RADICAL DEMOCRACY VERSUS TOTALITARIAN EXTREMISM
If the fascist enemy is one that combines patriarchy, capitalism, nationalism, sectarianism and authoritarian statism in its methods and practices, it is clear that a meaningfully anti-fascist struggle must necessarily employ a mentality and ethics that fundamentally opposes the pillars of such systems of violence. The self-defense forces of Rojava attempt to do just that.
Since the liberation of Kobane, the YPG/YPJ have been strengthened in both qualitative and quantitative terms, enabling the fighters to connect two of the three cantons, Jazira and Kobane. In the initial stages of the war, the overwhelming majority of the forces were Kurdish, but the ethnic make-up has changed immensely over time.
In October 2015, the YPG/YPJ joined with a great number of regional forces to create a multi-ethnic coalition. The newly formed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) includes Kurds, Arabs, Syriacs, Assyrians, Chechens, Turkmen, Circassians and Armenians, dedicated to a secular, democratic, federal Syria that will neither accept the dictatorship of Bashar al-Assad, nor foreign-appointed undemocratic oppositions. Although constantly under attack by ISIS and a variety of other enemies — including various Islamist militias, the Syrian Army, the Free Syrian Army and the Turkish state — the SDF successfully liberated ISIS strongholds such as Manbij and Shaddadeh, and currently leads the operation to liberate the so-called capital of ISIS, Raqqa. It controls almost the entire border region south of Turkey, which previously constituted the main supply route for ISIS in terms of logistics, ammunition, finance and manpower.
Turkey has since made it its mission to train Turkmen militias with allegiance to the Turkish state in particular, as well as Sunni forces more generally. The US army constantly stresses that its support for the SDF is for Arabs. Meanwhile, Kurdish forces of the ENKS, close to the Kurdistan Democratic Party of Iraq, led by Massoud Barzanî, attempt to build up a Kurdish army in their own image. Thus, the SDF’s cross-cultural make-up upsets not only forces hostile to Kurdish self-determination, but also narrow Kurdish nationalist projects.
While fighting several fascist enemies at the same time, the SDF merely constitute the physical self-defense system of a wider project to defend society against the statist, capitalist, patriarchal order. Since revolution was declared in Rojava in 2012, tireless efforts have been dedicated to creating a realistic, viable alternative to guarantee a meaningful life for the different communities and groups in the region. The system of Democratic Confederalism in Northern Syria was adopted by a large collective of people from all communities in the region and proposes a model for a secular, democratic, gender-egalitarian, federal Syria, while the local population is mobilizing at the grassroots in the form of radical democratic structures, starting from small street communes.
Through Abdullah Öcalan’s proposed model of Democratic Autonomy, as a practice of direct action in a system of Democratic Confederalism, everyday life in Rojava is organized through the transformation of politics into a vital affair of each inhabitant. By creating alternative forms of social organization through direct self-management and solidarity, safeguarded by autonomous women’s and youth structures, thousands of people have been turned into active, self-determining agents of their own lives.
Radical democracy thus strengthens the ties of solidarity that capitalism tries so aggressively to sever in order to produce the individualized selfish persons it needs for its profit-oriented agenda. Through direct and communal participation in all spheres of life, local people — organized in autonomous, non-statist structures — attain more meaningful senses of self, the wider community and the links between democracy and identity.
In Rojava, there is an intrinsic link between radical democracy and concepts of belonging and identity that take democratic and ethical values as reference points rather than abstract concepts of nationalist myths, on which fascism relies. With the paradigm of the Democratic Nation as an antidote to the nationalism of the state, the protagonists of the revolution in Rojava attempt to formulate an identity around principles rather than ethnicity. This still accommodates the different identities to diversify and secure the democracy of the new unit of belonging. Only such strong communities, based on ethics and politics — a “moral-political society,” in Abdullah Öcalan’s terms — rather than on the meaningless concepts of national identities, can defend themselves against the mental and physical attacks of the fascist enemy.
Radical democracy must therefore necessarily be internationalist in its perspective, while giving all identities the space required to organize and democratize themselves. The creation of the SDF as the self-defense of all components of the region stems from the realization that the time of the nation-state is over and that a free life cannot be constructed by nationalist mindsets if these have been among the causes of the bloodshed. Moreover, the very presence of an autonomous women’s army — unapologetically committed to the liberation of women from all manifestations of male domination — in a sea of militarist, patriarchal violence constitutes the most liberationist, anti-capitalist, anti-fascist element in Rojava. The principles that motivate a woman in a conservative, patriarchal society to be a militant for a just and beautiful world require an immense mental, emotional and physical effort.
