As we watch with horror the ease with which most of the world is prepared to abandon Syria’s Kurds to an uncertain and bloody fate, we can’t forget the part that is being played by the authorities here in Scotland. The UK Government has prioritised arms sales to Turkey, so it is perhaps unsurprising that the UK leads the resistance to ending the designation of the PKK as terrorists – as in the recent European Court action that found the grounds for the terrorist designation unsupportable. The PKK’s egalitarian philosophy and their history of resistance to the suppression of Kurdish culture has earned the organisation and its imprisoned leader, Abdullah Öcalan, the respect and support of Kurds across the world. Öcalan’s ideas have been fundamental to the grassroots revolution in Syria, and he has made many attempts to negotiate a peaceful settlement for the Kurds in Turkey. Any Turkish government that wanted to see a peaceful future would have to talk to him. We can imagine a time when a future UK prime minister might feel compelled to pay their respects at the scene of Öcalan’s incarceration in the same way as Theresa May has visited Robbin Island, but so long as the UK Government is in thrall to Turkey, active support for the PKK will be deemed illegal. And the UK terrorism Act gives the police wide powers to arrest on suspicion, even where there is no evidence of actual ‘terrorist’ activity. Much has been written about how the ‘Prevent’ legislation criminalises groups based on racial or religious profiling. For the last three years this legislation has been used to arrest members of the Edinburgh Kurdish community – possibly at the instigation of the local Turkish Consulate. The community has suffered dawn raids and house searches. Flags in Kurdish colours, and other equally unthreatening items, have been taken away, and this year several men will have to appear in court.
This targeting of the community makes it difficult for Scottish Kurds to express their political views at a time when their relations in Syria and Turkey are under attack. It even makes it difficult for them to express their Kurdish identity. Most of these families have come to the UK because they were oppressed in their homelands if they identified as Kurdish. Now they are under similar constraints here.
When Scotland’s Kurdish voices most need to be heard they are being silenced by Scottish police. Even when they speak they must self-censor. Talk about fighting Daesh – fine; talk about implementing Öcalan’s ideas of grassroots multicultural feminist democracy and you might tread on more dangerous territory. Welcome to 21st Century Britain.
SSK’s last public meetings of 2018 were in solidarity with the community members who had been arrested. In Edinburgh we were joined by Ross Greer MSP who emphasised the need to support the community and to take up the issue of criminalisation of the community with the police and justice department. A representative from the community explained how the police actions have intimidated them, and especially affected the children and their ability to express their cultural identity, and Sarah Glynn described how Öcalan’s ideas, which these actions attempt to shut down, are being implemented in building a new progressive society in Northern Syria. The meeting supported the campaign for the PKK to be de-listed, and for this to be raised with MSPs. In Glasgow a packed room heard the writer James Kelman, a long-term supporter of the Kurds, as well as SSK’s Stephen Smellie and Roza Salih.
A unanimous message of support was also sent to the community from the Islamophobia conference jointly held by Scotland Against Criminalising Communities and the Islamic Human Rights Council on 15 December.
An article in the Morning Star quoted both the SSK and James Kelman, and we organised a long letter calling for a stop to this persecution of Kurds seeking sanctuary in Scotland that was signed by politicians and trade unionists, and published in the National.
December also saw Sarah co-moderating the session on solidarity at the annual Kurdish conference held in the European Parliament, and meeting fellow activists from across Europe;
Sarah and Roza wrote to the National highlighting Erdoğan’s threat to the Democratic Federation of Northern Syria (even before Trump’s sudden announcement of US withdrawal); and we sent a message of solidarity to HDP MP Leyla Güven, who is in prison in Turkey and on hunger strike to call for an end to the isolation of Abdullah Öcalan.
Over this last year, Kurdish achievements, in building an alternative society and beating back Daesh, have only been matched by the growing threat to their very existence by outside forces, and everyone must be concerned about what 2019 will bring. There are not many of us, but we will continue to try and ensure people in Scotland are aware of what is happening, and that we can show Scottish solidarity for Kurds under attack everywhere.
