Interview with the Kurdish Anarchist Forum

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Mass protests began in Sulaimani, Iraqi Kurdistan’s cultural capital in the end of February 2011. This interview with the Kurdish Anarchist Forum (KAF) reveals an anarchist perspective on resistance, self-determination and secular Kurdish identity.

Issue 12 of imminent rebellion—the irregular anarchist journal from Aotearoa—is now out. You can download the whole thing for free (or buy a print copy) here. We thought this interview with the Kurdish Anarchist Forum was interesting enough that it's worth republishing it here in full.

Mass protests began in Sulaimani, Iraqi Kurdistan’s cultural capital in the end of February 2011, whilst many of us were glued to the events of Tahrir Square in Cairo. Demonstrations ran strong for two months in the cities of Sulaimani and Erbil. It was the first time that Kurdish people of Iraq had voiced their collective frustration with the corrupt government that has replaced Iraqi Kurds’ reality of state authority since the US-sanctioned creation of the autonomous Kurdish northern region in the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

Since the Assad administration pulled back its forces in Syria last summer, Kurds there have built a de facto autonomous zone in the north too. While many folk in the region of Kurdistan, divided by the arbitrary state borders of Syria, Turkey, Iraq and Iran, dream of a united Kurdistan, many too advocate for a federation of liberated autonomous Kurdish regions within these states.

Kurdistan’s better-known history of resistance is likely to feature socialist groups like the Kurdistan Workers Party, or PKK. The following interview with the Kurdish Anarchist Forum (KAF) reveals a different perspective on resistance, self-determination and secular Kurdish identity.

Is there a kind of approach of anarchism that you are particularly inspired from? If yes, which one and why?

Before we became self-identified anarchists, despite having read no anarchist literature, many of our thoughts and principles were unconsciously anarchist. We were critical of all politicians, from the right to the left, including communists. This led them to accuse us of being ‘anarchists’ in the misinformed derogatory sense of the term, as it’s often used in common discourse. Ironically, this accusation persuaded us to better understand the true meaning of anarchism to better inform (and defend) ourselves.

Are there any Kurdish individuals that you as anarchists think are worth knowing about?

As far as we know there have been no genuinely anarchist groups or individuals in Iraqi Kurdistan. That being said, we can see the basic spirit of anarchism shining through in the Kurdish uprising of March 1991 and in 1992–5, when self-organised, more or less direct-democratic groups formed. However, their lack of experience and understanding of anarchism meant they didn’t last long or were co-opted by others.

In the last century there have been one or two small movements or social experiments with socialist-libertarian characteristics in Iraqi Kurdistan. The people involved led very simple lives, living communally and pursuing most activities collectively. Although some call these social experiments ‘anarchist’, we do not because we believe that anarchism is not just about living communally and doing things collectively. It is much bigger and deeper than that.

How does a ‘Kurdish anarchist’ analysis of the struggle for autonomy/national liberation look? Can one as an anarchist have a positive relation to these aspirations or do you think this is not working?

As KAF we generally support national liberation, but if this process results in domination of one class, race, nationality or religion over the rest, then we will oppose it and fight back. We do not see any difference between the foreign occupation of Kurdistan and the domination of a Kurdish bourgeoisie over the rest of the population. While we support the above, we are activists who militate against any type of domination. Even if [liberation] movements achieve their goals, they won’t automatically attain true freedom or social justice.

As anarchists we have the same stance as with all other national and ethnic-minority issues, such as the Palestinian question, the Tamil question, and the Baluchistan issue in Iran. We do support the national liberation of the Kurdish people in other countries and the ideal of a united federation. We also want the same rights for the Turkish, Armenian, Arab and Persian people in Iraqi Kurdistan, Iraq, Turkey and Iran. The question is whether when people gain some freedom through national independence, with social justice issues still unresolved, will they still want to unite on the basis of being Kurdish, Turkish, Baluch, Armenian, Arab or Persian, and thus separate themselves from one another?

