Comrade Berhadan. an anarchist from Spain, gave an interview about how he had spent a few months fighting against ISIS and why Western anarchists are preparing for the battle that has already happened. This is a translation from the book “Life without a state: The Revolution in Kurdistan” which was published in Russia in 2017. The book’s principal contributors are:
Dmitry Okrest – the RBC correspondent, who also works with magazines OpenDemocracy, GQ and New Times. He writes about political radicals, the Caucasus and Middle East.
Dmitry Petrov – a researcher of The Institute for African Studies of the Russian academy of science, PhD in history.
Maxim Lebsky – a historian, the author of “Kurds. Lost in the Middle East” and “Turkey. On the Fault Line of History” books.
The book’s contributors – anthropologists, sociologists, journalists and political activists – talk not only about armed resistance to the hordes of religious fanatics but also about social ideals for which local people abandoned the state and took up arms. More information about book here. Information how to buy — commonplace1959(A)gmail(.)com or heval_rusi(A)riseup(.)net
“WHEN THEY TRUST YOU — THEY WILL MAKE YOU THEIR BELOVED FRIEND”
Why did you decide to come to Rojava? What inspired you to make that decision?
The Kobane city resistance was the decisive moment for me. Back then we all heard about the people’s militia and civilians fighting in the streets of Kobane. They chanted: «Kobane will be the tomb of fascism!», «no pasarán!» and other antifascist slogans referring to the Spanish Civil War. Mass media and military experts had claimed that the Kobane resistance would fall within 4 days, but it did not. Back in those days we were under the influence of what had happened in Ukraine after the Maydan revolt and in Syria after the revolution. Although we knew very little about Kurdish stateless society ideas, some of us decided to take part in it.
What were the main problems you faced there? Was it easy to find mutual understanding with the local people?
The main problem was the language barrier. Very few people speak English there. You need to spend a few months before you start to understand Kurmanji. At least for me it was the case, maybe others have better language learning skills. The attitude towards international volunteers differs from group to group. In some groups you might feel a bit overprotected while in others there’s a feeling of real brotherhood. During the first couple of months you learn how to live amongst them, how to solve problems at the assembly. And when they begin to trust you, when they learn about your revolutionary ideas, when they see you take fighting seriously, you have self-discipline, then they make you their beloved friend. In general Kurdish people are very friendly, they help you a lot from day one.
“THE RESISTANCE WORKS AS A CULTURE SCHOOL”
How many anarchists are there? What organizations or anarchist groups do they represent?
Now is not the same as in the beginning of the Kobane Commune and the Tell Abyad operations. Now there are more people who came there just to fight ISIS rather than represent certain political groups. There I met about a dozen of anarchists from the West. Some of them are connected to certain anarchist organizations, but I don’t know if they want me to be public about it. Also, lots of Turkish anarchists were involved in the actions near the border during the Kobane resistance. There were a lot of international volunteers with different ideas, from marxists to the apolitical who just had a sense of social justice. Now we have created the libertarianbrigades.noblogs.org blog to give them a voice, support and opportunity to discuss.
What do the Kurds think about anarchism?
There’s a difference between the Kurds who come from the mountains, a.k.a guerrillas, and the ones from Rojava or Bakur (Turkey). The mountain folk, they understand anarchism and accept it, especially young people. Their political knowledge is excellent. The Kurds from Rojava are politically unaware. They grew up during the Syrian regime so they know very little even about Apo’s ideas. They are only learning now about culture and politics, at the YPG/YPJ institutions. The resistance works as a culture school.
The Kurds from Turkish towns and the Turks themselves are more into marxist ideas. Although they feel affinity with anarchist ideas too. The PKK ideology was developed as a way to criticize Marxism-Leninism, so now the movement is open to new anti-authoritarian concepts.
Have many of them actually read works of Murray Bookchin, the latest works of Ocalan or do they just believe it is a good thing?
I’ve met a guerrilla commander who identifies himself as an anarchist, his ideas were based on M. Bookchin and N. Chomsky works. These authors are known among the Kurds, definitely. I have also met a Kurdish fighter who admired Peter Kropotkin’s work (a Russian anarchist). He was very interested in anarchist atheism as well. I’ve met fighters from Georgia, Armenia, Iran, who agree with anarchist ideas too.