On 18th November 2018, Glasgow Life and Kurdish Cultural Group organised a gathering in Kelvingrove Museum for the Kurdish Community to see the objects that Glasgow Museums holds on the Kurdish diaspora. A number of items were displayed and it surprised many of the Kurds that Glasgow had Kurdish traditional belongings, such Kurdish clothing and Kurdish cultural Jewellery. Many of the Kurdish people who attended the gathering asked if Glasgow Museum could display these items in the main area of the museum. For this to happen I believe the Kurds and other organisations need to write to Glasgow City Council to find a location for them. Overall this was a fantastic event that explained Kurdish stories through the objects. The attendees included members of the Kurdish community and Scottish citizens. The display was followed by Kurdish food, and beautiful music played by Media and Zana to entertain the guests. – Roza Salih
And on 28th November Roza spoke about solidarity with Kurdistan at the Writers for Miners event in Glasgow, whilst writers and singers recalled solidarity with the miners.
Jeff is not your usual university lecturer. He is a Marxist, and he gladly admits that his interest in Öcalan, and the movement Öcalan has inspired, arose from a challenge by his student to go to Syria and see for himself. That student was Dilar Dirik whose articles and activism will be familiar to many Kurdish activists.
Four years on from that challenge, Jeff has edited a book, ‘Your Freedom and Mine: Abdullah Ocalan and the Kurdish Question in Erdogan’s Turkey’, and last week he was in Scotland to talk about it, addressing meetings in Edinburgh, Glasgow and Dundee. A central theme of his talk was the importance of this struggle for the wider world. Öcalan’s radical democracy, which transcends state borders and divisions, has provided us with a new articulation of anti-capitalism at this time of crisis, where our current system is driving us towards climate catastrophe, state terrorism and a resurgent far right. Solidarity is thus not ‘helping’ the Kurds, but learning from them and joining the struggle: understanding and spreading their manifesto for a democratic civilisation, and being inspired by their will to resist.
He stressed that for these ideas to succeed they have to spread, and that revolution only in one country is destined to fail, and he pointed out how the involvement of people outwith the Kurdish community can help demonstrate the internationalism of the movement. This involvement can include action in Western countries against militarism and climate change; and, importantly, also action in less developed countries, where people are actively looking for an alternative to imperialism. Jeff has seen for himself the positive reception Öcalan’s transformatory vision in the ghettos of Nairobi, among people with nothing to lose but their chains.
Please contact us if you are interested in a copy of the book.
What better way to celebrate a national day than with an anti-racist march? SSK was very happy to be asked to speak at the rally in Aberdeen, where a rather damp crowd listened to the speech below:
Comrades, brothers and sisters,
I am very happy to be here on behalf of Scottish Solidarity with Kurdistan, not only because the Kurds are an often unnoticed minority in Scotland, and not only because Kurds are suffering a brutal repression at the hands of a Turkish government that Theresa May calls her friends and sells British-made arms to. What makes me especially glad to speak about the Kurds on an antiracist demonstration, is the opportunity to talk about the achievements of the radical Kurdish movement, inspired by Abdullah Öcalan – including all theyhave done to break down ethnic barriers and cut through religious prejudices.
In Turkey, in Northern Syria, and in the Qandil mountains of Iraq, the Kurds are striving to create an alternative system based on an inclusive bottom-up grassroots democracy. In a part of the world know for overwhelming patriarchy, their movement is actively feminist, pushing for women to take a full role in society and ensuring every organisation has male and female co-chairs. Theirs is a movement that values ecology and sees humanity as part of the natural world; and a movement that tries to ensure that all ethnic groups are able to practice their own culture and language and take full part in running society.
When, at the beginning of the Syrian civil war, Assad’s authority was in retreat, the Kurds in Northern Syria were able to take advantage of the power vacuum to take autonomous control of the areas where they lived and to put their radical democratic system into practice. But almost as soon as this was established, they were attacked by ISIS. The Kurds’ successful fight back in Kobanê was the first time that ISIS suffered a major defeat. And the Kurds and their allies have gone on to liberate other areas from ISIS and to bring those areas into a democratic federation. Syria is ethnically very mixed and the newly liberated areas are home to a wide range of different peoples, with different languages, cultures and religions. In setting up new structures huge care has been taken to ensure that all minorities are represented.
