marked by mass actions in Turkey, Chile, Thailand, Cambodia, the Ukraine and many others. Egypt saw street protests become more divided and conflicting, as politically it began to grapple with what a post-Mubarak society should look like.

Gezi Park was a great example of how mass resistance can arise and turn a small, local dispute into a large scale response to national politics. Sometimes all there needs to be is an outlet, a location to rally around- the passion and anger is already there.

Photo is by Daniel Etter, who has done a whole series of photos around the Gezi conflict.

Here I stand [poem]

Here I stand;
As saplings flap and dance in speckled light;
Then grow coarse and woody;
And become the blue-gray sentinels that watch, silent;

Here I stand;
As the cliffside smarts;
When the salted fists crash against its rocky skin;
And the crags wear smooth;
Reaching old age as but pebbles;

Here I stand;
As the old mill, long closed and shuttered;
Creaks and groans in a crescendo;
Consumed by a creeping rust, until nothing remains;

Here I stand;
As the stars extinguish, one by one;
The sky grows unfamiliar;
All that has is gone and done;
And yet, here I stand;

The last straw

I think the issue of bad and expensive public transportation was the last straw…But what bothers me even more is that our government isn’t providing for us more generally. Not in schools. Not in hospitals. We have huge levels of social inequality and violence.

-Priscila Passareli, Brazilian protester

Quote comes from a story in the Los Angeles Times.

In Turkey, it was redevelopment eliminating green space. In Brazil, it was a transit fare hike. These are the vanguard issues, the ones that break people out of complacency. The hundreds of thousands of people are not there solely because the bus is more expensive- they come together in dozens of cities because they feel the government has failed them.

Turkey is in part about the past- the feeling that Prime Minister Erdogan has eroded at the foundation built by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk almost a century ago. In Brazil, it is about a future promised but not delivered on. Much like Hugo Chavez, Evo Morales, and other South America leaders, the Workers’ Party has been kept in power through a bold anti-poverty pledge. That poverty is down, but few other issues are resolved- education, transit, infrastructure, crime, inequality- has indicated to many that the party has either slowed down their promise, or stopped entirely. The huge investments in the Confederations Cup, the World Cup, and then the Summer Olympics amplify what is seen as a lack of investment in ordinary people.

Americans are often mad when cities build sports stadiums for private teams- often costing hundreds of millions of dollars. But what if we also had a poverty rate, illiteracy rate, and crime rate like Brazil? It would be enough to riot over. And Brazil is.

Here I stand

Here I stand

Erdem Gunduz engaged in a form of protest that emphasizes power not by motion, but by the lack of motion. For eight hours he stood silently in Taksim Square- which had been violently cleared out by riot police earlier. Passers-by went from indifferent, to annoyed, to amused, and finally began to emulate him. By the time police moved in at 2am, there were three hundred people standing still, looking at the Ataturk Cultural Center- where a large picture of the famous secular president is displayed.

He is now called “duran adam,” Turkish for “standing man.” Many followup actions throughout Turkey take his lead.