The Battle for Modernity in Kurdistan

sniper galRoman Caillet, a French specialist on Islamist movements, was one of the first commentators to posit the “Kurdish Stalingrad” analogy. The Islamic State (IS) began a major offensive against Kobani on September 16, 2014, its military goal to annihilate the Kurdish enclave and in so doing obtain uninterrupted control of an extended stretch of the Syrian border with Turkey. By mid-October the Islamist militia had smashed all of Kobani’s formal defences and was soon in possession of up to 80 per cent of the town. Total victory was in sight.

The heroism of the lightly armed People’s Protection Units (YPG) and the all-female Women’s Protection Units (YPJ) fighters, augmented by the insertion of Free Syrian Army (FSA) soldiers and 150 heavily armed Peshmerga into the battle, will be remembered in the annals of armed conflict for a long time. So will the contribution of the United States Air Force (USAF). By attempting to conquer Kobani, contends Caillet, the IS “fell into a terrible trap”. Every time the Islamists hold a new building and secure it with (say) a dozen of their men, the USAF is called in and the structure destroyed. On one occasion, notes Caillet, five French “militants” died in the same explosion. The coup de grâce might arrive for the IS when neither retreat nor reinforcement remains an option.

In 1962 Damascus unilaterally dispossessed 120,000 Kurds of their citizenship, but nevertheless insisted these stateless people meet all the obligations pertaining to military conscription in Syria. Over the subsequent decades the Baathist regime suppressed the Kurdish language and customs, treating the Kurds (perhaps as many as 2.5 million—about 10 to 15 per cent of the total population) as second-class Syrians. However, the ongoing civil war forced Bashar al-Assad’s government to abandon its presence in much of northern Syria, including the three non-contiguous Kurdish enclaves of Afrin, Kobani and Jazeera. The citizens of those three cantons took the opportunity to declare their autonomy (but not independence) from the rest of Syria. They called their mini-state Rojava and few would have predicted that Kobani, the smallest and most vulnerable of the three separated territories, would become—as Kobani Canton Co-president Enwer Muslim brilliantly phrases it—“Resistance Castle of the Twenty-First Century”.

Kobani is where democratically minded Syrians—if mostly Kurdish Syrians—have taken a stand against the Islamic State. The IS army was on a roll when its tanks and heavy artillery attacked the villages and small towns at the outer reaches of Kobani Canton. More than 200,000 civilians fled across the border into the Turkish Republic. In the beginning, all that stood between the IS and victory were 2000 lightly armed members of the local militia, the YPG and the YPJ. The men, if captured, could expect to be decapitated, their head placed like a sinister trophy on the chest of a prostrate and decapitated body and photographed for the benefit of the Islamic State’s ghoulish followers on social media sites. The fate of any YPJ fighter taken into captivity would have been worse.

Sahar Amer, Chair of Arab and Islamic Studies at the University of Sydney, argues in her book What is Veiling? (2014) that Westerners (including some Western feminists) ignore the fact that Muslim women want to wear the niqab or burqa. This is frequently a theme of postcolonial feminism. Meanwhile, genuine freedom fighters such as the Women’s Protection Units, who are mostly Muslim, show no keenness for the burqa. Urban warfare, after all, requires optimum peripheral vision. Between 7000 and 10,000 women, according to the latest reports, are currently in the YPJ. There is nothing glamorous about the harsh and dangerous life many YPJ soldiers lead. Either they fight for their human dignity or end up victims of the Islamic State. Significantly, the YPJ helped save thousands of Yazidis trapped on Mount Sinjar by the IS, and in the Battle of Kobani as many as a third of the local militia have been women.

The Kurdish writer Dilar Dirik, an academic in the UK, makes the wholly reasonable point that the YPJ does not exist for Western magazines to exploit as a “novel phenomenon” for their curious readers. The YPJ swears its allegiance to Rojava’s Democratic Union Party (PYD), which in turn has relations with Abdullah Öcalan’s PKK. Dirik argues that Kurdish women—in Syria, Turkey, Iraq and Iran—“have been engaging in armed resistance for decades without anyone’s notice” and that the women fighters of the YPJ, for instance, are striking a blow not only against the Islamic State but also against traditional patriarchal mores in Kurdish society. They are liberating themselves in a twofold manner. First, as Dirik writes in the article “The Representation of Kurdish Women Fighters in the Media”, there is the obvious external enemy:

Militant Kurdish women (currently) fight against the Turkish state, the second largest NATO army with its hyper-masculine military structure and a prime minister that appeals to women to bear three children, the Iranian regime, which dehumanizes women supposedly in the name of Islam, and al-Qaeda-linked jihadists, who have declared it “halal” to rape Kurdish women and who are promised 72 virgins in paradise for their barbaric acts.

