Rethinking Democracy in Kurdistan
31 December 2022
Kurdistan, Dilshad Questani. Image Credit: Saatchi
The Kurdish movement has revitalised the idea of democracy. Under the most difficult of circumstances – squeezed between ISIS on one side and the Turkish armed forces on the other – a radical form of democracy has been implemented that has inspired many both inside and outside the region. Introducing the special issue “Rethinking Democracy in Kurdistan”, this article explores the ingenious challenge to the nation-state system posed by this new democratic theory and practice, focusing on the prison writings of Abdullah Öcalan. These remarkable texts are read as proposing a new philosophy of world-history which decisively breaks with Marxism, displaces the central place of Europe, and drastically extends the point in time at which philosophies of history typically begin.
Extraordinary things have been happening in Kurdistan. Taking “democracy” as its leading concept, the Kurdish movement has radically rethought its history, its theory, and its practice. Eschewing standard European models where democracy is too often seen as something that happens only every few years when it is time to vote, the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria, also known as Rojava, has organized itself according to novel systems of decentralized democratic decision-making that do not have a singular sovereign authority sitting on top. The autonomous region does not aspire to become a state or even to supplant any existing states; instead, the goal is to build “democratic confederalist” structures that enable society to implement its own autonomous decisions whichever national borders happen to run through it. Other political divisions of the Kurdish movement, notably the HDP (“People’s Democratic Party”) in Turkey, have implemented similar models as far as has been possible in their own contexts across state lines.
These have been particularly important theoretical developments for the Kurds, since they are the world’s largest ethnic group without a nation-state of their own, despite having a large historic homeland in which they are an overwhelming majority (a legacy of the hated Sykes-Picot agreement between British and French colonial powers that carved up the region in 1916). Rather than trying to secede from the existing countries that control the four regions of historic Kurdistan – Turkey in the North, Iran in the East, Iraq in the South, Syria in the West – the goal has been to create democratic institutions that function independently of the state. Indeed, the nation-state structure is theorized by the movement as being intrinsically opposed to civil society, and as having a militaristic, even fascistic character against which society must be defended. Democratic confederalism itself is defined as “a system of self-defence of society” from the state, which when left to its own devices tends towards “societycide”. (1)
Women’s liberation has been central to this new paradigm. Because discrimination against women is theorized as having its roots in civilizational structures that go back thousands of years – “women are the oldest colony” is the key formula – democratization and indeed decolonization are thought to be organically linked to the struggle against patriarchy. As such, the movement generally adopts far more active measures to combat sexism within its political structures than has been typical in Western democracies. A system of co-chairs and co-presidencies (hevserokatî) directly institutionalizes gender equality; all committees and councils have two leaders with the same formal powers, one male and one female, with only women allowed to vote for the female candidate. (2) This not only makes the female co-chair specifically accountable to the women who elected her, it also ensures that women hold half of all elected leadership roles at every level, from local councils all the way up to districts, cantons and regions. This institutional commitment goes far beyond many so-called advanced democracies, which have often been better at lofty rhetoric than action on this issue. No European country has yet reached 50% political representation of women in their parliaments in single or lower houses; Rojava achieved it on day one. (3)
What makes these developments all the more surprising are the dire circumstances in which they took place. Theoretical innovations like these ones are often written off as frivolous and unworkable idealism, suitable, perhaps, for a low-stakes environment like a student commune or an anarchist bookshop, but not for running a complex society. It is often argued that radical democracy is a nice idea, but in practice it can only make a society’s decision-making capacity slower, weaker, and unable to deal with serious issues such as military conflict or terrorism, which, regrettably, require a strong centralized leadership. But in fact, these new democratic practices were built, tested, and continually revised in one of the most dangerous warzones on the globe. Rojava was forged in the crucible of the Syrian Civil War, and its military wing – which is also governed by decentralized democratic structures that make its units accountable to elected local civilian councils (4) – decisively contributed to the turning point in the war that saw the Islamic State lose most of its territory in the mid-2010s. The breaking of ISIL’s siege of Kobanê brought international attention to Rojava, particularly to the all-women YPJ (“Women’s Protection Units”) that played such a significant role in the defeat of the caliphate. (5) Though the fight against ISIS continues to be a stunning success, the more dangerous threat now comes from the mighty Turkish armed forces on the other side, who just a few weeks ago instituted a wave of devastating airstrikes (“Operation Claw-Sword”) and are threatening a full-blown ground invasion that may well bring down the administration.
A democratic solution to the Kurdish question would be of world-historical significance since it would indicate a way forward for many other difficult struggles across the globe, including the apparently intractable conflict between Israel and Palestine.