Although Öcalan started his political life fighting for a Kurdish state, this progressive Kurdish movement, which now turns its back on top-down state power, is only too alert to the dangers of any form of ethnic nationalism. They know that the majority group will always dominate the minorities – even a majority group that was once itself a minority.
I was able to see this radical politics in action when I visited Northern Syria in May. One of the places we visited was Manbij, which the Kurds liberated from ISIS and which is made up of several ethnic groups. We visited Manbij Women’s Council and met Arabs, Turkmen and Circassians, as well as Kurds. Discussion was slow as remarks often had to be translated into two languages, but they told us how they were knocking on the doors of all the families in their neighbourhoods, both to help the women come out and take an active role in wider society, and to remind people of old bonds and mixing between different ethnic groups and of the importance of working together.
Their approach provides an example of what is possible. But at the same time, every Middle Eastern and global power is intervening in Syria for their own selfish agenda, and these are often ready to play one ethnic group off against another for their own advantage. Turkey has systematically destroyed the Kurdish areas within their own borders, and invaded and overrun the Kurdish canton of Afrîn in Northern Syria, which had become a safe haven for refugees from across the region.
Now Turkey is eyeing up Manbij and even Kobanê. And although the US and Europe are happy to support the Kurds in the fight against ISIS, they have no interest in supporting the Kurds’ radical project, or even in protecting the Kurds themselves.
But the more that people across the world spread the word about what is happening, the harder it will be for our governments to continue to act with impunity. International solidarity is vital to protect both the Kurdish people and the revolutionary ideas that they have gifted to all of us.
Steve Sweeney is foreign correspondent for the Morning Star, and when he spoke last Monday to a joint SSK/Morning Star public meeting in Glasgow about his experiences in Turkey, there were several moments when we realised how extra lucky we were to have him alive and well in front of us. Like when he described how he had realised that the man who had been fixing things for him and his colleagues was a member of the ultra-right MHP and had been planning to hand them over to ISIS. By that time they had already had guns pointed at them and just missed being deliberately run down by a car. Or when he told us about the occasion when security forces held them at gunpoint for eight hours in the heat without food or water, threatening to take them into the mountains to use for target practice. To add to their discomfort they had had to watch a stray dog being hosed down and fed – and before they were released Steve was made to pose with a gun, creating photographic ‘evidence’ for his file.
But, as Steve stressed, he had at least been left free to report. Of all the world’s journalists who have been imprisoned, 1/3 are in Turkey, and the crackdown has only intensified. In one week, 84 journalists were put on trial. Around 10,000 journalists have been deprived of their press cards, and those still working survive through self-censorship, so it is hard for people in Turkey to get access to alternative views. The last remaining liberal newspaper was stormed by armed police a month ago, and its board sacked and replaced by government supporters.
Of course the crackdown is not limited to journalists. After the failed coup, which President Erdoğan described as a ‘gift from God’, public sector workers, academics, activists and politicians have all lost jobs wholesale, with many under arrest for ‘terrorism’. Steve told us that he had made many attempts to attend the trial proceedings of the former HDP co-chair Figen Yuksekdag, but no observers have been allowed.
Steve covered Turkey’s constitutional referendum, where they counted unstamped ballots, and critical outside observers were dismissed as ‘terrorists’. And he described covering the subsequent election, where in every polling station he visited in the Kurdish area of Van voters had to cast their ballot under the watchful eye of a soldier with a rifle. He told us, too, how he managed to interview the families of people who had been deliberately burnt alive in Cizre basements as the Turkish security forces besieged and flattened their city.
Steve was scathing about the Tory government’s support for the Turkish government. He argued that the most effective way to help the people of Turkey is to bring down the Tory government here; but he also expressed disappointment at the lack of solidarity action from the Labour opposition. None of the international organisations have found it in their interest to restrain the Turkish government. The EU has handed Turkey billions of pounds in exchange for them keeping refugees out of Europe. Steve told how he had sent the UN video evidence of Turkey’s chemical attack on Afrin, but no-one came to investigate.
UK government callousness extends to the treatment of those who have had to flee from Turkey. With Steve was a young Kurdish journalist who had been in the UK when the Turkish government cracked down on her whole politically active family and took away her passport. Now, as an asylum seeker, she gets almost no help and is not allowed to work.