The clearest example is South Africa. Despite political liberation and empowerment of Black South Africans from apartheid through a party/statist solution, deeper social problems of equality have often worsened: access to basic public utilities, unemployment, poverty, crime, healthcare, and the high price of living, just to mention a few. Many live in makeshift shelters in shantytowns. These people are marginalised and deprived from living decent lives. South Africa, of course, reintegrated into the global capitalist economy and became a lucrative market for large corporations, as usual, at the expense of most people there. South Africa, like most countries, is still in need of a revolution—a real revolution—but this won’t happen as long as the parties and statist organisations remain untouchable sacred cows.

Kurdistan will not fare any better under hierarchical solutions of so called ‘liberation’. Our stand and our struggle is double edged. On one hand we support national liberation, because as long as one nation, religion, race or gender exploits another, no social justice can be attained. On the other hand, our struggle goes beyond that. It is constant and we will insist on fighting for what we believe. Kurdish self-rule in Iraqi Kurdistan over the past 19 years has achieved very little for the welfare of the Kurdish people. Our own government’s lack of positive progress has diluted people’s interest in statist solutions, despite over half a century of struggle to achieve it.

Many Kurds support the idea of a united federation of autonomous Kurdish regions in each state where Kurdistan lies. Where do you stand on this?

We hope that one day all villages, towns, cities, regions and countries in all continents will be united in federalism and the free interests of all peoples. We would welcome this. Realistically, the unification of Kurdistan is highly unlikely in the near future. But one can struggle to build some sort of federation of counter-powers within each country as alternatives to the current hierarchical system.

What role did and does socialism play in the Kurdish struggle for independence? Have there also been libertarian/anti-authoritarian approaches of socialism?

Socialism throughout the Middle East and Africa were not born naturally. It was created and installed by the Soviet Union and its main function was to implement Soviet policies. The Iraqi communist party would not have supported the Kurdish struggle unless they were instructed to do so by the Soviet Union. Indeed the communist party was actively working to destroy the Kurdish national liberation struggle.

Are there many Kurdish anarchists active within the Middle East or is it more a phenomenon of the Diaspora?

We can with confidence say we’re the first group of Kurdish anarchist or socialist libertarians focusing on Kurdish society. We began our activism in the early 2000s, publishing a magazine called ‘Dalian’, meaning ‘Rebels’, with 12 copies until spring 2003. KAF’s Sakurdistan website is the first anarchist site by Kurdish activists for a Kurdish audience. Sakurdistan publishes articles in Kurdish, Arabic and Persian, written by Kurdish, Arab and Persian anarchists. KAF activists have tirelessly worked to introduce readers to the correct meanings of anarchist concepts long distorted by Bolshevik and the right. Great efforts have been made to translate and analyse anarchist texts and we continue to do so today.

With the recent defeat of armed guerrilla struggle in Turkish Kurdistan, movements promoting anarchist ideas have grown in the region. This appears to us as a very good sign that people have now found an alternative to the failures of politicians and armed struggle. It is sad to hear some European anarchists giving credit to Abdulla Öcalan for the positive changes for Kurdish people in Turkey. We believe it’s exactly the opposite, as Öcalan and his people come under the increasing democratic influence of ordinary people and their grassroots movements, particularly of the ideas of anarchists.

There are now a large number of people who support the anarchist movement on the ground in Turkish Kurdistan. During demonstrations and festivals such as Nawroz (Kurdish New Year), red and red-and-black flags are now seen waving without fear. Last year saw a new anarchist magazine published in Turkish Kurdistan named ‘Corvus’ (Crow).

It’s a great pity this change isn’t seen in the rest of Kurdistan: Iran, Syria and Iraq. Until recently in Syria, no independent movements could form due to severe state repression. This of course has changed drastically with the Arab Spring. Until then, Kurdish people could not even talk about their existence as Kurds, let alone about their rights and land. But wherever oppressions exist there will be resistance, though this resistance will most likely be underground.

In Iraqi Kurdistan, where many of us in KAF are from, anarchist ideas, theories and principles have been deliberately misrepresented by the enemies of anarchism on the right and left. The culture of armed struggle had become all-pervasive, its methods used to resolve all political issues and even social issues. This climate pushed many socialists, communists and anarchists, including ourselves, to flee the country in fear for our lives and seek asylum in Europe or elsewhere.