The wider political context for this remarkable experiment in democracy, however long it may last, is a decades-long persecution of the Kurdish people. To even say the name of the region is to invite controversy, repression, and sometimes incarceration. Though some of the laws criminalizing the Kurdish language were relaxed in the 1990s, the linguistic oppression has intensified again recently in Turkey, for example, with new laws being passed in 2017 that have already been used to expel HDP politician Osman Baydemir from the legislature apparently just for saying the word “Kurdistan” in parliament. (6) In fact, the official and unofficial prohibition of the language is so extreme that it has reached the level of the letter. A court case decided this year ordered a family to rename their child since their chosen name Ciwan, which means “young”, contains the letter “w”, which is included in the Kurdish alphabet but not the Turkish one. Citing the 1928 Law on Adoption and Application of Turkish Letters, the Çiğli Civil Registry Directorate in İzmir refused to grant official identification papers because the proposed name contains the prohibited letter and, incredibly, the constitutional court unanimously upheld this judgment as not discriminatory against Kurds. (7) Bans have affected expressions of virtually anything that could be taken to refer to a distinctively Kurdish culture, even those that go beyond language. In an often-mentioned incident that took place at the peak of the repression of the 1940s, Kurdish intellectual Musa Anter is said to have been jailed for the crime of whistling a tune, on the grounds that the melody was that of an old folk song and therefore “in Kurdish”. (8) This fabled arrest was recalled in a 2018 event at the very same location, Dicle University in Diyarbakır (Kurdish name Amed), in which a student was arrested on the charge of “spreading terrorist propaganda”, apparently for the same crime: whistling a melody. (9)
Kurds have also faced significant physical violence, including the heinous attack at the Ahmet Kaya Kurdish Cultural Centre in Paris just a few days ago. Although much still remains unknown, it is striking how differently the incident is being reported in French and international media on the one side, and in Kurdish media on the other. The predominant reaction of French authorities has been to deplore the attack, of course, but to treat it as an expression of a generic anti-migrant sentiment, thereby implying that it was not really about Kurds at all. “Racism” is used as an explanation of motive in a way which curiously de-politicizes the event, as if racists hate all marginalized people equally and in the same way, and do not really think about whom they target. While this individual seems to have had a pathological hatred of many immigrant groups, he said himself that he went after Kurds specifically for the reason that they had “taken prisoners during their fight against the Islamic State instead of killing them”. (10) As bizarre, even nonsensical as this reasoning may be – especially considering the first person he killed, Emine Kara (nom de guerre Evîn Goyî), had indeed fought against ISIS in Rojava before coming to France (11) – it shows that the attack was indeed carried out against Kurds in particular, and for political reasons.
By contrast, Kurdish media have overwhelmingly chosen to emphasize the continuity between this attack and other episodes of politically motivated violence against their community. Most often mentioned is the assassination of Sakine Cansız and two others which happened in 2013 just a few streets away, and which was a huge blow to the Kurdish political movement as she was one of its most important founding members, famously described as “the Kurdish Rosa Luxembourg”. (12) The 2013 attack is still the source of significant tension between the Kurdish community and the French state because the French authorities closed their investigation without making the results public after the perpetrator died in prison in 2016, in spite of compelling evidence pointing to the involvement of Turkey’s spy agency MIT (which it denies). In fact, the real target of the 2022 attacker may well have been a planning meeting for the ten-year anniversary commemoration of the triple murder, which was scheduled to take place at the Kurdish centre at the time the killer arrived. If the meeting had not been postponed due to problems with public transport, he would have had the opportunity to massacre some 60 prominent members of the Kurdish women’s movement in Paris. (13) Whether or not he had specific ties to the Turkish intelligence services or to other paramilitary groups, as has been alleged by some, it is clear that extremist anti-Kurdish views were part of his ideology. Even if he does turn out to have been a so-called “lone wolf”, the Turkish state will nonetheless still be held responsible by many Kurds for putting out the bulk of the violently anti-Kurdish propaganda that radicalized this man and many others, and which can therefore be understood as a form of “stochastic terrorism” (i.e. public speech acts that do not directly incite acts of political violence and so shield their speaker from legal responsibility, but which nonetheless have the predictable and even intended effect of increasing the probability that individual extremists will carry out terroristic attacks themselves).
