Rojava, Kurdistan (NI) – Follow the river Tigris as it threads through the snow-capped Taurus mountains, as it spills into the Turkish lowlands before flowing hundreds of miles thereafter – and you will eventually reach the border with Syria.
It’s at this juncture that you’ll find one of the most dynamic and precious experiments in freedom and self-determination taking place today.
In the region of West Kurdistan – or Rojava – there exists a remarkable social space where a vibrant political movement has swept through the diverse populations living there, throwing up new forms of political organization, and uniting in its remit Kurds, Arabs, Assyrians, Armenians, Turkmen and Chechens.
Rojava now operates a form of a communalism. All households participate in assemblies which, in turn, elect delegates responsive to their needs; political power flows from the bottom upward through a series of graduations: the neighbourhood, the district, the city, and the canton.
It is true that the three cantons which make up the territory are overseen by the PVD – an organization with links to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, a party which was the focal point of Kurdish radical and national resistance for the decades where it operated clandestinely and from the shadows.
But the real precedent for what is happening in Rojava has not been set by the fragmented splinter-groups of Kurdish nationalism and the parties from above, but instead by events with a far older historical pedigree.
If anything, the groundswell of democracy in Western Kurdistan resembles the polis of the ancient Athenian democracy (minus the slaves and disenfranchized women) – or, many centuries later, the heroic Paris commune which Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels wrote about with such sweeping, tragic acuity.
And, just like the commune, the grassroots democracy of Rojava is besieged from all sides, menaced by a series of hostile forces which threaten its destruction.
After the implosions of both Iraq and Syria, the vicious strains of Islamic fundamentalism they have unleashed are locked in combat with Rojava’s fighters on the borders; at the same time, the area remains buffeted by Assad’s forces, while dealing with the unremitting hostility from a Turkey which has enforced a series of trade embargoes against it.
At this point, however, the fundamentalist threat presented by the jihadists of IS and other groups is clearly the most perilous.
It is a threat which has been met by fire and barely suppressed fury, especially on the part of the female Rojava fighters who make up a high number of the civil protection units.
The fact that Rojava’s political forms are rooted in the democratic life of the people has led to a flowering of reform which has swept away many of the political mechanisms which underlined more traditional forms of misogyny.
So, for instance, it is now no longer possible for a man to marry more than one woman, or for his input and testimony in judicial process to count for double that of his female counterpart.
The women of Rojava seek to protect these freedoms – and Rojava’s territory – with a ferocious courage thrown into relief by the kind of hell which awaits them in the event of capture by the representatives of the medieval savagery they are warring against.
A fighter for the Women’s Protection Units (YPJ) on the frontline conveys the gravity of the situation in the simplest, starkest of terms:
‘We all have our orders to keep a bullet and a grenade in a special pocket on us. We can never become captives of Daesh [IS].’
Under these conditions, then, Rojava’s experiment with democracy seems all the more remarkable.
But it also begs the question – why now?
Kurdistan, itself a fragmented territory with regions in Syria, Iran, Iraq and Turkey, existed as an independent state for a short sliver of time from 1920-23, though it was swiftly carved up into disparate populations and territories which came to form dislocated minorities in larger and often brutally repressive nations.
Certainly, it is this history of repression which has fanned the flames of ethno-nationalism on the part of Kurdish populations.
But though it has increased the political impetus for the creation of a Kurdish nation, it has also provoked a counter-tendency: rejecting Kurdish ultra-nationalism.
Kurdish populations are historically more attuned to the dangers of the nationalist projects which emerged from the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. These projects were more often than not facilitated by Western imperial powers, which emphasized and promoted one ethnicity at the expense of others in order to secure a national framework.
All of which brings us back to Rojava. Perhaps because it is just one parcel of Kurdish territory and because the Kurds there have a very different political and ideological make-up from those living elsewhere, like Iraq, the possibility of creating a national state would always be fraught with the dangers of repression and even ethnic cleansing.
To counter this, Rojava’s constitution – its ‘social contract’ – goes out of its way to reject Kurdish nationalism and even nationalism per se: ‘The autonomous regions of democratic administration do not recognize the concept of the nation state.’
In the same vein, it would be wrong to describe the Rojava administration as Kurdish in the first place; rather, it’s a political network of all the diffuse identities and religions which happen to persist in the region of Western Kurdistan.
In other words, the character of the democracy which is being forged against a backdrop of civil war and invasion has assumed the form of a movement from below, precisely as a response to Kurdish history and the national question, and in light of the ongoing fragmentation of nations like Iraq and Syria.
It is hard to tell whether, given the terrible nature of the forces which are arrayed against it, the Rojava experiment can or will survive. But it is not only precious for the lives of the people who have fought for it – but also, perhaps, because it provides the hope of a way out, a form of organization and life which might transcend the interminable and bitter rhythms of sectarian conflict.
Tony McKenna has previously written for New Internationalist, ABC Australia, The Huffington Post, New Statesman and others. His first book, Art, Literature and Culture from a Marxist Perspective, is available from Macmillan in August