It is as in the classical revolutionary concept of anarchism. Although they don’t like other types of «anarchism” that they have heard of “Anarchists” like western youths who drink alcohol and have weird haircuts. They know about that and they are prejudiced against that. They stand against this kind of self-expression, individualism and pseudo-radicalism. Another criticism I received was that some of them would say: “Yes, anarchism is a good idea but it is not a real political alternative”. They recognize Democratic Confederalism as a real alternative. They believe it lies beyond marxism, anarchism or any -ism.
What kind of solidarity actions for people outside Rojava would be the most useful to take, in your opinion?
I think at the moment the most important action to take would be generating pressure against the Turkish state. Kurdish organizations get a lot of support so, considering our limited resources, maybe it would be better to focus on supporting our comrades fighting there or specific anarchist organizations in Turkey, Iran and all over the Middle East in general. It is important not to focus just on the Kurds. It’s a trap created by western mass-media. Social uprisings take place in different states of the Middle East and we must support them.
The only thing our Kurdish friends say we should do in our own countries, is that we must organize revolutionary movements, fight, and develop communal relations. It’s a simple way: organize self-rule to take care of our daily necessities in a participative form; organize self-defense to gain strength so that we can defend ourselves and our territories.This can be done on every level, from a small community or collective to a neighborhood, a city or the entire region. So, let’s do it!
“AGAINST THE STATE, AGAINST THE AUTHORITY, ONLY ALLAH”
Have you had an opportunity to communicate with Assyrians, Arabs, Armenians and those people who have been recently liberated from ISIS?
I was in contact with some Syrian activists before coming to Rojava, some of them identified themselves as anarchists. They were fighting in the FSA. Then in Rojava I was fighting alongside Burkan al Firat (ex-FSA) freedom fighters and it was a good experience. I understood their simple idea of «against the state, against the authority, only Allah». I’ve met a few revolutionaries from Armenia but they weren’t local. They fought in HPG guerrilla groups for some time.
There are talks of ethnic cleansing as well as an anti-Arabic and anti-Turkmen line of the Kurdish movement. Participation of some Arab people in the movement is sometimes called a cover to hide racism and discrimination. Are these charges based on reality?
Some Kurds may express racism. This happens because they have suffered repressions from Arab states, from their policies of arabization which encouraged Arab colonization in Kurdish areas. The same applies to the Turks and the Turkish state. This issue is about nationalism. Most Arabs in the region are Syrian nationalists, most Turks are Turkish nationalists. Besides that, ISIS attacks contribute to a climate of ethnic hate .
However, the Kurdish movement and their organizations are not involved in this. They do try to create a political system without racism and invite everyone to be involved regardless of their ethnicity or social status. Ideas of KCK-PKK work as a cultural school for the population, they work against racism. This is a genuine attempt, they do make a significant effort to stop ethnic hatred. Even so, it is clearly not the easiest time to find mutual reconciliation.
The Islamic State has support among some of the Arab population, especially amongst the middle-class and landowners. Moreover, in some areas the Arab population suffered the consequences of the war only after the Kurds defeated ISIS. Enemies use this against YPG. Yet a lot of Arabs fight against ISIS and work together with Kurds in order to create a confederal system.
There is no problem for me to talk openly about the fact that we entered houses abandoned by ISIS supporters, we took stuff for the resistance and for poor families. We seized buildings and land for common use. I have not seen any discrimination of the Arab population, only some bad words and shots in the air when civilians tried to enter the battlefield. ISIS suicide bombers naturally made people paranoid. As a result, Arab people got searched more carefully at checkpoints.
I witnessed military mistakes that caused civilian casualties, and I cannot justify it nor lie about it. ISIS tactics are based on using suicidal car bombings, mines and using civilians as human shield. I can honestly say that the YPG are not aggressors who attack civilians, but the war must end. Any kind of war, even defensive or revolutionary war, cause pain and suffering to people.