It is not only the democratic practices of the Kurdish movement that were formed under challenging conditions of intense high pressure. The theory, too, has a remarkable origin – and there is a philosopher behind it. The ideas being implemented by the Kurdish movement were largely developed by Abdullah Öcalan from the prison cell where he has been held since 1999. For ten years he was the only inmate on the formidable island prison of İmralı, watched over by more than a thousand guards. When in prison, Öcalan did what many other great revolutionaries have done when all appeared to be lost: engage in extensive reading to rethink the fundamentals of the approach he and his party had been taking for many years. In addition to a range of books in politics, science, history, religion, classical literature and the history of philosophy, Öcalan read widely in contemporary philosophy and social theory, including works by Deleuze, Butler, Said, Mies, Benhabib, Adorno, and most of the major works of Foucault. (14) Owing to the rather unique situation of the reading and research that went into these texts, we know exactly what he read while in prison since his lawyers had to keep records of every book that was brought to him. The German edition of Beyond State, Power, and Violence contains a useful bibliography of the books he received before 2008; other lists in Turkish circulating unofficially list others he has read since 2008. (15)
This extensive reading, and the reflection it inspired, led to what Öcalan often describes as a “third birth”, in which he underwent a profound change in his theoretical orientation. (16) The PKK – the Kurdistan Workers’ Party that he founded and led – had largely followed the Marxist-Leninist model through the late 1970s and 1980s, seeing themselves as one of the many anti-colonial national liberation movements that were active across the world at that time. Under the slogan “Kurdistan is a colony”, their goal was to create an independent and socialist Kurdistan. But after Öcalan’s intellectual metamorphosis in prison, a new paradigm was defined for the movement, the key to which was a transformation in their relationship to the state. No longer seeking national independence, and now highly critical of both orthodox Marxist theory and real socialism, Öcalan shifted the movement’s priority to the theory and practice of democracy. The apparent weakness of the Kurds’ situation – their dispersion across four nation-states that have been extremely hostile to any claims of self-determination, arguably to the point of cultural genocide – is re-conceived as a strength, since it is now thought to reveal structural problems with the nation-state system as such, which would have prevented their liberation even had they succeeded in their goal of creating a new state. Öcalan frequently claims that a democratic solution to the Kurdish question would be of world-historical significance since it would indicate a way forward for many other difficult struggles across the globe, including the apparently intractable conflict between Israel and Palestine. (17)
These new ideas were outlined in a series of thirteen books written from prison as submissions to his defense at the European Court of Human Rights, which he frequently compares to the Apology of Socrates. (18) Because he had no other means of communicating with those outside the prison – no phone calls, letters, or visits from anyone other than his siblings and lawyers – this was a rather ingenious way of getting his ideas out there, perhaps the only one practically available to him. (19) In the preface to The Sociology of Freedom, he explains his remarkable reading and writing technique:
In solitary confinement, I am only allowed one book, one magazine, and one newspaper in my cell at any given time. Thus, it was impossible for me to take notes or to quote from sources. My main method has been to commit to memory the points that I found important and absorb them into my personality. (20)
Though citations are understandably missing on some occasions where one would have liked to have seen them and small errors are sometimes made in the interpretation of complex philosophers, I agree with David Graeber’s assessment that the achievement here is really quite impressive, all things considered. (21)
The only way he could adequately defend himself is by outlining these ideas in a series of books that I would argue amount to a new philosophy of world-history that seeks to displace those we have inherited from the 19th and 20th centuries. The ambition of these works is staggering: they are an attempt to overcome the Eurocentrism and Orientalism of traditional European philosophy by re-formulating world-history from the point of view of the Middle East, starting with the neolithic communities that lived in the Fertile Crescent after the end of the fourth ice age and going all the way to the present.
In these texts, Öcalan argues that it is not he as an individual that is really on trial, but the Kurdish people as a whole. The notion of an “individual complaint”, cut off from the social identities related to it, is merely “a fallacy of official Eurocentric epistemology”. (22) What is really at stake are political issues, historical tendencies, and philosophical principles that require significant elaboration if they are to be properly understood. As such, the only way he could adequately defend himself is by outlining these ideas in a series of books that I would argue amount to a new philosophy of world-history that seeks to displace those we have inherited from the 19th and 20th centuries. The ambition of these works is staggering: they are an attempt to overcome the Eurocentrism and Orientalism of traditional European philosophy by re-formulating world-history from the point of view of the Middle East, starting with the neolithic communities that lived in the Fertile Crescent after the end of the fourth ice age and going all the way to the present. The region where Kurds live is home to the earliest known civilization, giving them a special vantage point into the origins of the state, class society, and patriarchy, just as their current status as both insiders and outsiders to the nation-state world-system – and indeed to capitalist modernity in general – gives them a special vantage point into the world politics of today.
