books current affairs democracy

Book review: Rojava, by Thomas Schmidinger

Rojava is the autonomous Kurdish region in the North of Syria. It won the right to self-governance during the civil war, and for several years now it has existed as a precarious prototype Kurdish democracy. The region has got a fair amount of attention, not just because of the war and the international power games over Syria, but because of Rojava’s experiments in direct democracy.

I’ve read articles celebrating the region’s embrace of female leadership, with devolved regional authorities always having a male and female co-leadership. All female battalions have formed to fight ISIS. There are stories of cooperatives and worker-owned businesses, or community governance inspired by Murray Bookchin. For some, Rojava is an emerging radical democracy, pioneering new approaches in ‘anarchist socialism’ – or ‘libertarian municipalism’ if you prefer.

Equally, it’s a war-torn area threatened by Turkey on one side and extremist Islam on the other, and that exists at the mercy of President Assad. For all the talk of democracy, it still appears to be a one-party system. It’s remote, dangerous and hard to visit. Facts are hard to come by. Allegations of human rights abuses continue. Lots of people want to believe in a progressive Kurdish democracy emerging from the wreckage of the Syrian tragedy, but how much of it is wishful thinking?

That’s why I picked up Rojava: Revolution, War, and the Future of Syria’s Kurds, a detailed primer by German journalist Thomas Schmidinger. The author has spent a lot of time in the region and is well connected. His book draws on extensive interviews, and the whole back of the book is given over to local people expressing what they think is happening on the ground.

The main impression that the book gives is that it’s complicated. We begin with an overview of the ethnic diversity of Syria, with its mix of Arabs, Kurds, Armenians and Assyrians. Then we look at religious pluralism, with Christians, Jews, Muslims and several persecuted Islamic sects. There are multiple languages and dialects too.

Then we turn to the nature of Kurdistan, a region that used to be a country in its own right. It has been suppressed at times, with attempts to ban the language and customs. Some minorities have been persona non grata, and stripped of citizenship. At other times there have been movements for national sovereignty, settling into what we have today – regional autonomy within Syria, but with a vision for federalism rather than independence.

Things really get tangled once the book starts discussing Kurdish politics. The region is essentially governed by the Democratic Union Party, or PYD in its Kurdish initials, which is the political wing of the armed militant group PKK. There are multiple other parties which seem to continually fracture and split. There are youth agencies that are more revolutionary. Some parties want an independent Kurdish state and resent the PYD for working with Assad, prefering to seek alliances with Kurdish parties in Iraq or Turkey. Many criticise the PYD for not running elections, but also boycott elections when they are run. Lots of groups refuse to talk to each other, making it hard to see how problems can be resolved.

Schmidinger does his best to explain the situation, but the upshot is that it is highly convoluted. To someone like me, who doesn’t follow the situation closely, it remains largely opaque. What is useful is how much space the book gives to ‘voices from Rojava’. Dozens of people from different parties, campaigns or local NGOs are interviewed and give an account of themselves in their own words. This is where we hear about how people are trying to create a culture of democracy and self governance, replacing patriarchal or religious divisions. We hear from women leaders about how the liberation of women is a liberation for the whole of society – “men wage wars and do not take decisions for peace” says Asya Abdullah of the PYD. Bringing women into politics has brought a willingness to negotiate and compromise, to seek the greater good, in ways that were not there before.

What of the progressive new state some have described? There is certainly some inspiring work going on. As Rojava chooses its own path, it is seeking to build grassroots democracy and include a plurality of voices. But it is so incredibly fragile and it could very easily come to nothing. While Syria remains so unstable, it’s really too early to tell whether we have an emerging homegrown Middle-Eastern democracy or a just brief moment of light in the civil war. That’s more or less where Schmidinger leaves it: “Six years after the withdrawal of the Syrian troops from Rojava, we can still do no more than sketch an intermediate record of the short history of a precarious autonomy in Rojava.”

As for the book itself, it would almost serve best as a reference or as background reading to the situation. Events in the region move fast, and it may be some time before the definitive story of Rojava can be committed to print.

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