Less than two years after Kurdish self-rule was established in Iraq, a civil war erupted, continuing, until 1998. What little was achieved in the 1991 uprising was lost: daily life became difficult, civil rights were trampled, and unions, women’s organisations, and other groups were dissolved. When the civil war and Saddam’s regime were over, Kurdish self-rule was given free rein and an open budget, leading to a rise in corruption and an increasing gap between the rich and poor. Meanwhile all public services were ignored or sold off to private interests. Kurdish self-rule copied exactly what Saddam Hussein did when he was in power: the ruling elites have put their own people in responsibility throughout the civil service, health services, educational institutions, and banks. They handed out degrees to their own people even though they weren’t qualified, sending them to Europe and the US with large stipends at the expense of the ordinary people. This list can go on and on. This terrible situation caused a massive exodus of people from Kurdistan from 1992–2004—in far greater numbers than those who emigrated during Saddam Hussein’s regime.

This dire situation continues today, creating such a foul atmosphere that people have developed a deep hatred of the Kurdish self-rule regime and the parties involved. Today the regime is more vigilant than ever in oppressing dissenting voices. On the 17th of February 2011, Arab Spring-inspired protests kicked off. The rulers’ answer: live bullets. Within half a day of protests two people were killed and 56 injured. Protests continued for almost three months, but in the end the rulers managed to stop them. Many leftist and Islamist organisations attempted to control the movement, and, once again, people sought changes from the top down. The mass protests were not organised grassroots, thus repeating the same patterns of the past.

The situation is different in the Eastern part of Kurdistan controlled by the Iranian regime, as the last three years has seen no armed struggle and people have found alternative ways to fight back, such as mass demonstrations and strikes, which continue to regularly flare up. Anarchist ideas in Iranian Kurdistan, as well as elsewhere in Iran, played a significant role during the 1979 uprising and beyond. A few small anarchist groups were there within a small movement of Kurds, Persians and Baluchis. Many of them, however, now live in Europe, continuing their struggle from abroad. With its powerful military and police force, the current Iranian regime’s repression has made it difficult for anarchism to develop as freely as in Turkish Kurdistan. Thus Iranian-Kurdish anarchists have, to date, not been able to publish any magazines or newsletters.

What’s your point on the PKK and PJAK?

PKK and PJAK are the two faces of the same coin. PJAK is the PKK’s wing spread over all parts of Kurdistan. They both are hierarchical and paramilitary organisations involved in nationalist propaganda, with no connection to anarchism. From A to Z they are different to us.

Öcalan’s ideas have changed since he has been in prison, but so far they haven’t reflected in practice. The PKK has a big impact and many followers among the Kurdish people. They also talk about federalism. But none of this makes them anarchist or compatible with anarchism: Öcalan retains dominance over the mass movement, and they still advocate nationalism and patriotism. PJAK have demonstrated even less direct-democratic change and had an even smaller influence in Turkey.

We will only support the PKK when they give up armed struggle completely, organise grassroots to achieve people’s social demands, denounce centralised and hierarchical modes of struggle and turn to federated autonomous local groups, end all dealings with Middle East and Western states, denounce charismatic power politics, and convert to anti-statism and anti-authoritarianism. These would require major changes that we regretfully cannot foresee in the PKK and PJAK.

The Kurdish community in Iraq supported the US 2003 invasion, which contradicts the standpoint of most anarchists in Europe or the US. What is your position?

Anarchism is a pacifist ideology. We were against the war then, and we are against it still now, just as we’re against all wars wherever they may happen. We thus had the same stance as our anarchist comrades throughout the world, because the motives behind the invasion and occupation of Iraq by the US, UK and allied forces were as clear to us as everyone else: to rob the wealth and natural assets of Iraq; demonstrate the US’s dominance and install military bases in the region; put regional countries under pressure to buy more US and allied weapons; protect Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and US allies, particularly Israel; test new weapons; and expand the neoliberal globalisation project to the Middle East. The US has an open contract with the Iraqi government to stay at least 50 years. As soon as the war was over, the West started implementing its neoliberal program with the help of the World Bank and IMF. There are many other imperialist motives for the war and perhaps many we don’t yet know about.

