Report from The Mesopotamian Social Forum

Mesopotamian Social Forum Poster

Since around 2004, I’d been hearing that Kurds in southeastern Turkey were interested in social ecology and communalism. The news was surprising and intriguing and potentially an important development for social ecology. But for some reason, I could not bring myself to focus on the subject. Why? Perhaps the problem was the language barrier—but no, important documents had been translated into English, so I can’t blame that for my long hesitation.

No, the real reason, I admit, was the problem of Abdullah Öcalan (the surname is pronounced OH-jah-lahn). Back in the 1970s, this Kurdish nationalist founded the PKK (the Kurdish Workers Party), a Marxist-Leninist organization, to achieve a separate Kurdish state. Starting in 1984, the PKK waged a guerrilla war with the Turkish army, a war that has ebbed and flowed, has at times been very bloody, costing 30,000 lives—it continues to this day. He personally ordered executions (as he later admitted). But in 1999, after a long manhunt, the Turkish state arrested and tried Öcalan and condemned him to death. Then in 2002 Turkey, which wanted to join the EU, ended capital punishment and so commuted his sentence to life imprisonment.

Incarcerated on a one-person prison on an island in the Sea of Marmara, in solitary confinement apart from his lawyers, Öcalan became reflective, a reader and writer and thinker. He abandoned Marxism and the goal of a separate Kurdish state and turned instead to a relatively peaceful solution: “not separation but a democratic union with the republic.” The Kurds seek, in their current phrase, “democratic autonomy” within Turkey.

And it was in prison that Öcalan read Murray Bookchin’s work—The Ecology of Freedom and The Rise of Urbanization had recently been translated into Turkish. In reading those pages, Öcalan recognized the importance of assembly democracy and confederalism; he embraced the critique of hierarchy, the necessity of gender equality, and the urgent reality of the ecology crisis.

Through his lawyers, Öcalan sent out the word that Kurds should read Bookchin. And thereafter untold numbers of Kurds did so and to some uncalculable degree accepted social ecology.

Bookchin’s ideas percolated through Kurdistan while he himself was at the end of his life and could them offer no advice. After his death in 2006, I started to hear from people associated with the Kurdish cause. But whenever I mentioned Öcalan’s name to my American friends (those who had heard of him), they told me that he was a terrorist thug, a blood-stained Marxist-Leninist, a would-be dictator. The PKK, no gentle Gandhians, funded their guerrilla war via drug trafficking. The PKK was (and still is) on the U.S. State Department’s list of terrorist organizations.

Just what the social ecology world needs, I thought: association with an internationally vilified brute. So while I was friendly to my Kurdish contacts, I put my energy into other projects.

In the past year or so, more Kurds got in touch with me—and they all seemed like fine people, justifiably desiring autonomy from a Turkish state that persecuted them, did not acknowledge the existence of their ethnicity, barred them even from using their language publicly. They seemed eager for international contacts, like a Kurdish anti-dam activist, Ercan (pronounced AIR-john) Ayboga, who was the international coordinator for resistance to a big hydroelectric dam project on the Tigris River. The resistance was valiant, high-minded, and persistent.

A few months ago Ercan invited me, to participate in the Mesopotamian Social Forum (MSF), to be held in September in Diyarbakir, the largest Kurdish city in Turkey. The MSF’s slogan would be “freedom will prevail.” I worked out a way to go. Finally I confront the issue.

The Mesopotamian Social Forum, September 20-25, 2011

About 3,000 people arrived at Diyarbakir’s Sumer Park to attend and participate in this second MSF (the first took place two years ago). They were, it seems, mainly Kurds, from not only Turkey but Iran and Iraq. Many non-Kurdish people from other parts of the Middle East were there, as well as international sympathizers, all working on social justice, peace, and freedom; ecology and human rights; women and LGBT; refugees and migration; and the range of issues typical of a Social Forum: “Another Mesopotamia is possible!” They rejected "packaged futures” and practiced mutual respect. Many were older people, surely veterans of the struggles of the 1970s and 1980s, but also younger Kurds who must have entered the movement after Öcalan’s transformation. And like any Social Forum, the MSF offered far more panels and workshops and events, running simultaneously, than any one person could take in.

For me, it was total immersion in Kurdish affairs. Ecology was an important theme, with panels on energy, the right to water, and irrigation policy. I heard about a fight to preserve a Jordanian forest and struggles against thirty hydroelectric plans under way near Van, “perpetrating both social and ecological destruction,” as the presenter put it.

