The XX Factor

American Leftists Need to Pay More Attention to Rojava

Children flash the victory sign after singing the Rojava anthem at a public elementary school in Qamishli, Rojava, Syria, on Nov. 12.

Photo by John Moore/Getty Images

There is an astonishing story in Sunday’s New York Times about Rojava, a Kurdish region in Northern Syria that’s ruled by militant feminist anarchists. Rojava’s constitution enshrines gender equality and religious freedom. An official tells journalist Wes Enzina that every position at every level of government includes a female equivalent of equal power. Recruits to Rojava’s 6,000-strong police force receive their weapons only after two weeks of feminist instruction. Reading Enzina’s piece, it’s hard to understand how this radical experiment in democracy in one of the bloodiest corners of the world isn’t better known internationally, particularly on the left.

At the start of piece, Enzina himself isn’t quite sure Rojava is real. It sounds too fantastical:

The regime of President Bashar al-Assad doesn’t officially recognize Rojava’s autonomous status, nor does the United Nations or NATO — it is, in this way, just as illicit as the Islamic State. But if the reports I heard from the region were to be believed, within its borders the rules of the neighboring ISIS caliphate had been inverted. In accordance with a philosophy laid out by a leftist revolutionary named Abdullah Ocalan, Rojavan women had been championed as leaders, defense of the environment enshrined in law and radical direct democracy enacted in the streets.

The reports, Enzina eventually finds, are largely true. In Rojava’s three Kurdish cantons, together comprising an area about the size of Connecticut, society is being organized according to the principles of an American anarchist-ecologist philosopher named Murray Bookchin. (Bookchin’s most famous work is The Ecology of Freedom.) This unlikely turn of events springs from the ideological conversion of Abdullah Ocalan, the founder of the Kurdistan Workers Party, or P.K.K., which was once a Marxist Leninist terrorist group in Turkey—and in fact, the P.K.K. is still designated as a terrorist organization by the U.S., the E.U., and NATO.* With America’s help, Turkey captured Ocalan in 1999, and he was imprisoned alone—surrounded by over 1,000 soldiers—on an island near Istanbul. There he discovered Bookchin, who inspired a manifesto he issued in 2005. Enzina writes:

The manifesto called on all P.K.K. supporters to implement a version of Bookchin’s ideas; Ocalan urged all guerrilla fighters to read ‘‘The Ecology of Freedom.’’ He instructed his followers to stop attacking the government and instead create municipal assemblies, which he called ‘‘democracy without the state.’’ These assemblies would form a grand confederation that would extend across all Kurdish regions of Syria, Iraq, Turkey and Iran and would be united by a common set of values based on defending the environment; respecting religious, political and cultural pluralism; and self-defense. He insisted that women be made equal leaders at all levels of society.

In Rojava, the Kurds, under the government of a P.K.K. affiliate, are following Ocalan’s directive. More amazing still, Rojava’s militias, the Y.P.G., or People’s Protection Units, and the all-female Y.P.J., or Female Protection Units, are successfully taking on ISIS. The New York Review of Books has just published a story by Jonathan Steele about their military successes, titled “The Syrian Kurds Are Winning!” In January, with the aid of U.S. airpower, the Y.P.G. drove ISIS out of Kobani, a town on the Turkish-Syrian border. In July, again with American help, the Kurds rousted ISIS from another border town, Tal Abyad. “This meant ISIS had lost two of the three crossing points from Turkey through which it could bring foreign volunteers, finance, and weaponry to strengthen the jihad,” Steele writes.

Given this, how has Rojava remained relatively obscure? Some have certainly tried to raise awareness: Over a year ago David Graeber, a major figure in Occupy Wall Street, published a piece in the Guardian titled “Why is the world ignoring the revolutionary Kurds in Iraq?” He compared the hellish conflict in Syria to the Spanish Civil War, where leftists from around the world went to fight fascism. “If there is a parallel today to Franco’s superficially devout, murderous Falangists, who would it be but Isis? If there is a parallel to the Mujeres Libres of Spain, who could it be but the courageous women defending the barricades in Kobane? Is the world—and this time most scandalously of all, the international left—really going to be complicit in letting history repeat itself?”

If calls like this aren’t resonating, I suspect it’s because similar ones were made in the run-up to the Iraq war. Over the years, it has become hard to imagine why more than a few prominent progressives either supported that war or opposed it only ambivalently. But at the time, several Iraqi leftists—most notably Kanan Makiya—pleaded with their ideological allies in America not to oppose the overthrow of the fascist Saddam Hussein, however compromised George W. Bush’s motives were. I remember appeals to the memory of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, the American leftists who fought Franco in Spain. The memory of Bosnia was still fresh, and at least some progressives believed that Western military force could be a force for good.

Very few on the left believe that anymore. The Iraq war not only destroyed Iraq, destabilized the Middle East, and led to the rise of ISIS; it also destroyed Western faith that much can be done to help the people who are now struggling to stop ISIS’s spread. Maybe part of the reason Americans haven’t heard more about Rojava is because we don’t want to. We’re ashamed at having unleashed the horror that besieges them, and ashamed that we have no idea how to help them stop it without making things even worse. Writing in Dissent about international apathy towards Rojava, Meredith Tax asks, “Are we in the United States too cynical or depressed to believe anything new can happen? Are we able to recognize revolutionary ideas when they come from Greece, Spain, or Latin America but not from the Middle East?”

Yet aiding the revolutionaries of Rojava needn’t be framed purely as a question of American intervention. Tax writes:

I recently spoke to someone from the Kurdish women’s movement in Rojava and asked what they need most. She said they need a massive international solidarity campaign, beginning with political education about the evolution of the PKK and its politics, including its emphasis on democratic governance, anti-sectarianism, secularism, ecology, and women’s liberation. In practical terms, they need all possible international pressure to be put on Turkey and the KRG to end the embargo and let supplies through. They need the terrorist designation to be lifted so they can travel and raise money and do public speaking.

That doesn’t seem like too much to ask for the feminists dying for America’s foreign policy sins.

*Update, Nov. 29, 2015, 9:20 p.m.: This post has been updated to clarify that the P.K.K. is still designated as a terrorist organization by the U.S., the E.U., and NATO.