Kurdish support for the war is easy to explain. Saddam Hussein’s regime brutally terrorised the people of Iraq for almost 35 years. Kurdish people in the north and Shiites in the south bore the lion’s share of this repression. The Kurdish community were powerless to bring down the regime, while Saddam survived both the Iran–Iraq war and the First Gulf War, remaining powerful enough to repress them. They lost hope in Kurdish parties, and many saw the collapse of the USSR as a sign that no powers supporting the Kurdish people remained.

The propaganda of the US and their allies—echoed by the Kurdish parties—about the ‘democratic system’ that would be installed was effective, with its promises of freedom, jobs, security, education, civil rights, affordable goods. Some Kurdish parties even tied these promises to the establishment of a Kurdish state. The Kurdish community wasn’t aware of the US’s true plans. Thus, many supported the war.

We believe the Kurdish community’s attitude toward the war and the US has now changed, because the Kurds of today are not the same people as in 1992 or 2003. One could once see them waiting in long queues to vote; now they’re disillusioned. They’re also not as focused on the demand for Kurdish independence or autonomy because, through the long experience of Kurdish self-rule, they’ve realised that kicking out the occupiers didn’t bring an end to their problems or injustice and exploitation.

How do you see the protest movements of recent years in the Kurdistan Regional Government?

After occupying Iraq, the US and its allies started pouring a lot of money into the country in order to win the people’s support. As we all know, the US and its allies had no plans for ‘nation building’ in Iraq. Even with the advent of the ‘insurgency’, when they decided to develop some sort of plan, these remained minimal, and concentrated on how to make the ‘insurgency’ ineffective.

This plan benefited the ruling elites of Iraq, and corruption became a widespread phenomenon. While they lined their pockets, they ignored public services, the environment, and the development of rural areas and industrialisation of the country. Privileged elites have made fortunes importing everything except oil and opening the Kurdish market to foreign corporations. Public services have been privatised or abandoned by the government, while the rich private sector, funded by KRG oligarchs and plutocrats, is encouraged to compete with public services with private hospitals, schools, universities, telecommunications and more.

All this has fueled protests in recent years demanding reform and an end to corruption. From the beginning they were instigated by individuals and small groups spontaneously congregating outside the PDK (Kurdistan Democratic Party) and PUK (Patriotic United Kurdistan) headquarters and party members protesting from within. The KRG tried hard to make big reforms, but it wasn’t enough. KRG and party members defected in protest, joining with grassroots activists to form a big protest movement outside the realm of parties and the KRG.

But from the beginning there were great differences between the grassroots movement and the politicians who defected. The politicians had their own agenda, to contain the movement and exploit it to gain power. The movement was focused on social demands and democratic reform, but was corrupted by politicians into issues of mundane, superficial politics such as having earlier elections or sharing power in the military and civil administrations. They named the movement ‘Goran’, or ‘Movement for Change’. It’s important to emphasise that Goran and the popular movement are completely different. Goran have no plans to improve social and public services or workers’ rights, and they support the clientelistic, neoliberal dependency of Kurdistan and Iraq on the US and their allies. They want to retain the school curriculum we had under Saddam Hussein. The only difference between them and those in power is their system would put technocrats in power.

Constant wars in Kurdistan have left no space for the Kurdish people to establish their own civil society, and many have become very dependent on the patronage of politicians or militia leaders. The cultures of armed struggle and parliamentarianism have stood in the way of forming direct-democratic counter-powers based on mutual aid and collective direct-action against the system.

The difference between us and the rest of the opposition is that we believe in neither armed struggle nor elections and ‘parliamentary democracy’ as legitimate means of changing society. We believe that real change can only emerge through the local groups in workplaces, communities, educational institutions, public service, and public spaces, to re-appropriate power in the name of the people, away from the government, parliament, courts, local authorities, parties, corporations, and banks; and empower communities and their citizens. The goal should be to establish a classless society free of injustice, exploitation, oppression and wars—a society in which individuals feel that their worth isn’t measured in terms of money, race, religion, appearance, or even capability and socially defined normative ‘talents’, but simply as human beings who deserve a decent life.

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