Dam building seems tragically ubiquitous in the Middle East, as states scramble to harness streams for hydropower. The Iranian state is building hundreds of dams, explained Esmaeil Kahrom, the onetime director of Tehran’s Bureau of Wildlife, with terrible ecological consequences. He described how dam construction has lowered the water level of Lake Urmia, the largest lake in the Middle East, by 60 percent. The water is so saline, flamingoes and other waterfowl can no longer live there, or rest on its rocky outcroppings. “Nature can provide for the need of people, not the greed of people,” Kahrom quoted Gandhi. Meanwhile Banu Öztürk, who fights thermal and nuclear plants in the Trabzon area, on the Black Sea coast, pointed out: “What ’s happening is not the production of energy. The real issue here is the commodification of water and air.”

Much to my astonishment, at a panel on “Autonomous Communities and Ecological City,” a brilliant young woman called Duygu Canan Öztürk gave a pitch-perfect exposition of Murray Bookchin’s social ecology. Later, when I asked her about it, she told me matter-of-factly that she’d been studying Bookchin for years. She seemed surprised by my surprise. She told me Bookchin’s ideas were much discussed and analyzed in Turkey—many books, articles, Ph.D. dissertations, have been written on them.

After that, I heard snippets of social ecology elsewhere. A middle-aged man from KESK (the Confederation of Civil Servants’ Unions) sounded like he’d just read Our Synthetic Environment. “Big cities are like big ovens,” he said—“the roads and houses just get hotter. On city streets, people become psychologically disturbed. That gives rise to family conflicts at home. And it’s all so capitalism can rule society more easily. It says, ‘You have to live for my profit.’” Anti-capitalism: like so many at the MSF, the word fell easily from his lips—it was axiomatic for the conference as a whole. “Capitalism is a trap against us,” the KESK man said (I didn’t catch his name)—“no capitalist society can survive.” KESK builds new housing, he said, where families can grow food using solar power.

I heard about many experiments in “alternative life.” A member of the Ax u Av collective told us about a new village, on a plain in Urfa, near Viransehir. They have built houses from soil and water. The collective is run democratically, with gender equality, as a farming cooperative.

The level of feminist consciousness was extremely high. Women spoke on every panel, and some were dedicated to women’s issues, like one on the “slaughter of women” in the Middle East: honor killings. If a woman is accused of having been “dishonored” (which can mean anything from having extramarital sex to being accused of same, or merely dressing in an “unacceptable” manner), her brothers are expected kill her. Lin Kayyaht, a Jordanian attorney, explained that women cover themselves in black burqas to avoid being accused of tempting men; their families consider daughters “honor burdens” and marry them off young, before their “honor” can be challenged—so child brides are on the increase.

One Iraqi Kurdish woman pointed out that she and her peers fight for themselves as women as well as for their country—and it’s in men’s interest that they do. “If woman has rights, then society will be stronger,” she said. “Women make up half the society.”

As the women talked, I looked across elderly men with craggy faces, battle-scarred veterans of decades of Kurdish struggle, sitting near me, listening gravely. Öcalan had told them that they must treat women equally—and they seemed to be complying. I saw much, much encouragement of women’s voices.

But the most fascinating part of the MSF for me was the Kurds’ achievements in assembly democracy. As Ercan Ayboga explains in the accompanying interview, they are creating assemblies at the local level (villages, neighborhoods cities) and coordinating them horizontally in confederations. Instead of using the name communalism, they call it democratic confederalism.

Democracy, as Engen Demesh of the BDP Politics Academy explained, is among the “common values of humanity.” It doesn’t simply mean voting—democracy “can’t be built on individualism.” It means taking your destiny into your own hands: “When people decide to organize together, they make history.”

In the 1980s and 1990s, when Murray spoke on communalism, to American and European audiences, he encouraged them to heighten the tension between the municipality and the nation-state. They exist in a state of latent conflict, he argued, and the way to make a municipal revolution was to exacerbate it. To build up the base of the confederation into a dual power that could challenge the nation-state. Dual power? I wondered. How about a state of war?

My new Kurdish friends were eager to hear from me about communalist experiences in other parts of the world, but I feared disappointing them. No one in the social ecology world I knew had produced anything close to the Kurdish achievement. I dared not recycle once again Murray’s well-worn historical examples. But the question was answered by others, for example by Cetin Güner, in a fascinating presentation on models of self-governance with de facto or legal autonomy. In Chiapas, in the years since the Zapatista uprising, village assemblies, with city councils, and forces of self-defense, have been to meet the needs of local people. They “don’t demand self-government,” Güner said—“they’ve already built it. They demand recognition of their right to self-government.” The Zapatistas, I was told, are an inspiring model for many radical Kurds.