“THE ECONOMY IS CONTROLLED”
Have you had an opportunity to learn more about the local economic system? The news is very controversial: on the one hand there is cooperative development, on the other hand – private property still exists. Please explain the relationship between “socialism” and “capitalism” in this system. What about exploitation and wage labour?
To be honest I spent very little time in peaceful areas: a few weeks in Kobane after the liberation, the city was devastated after the war, the economy was just reviving. In Jazira canton the economy is doing better because the war didn’t affect it that much, there are also different political powers active, not just PKK. I know it’s a mixed system with elements of both capitalism and socialism.
This is caused by the low level of political culture. The Rojava system is moderate, PKK/KCK do not want to force elements of communism against people’s will. It’s rather a system that gives people an opportunity to develop their political culture and be a part of it. Cooperatives keep appearing, some land gets collectivized, the economy is controlled so it’s neither liberal capitalism nor communism.
Some comrades do a very good job of analyzing the economic and political aspects. People who want to see just a class revolution would be disappointed. Their minds are imprisoned by obsolete ideas. All of this is the consequence of Syrian and Middle East Arab social revolts. The main idea was freedom and social justice, the war against tyranny and repression. This allowed the creation of space for the Kurds, the opportunity to defend their autonomous territory. The main source of inspiration for the Kurdish people is their ethnic identity which has been threatened for centuries now. Kurds have been fighting for decades against every state in the region, so now they have formed the confederal system that made it possible to ensure genuine civil rights, equality of men and women as well as participatory democracy. That happened in the region where Kurds are forced to live a poor life, are not recognized as an ethnicity, their language is forbidden.
“EUROCENTRISM IS AUTHORITARIANISM”
The Kurdish movement is often accused of “collaboration with imperialist powers”, with the US and at the same time – with Russia and the Assad regime. What are your thoughts on this?
Since the beginning of the Syrian civil war, the Kurdish organizations in north Syria have been making certain pacts with the Syrian regime as a way of retaining the balance of power. As well as this they fought against the Syrian army and took part in demonstrations and blockades.
With the help of those pacts, the Syrian state created a safety zone against Turkey which supports Syrian nationalists and the islamist opposition. The Assad regime avoids confrontation with well organized Kurdish militias. The Kurds protected their cities from airstrikes using those agreements. Airstrikes were to be focused on civilian buildings using the logic: “Assad or we will burn it all the ground”. I acknowledge this as a strategy; we must understand that the Syrian opposition fell under islamist and nationalist control and they do not recognize Kurdish autonomy which made the Kurds a third party from the beginning.
However the Kurdish people and their organizations do not like the Syrian state nor the Assad regime, they always say harsh things about them. The city of Qamishli is divided between the regime zones and the Kurdish zones. A few skirmishes have happened, the situation is very intense.
An alliance with the US was meant to help in fighting against ISIS, which was made possible by growing public pressure in the Western countries. Thanks to this, they survived and we defeated ISIS. This is the truth. Now they are negotiating with Assad and Russian intervenors again. It is difficult for us to support that but they need to survive, it’s the only option other than genocide or living like refugees forever. The Kurds will pact with anyone who can help them, but at the same time they will fight fiercely against anyone who attacks them.
Some anarchists are convinced new libertarian ideas of PKK are there to disguise the old authoritarian ideology of this party. Some people insist that anti-authoritarian ideas cannot be brought from “above”. Like in the case with PKK, Abdullah Ocalan is the person who changed the movement’s ideology on his own.
It’s not an ideological shift. They were expressing those ideas initially, but in their early years there was a significant influence from USSR and national liberation movements. One of the best things about this revolutionary movement is their ability to criticize, including self-criticism. Because of that, they’ve managed to avoid the mistakes of marxism, marxism-leninism, the national liberation concept, authority, and their early ideas.
These ideas came from «above» because there are people with a higher level of political culture. Kurdish people are poor, they have no access to culture, we can’t expect them to do a complex radical political analysis of the history of patriarchy, classical philosophy, the formation of states and different socialist movements. There are no social movements. Only recently the Kurds were able to meet and discuss. The ideas come from the guerrilla, from the resistance. These structures are very interested in creating participatory forms of discussion; they developed a common idea which emphasized the importance of subjectivity and consensus. Therefore, those ideas didn’t come from “above”, it’s a common development.