But these same women, throughout the length and breadth of geographical or de facto Kurdistan, are also emancipating themselves from the “child marriage, honour killings, domestic violence and rape culture” that sometimes blights traditional Kurdish society.

However, Dirik rejects tribal patriarchy only to adopt the tribalism (or ideology) of the PKK. The urban warfare of Kobani—the Kurdish Stalingrad—has galvanised, united and focused Kurds. Ensconced in Cambridge, Dirik continues to fire off missives denigrating the fighting power of the Peshmerga, armed wing of the allegedly patriarchal-feudal KRG of Northern Iraq, while openly scorning the “saviour-complex” of the United States.

In contrast, Meysa Abdo—also known by her nom de guerre Narin Afrin—wrote an op-ed for the New York Times on October 28 which was far less blinkered. Abdo, a commander of the resistance in Kobani, pointed out that many of the tanks and armoured vehicles deployed by the Islamic State were “US-made”—having been abandoned by the Iraqi armed forces—and that the contribution of the Peshmerga to the Battle of Kobani was few in number due to the intransigence of Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Nevertheless, she broke the greatest of all modern-day leftist taboos and acknowledged the critical role of the USAF in the civilisational war between freedom-modernity and the Islamic State:

We are thankful to the coalition [led by the US] for its intensified air strikes against Islamic State positions, which have been instrumental in limiting the ability of our enemies to use tanks and heavy artillery.

Neither the ruminations of Abdullah Öcalan, incarcerated on Turkey’s Imrali Island since 1999, nor Öcalan’s latter-day political inspiration, Murray Bookchin, the American libertarian-anarchist philosopher who died eight years ago, can provide us with a complete explanation for Rojava’s social revolution. For instance, Öcalan’s notion of “democratic confederalism” and his fulminations against “the bourgeois nation-state” have more to do with the PKK’s struggle against Erdogan’s Turkey than the enlightened patriotism accompanying the establishment of Rojavan autonomy over the past two years. The ongoing diminution of the Syrian state has provided incomparable dangers along with unparalleled opportunities for the Kurdish minority in Syria—dangers and opportunities that, as yet at least, do not exist in Turkey.

As for Murray Bookchin (1921–2006), if his enthusiasm for municipal self-determination and direct democracy can be said to have any effect on Rojavan politics, it must—by definition—be less a detailed prescription than a general guideline. At any rate, Bookchin’s commitment to humanism, rationality and the Enlightenment mark him apart from latter-day leftists (or bohemian socialists) and their apologia for Islamic supremacism or exceptionalism. The political theories of Abdullah Öcalan and Murray Bookchin, in all their various stages, have been secularist through and through, and that constitutes their crucial relevancy to Rojava’s social revolution.

The great civilisational war of the twenty-first century, as it turns out, is not between Muslims and Christians, as bloodthirsty fantasists like Osama bin Laden wished it to be, but between democratic secularism (or Western-inspired modernity) and Islamic revivalism. The Battle of Kobani contains all the elements of humanity’s evolving future. Those who would destroy the world as it is in order to create it anew—in this case, the IS horde besieging the central canton of Rojava—cannot abide secularism.

As Sayyib Qutb (1906–66), one-time Supreme Guide of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, explained in Signposts Along the Way, nothing short of a reconstitution of the Caliphate (Khilafah) would save Muslims from unawareness (jabiliyya). Thus did he call upon young Muslims everywhere to wage jihad until an Islamic state “based on the laws of God” came into being. Only then could a Golden Age commence. The IS group’s unprovoked onslaught in 2014 on Rojava, as well as the autonomous Kurdish region in northern Iraq, has less to do with the fact that most of their respective inhabitants are non-Arab Kurds than that both entities are secular democracies and—as a video released by the IS group’s media department put it—founded on “atheism and the denial of Allah’s lordship and godhood”.

The genesis of Mesopotamia’s latter-day Islamic State can be found in the abrogation of the last Islamic State—the Ottoman Caliphate—in 1924. Kemal Atatürk (1881–1938) wanted his sparkling new Turkish Republic to herald a new start for his people, a chance to embrace modernity and leave behind the medievalism of the past. Religion had to be banished to the confines of the mosque and the privacy of the family home. The Grand National Assembly would govern modern Turkey in its own right with no official role to be played by the clerics, the position of caliph was abolished, the old Islamic courts gave way to the Palace of Justice, women were granted equal rights (in theory anyway), and so it went.