But they’ve made assembly democracy their own. Kurdish activist Ayse Gökhan of Nusaybin municipality (in Mardin Province, near the Syrian border) said the end of the nation state was in sight, because it cannot address the needs of societies today. The struggle for confederalism—ecological and democratic—is the solution to the Kurdish problem, in all four parts of Kurdistan, and it offers a new vision to Middle Eastern countries undergoing the Arab Spring.

This yeasty left-political mix could not be without its anarchists, and I was curious to see how they related to it. At a panel on “New Liberation Spaces,” Kürsad Kiziltug argued that the historical enmity between anarchism and socialism belonged in the past. Socialism and anarchism come from the same nineteenth-century roots. Proudhon and Bakunin were both socialists—the split was over strategic preferences. The new anticapitalist movement (dating from 1994 Zapatista movement and 1999 Seattle) abandons the strategy of taking hold of the state apparatus. The new anticapitalist movements are intertwined horizontally.

Politics with themes like decentralization “is no longer called anarchist, which is good,” he said. Some Turkish socialists refuse to let go of the “Jacobin paradigm” and call the Kurdish movement is “too anarchist.” But “the grammar of politics has changed.” The Kurdish liberation movement “has evolved from a traditional separatist movement to an anticapitalist, direct democracy movement.” In Kurdistan, feminists, libertarian socialists, LGBTs, diverse movements support the pro-Kurdish parliamentary party, the BDP (see the accompanying interview).

Göksun Yazici, an anarchist fan of the Zapatistas, told of a long search for “a new politics.” She supports the BDP, she said, but it’s not simply about giving an endorsement—it’s about becoming part of the process. The BDP doesn’t just reproduce bourgeois democracy—it takes a stab at the heart of the bourgeois state. Anarchists need “to rethink ways of organizing,” she said.

Emine Ayna, a BDP parliamentarian, sat on the panel with the (post-)anarchists and observed that Kurdish political institutions are places where “all Kurds to come together over their concerns. Anarchists are being recognized—Öcalan’s Defense has a chapter on anarchism. “The door is open. We’re trying to find a common points with anarchism, points of struggle against he system. Because ideologically we have a lot in common.”

What about the “cult of the leader,” an audience member asked, referring to Öcalan. Isn’t that authoritarianism? Ayna responded that Öcalan has been leading the struggle for thirty years. “We oppose domination, Our organizing models are people’s assemblies, neighborhood assemblies. We’re trying to create a new system in a participatory way. But how can we organize without a leader? Öcalan endorsed women’s liberation—and it would not be happening without him.” Ayna continued, “There’s no other struggle like ours. We’re trying to break the system, make a strategic transformation. We make no concessions. We what it to sweep over the rest of Turkey.”

Back in 1991, Murray Bookchin wrote an article called “The Left That Was,” in which he listed the qualities that he considered valuable about the left he’d known: it was anticapitalist and socialist; internationalist, antimilitarist (but not pacifist), gender equal, anti-hierarchical, against domination, democratic, and confederalist. He considered these features the ones worth preserving, for a future new left. I found all these qualities at he MSF.

And it was all happening in the ominous shadow of severe repression by the Turkish state. As Rehsan Bataray Saman, of the Human Rights Association (IHD), explained, the state is using a new strategy against Kurdish activists: arrests and incarceration. Thousands of people have been arrested on vague charges of involvement in an organization that supports terrorism. They get long sentences, even torture, for a tiny episode of participation. A person can receive 10-12 years just for attending a political demonstration, she said. Mass graves have been found.

For geostrategic reasons, Turkey keeps a tight lid on information about its repression of the Kurds. It’s unseemly for a modernized nation, after all, to be understood as persecuting an ethnic group. It reminded me of the “grand camouflage,” as Burnett Bolloten called the Stalinists’ suppression of information about the Spanish Revolution in 1936-37. Then too, the reasons were geostrategic. Then too, the institutions at stake were libertarian ones.

But the Kurds have no intention of allowing another Franco to eliminate their assembly democracy. Repression only seems to make them more defiant. For them, democratic confederalism is a way of taking the future into their own hands. For them, it is through democratic confederalism that “freedom will prevail.”

Editorial Comment

Janet Biehl wishes to thank Citran Tekay, who translated for her at several crucial points.

Do check out Janet Biehl's interview with Ercan Ayboga and her Hasankeyf: A Story of Resistance.