The ideas are not artificial. They represent Kurdish people’s perceptions, including the sense of community and being nature-friendly.
That’s if we talk about «pure» PKK-KCK ideas. Not every kurd understands these complex things hence there are different tendencies. We must be accurate when we talk about KCK because it’s a name of a real organization. If we criticize PKK party structure, then I don’t understand why we continue talking about PKK in the same way the mass media and the Turkish state do. They mention PKK’s name to explain the confederal model. KCK and PKK are popular names but when you talk with the commanders, and attend lessons in YPG, they insist KCK should be mentioned in terms of explaining the confederative model. It’s not a mask.
Criticism of the western radical left and anarchists can be very destructive. They say: “PKK is authoritarian, we should not support them, and that’s all fake”. They accuse PKK of libertarian change as a strategy to win the population’s sympathy. Bullshit! Being an anarchist is not the best way to come to an agreement with the rest of our modern society! Of course it isn’t utopian there. They have a military structure, there are different parties and organizations, but we must support these libertarian tendencies and their evolution.
What are your thoughts on the ideological shift of PKK that you could see for yourself?
Those ideas didn’t come from Ocalan alone. The Kurdish revolutionary movement have a method of forming their ideology. It’s difficult to explain, but it’s not like Ocalan wrote something and the whole KCK accepts it because he is the leader. It’s more about communicating, discussing, criticizing and being open to self-criticism. They have formed their own method of common thinking. It’d be fair to say these ideas about confederalism, radical anti-patriarchy, anti-authoritarian views come from KCK and HPG/YJA Star umbrella organizations which consist of guerrilla fighters who have read and studied a lot about philosophy, history, political and economical concepts. Everyone puts their ideas together, then Ocalan and other intellectuals act like guides. In that sense the Kurdish leaders are developing an ideological model based on Kurdish nature, in accordance with pre-capitalist communal society ideas.
These guerrilla “leaders” don’t want to be bosses or presidents, they only want to study different philosophical movements, history, politics to bring liberation tools to their people. They want to be close with nature with no material possessions and fight until they die to protect people’s freedom. It’s really interesting even from an anthropological point of view. It’s difficult for us to understand because we are infected with western prejudices. We don’t trust in Kurdish revolutionaries because we don’t trust in others. This is because we don’t trust in those who are different and this is our problem.
We must also speak about other ideological leaders like Sakine Cansiz, a woman, the concept of Jineology or woman liberation sociology, a call to revive living in the rural areas, break the urban way of life and industrial production. The Kurdish movement has a lot of interesting things. Anarchists should support this interpenetration because no one else would. We must promote these tendencies. If we attack them instead, we would be attacking the development of libertarian ideas in other societies.
Eurocentrism is authoritarianism, a lot of so-called revolutionaries and anarchists are bringing it to life. Anarchism and socialism are concepts from European history and culture. In other parts of the world the people have their right to develop their own liberation ideas, not to adapt the Western ideas. I’m talking about examples like Zapatistas, Mapuches, the MEND in Nigeria, and many others.
Now the situation is changing, the «Rojava spring» has finished. There is only war and political pacts left. Of course there are opportunities to develop social projects, but I’m talking about revolutionary intervention, action, it should be rapid. Making this happen we can support libertarian forces and anti-authoritarian sides. Their ideas will be a real power in current event. Freedom and liberation have a lot of enemies, and it is our responsibility to defend them.
We must be prepared for the next situation to support our friends from the beginning, not waiting for years to see what happens. We lost the opportunity to support anti-authoritarian revolutionaries in Syria, we came late to support the Kurdish people in Kobane and we were fighting there without any support. Before that, we hadn’t done enough to support anarchists in Ukraine and Egypt during their revolts. Now there is an insurrection in Turkey and there are signs that a global conflict will be growing. So be ready to act in any part of the world!