At approximately the same time, Hassan al-Banna (1906–49) founded the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. The Kemalist outlook on the West might be summarised as “if you cannot beat them join them”, while the Muslim Brotherhood’s attitude was more along the lines of “fight them, beat them”. The linking idea between the two involves an acknowledgment that monumental developments had occurred in Western civilisation—the Renaissance, the Scientific Revolution, the Enlightenment, the Industrial Revolution, and so on—all of which compromised the self-possession of the traditional Islamic world. Kemal Atatürk’s response was to embrace secularism and modernity and excise Islam from the political equation. Hassan al-Banna took the opposite view, believing that salvation for Muslims lay in combating modernity and generating a transnational Islamic movement culminating in a reconstituted Khilafah.

No straight line exists between Hassan al-Banna’s vision of an Islamic state and Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s “Really Existing Islamic State” in Mesopotamia, and yet upwards of 80 per cent of the Egyptian people—after experiencing Mohamed Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood government for a year—insist there is a correlation between al-Banna and al-Baghdadi. After all, the Muslim Brotherhood begat Hamas, Hamas begat the Sinai’s Ansar Bait al-Maqdis, and Ansar Bait al-Maqdis has just sworn its allegiance to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s Islamic State. And let us not forget that although al-Banna’s Muslim Brotherhood began as an ostensibly pious charitable organisation, its lethal Special Apparatus assassinated Egypt’s Prime Minister Nuqrahi Pasha in 1948. Stealthy jihadism and violent jihadism are something more than kissing cousins.

Some of the more diabolical aspects of twentieth-century Islamic revivalism include adopting the Nazis’ cosmological enemy as their own. The Muslim Brotherhood’s Haj Amin el-Husseini (1897–1974), actual friend and ally of Adolf Hitler, must take a lot of the blame for the propagation of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion in the Middle East. Had Nazi Germany won the Second World War, the Jews in Mandatory Palestine would have been eradicated “from the river to the sea”, with el-Husseini himself assuming a leadership role in any German-sanctioned Islamic state.

The very existence of a small—yet modern and powerful—Jewish state in the midst of an otherwise languishing neighbourhood is too much for many Islamists to comprehend. There are great disputes about the role played by the Jews in the time of Ottoman Caliphate (1453–1924)—whether they were relatively well treated in a somewhat condescending fashion or straight-out demeaned or both, depending on the time and place—but few predicted the State of Israel’s triumph in the 1948-49 War of Independence against the combined military might of Egypt, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and Iraq. It was a nakba (catastrophe) all right, but not in the way Haj Amin el-Husseini and his successors have tried to tell it. The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, in all its preposterousness, can begin to make sense to those whose long-cherished assumptions have been shattered by reality. A conspiracy theory is the first refuge of a malcontent.

The great truism of so-called progressive thinkers is that everything appalling that happens in the world, including the 9/11 atrocity, must somehow be the fault of the West. Accordingly, after Al-Qaeda struck New York and Washington in 2001, we witnessed the burgeoning of postmodern critical terror studies in our tertiary institutions blaming the psychosis of Islamic terrorism on the West’s collective racism, sexism, modernism, atheism, militarism, liberalism, individualism, imperialism, hedonism, orientalism and, let us not omit, tourism. What goes around comes around—or some such. In much the same way as the Old Left provided a rationale for the homicidal proclivities of Stalin and Mao, too many in today’s commentariat are quick to blame America, Israel et al for the emergence of Islamist death cults. Hence, Hamas is the unintended progeny of Israel (or Little Satan as the Islamists would say) and Al-Qaeda the unplanned offspring of the USA (Big Satan), when in truth such organisations are propelled forward by their own inner dynamics or demons.

This is largely because another major irrationality of Islamic revivalism has been a tendency towards millennialism. Richard Landes, in Heaven on Earth (2011), argues persuasively that an outfit like the Islamic Resistance (Hamas) betrays every feature of pro-active, violent apocalyptic millennialism. The murderous wardens of Gaza do not seek a Palestinian state but an Islamic one with Jerusalem as the capital:

If Mecca is the sacred centre of Islam in “normal time”, Jerusalem becomes the central focus of apocalyptic time. Not only do the key eschatological events occur there—the resurrection of the dead (al Qiyãma) and the Last Judgement (Yawm al’din)—but in one hadith, the very Ka’aba stone at the centre of the Mecca pilgrimage will move to Jerusalem.

Al-Baghdadi’s rendering of an Islamic state, with Mosul its provisional capital since June 2014, betrays all the characteristics of apocalyptic millennialism. Even the title of the Islamic State’s new online magazine, Dabiq, alludes to “End Times” or “The Final Hour of History”. The headline in the second issue captures the lunacy of IS all too well: “It’s either the Islamic State or the Flood”.

