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Interview: Democracy vs Capitalism in the Middle East

Interview: Democracy vs Capitalism in the Middle East

Freedom interviewed a member of the YPJ:
Now available to read in Greek here.

How would you describe the idea of the democratic nation to people who haven’t heard of the concept before?

The Democratic Nation model seeks to create a free life for different peoples within a democratic and ethical-political society with the same homeland. It expresses the unity of free and equal individuals within a multi-ethnic, multi-lingual system without room for class distinctions and state privileges. The model emerged from the critics of the nation-state’s character that seeks to establish hostility between different cultures, languages and nations. Contrary to this logic, the democratic nation model is based on various communities in which every community has the right to express and organise itself according to its shared cultural, linguistic, national or religious identities but simultaneously takes part in a common organisational process. The architect of the Democratic Nation model, Abdullah Ocalan, says: “The democratic nation comprises not only peoples of all cultures, ethnicities, and religions but also individuals who equally share fundamental rights and freedoms.” And also: “For societies, the nation-state model is nothing but a pitfall and network of suppression and exploitation. The democratic nation concept reverses this definition. The definition of a democratic nation not bound by rigid political boundaries, one language, culture, religion and interpretation of history signifies plurality and communities as well as free and equal citizens existing together and in solidarity. The democratic nation allows the people to become a nation themselves, without resting on power and state, becoming a nation through much needed politicisation. It aims to prove that not only through politicisation but also, in the absence of becoming a state or acquiring power, a nation can be created with autonomous institutions in the social, diplomatic, and cultural spheres as well as in economy, law and self-defence, and thus build itself as a democratic nation.”

The various communities within the Democratic Nation model are organised with each other within a confederal system. This confederal system is based on grassroots participation, with the decision-making process in the communities’ councils and communes. The strongest political entity is the smallest unit of society: the commune. From the communes on, the society organises itself from the bottom to the top. The general assemblies on the top are hereby not ruling the people below them but are carrying out administrative tasks and implementing the will of the communities. All delegates sent to the next-up political bodies are holding imperative mandates. This means they can be directly removed from their positions whenever they are not working according to the councils’ or communes’ will.

Additionally, the co-chair system guarantees that every political body is represented by two persons, a man and a woman. A women’s quote of 50% in every political body within the Democratic Nation system guarantees women’s participation on all levels. Religious, national or cultural minorities, as well as the members of the youth, have a quote to ensure their participation in higher administrative bodies and general assemblies.

It is important to understand that the Democratic Nation model answers the crisis that the people living in a geography ruled and divided over a thousand years by different empires and nation-states. The Middle East is a unique mosaic of various people who all should have the right to live in peace and harmony without giving up their cultural identity. The Democratic Nation model takes common values, principles and rights as a basis rather than a strict or nationalist understanding of national identity. The nationhood of the Democratic Nation model is not forcefully constructed by the rulers but created by the democratic willingness of the people themselves.

Over the last 11 years, we have seen the Rojava revolution flourish in the face of massive adversity, first from DAESH and now the Turkish state. How does the idea of the Democratic Nation bond people together in the face of such adversity?

The people of North and East Syria were and are exposed to the most horrific atrocities like the ones carried out by ISIS and the Turkish state. After years of war, the people understood very well that they are being targeted because they believe in the paradigm of Democratic Nation. The reason why North and East Syria is being attacked so heavily is because the people here dared to think and live outside the borders that the hegemonic powers of the nation-states were forcing on them for centuries. We need to understand that the worldwide capitalist system is based on the division of people. The hierarchical exploitative class system, racism and the 5000-year-old system of patriarchy divide the people. This division is needed for those in power to oppress, control and rule the people. The Democratic Nation concept and its application in the Rojava Revolution marks a historical alternative to this system. In North and East Syria, the women built the core element of a society that seeks to live in direct democracy, have an economy based on cooperatives, and strive to live in harmony with nature. The relationship between the people being bound to the idea of the Democratic Nation and the brutal attacks of Turkey and ISIS needs to be understood well. The attacks happen because the people believe in the paradigm. Because capitalist modernity is afraid of the third way, the alternative that this model represents. And the more attacks are happening, the more the people get bound to the Democratic Nation because it is the only solution for the violence that capitalist modernity causes in the Middle East.