The sheer scale of this philosophical re-writing of world-history from the Kurds’ unique perspective would make philosophers like Hegel or Heidegger blush. The Ancient Greeks, for example, mark an important moment for Öcalan as they do for the great German philosophies of history, but with his focus being on the Middle East he has little temptation to treat them reverentially as the singular origin of philosophy, or even as the inventors of democracy. Humanity’s great achievements – and its first world-historical civilizational missteps – are dated significantly earlier than the Greeks, indeed as distant from them as they are from us. In volume 1 of the five-volume Manifesto for a Democratic Civilization Öcalan names Ferdinand Braudel as an important influence and introduces the notion of the longue durée as a core element of his own method. (23) However, the timescale of Braudel’s own history of the Mediterranean seems paltry by comparison to Öcalan’s; for him the key period of social history is “10,000 to 4,000 BCE”. (24)
The region where Kurds live is home to the earliest known civilization, giving them a special vantage point into the origins of the state, class society, and patriarchy, just as their current status as both insiders and outsiders to the nation-state world-system – and indeed to capitalist modernity in general – gives them a special vantage point into today’s global politics.
The state, Öcalan argues, was invented in this age by the Sumerians, who created the first known society to be based on a hierarchical class system. (25) The fact that our contemporary world continues to be organized according to nation-states structured by class suggests that we have not yet departed from the civilizational blueprint left to us at Sumer, and so “to learn about the Sumerians and their state, therefore, amounts to learning about ourselves and the times we live in.” (26) This goes not just for the broad outlines of the society they created, but even to highly specific apparatuses, institutions, and forms of power:
An understanding of the functioning of the Sumerian temples is central to understanding the present. Not only mosque and church, but also the university have to retrace their origins to the Mesopotamian ziggurats. No matter how obsolete the ziggurats may seem to us, we should not forget that they were the seedbeds for literally thousands of the most cherished institutions of civilization. They were the laboratories for the encoding of human mindsets, the first asylums where the submissive creature was created. (27)
Recent archaeological and anthropological work has pointed to other Sumerian inventions that still shape contemporary forms of subjectivity including standardized classroom instruction and the quantification of human labor into units of time that can be grouped into typical workloads. (28) Muazzez İlmiye Çığ, the great Assyriologist whose many books on the subject are Öcalan’s primary source on Sumerian civilization, created a media storm in 2006 when she claimed on the basis of cuneiform tablets that even the headscarf originated there, as part of an initiation rite for priestesses that involved a sexual ritual with young men. (29) These institutions, and the modes of subjectivation they produce, are products not of capitalist modernity as one might have thought, but of the layout of ziggurats in the first recorded state.
This new philosophy of history, with its increased emphasis on the role of the state as the historical locus of oppression and slavery, entails a number of significant breaks with classical Marxism. Because Marxist accounts of history do not seriously consider the long duration, they fall into the error of thinking that the state could be a tool of liberation, and indeed a vehicle for the abolition of class society as such if only it were run by the right class, which would negate itself once it comes to power. (30) By expanding significantly on the under-theorized historical materialist account of slave-holding societies (i.e. the stage in between “primitive communism” and feudalism), Öcalan argues that present states, including socialist ones, are to a significant degree still shaped by this earlier form, which is therefore not as obsolete as Marxists would like us to think. (31) Older social forms and modes of production do not disappear as one stage passes over into the next, but continue to exist alongside the newer ones, to different degrees in different times and places. This blind spot is at the root of some familiar criticisms of Marxism that Öcalan broadly agrees with, including its unfortunate tendency to produce authoritarian rather than democratic regimes, its overly dismissive stance towards religion, and its economic reductionism.
The sheer scale of this philosophical re-writing of world-history from the Kurds’ unique perspective would make philosophers like Hegel or Heidegger blush. The Ancient Greeks, for example, mark an important moment for Öcalan as they do for the great German philosophies of history, but with his focus being on the Middle East he has little temptation to treat them reverentially as the singular origin of philosophy, or even as the inventors of democracy. Humanity’s great achievements – and its first world-historical civilizational missteps – are dated significantly earlier than the Greeks, indeed as distant from them as they are from us.
