[Midden-Oosten] Rojava: A libertarian myth under scrutiny
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Zo Aug 7 15:09:43 CEST 2016
Rojava: A libertarian myth under scrutiny
The PKK claims to have shifted towards anarchism, but traces of authoritarianism are still visible in its "Syrian lab".
By Andrea Glioti @andreaglioti
Since its establishment in late 2012, the de facto autonomous region of
Rojava in northern Syria has attracted the attention of European leftists,
mainly because of the influence of Murray Bookchin's theories about
libertarian municipalism on the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) leader
Ocalan's writings gave way to a newborn political system in Rojava as the
Syrian branch of the PKK, the Democratic Union Party (PYD), is in fact the
driving force behind the institutions.
Bookchin envisioned a society founded on communalism and transnational
direct democracy as an antidote to the bureaucratic nation state - a mission
partially mirrored in the wording of the Rojava Charter of the Social Contract.
However, a balanced assessment of the achievements in this Syrian region
should not overlook the grey areas, where there is still room for
improvement against tribal, ethno-sectarian, capitalist and patriarchal
Ignoring some libertarian aspirations
For example, the top three officers of each municipality must include one
Arab, one Kurd and one Christian, a rule which some have applauded as
"careful ethnic balance", although it rather resembles the sectarian quotas
adopted in Lebanon and Iraq.
The emphasis on ethno-sectarian identities is further echoed in the
foundational statement of the Federal Democratic System, which is based on
the representation of "community components".
As Syrian intellectual Jad Karim Jibai pointed out: "Nobody knows how an
'entity', that is 'peoples and communities' (ie, clans and ethno-sectarian
communities), could transcend national borders."
In other words, the insistence on these communitarian boundaries betrays the
libertarian transnational aspirations.
This contradiction is also evident from the authority bestowed upon tribal
leaders. For instance Shaykh Humaydi Daham al-Jarba, the head of a tribal
Arab militia and an outspoken supporter of the Assad regime, was appointed
as the governor of the Jazirah canton in Rojava in 2014.
His son is now the commander of the al-Sanadid Forces, one of the main Arab
militias fighting alongside the PKK-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), that
is to say Rojava's army. The prominence of tribal leaders preserves their
role as inhibitors of social change.
While the PKK has officially renounced its demands for an independent
Kurdistan, it would be myopic to ignore the ongoing military expansion of
the territories controlled by the Kurds, whose outcome means the de facto
fragmentation of Syria along new borders.
Considering the rejection of the idea of nation-states in the Rojava
declaration, this appears to be a move in the opposite direction, regardless
of the threat posed by enemies in war times.
Moreover, private property is officially enshrined in the Charter, a
provision that safeguards the privileges of landowners, while encouraging
them to invest in agricultural projects sponsored by the Rojava authorities.
In order to reflect Bookchin's views on how libertarian municipalism is
expected to replace private property, the text should have been phrased
A just order?
If this Syrian region is to stand as an alternative to capitalist federalist
Iraqi Kurdistan, a significant effort is also needed to familiarise its
inhabitants with its structures.
When I was living in Rojava with a Syrian Kurdish family in 2013, most of
the people I met were busy dealing with the rising cost of living and had no
idea of the difference between federalism and libertarian municipalism.
People's Houses (Mala Gel in Kurmanji), communal places where people gather,
were already open, but I discovered their existence by reading the signs at
their entrance, not because people mentioned it to me.
Another threat posed to democracy and decentralisation in Rojava is the
PKK's Stalinist legacy. The party claims to have shifted towards anarchism a
long time ago, but some traces of its authoritarian upbringing are still
visible in its "Syrian lab": Ocalan's portraits are ubiquitous, often
accompanied by the slogan "There's no life without a leader" (be serok jiyan
The PKK supporters are not generally inclined to accept criticism of Ocalan,
who has been often portrayed by his former "comrades" as a despot.
When I asked a PKK chief in charge of supervising education in Amuda,
northern Syria, why they had decided to hang a party leader's portrait in
schools, he told me that to him Ocalan was more a philosopher than a
Unfortunately, in Rojava, Ocalan looks like the only philosopher allowed to
be portrayed everywhere.
I witnessed the PKK's worst crackdown on Syrian dissidents so far on June
28, 2013, in Amuda, after the party's armed forces had killed six protesters
the night before.
It was only the main episode in a long string of violations committed
against dissidents and journalists.
Still, as a foreign journalist in Rojava, I faced almost no restrictions and
was never at risk of being kidnapped, especially compared with some
opposition-held regions in Syria.
Nevertheless, the way the PKK deals with dissent is worrisome for any
movement claiming to have established a democratic confederation.
The role of women
Lastly, women empowerment is undoubtedly part of the Rojava agenda. Civil
marriages in Syria were introduced here thanks to a new legislation, a
woman's testimony was made equal to a man's in spite of widely accepted
Islamic norms, and the presence of women is encouraged in both political and
military institutions as nowhere else in the country.
However, the militarisation of women and society at large is an alarming
trend enforced through conscription and sanctioned by the social prestige
enjoyed by the fighters' families. In fact, only the "martyrs"' pictures are
"venerated" with the same devoutness of Ocalan's icons.
Consequently, women become worthy of respect as long as they turn into men
of arms and sacrifice themselves on the battlefield.
Some would defend this militarised system of values with the current need to
defend Rojava, but to assume that even minors should be forcibly enlisted to
ensure the survival of a social utopia is a disturbing argument to say the
It should also be noted that European leftist solidarity cherry-picked the
so-called Rojava revolution, whereas other revolutionary theorists, such as
Omar Aziz in Damascus, went completely ignored, because they were neither
endorsed by one of the best equipped militias in the region such as the PKK,
nor did they phrase their social utopia according to a libertarian terminology.
Yet, the horizontally structured self-governing bodies that were envisioned
in Aziz's writings and established in opposition-held areas between 2012 and
2013 bear some similarities to the Rojava communes - with the difference
that the latter were spared from government shelling.
The Rojava "lab" is definitely a politically innovative experience, but the
social utopia narrative should not overlook the reality on the ground and
Andrea Glioti is an Arabic-speaking freelance journalist and a research consultant covering the Middle East.
The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.
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