Another reason the people are bound to the paradigm is their sacrifices to defend it. The people here gave tens of thousands of martyrs to end the so-called caliphate of ISIS, to fight the violent Turkish occupation and to defend their right to self-organise their communities. Here, our people say every martyr is a promise. What they mean by this is that they promise to continue the martyr’s path to protect the values they were fighting for and to develop the Democratic Nation model even further. In North and East Syria, you find many families who lost various family members in the struggle for a free life. One example is the family of Ferhad Derik, who was assassinated in a Turkish drone strike on his home just a few days ago, on October 27 2023. He was an SDF commander who had joined the YPG at the beginning of the revolution. He had fought almost every battle against the Islamic State and commanded and taught the self-defence forces for many years. Seven members of his family gave their lives protecting the revolution, like his twin brother, who was martyred while fighting ISIS and his cousin was martyred while protecting the Yazidi people from the genocide that ISIS carried out against them in late 2014. Another family member of his was the deputy co-chair of the Executive Council of the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria, who was assassinated by a Turkish drone while in Suleymaniya, Southern Kurdistan/Northern Iraq. This is not the only family in North and East Syria who made such heavy sacrifices. Having tens of thousands of martyrs who all gave their lives for their beliefs makes the living one even more bonded to the principles they embodied.

Another important aspect of understanding the peoples’ commitment to the revolution is that Abdullah Öcalan had been in Syria for almost 20 years. Until 1998, he had welcomed thousands of people – revolutionaries, internationalists and many ordinary people, among them many women, mothers and even children – to his academy. He was listening to them, teaching them politics, history, and sociology and discussing socialist principles, methods to resist oppression and ways to create a free life. His relentless effort and dedication gave hope to the people and planted the spirit of resistance and the wish for a free life. His work and efforts laid the foundation for the Rojava Revolution that would start years later by the people inspired by Öcalan’s practice and theory. The people of North and East Syria are, therefore, highly politicised. They know why they get attacked and what their values and principles are. Given that they have made so many sacrifices, the people here are highly committed to following the path of the martyred ones. This is why at every funeral or demonstration, you will hear the voices of Arabs, Kurds, Assyrians, Armenians and other people shouting that they will never allow the enemy’s strategy to be successful and to defend their revolution until the last drop of their blood.

We know through the stories of comrades like Sehid Haki Karer and Kemal Pir that the Kurdish movement has been internationalist from the beginning. How do internationalism/internationalists who work with YPG/YPJ contribute to the democratic nation that is being built in Rojava? 

There was a highly internationalist spirit from the beginning of the Kurdistan Freedom Movement. Of course, the movement initially followed the line of national liberation movements, but the movement was never meant to develop an idea of a free life exclusively for Kurds. With the emergence of the Democratic Nation model, the internationalist character of the freedom movement even increased, and more and more people worldwide understood the historical importance of the revolutionary process in Kurdistan. This spirit can also be found in the Rojava Revolution. From the beginning, internationalists from many countries joined the ranks of the revolution. In the beginning, most internationalists were coming to join the YPG/YPJ forces because they understood that the values of this revolution were not just something belonging to the Kurds but to all of humanity. They took the protection of this revolution as their responsibility and sacrificed their lives to defend it. The internationalist martyrs created an immense immaterial value not just for the people here in North and East Syria but for all oppressed and freedom-loving people of the world. Still today, internationalists are an active part of the revolution. Next to their participation in the self-defence units, they participate in different works in society, translating and spreading the paradigm or helping create democratic alliances worldwide. The most crucial aspect of internationalists’ participation in the Rojava Revolution is the exchange between revolutionary movements and to learn from the experiences made in Kurdistan. We believe that Democratic Confederalism is not just a model for the Middle East but an alternative to the imperialist, capitalist and patriarchal system that can be implemented everywhere.

Since the beginning of October, the fascist Turkish state has engaged in large-scale bombing of infrastructure in Rojava. What has been the impact of this bombing? What does self-defence look like when you are being attacked by the second-largest army in NATO?