With journalists under such threats, the least we can do is make sure that every report is well publicised and read.
On this centenary of what was claimed to be the war to end all wars, it is especially sobering to look at the world today, still riven by the same imperial forces that brought about the carnage of a hundred years ago. In the imperial settlements that followed that destruction, the Kurds were made a promise of their own state – only the promise was broken. The current battles in the Middle East are so intense that some Kurdish commentators have described what is happening now as a third world war. But this is a war that increasingly slips out of Western minds, and we have our work cut out to keep people informed as to what is happening.
This busy month began with Kobanê Day, when we not only commemorated the defeat of the Daesh siege in 2014 (with a bit of dancing), but highlighted the current threat from Turkey. There was a discussion at our main event in Glasgow, and an emergency lunchtime protest in Dundee; and, the following day, the Edinburgh Kurdish community organised a protest outside the Scottish Parliament.
On Sunday 4 November, SSK’s Sarah Glynn took part in a discussion on Liberation Movements and Solidarity Campaigns at the Edinburgh Radical Book Fair, alongside George Kerevan who focused on Catalonia and Jim Slavin who looked at Ireland.
And on Wednesday 7 November Sarah gave the main talk at the AGM of the Scottish Parliament Cross Party Group on Kurdistan, describing what she had learnt on her visit to Northern Syria in May. There were a lot of people there from the Kurdish community, and the talk was followed by a discussion of how to restrict Turkey’s aggression. The Scottish Parliament has no say over foreign policy, but the MSP group chairs were left with a long to-do list.
With Turkey again turning their guns on Rojava, and threatening further attacks, we marked Kobanê Day in Dundee with some emergency protest/solidarity action in the city centre.
Here is what we wrote on the leaflets we handed out:
TURKEY’S PRESIDENT ERDOĞAN WANTS TO DESTROY A VITAL BEACON OF HOPE IN THIS INCREASINGLY FRIGHTENING WORLD
4 years ago, the world watched in awe as the Kurds of Kobanê carried out a heroic defence of their city that was a turning point in the battle against ISIS. We also learnt about the alternative autonomous society they were creating in Northern Syria, based on grassroots democracy, feminism and secularism. In the midst of the barbarism of the Syrian civil war they were creating a model society that is a source of inspiration to us all. But none of the surrounding imperial powers want to see this succeed.
Turkey has suppressed the Kurds within its borders for 100 years and dreams of a new Ottoman empire. In 2014 Turkey made it clear that they hoped and expected that Kobanê would fall. Earlier this year, we protested Turkey’s brutal invasion of the peaceful and predominantly Kurdish region of Afrîn. Most of the Kurds of Afrîn are now refugees, while Jihadi gangs occupy their homes and terrorise the remaining population. November 1 is Kobanê Day when the world remembers the city’s stand against ISIS. But now, even as Kurdish soldiers are still battling the remnants of ISIS further south, Turkey has announced plans for taking their invasion of the Kurdish areas of Syria further, and they have turned their guns on villages in the Kobanê region. The Kurds have had to call a temporary halt to their action against ISIS to defend their homes and the peaceful and inspiring democracy that they have built.
Turkey was able to take Afrîn because the world stood aside. The UK government continues to call the increasingly fascistic Turkish government their friends and to sell them arms. So far, the attacks on the Kobanê region have been limited, but that is how the invasion of Afrîn started too. We need to make it clear that any attack is unacceptable. Please join us in showing solidarity to the people of Kobanê and in calling on the UK government to end its support for Turkey.
Find out what is happening, (check out check out anfenglishmobile.com and theregion.org), write to your MP, and join us in Scottish Solidarity with Kurdistan.
Alexis Daloumis is a Greek filmmaker and an Anarchist and fought as a volunteer with the YPG in Manbij and Raqqa. And last Friday he told SSK Dundee about his plans for making a documentary with the material he gathered while there. Wearing a camera while fighting must add yet another layer of difficulty, but it certainly allows those who watch the resulting film to get a sense of what it would be like to be there.
Between fighting, Alexis made promotional videos for the International Freedom Battalion. After his first production, which featured the reading of a careful and defiant political statement, he was encouraged to have a bit more fun:
Other clips show the volunteers’ daily life – and death, in the form of a martyr’s burial.