The focus on Sumerian society also has vital implications for how one ought to think about gender discrimination, another central pillar of Öcalan’s view:
An important characteristic of Sumerian mythology can be found in the instructive narratives about how class society and gender discrimination developed together. This is important: insofar as it is a reconstruction of the emergence of class society, it confirms the hypothesis that discrimination against women was the earliest form of social discrimination. (32)
If one accepts this claim that “women were the first colony” and that theirs was the first systematic enslavement that gave the model or archetype for all the rest, this means the social structures that any liberatory movement must fight against are different – older – than Marxists typically think. Further, it leads Öcalan to the view that women have an “avant-garde” role in politics. (33) He explains: “women’s reality is a problem more concrete and accessible to analysis than concepts like proletariat or oppressed peoples, which were so popular in the past. The extent to which social transformation takes place will be determined by the change women experience.” (34) More so even than the proletariat, women are now conceived as the key revolutionary subject in the millennia-long struggle against the state, class society and patriarchy. Again, the goal is not to replace the “dictatorship of the proletariat” with a “dictatorship of women” – though this is apparently how his formula of “killing the male” (kuştina zilam) was interpreted by some anxious male cadre when it was first introduced (35) – but to emphasise the deep-seated genealogical links between patriarchy, the state, and class society which, he claims, were born together. (36)
The Kurdish women’s movement has proven the efficacy of this analysis many times over by being at the forefront of many important struggles for free life in the region. I have already mentioned the women’s protection units’ extraordinary courage in the war against ISIS, and the essential role they played in its defeats. More recently, it has been the driving force behind the protests in Iran that arose after the murder of Jîna Mahsa Aminî. Her name – Jîna, which means “life” in Kurdish – was not legally recognized by the Iranian state, which does not allow citizens to register names that are not of Persian or Islamic origin; Mahsa was her state-approved name, and Jîna her forbidden Kurdish name. The movement has rallied under the slogan “jin, jiyan, azadî” (“women, life, freedom”), which comes from the Kurdish movement and may even have been coined by Öcalan himself. (37) These protests have been described by participants and observers as marking a significant departure from previous upheavals in Iran, including the 1979 revolution that so fascinated Foucault and the Green Movement of 2009, largely due to the role played by the Kurdish women’s movement. (38)
My goal in this introductory article, and in putting together this special issue on “Rethinking Democracy in Kurdistan” more generally, has been to bring wider attention to these exceptional works, especially to our audience of internationalist philosophers and readers of philosophy who take a special interest in the question of democracy. When I was asked to prepare a special issue for Philosophy World Democracy, I thought long and hard about which topic would best fulfil what Jean-Luc Nancy described as “the task that awaits us” at the founding of the journal: “the sense of each of these words – philosophy, world, democracy – must henceforth be entirely invented”. (39) It seems to me that Öcalan’s thinking – and the wider Kurdish movement that has had some real success in realizing it – stands as one of the most significant attempts to rethink the sense of democracy today. It is often noted that democracy faces significant threats across the world, and yet this is usually offered up as a reason to support the same old parties with the same old ideas; rarely are these challenges taken as an opportunity to reflect on whether democracy’s existing forms actually live up to their promise. And this does concern philosophy – as Öcalan himself puts it in his most recently translated book: “countless contemporary and historical examples have shown that a democracy that does not rest on philosophy can quickly degenerate or even be misused by demagogues as the foulest tool for ruling the people. […] A return to philosophy, as opposed to today’s science enmeshed in power, is the departure point of a free society.” (40)
My aim has been to engage in precisely such a return to philosophy by presenting texts that tackle the issues from a number of perspectives, but always with a special focus on democracy: from concrete analyses of what has been happening on the ground to theoretical analyses of Öcalan’s thinking; from the prospects of democratic confederalism for other regions in the global south to the political strategy that underpins it; from Rojava in Syria to the HDP in Turkey; from the women’s movement to the question of indigeneity; from reflections on art and design to reflections on the economy; from advocacy to sympathetic critique. Taken together, these varied interventions demonstrate the vibrancy of these discussions and the significance they could have both within and outside the region.
Azize Aslan introduces Öcalan’s “Free Life Paradigm” in Construction of a Democratic, Ecological, and Gender Libertarian Communal Economy in Kurdistan. Focusing especially on the role of economics, she explores core conceptual issues in Öcalan’s subtle divergences from the famous analysis of the commodity in Marx’s Capital and brings out the consequences this has for their respective understandings of capitalism as a system. Introducing the distinction between “capitalist modernity” and “democratic modernity” – the key terms in Öcalan’s prison writings, which are an account of the history of democracy, among many other things – she explains the ecological and gender libertarian elements of the alternative account of communal economy that has been theorized by Öcalan and practiced by the Kurdish movement.
The Art of Freedom: A Brief History of the Kurdish Liberation Struggle, a 2021 book by Havin Güneşer, is the definitive introduction to the subject in the English language. Based on a series of three seminars given at the California Institute of Integral Studies at San Francisco, the book’s engaging and conversational style, and the extensive knowledge of its extraordinary author (who is the main translator of Öcalan’s texts into English, as well being as an engineer, journalist, and women’s rights activist), brings this history to life. The Rebellion of the Oldest Colony – Jineolojî, the Science of Women and Life is an excerpt from the second seminar on the women’s movement. Extending the story beyond only the experience of Rojava, Güneşer talks us through the formation of various groups and theoretical paradigms from the 1980s on, including concepts such as “eternal divorce”, “killing the [dominant] male”, and the “women’s social contract”.