From October 4 onward, Turkey waged large-scale air strikes against crucially important infrastructure in North and East Syria. The major targets during these attacks were 11 electricity facilities, numerous oil and gas facilities, three factories, water stations, etc. Strikes also happened directly next to the Washokani refugee camp, where forcibly displaced people from Serekaniye live. Those attacks, for example, caused panic in the refugee camp. In general, about 5 million people are drastically affected by the strikes against infrastructure. Whole cities went out of power. This is happening in a region that already suffers from an impoverished supply of necessities of daily life. First estimations about the material damage speak about a cost of 1 billion dollars, including the burned oil and gas fields. But this is only one aspect that is very devastating for people who are already living with very little. On the other side, the attacks caused numerous civilians to be wounded and 10 civilian deaths, of whom two were children aged nine and ten years. Turkey also massacred in one incident 6 and, in another, 29 members of the Internal Security Forces. On October 8, Turkey struck the academy for anti-narcotic forces in Hamza Beg, Dêrîk, with a series of airstrikes, causing 29 deaths and many to be heavily wounded. The academy had to stop its work. The attacks also have a tremendous psychological effect on the population because they mainly target civilians and, on the other hand, are the continuation of years of tiring attacks. We can say that since June 21, 2020, when Turkey targeted three women working for the women’s movement Kongra Star, without any break, drone strikes and air strikes have happened against North and East Syria. These attacks violate numerous international laws. They include so-called double-tap attacks, when the ones coming to help the wounded also get targeted, and they have many times targeted civilians and politicians and those self-defence forces that saved the world from ISIS (YPJ, YPG, SDF). The attack against infrastructure was also not the first of this kind; in November last year, a similar but smaller attack happened. Turkey attempts to occupy large-scale areas of northern Syria and northern Iraq, including Rojava and South Kurdistan. To achieve this, Turkey uses different means. Turkey tries to slowly make everyday life unbearable by attacking infrastructure, forcibly displacing or massacring the population, and murdering the pioneers of this revolution, whether they work in the political field or in self-defence. 

These attacks did not happen without the silent agreement of other NATO forces. This is obvious because the International Coalition to Fight ISIS is still present in the area, and no movement by Turkey could be made without them knowing about it. For sure, we all know that it was the people of Rojava and their self-defence forces that successfully struggled against ISIS here and also came to help Shengal when it was facing genocide by ISIS in 2014. But the kind of horror ISIS brought against the people and their methods of war are not the only thing the people have to face: NATO is waging highly technological warfare against the region. It is challenging to defend yourself against an army of Turkish-made and internationally-supported drones. Turkey has ruined its own economy by investing in this highly technological war.

To organise the people of this region against this war means to organise against these kinds of attacks. It also means to organise and educate the whole society first. It means that every normal person has to adjust their lives to stand against these attacks and resist while life’s circumstances are difficult. The perspective for this has been created for many years by Abdullah Ocalan and is called the Revolutionary People’s War. It speaks about a war within the framework of legitimate self-defence. Women and youth play the core role of self-defence because they are the core of society. But it also involves many different aspects, such as the need to ultimately strive for political solutions, while there has to be self-defence in the face of such a war.

Most importantly, the defence of this revolution is centred around the democratic forces. Diplomacy between democratic or anti-capitalist forces and movements is also an essential aspect of this. But the deciding point is to organise the self-defence of society, which first and foremost means creating and teaching the self-defence mentality. This struggle is not limited to a traditional understanding of the military but speaks of the hole of human existence, most importantly, firstly centring on creating women’s freedom and ecological life. It needs much conviction and creativity to resist a NATO army. It also requires the solidarity and friendship of democratic, anti-capitalist, feminist, socialist and anarchist forces, individuals and movements worldwide. 

How can the ideas of a democratic nation help find political solutions for the Middle East and the world? I’m thinking particularly about the current moment and the genocide of Palestinians by the Israeli state. How could Öcalan’s ideas be used to help this situation?

To understand how democratic confederalism can be a solution for the Middle East, we must analyse the history of recent centuries in our lands. The presence of different ethnic, cultural and religious groups has always characterised the areas in which we live. Cultures of profoundly different origins have met in these lands for thousands of years. There have, of course, also been conflicts of contradictions. Lower Mesopotamia was the origin of the Semitic lineage, which today is represented in the region by the Arabs, Jews, and Syriacs; Upper Mesopotamia was the origin of the Aryan lineage, which includes Kurds, Persians, Armenians, etc. In the 11th century AD, Turkish populations from Central Asia moved towards present-day Anatolia, quickly founding the Ottoman Empire. All these peoples have continued to live in these lands for hundreds of years; all these peoples, languages, and cultures have contributed and still contribute today to the liveliness of these lands. Coexistence has not always been exclusively peaceful, but the genocidal politics of nowadays fascist regimes are something new. 

The fundamental change occurred when the nation-state became almost the only way of political administration after the First World War. In our territories, the multi-ethnic Ottoman empire was dissolved and started the process of building up the Turkish nation-state, and this nationalistic or chauvinistic ideology spread out. It is because of those ideas that Armenian, greek and Asyrian people suffered deportations and genocide, and it is because of those ideas that Laz people got assimilated; because of those ideas, the Kurdish people suffered different genocides, found themselves divided into four states and in all four of these states the Kurdish cultural identity was repressed.