Alexis has lots more material, including interviews, and is currently touring round the UK to raise funds for editing and translation. The Dundee meeting was arranged at a day’s notice and the audience was mostly students – not so good for fund raising, but excellent to discover new young people interested in what is happening in Northern Syria.
We will share the fundraising page and film preview as soon as it becomes available.
Here is the fundraising page, including the promotional preview (11/11/2018)
Our AGM, in Glasgow on the 6th September, included a talk by Sarah Glynn on her visit to Northern Syria. We were pleased to welcome new friends and old, including James Kelman, who is a long-standing supporter of the Kurds.
On 19th August we had our usual stall at the Unison Family and Friends day at New Lanark.
And Ocalan was not forgotten in the alternative wall built for the Glasgow demonstration against Trump’s visit to Scotland.
This article, by Sarah Glynn, was first published by Commonspace on 28th August 2018
When the Kurds and their friends in the autonomous Democratic Federation of Northern Syria use the revolutionary slogan ‘Jin Jiyan Azadi!’ – Women Life Freedom! – this is no empty phrase. They are summing up the essence of a revolution that has women’s freedom at its heart, both physically and philosophically. When I visited Northern Syria with a women’s delegation in May, I learnt that the women revolutionaries were not just the young girls with guns so beloved by war photographers, but also middle-aged women in long floral dresses who are building a new society in the neighbourhoods where they live. This is a revolution of extraordinary ordinary people who are taking control of their own lives through a new bottom-up democracy. In this transformation of a traditional middle-eastern tribal society, women are involved at the centre of the new democratic structures at all levels, as well as building their own women’s organisations. There is a long history of women’s participation in the Kurdish freedom struggle, and the centrality of women’s liberation has been ensured by the political writings of PKK leader, Abdullah Öcalan. Öcalan has spent the last 19 years isolated in a Turkish prison, but, just as his portrait presides over every progressive Kurdish organisation, so his ideas provide a constant source of reference and inspiration.
Of all the achievements of this Kurdish revolution, the liberation of women has probably made the greatest difference to people’s lives. For half the population, freedom means not only ending control by Asaad’s authoritarian Baathist state, which hadn’t even recognised Kurds as citizens, but also the removal of centuries-heavy patriarchal beliefs and practices that have regulated everything from civil society to family relations. For Sara, who we met in Kobanê, when the Syrian regime withdrew control and the Kurds were able to set up their own autonomous organisations, it was ‘as though a rock had been lifted and there were green shoots underneath’. This is an image of oppression banished, but also of a new world that had long gestated in hiding, waiting for the opportunity to grow. Syria’s Kurds have nursed their revolutionary ideas over decades, especially since Öcalan and the PKK formed an exiled base in the country in the 1980s and 90s.
For those of us looking for a more inclusive alternative to the deeply-flawed democracies with which we are familiar, Northern Syria’s autonomous system, where everything is controlled as locally as possible, provides a living, if evolving, example of a different way of doing things. Although many people are still learning how to take part – which allows the main political party considerable influence via its educational and enabling role – and although many strategic decisions are made centrally, people’s involvement with the new systems and organisations demonstrates a commitment to making these more participatory structures work. Central to this is the involvement of the women. Every significant organisation or committee is expected to have active women members, and female as well as male co-chairs – and during the course of our visit we met many of these impressive women. In addition, in response both to the importance given to women’s involvement and to the practicalities of moving from a traditional patriarchal society, there is a parallel structure of women-only organisations, confederated as Kongreya Star, the organisation who hosted our visit.
Community mobilisation depends on talking to your neighbours, and women are playing a key role in knocking on doors and discussing with all the various family members. While women’s liberation is high on their agenda, they also address relations between different ethnic and religious groups. In Manbij, where we met with members of the Women’s Council, the need for both these interventions is especially acute. Manbij was liberated from ISIS by Kurdish forces and their predominantly Arab allies in 2016, and is ethnically very mixed. ISIS had encouraged ethnic division as well as the subjugation of women. Unlike in the predominantly Kurdish areas, Manbij has no history of revolutionary organisation, but the women told us how they were inspired by their Kurdish comrades, as well as by the Kurdish women of the YPJ who helped liberate them. Their palpable hope and optimism makes the current insecurity over the future of Manbij especially poignant.