Öcalan’s thinking – and the wider Kurdish movement that has had some real success in realizing it – stands as one of the most significant attempts to rethink the sense of democracy today. It is often noted that democracy faces significant threats across the world, and yet this is usually offered up as a reason to support the same old parties with the same old ideas; rarely are these challenges taken as an opportunity to reflect on whether democracy’s existing forms actually live up to their promise
Michael M. Gunter, the leading scholar of Kurdish studies in the US, brings a political science perspective to the question of democracy. Kurdish Democracy: Evolving Concept or Stuck on Family Business as Usual? explores two paths that Kurdish nationalism has taken in its attempts to democratize the region: the KRG (Kurdistan Regional Government) model in Iraq, and the PKK/Rojava model in Syria. The KRG is the closest thing to a modern Kurdish state, and so has marked some progress on the long road to democratization. But it has had too many problems, in Gunter’s view, to count as an unmitigated success, many of them stemming from the unhealthy dominance of the Barzani family. The decentralized democratic approach in Turkey and Syria, by contrast, has been successful in some respects, notably on gender issues, but for Gunter it has proven just too difficult to implement in practice. Ultimately, he argues, the Kurds need a government of their own if they are to get beyond “family business as usual”, and to truly democratize the region.
Fouâd Oveisy brings our attention to a disturbing authoritarian drift on the ground in Rojava which is the result, he argues, of the abandonment of the sophisticated political strategy that lay behind Öcalan’s democratic confederalism. Farewell, Rojava: The Philosophical Case for Strategic Thinking as a Democratic Necessity insists on a reading of Öcalan’s political theory not as a utopian ideal cut off from the incredibly complex political realities of the region, but first and foremost as a masterstroke of realpolitik, which proved itself remarkably successful in the period when it was actually being followed. In contrast to an anti-strategic view found in post-68 philosophers like Rancière, Oveisy argues that the Rojava experience – including its recent tragic descent into authoritarianism – shows the necessity of a deep thinking of strategy within contemporary democratic left political theory.
Hito Steyerl – a German artist who was named the most influential person in the contemporary art world in 2017 – has supported the Kurdish people’s struggles for freedom at least since 2004’s video essay November, which followed the traveling image of her charismatic friend Andrea Wolf, killed in 1998 after joining the women’s army of the PKK. (41) Steyerl’s background in philosophy is on display in How to Kill People: A Problem of Design, chapter 2 of her 2017 book Duty Free Art, which considers the intersection of design, warfare and mass killing through the case of Diyarbakır, the largest Kurdish-majority city in Turkey. Riffing on Heidegger, she introduces the concept of Design-zum-Tode and discusses the disruptive effects of contemporary digital fascisms.
Hassan Ali sets up a comparison between Rojava and decolonial movements in South Asia at the time of partition. Where the conventional view is that Pakistan was born out of a ‘two-nation theory’, a campaign for Muslims to have their own nation-state, revisionist views hold that Jinnah was always ambivalent about statehood as an ultimate solution, instead preferring the model of self-governing confederations between Muslim and non-Muslim majority areas. Fighting the Nation-State: From Rojava to Kashmir imagines how the theory of democratic confederalism might travel to this other context, focusing on the ongoing territorial conflict in Kashmir. Noting that areas of conflict between nation-states are often fertile sites for the most interesting and radical democratic possibilities, she sees the opening for something like a new Rojava in this bitterly contested region.
Struggle for Self-Determination: The Kurds and Mesopotamian Indigeneity suggests that the Kurdish movement – especially the HDP in Turkey, whose members are interviewed and quoted by the author – might be well served by adopting the language and concepts of “indigeneity”. Distinguishing between discourses on “ethnic minorities” and “indigenous peoples”, Aynur Unal points out that Kurds have a strong claim to the latter: they lived in their historic homeland long before the founding of the modern states that now govern it, have a distinct culture and language that predates those nations’, and have ancestral and kinship ties that may even go back to ancient Mesopotamian and Anatolian peoples. What’s more, there are good reasons to reject the misleading label of “ethnic minority”, since Kurds are a significant population who are the majority group in many of the areas they have historically lived.
1. Abdullah Öcalan, “Democratic Confederalism” in The Political Thought of Abdullah Öcalan, London: Pluto Press, 2017, p.44; Abdullah Öcalan, “My Solution for Turkey, Syria, and the Kurds”, Jacobin August 2020, https://jacobin.com/2020/08/ocalan-turkey-syria-kurds-op-ed
2. On this system, see Dilar Dirik’s brilliant recent book The Kurdish Women’s Movement: History, Theory, Practice, London: Pluto Press, 2022, p.187.