The Zionist ideology, born at the end of the previous century, was based on the idea of creating a Jewish state, therefore once again an ethnically and religiously homogeneous state, in the “land of Zion”, that is, the territory commonly identified as Palestine/Israel. The genocide by the Nazi regime in Germany and fascist persecution forced the Jewish people to emigrate. Many were influenced by Zionist ideology and migrated to the territory of Palestine/Israel. The State of Israel was born in 1948. Until the advent of Zionism, Arab, Christian and Jewish populations coexisted in those lands, speaking different languages and professing the Christian, Jewish and Muslim religions. The occupations and abuses that the arrival of the Nation States brought to the territory from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean are recent and well-known history. The proposal of democratic confederalism, therefore, becomes an alternative solution to that of the states. A solution in which the different colours of people can coexist, self-determining and collectively choosing their own future. A solution in which the objective is to build a political and ethical society, political in the sense that it can choose and determine its own future based on collective decisions, and ethical in the sense that these collective decisions are based on values that defend the needs of all present peoples.

Abdullah Ocalan speaks about the Palestine-Israel situation, says:

“As someone who is from Urfa, my humble proposal for them is that they should look for a solution within the framework of democratic modernity that I am trying to develop in my manifesto (the current nation-state of Israel was directly involved in my arrest, conviction and punishment; which made me write the defence writings). Undoubtedly, the intellectuals with Jewish roots have highly developed ideas about this. But this topic can not be solved alone by developing ideas. The Jewish people need to reach out again to the democratic culture of the Middle East on the basis of principles and ethics. According to the nation-state geopolitics of the Middle East, the nation-state of Israel always needs to be in a state of war. It is not possible to extinguish fire with fire. Even if Israel gains confidence from knowing that the hegemonic forces of capitalist modernity are on its side, it will never be sufficient to solve the problem at its roots. Not a single system that doesn’t overcome capitalist modernity will ever be able to provide long-lasting safety. Without finding a solution for the Jewish society to organise and live, and especially for the question of Israel, neither the societies of the Middle East nor the ones of the world will be able to solve their problems. No example teaches as clearly as Israel and Palestine that the outlook of nation-states is not capable of solving their problems but instead worsens them. Huge amounts of money were put into the wars between Israel and Palestine, and lots of blood has been shed. All of this left huge problems that were not easy to solve.

In the case of Israel and Palestine, one can see the bankruptcy of capitalist modernity and its paradigm of the nation-state. The Jewish people are one of the essential people of Middle Eastern culture. Their denial and the genocide do great damage to everyone. It became clear that there could not be a life of peace and safety with the Leviathans, who even carried out genocide on the Jewish people themselves. The Jewish people, as well as the Armenian and Assyrian people, can reconstruct themselves as a Democratic Nation and easily take part in the “Democratic Confederalism of the Middle East”.

Regarding this topic, the idea of a “Democratic Confederalism of the Eastern Mediterranean Sea” could be a good start. Within this project, dogmatic understandings of religious and national identities could be transformed in favour of a more flexible and open-minded understanding of identities, and Israel could transform itself into a democratic nation that would be more accepted. Without any doubt, the same transformation would be needed for the neighbours of Israel. The Middle East’s intense tensions, clashes and war are transforming modernity. Deep social and national problems can not be solved without a transformation of modernity. Just the Arab-Israel contradiction itself shows the necessity of a transformation of modernity. If the ruling system can not solve the basic problems, then the system itself needs to be dissolved. “Democratic modernity is an alternative to this dissolution.”

Another big problem that is devastating the Middle East is the false interpretation of Islam, which leads to fundamentalist interpretation, enhancing violence and oppression against women and the whole society. As you know, one of the main focuses of democratic confederalism is women’s liberation. We consider women’s liberation to be the key to liberating society. If we manage to liberate women, if we organise women to be able to defend themselves, then we give them the tools to prevent the spread of fundamentalist regimes. In this sense, democratic confederalism is a solution to the problems of the Middle East. It also involves turning towards a democratic Islam that recognises women’s rights and values and builds positive relationships with other religions.

If we look more widely at the whole world without trying in this context to analyse each area separately, we can see a general situation of chaos, and there is no place in the world where nation-states are bringing real solutions for the people. Liberalism and capitalism are destroying the values that keep society together. An ecological crisis of enormous dimensions is coming in the near future. In the places where women are not kept in the house as servants, their bodies and identities are sold as commodities, revolutionary groups that are still resisting the system are separated and fragmented. Personalities are becoming increasingly weak in front of the system, unable to bring a solution. This is a situation in which we desperately and urgently need a holistic solution, and we can find this deeply understood by Abdullah Ocalan.

For a more in-depth analysis of the impact of the Lausanne agreement and the advent of the nation-states in the Middle East, see the article: -resistance/ 

Image: Michael Sullivan

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