The Islamic pre-modern apocalyptic fantasy to rule the world might sound ludicrous but, as Landes contends, “it is only a ludicrous fantasy if the opponents of such a dream act decisively to discourage it”. Landes was writing in 2011 and referring to Al-Qaeda and Hamas, and yet his warning is perfectly apt for the relatively recent emergence of the Islamic State as a major player in Mesopotamia: “For apocalyptic warriors, perceived weakness on the part of ‘the enemy’ encourages aggression and wins over fence-sitters.”

The Islamic State group, along with Al-Nusra Front in Syria, had—until recently—swept all before it, culminating in the capture of Iraq’s second-largest city, Mosul, in June 2014, almost without a fight. Upward of 100,000 young Syrians and Iraqis subsequently flocked to join the Islamic State. Ten thousand young Muslim men from eighty countries around the world, including Australia, have also been possessed by millennial psychosis. There are even stories of several Kurds providing logistical and cultural advice to the IS army besieging Kobani. The numbers of Kurds joining the IS was always relatively small and, after al-Baghdadi’s offensives against the KRG and Rojava’s Kobani this year, virtually non-existent. Nevertheless, this warning in Heaven on Earth is as relevant to the Kurdish people as to the West: do nothing in the face of Islamic millenarianism and the “unthinkable” becomes “inevitable”.

Kobani, even were it not to fall into the homicidal hands of the Islamic State, is already a smoking ruin after  months of savage urban warfare. In fact, if the IS is forced to give up the ghost in Kobani, this will be their one public relations talking point—the Kurds resisted and we made their provincial capital uninhabitable. Reports from the local Hawar News Agency speak of “blocks of low-rise buildings with hollow facades, shattered concrete, streets strewn with rubble and overturned, crumpled remains of cars and trucks”. But they also describe the determination of the YPG/YPJ forces, in conjunction with the Peshmerga, the FSA and (mostly) American jet fighters circling in the sky, to take back Kobani house by house, street by street.

The Islamic State leadership are past masters at exploiting not only the psychosis of apocalyptic millennialism but also Sunni tribalism and traditional religious bigotry. The Rojavan social revolution has taken an opposite tack to bind its supporters together—enlightened patriotism, secularism, self-determination, ultra-democracy and gender equality. Rojava has defined itself not as anti-Muslim but as the voice (and armed resistance) of modernity, defending its people against medieval “gangs” who will not leave well alone until all are living in submission under the black flag. In short, the IS can level the buildings of Kobani—just as the Wehrmacht levelled Stalingrad in 1942—but its fanatical sense of invincibility has been dealt an existentialist blow.

Given that IS ideology represents a furious reaction against modernity, and that gender equality is a critical feature of modernity, any genuine victory over the Islamic State must involve gender equality as one of its guiding principles. Dilar Dirik would insist, correctly, that any break with pre-modern or feudal social structures in the Middle East must incorporate gender equality as part of a successful political agenda. The so-called “Arab Spring” saw many women in the region bravely protesting against corrupt and despotic regimes, but Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood administration in Egypt, to take one instance, made matters worse for women. The spirit of civil disobedience, as the women of Iran found to their cost after 1979, was not enough. What matters is not that a transformation occurs—the Islamic State’s makeover of Mesopotamia, after all, represents a transformation of sorts—but the nature of the radical change taking place, notwithstanding the gibberish spouted by French philosopher Michael Foucault in 1978-79 about the “transgressive powers” of Ayatollah Khomeini’s radicalism.

Kobani is “Resistance Castle of the Twenty-First Century” in yet another sense. The Battle of Kobani tells us who is on the side of freedom and modernity and who aligns themselves with the Dark Side. Turkey’s President Erdogan has, indisputably, identified himself with the latter. Dilar Dirik disparages Erdogan and his government as reactionary, macho and sexist, but this represents only part of the problem. The real story about Erdogan’s “mild Islamism”, as Meysa Abdo insists, is that Erdogan has intervened in the Battle of Kobani, and the Syrian civil war in general, on the side of the militants. He continues to prevent YPG/YPJ fighters from Afrin and Jazeera reinforcing their compatriots in Kobani and yet assists the Islamic State’s offensive at every turn: “There is evidence that Turkish forces have allowed the Islamic State’s men and equipment to move back and forth across the border.” Even as I write, the IS has launched a thwarted assault on Kobani from Turkish territory. Recep Tayyip Erdogan: best friend of Hamas and President Barack Obama’s one-time point man in the Greater Middle East.