4. For a description of some of these structures, see the Rojava Information Center Report Beyond the Frontlines: The Building of the Democratic System in North and East Syria, 2019, p.50, accessible here: https://rojavainformationcenter.com/2019/12/report-beyond-the-frontlines/
5. The story of women fighters bravely overthrowing ISIS has proved irresistible to elite liberal feminism in the US; Hillary and Chelsea Clinton have already bought the rights to produce a documentary about Kobanê. Clinton’s description of the story as “an extraordinary account of brave, defiant women fighting for justice and equality” suggests that it will be stripped of the context of the wider Kurdish women’s movement and its ideas and turned into a vague feel-good story for a US audience. Never mind that the movement sees itself as opposed to liberal and neoliberal feminisms, and has even criticised Clinton specifically! See Dirik, The Kurdish Women’s Movement, pp.310-311 for a critique of liberal feminisms and p.306 for a critique of Clinton; see also Havin Güneşer, The Art of Freedom: A Brief History of the Kurdish Liberation Struggle, PM Press, 2021, p.56 for a succinct account of important differences with some Western feminisms.
7. Constitutional court case 2018/33702 E can be read in translation here: https://av-saimincekas.com/en/anayasa/anayasa-mahkemesinin-2018-33702-e-sayili-karari/
8. This story, which has become something of a legend, is related by Kuruoğlu, who explains that during her fieldwork she lost count of the number of times she heard interviewees use the phrase: “it was forbidden even to whistle in Kurdish (Kürtçe ıslık çalmak bile yasaktı)”. Alev Pinar Kuruoğlu, The Emergence and Evolution of a Politicized Market: The Production and Circulation of Kurdish Music in Turkey (Ph.D. dissertation, İhsan Doğramacı Bilkent University, Ankara, 2015), p.104.
9. The original reporting on this incident can be found here: https://t24.com.tr/haber/nevruzda-calinan-islik-teror-orgutu-propagandasi-sayildi-27-yila-kadar-hapisleri-isteniyor,564192. A video seeming to corroborate the student’s point of view – that he was arrested merely for whistling – can be viewed here: https://twitter.com/MAturkce/status/965856676418064384
11. Le Monde put together a good profile of her here: https://www.lemonde.fr/societe/article/2022/12/26/emine-kara-mir-perwer-et-d-abdulrahman-kizi-trois-nouveaux-martyrs-de-la-cause-kurde_6155750_3224.html
12. Lava Asaad, “Structuring Jineology within Global Feminism: Representations of Kurdish Women Fighters in Western Media” in In the Crossfire of History: Women’s War Resistance Discourse in the Global South eds. Lava Asaad and Fayeza Hasanat, New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2022, p.56; this moniker was given to her by former mayor of Amed, current political prisoner Gültan Kışanak. See also Cansız’s influential memoir Sakine Cansız, Sara: My Whole Life was a Struggle trans. Janet Biehl, London: Pluto Books, 2018.
13. For a fuller explanation of the many irregularities and unanswered questions about the case, see the Conseil Démocratique Kurde en France (CDK-F) report here: https://medyanews.net/wp-content/uploads/2022/12/The_Paris_attack_and_the_many_unanswered_questions.pdf
14. It was Öcalan’s reading of Foucault that first drew my own attention to his writings as I was carrying out a research project on the reception of Foucault’s lecture course “Society Must Be Defended” in different global contexts, from Africa to India, from Latin America to the Middle East. This lecture course appears to have been especially significant to Öcalan, who often uses the phrase “society must be defended” (though he gives it a somewhat different sense than Foucault). His prison writings can, I think, be fruitfully read in the tradition of “political historicism” that Foucault defines in that lecture course, in which a political philosophy is developed not out of supposedly universal first principles, but from a self-consciously partisan account of the history of a particular group. As will soon become clear, Öcalan’s political historicism dwarfs those of Boulainvilliers, the Levellers, and even Foucault himself in terms of the enormous period of time it covers and the range of political conclusions it draws. I will present some further results of this research in a future article that will be titled “Reading Foucault on İmralı Island”.
15. See Abdullah Öcalan, Jenseits von Staat, Macht und Gewalt trans. Reimar Heider, Wien: Mandelbaum, 2019, pp.555-573. The English edition of vol. 1 of his prison writings also contains a helpful chapter-by-chapter bibliography of the books he consulted when writing it; see Abdullah Öcalan, Prison Writings, vol.1: The Roots of Civilisation trans. Klaus Happel, London: Transmedia Publishing, 2007, pp.312-313.