Women are involved in all fields. Our meeting at the Women’s Economy Centre in Qamishlo demonstrated the ambition and potential of this revolutionary movement, but also the everyday difficulties of instituting fundamental change. While the rhetoric is avowedly anti-capitalist, and advances from big international companies have been rebuffed, economic change has so far been limited and piecemeal. The main work of the committee is the establishment of women’s co-ops. Most of these co-ops are very small, and difficulties include husbands who don’t see the need for their wives to work and question their abilities. The co-ops are meant to respond to community need rather than purely economic criteria, but at this stage their main role is to give the women involved the economic independence that can provide the basis for social freedom.
The flagship of the women’s movement is the women’s village, Jinwar. When we visited, this was under construction, with one house being used by the organisers, and the first household about to move in. The people involved were able to allay several of my concerns over the idea of a women-only village, however, there are clearly still problems to be resolved. It is intended that the village will provide a home for some of the very many women who have been widowed or have escaped abusive relationships, as well as for those who might simply chose to live in a female environment. This women’s refuge is badly needed, but I was worried about the socialisation of children brought up in such a protected environment, and how well they would be prepared for interacting with a wider world. I was therefore glad to see that there was no sense of isolation. Women and men from nearby villages were taking in active interest in the village’s construction; and the educational programmes that are planned will be addressed to men as well as to women, since both have to change in order to change patriarchal society. This still leaves questions about the future of village households when children become young men, or women find new male partners. The village is intended to be much more than a place for people to live; it will provide an example of a different way of living. Ecological considerations have prompted the choice of traditional mud-brick construction rather than the almost ubiquitous concrete of other new buildings, and the builders stress that this provides a more comfortable, as well as attractive, environment. Other plans include a centre for natural medicine. I hope that the practical approach so evident in the various places we visited will allow ‘female’ nurturing and personal care to be combined with the best of modern scientific practice.
Everywhere, the people we spoke to were clear about the scale of the task they have taken on in trying to change society. Looking specifically at the situation of the women, the difficulties, and also the necessity, of change can be measured in the growing divorce rate resulting from women asserting their freedom. But at the women’s organisations we visited, the natural and mutually respectful relations we observed between the men and women showed what is possible.
The growth of the green shoots of women’s freedom has been both remarkable and inspiring, but we need to be careful not to attribute to it powers that it cannot hope to live up to. Öcalan’s ideas have been liberatory, but they could ultimately prove a constraint. Extrapolating from his belief that women’s subjugation was the primal enslavement that led to the development of hierarchy, violence and state power, he concludes that the key to the good society lies with women, who must take over the revolutionary role that Marx assigned to the working class. These ideas are taught under the title of Jineology, from the Kurdish jin, meaning women, and are based around a fundamental dualism. Power and violence are associated with masculinity and ‘capitalism and the nation-state are the monopolism of the tyrannical and exploitative male’, while the feminine is associated with nature, emotional intelligence and communality. Jineology promotes these ‘feminine’ attributes, but it also acknowledges that this gendered division is social and not innate, and herein lies a contradiction. If our hope for a better future can be found in ideas and practices that are linked to the female sex only by convention, then this future should be achieved through the promotion of those practices, rather than necessarily in action by women; and the liberation of women, though an essential part of any liberatory movement, need not be sufficient to lead to wider revolutionary change. (As the UK’s women prime ministers have demonstrated, women are just as capable of donning the ‘male’ attributes of power and violence.) Assigning women the role of the revolutionary class on the basis of gendered characteristics risks ossifying gender distinctions, as well as burdening women with expectations they should not have to bear alone. It can also result in overlooking and failing to address the economic causes of inequality. Even if we accept Öcalan’s view that hierarchical distinction began with the subjugation of women, it doesn’t follow that the liberation of women would reverse other inequalities. The huge achievements that Öcalan has inspired must not prevent us from critical analysis of his philosophy; in fact they make this all the more necessary. The Kurdish women’s revolution is no holy grail, but it is a source of hope and inspiration for us all.