If we taker a wider perspective, of course, then it is not just Kobani–Rojava that constitutes the “Resistance Castle of the Twenty-First Century” but Kurdistan as a whole. Here is the striking irony—there are 193 countries in the United Nations and Kurdistan does not happen to be one of them. A Kurdish homeland was promised in the Treaty of Sevres (1920) but the Kurds, perhaps 30 million in number, remain the largest ethnic group in the world without a state. Syrian Kurdistan is called Rojava, Turkish Kurdistan Bakur, Iraqi Kurdistan Bashur and Iranian Kurdistan Rojilat. How astonishing that an officially non-existent entity should have such a crucial role to play in our twenty-first-century civilisational war. The paradoxes of history are without limit.

None of this is to suggest that the Kurds have always been on the same page. Dilar Dirik, as we have noted, cannot fault Bakur’s Abdullah Öcalan and yet sneers at Bashur’s Massoud Barzani. There are complex historical reasons for this kind of partisanship but the peril of the Islamic State has changed everything—right now 150 of Bashur’s Peshmerga are protecting Kobani–Rojava from the IS, while several thousand members of Bakur’s People’s Defence Force (HGJ) defend Bashur against the IS onslaught. A revolution—the only kind of revolution this libertarian conservative can get excited about—unfurls in the supposedly pretend nation of Kurdistan and it is electrifying.

I hasten to add that the Republic of Kurdistan might never get a guernsey at the United Nations and yet the de facto Republic of Kurdistan might become the saving grace (and guiding light) of Syria, Iraq, Turkey and even Iran. For instance, the concept of Iraq only has a future as a confederation: three autonomous territories (Shia, Sunni and Kurdish) held together by the live-and-let-live cosmopolitanism—or anti-sectarianism—exemplified by the RKG. The same is true of Syria. The Alawite–Christian–secularist rump state of Syria must eventually make its peace with tribal (Sunni) Syria but also with Kurdish Syria–Rojava. Likewise, Turkey: the anti-Erdogan secularists of Turkey (less than 50 per cent of the ethnic Turkish population) need the Kurds to come onside. The pattern continues in the Islamic Republic of Iran, where ethnically Persian Shiite Islamists make up a minority of the population—if Iran, as a long-term proposition, is to flourish then some version of Abdullah Öcalan’s—or, let us face it, Murray Bookchin’s—“democratic confederalism” might find an unanticipated pertinence.

The Kurds could hold the key to our future—not just for “Kurdistan” or the Greater Middle East. The modern-day Left in Australia, as exemplified by the Greens, cannot even bring itself to call the Islamic State terrorists, let alone talk about a civilisational war. America has belatedly come to the aid of Kurdish Syria–Kobani but Barack Obama essentially remains clueless. This is the guy who embraced Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood and Turkey’s Erdogan.

Why has the White House taken no action against the Muslim Brotherhood/Hamas-linked Council of American-Islamic Relations (CAIR)? Millennial-minded Islamists are at war with not only the State of Israel but also with Christians and every other infidel in their reach. Over the past decade tens of thousands of Christians have sought sanctuary in Bashur, and the number has only increased during this past northern summer after the Islamic State captured Mosul and surrounding districts. How humbling, as a Westerner, to realise that the Rojavans (many of whom are Muslims or at least Muslim apostates) and the RKG/Bashur (ditto) are more concerned about the fate of persecuted Christians than the West is. Kurdistan, in all its manifestations, is truly the “Resistance Castle of the Twenty-First Century”.

Daryl McCann has a blog at darylmccann.blogspot. He wrote on Julia Gillard’s memoirs in the December issue.


One thought on “The Battle for Modernity in Kurdistan

  • en passant says:

    A brilliant analysis. Now just watch what our politicians do now that they have this insight …
    However, it is incomplete without Waleed Aly’s view that it has nothing to do with Islam.
    There is one comment I could add that I sent in an email to various addressees that I will leave for others to interpret:
    “In a previous email to you when I mentioned the death of the tyrant, King of Saud, I then added “Watch what Barack Hussein does …” I was 99% sure he would rush off to farewell his master. In fact, not being a gambler I offered $10 bets to two friends at odds of 2:1, but still could not sucker them. I failed in my quest for an easy $20 as this report shows:

    – Barack Obama refused to join world leaders in a unity march that followed the Islamists’ murder of Paris journalists but he is dropping everything to travel to Ryhadh to pay personal homage to a dead Saudi “king” who was instrumental in cultivating terrorism and undermining the West. –
    This is the new hopey-changed forever America. Obama has but two years left to undermine and destroy the USA, but that might be just enough time to do so.
    So, Goodbye & Good Luck.”

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