16. Abdullah Öcalan, Prison Writings, vol.2: The PKK and the Kurdish Question in the 21st Century, trans. Klaus Happel, London: Transmedia Publishing, 2011, p.96; 152; see also Abdullah Öcalan, Declaration on the Democratic Solution of the Kurdish Question trans. Kurdistan Information Centre, London: Mesopotamian Publishers, 1999, pp.9-10 for an earlier account of his shift.
17. Öcalan, Prison Writings, vol. 3, p.25.
18. Öcalan, Prison Writings, vol.1, p.x; Abdullah Öcalan, Manifesto for a Democratic Civilization, vol. 2: Capitalism: The Age of Unmasked Gods and Naked Kings trans. Havin Güneşer, Porgsgrunn: New Compass Press, 2017, p.63; Abdullah Öcalan, The Sociology of Freedom: Manifesto of the Democratic Civilization, vol. III, Oakland: PM Press, 2020, p.373.
19. See Öcalan, Prison Writings, vol. 3, p.5. Öcalan was supposed to be allowed to meet with his lawyers once a week and his family once a month, but there were vast stretches of time spanning many years where this fundamental right was revoked without explanation (for example, between 2014 and 2016 he received no visitors). He is supposed to have been allowed phone calls but has made only two in twenty-three years. See 2022 Report of the International Peace Delegation to İmralı Island Prison, p.9, accessible here: https://freeocalan.org/assets/downloads/english/forms/2022InternationalPeaceDelegationImrali.pdf; and the reporting here: https://www.spiegel.de/politik/ausland/abdullah-oecalan-inhaftierter-pkk-chef-darf-nach-zwei-jahren-besuch-empfangen-a-1111890.html.
20. Öcalan, The Sociology of Freedom, pp.4-5.
21. David Graeber, “Introduction” in Abdullah Öcalan, Manifesto for a Democratic Civilization, vol.1: Civilization: The Age of Masked Gods and Disguised Kings, trans. Havin Güneşer, Porsgrunn: New Compass Press, 2015, p.18.
22. Öcalan, Sociology of Freedom, p.3.
23. Öcalan, Manifesto, vol.1, pp.82-84; p.129.
24. Öcalan, Manifesto, vol.1, p.75.
25. Öcalan, Prison Writings, vol.2, p.23.
26. Öcalan, Prison Writings, vol.1, p.5.
27. Öcalan, Prison Writings, vol.1, p.53.
28. See David Graeber and David Wengrow, The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity, New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2021, p.307.
29. See Çığ’s interview with Der Spiegel: https://www.spiegel.de/international/world/never-a-religious-necessity-headscarf-researcher-condemns-turkey-s-move-to-lift-ban-a-535256.html
30. Öcalan, Prison Writings, vol.1, pp.87-88. Öcalan is especially critical of the theory of the “dictatorship of the proletariat”, which he sees as responsible for many failings of real socialist states.
31. Öcalan, Prison Writings, vol.1, p.103.
32. Öcalan, Prison Writings, vol.2, p.100.
33. Öcalan, Prison Writings, vol.1, p.287. This avant-garde role assigned to women in politics is also a by-product – an intentional one – of the co-chair system. Because female co-chairs are directly accountable to the autonomous women’s groups that elect them, in contrast to the male co-chair who is elected by everyone including the women who also voted for the woman, the female co-chair tends to be “the more radical and strategic one of the two office-holders”, in contrast to the “classical style of politics represented by her male counterpart”, as Dirik explains (The Kurdish Women’s Movement, p.188).
34. Öcalan, Prison Writings, vol.1, p.255.
35. On this slogan, and the resistances it faced, see Dirik, The Kurdish Women’s Movement, pp.103-111.
36. Although the link to Sumer forms part of the new approach Öcalan developed while in prison, women’s liberation had been part of his thinking long before his intellectual metamorphosis. As early as 1996 he was arguing that “killing the man is the basic principle of socialism” and praising the queer (possibly transgender) Turkish singer Zeki Müren as an example of what he means by this (Mahir Sayın, Abdullah Öcalan ne diyor? Erkeği Öldürmek, Basel: Toprak Yayınevi, 1997, p.245).
37. See Brecht Neven and Marlene Schäfers, “Jineology: From Women’s Struggles to Social Liberation”, interview with Necîbe Qeredaxî, ROAR Magazine, November 25, 2017: https://roarmag.org/essays/jineology-kurdish-women-movement/
38. See Isaac Chotiner, “How Iran’s Hijab Protest Movement Became So Powerful”, Q&A with Fatemeh Shams, The New Yorker October 2, 2022: https://www.newyorker.com/news/q-and-a/fatemah-shams-how-irans-hijab-protest-movement-became-so-powerful
40. Abdullah Öcalan, Beyond State, Power, and Violence, trans. Michael Schiffman and Havin Güneşer, Oakland: PM Press, 2023, p.4.