It is in fact quite subversive to pick on the ruling symbol of the man in order to smash patriarchy anywhere. But these moves must be accompanied by a broader social revolution. By organizing in cooperatives, communes, assemblies and academies, women managed to become the most vibrant, revolutionary force in Rojava — the guarantors of freedom. While male domination has still not been overcome, women have already established a general political culture that no longer normalizes patriarchy and that unconditionally respects autonomous women’s decision-making mechanisms.
The YPJ underlines that the most direct way of smashing capitalist modernity, religiously-colored fascism, statism and other forms of authoritarianism is women’s liberation. The Wrath of the Euphrates operation to liberate Raqqa, where ISIS still holds thousands of women as sex slaves, is led by none other than a Kurdish woman named Rojda Felat. The scenes of YPJ fighters being hugged and kissed by women who were forced to live under ISIS rule for years, have come to define the history of the twenty-first-century Middle East.
ANTI-FASCISM IS INTERNATIONALISM
The public image of the armed forces of Rojava shifted abruptly in the eyes of sections of the left after the liberation of Kobane. While this was undeniably a historic battle, won by an organized community and the power of free women, the widespread sympathy crumbled the very moment that forces on the ground received aerial support from the US-led coalition. Having long been among the most aggrieved victims of imperialism in the Middle East, the Kurds and their neighbors did not require any further enlightenment about the evils of empire. The genocides and massacres committed against them through collaborations of imperialist forces are still in living memory. Dogmatic, binary worldviews and narrow-minded criticisms do not propose any viable alternatives for people fighting for their lives on the ground. More importantly, they do not save lives.
For the people whose families were being massacred by ISIS, the ease with which Western leftists seemed to advocate for the rejection of military aid in favor of romantic notions of revolutionary purity, were incomprehensible to say the least. Advocacy of unconditional anti-imperialism, detached from real human existence and concrete realities, is a luxury that those far removed from the trauma of war can afford. Well-aware of the dangers of being instrumentalized only to be abandoned by great powers like the US and Russia, but stuck between a rock and a hard place, the priority of the SDF was — and remains — to first of all survive and eliminate the most immediate threats to the existence of hundreds of thousands of people across the vast stretches of territory it controls.
While some in the West adopted a realistic attitude of complex, principled solidarity with the SDF, which understands the dimensions on the ground and works within contradictions, others took the alleged “collaboration with imperialism” as a pretext to refuse any form of acknowledgment of positive elements that the revolution in Rojava could propose in a context of war and chaos. Of course, no revolutionary undertaking in the past centuries has been pure or perfect. And the fact that the SDF cannot only fight such a battle but is also held to higher moral grounds than any of the other armed units in the Syrian war is an important check on their war conduct. But the sectarian dogmatism in which much of the Western left remains embroiled — over the question of Syria in general and Rojava in particular — tells us more about the state of the Western left than about the actual realities of the anti-fascist resistance on the ground.
It is easy to reject any form of authority and power when these are far away from the reach of revolutionaries. But it is inescapable to conceptualize revolutionary power — and when necessary, authority — in order to protect millions. It requires bravery and risk-taking to attempt to institutionalize a liberationist system without falling into the traps of authoritarianism. As long as revolutionary undertakings do not eliminate the danger of home-grown authoritarianism, imperialist co-optation and betrayal, hierarchical mentalities, corruption and abuse will prevail.
The governments involved in the war against ISIS contributed to the chaos through their own policies, warfare and arms trade, and they ultimately share a similar mentality to the one that animates ISIS. They can never be the ones to defeat it. ISIS’ main enemies are precisely those who face it with a radically different way of conceiving of life. Defeating authoritarian extremism is only possible through radical democracy and women’s liberation. Within this context, the SDF constitutes one of the most important anti-fascist struggles of our time. It must be supported.
Arîn Mîrkan’s heroic death was a hymn to life, to freedom, to women’s emancipation. Her selfless action out of solidarity with her people and the freedom of women in particular was a heavy blow not only to ISIS, but to the very mentality that underpins global capitalism’s profit-fetishizing individualism. In a world that sexualizes and objectifies the woman, Arîn Mîrkan used her body as a final frontline against fascism.
The battle for Kobane excited the creative imaginary of people worldwide. It illustrated that a politically conscious, organized society — even one with limited means — can defeat the heaviest of weapons, the darkest of ideologies and the most terrifying of enemies. The task of anti-fascists today must be to never surrender the means of resistance to statist and authoritarian institutions, and to re-claim the means of organizing and defending the community. In order to pay tribute to heroic revolutionaries like Arîn Mîrkan, the anti-fascist struggle must mobilize in all areas of life and say:
Êdî bes e — ya basta — enough!
Click on the image to download a poster-size version from the artist’s website
Dilar Dirik is an activist of the Kurdish women’s movement and regularly writes on the freedom struggles in Kurdistan for an international audience.