Syria’s Opposition Should Support Kurdish Autonomy

This was published first at The New Arab.

ocalan
‘There is no life without the leader’. PYD militants raise Abdullah Ocalan’s picture in Raqqa

The Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, is a Marxist-Leninist turned authoritarian-anarchist (yes, that is an oxymoron) Kurdish separatist party-militia at intermittent war with the Turkish state. The Democratic Union Party, or PYD, is a PKK-offshoot set up while Abdullah Ocalan was hosted in Syria by Hafez al-Assad. Given its focus on the war against Turkey rather than civil rights in Syria, the PYD was usually tolerated by the regime.

As the revolution began liberating territory in 2012, Assad forces withdrew from Kurdish-majority areas without a fight, handing them over to PYD control. Thereafter the PYD monopolised arms and aid money, repressed opposition parties, and shot at protestors.

At the same time, it won an undoubted national victory for the Kurds. After decades of enforced ‘Arabism’, locals finally policed their own neighbourhoods and children were taught in their mother tongue. Through the commune system, the PYD also promoted a measure of local democracy. The allocation of 40% of commune seats to women is evidence of the party’s impressive commitment to gender equality.

As well as the PYD’s avowed secularism, the fact that its territories were not subjected to Assad’s scorched earth inoculated them against penetration by transnational jihadists. The PYD’s political innovations, meanwhile, won the admiration of many leftists and anarchists in the west. Sadly this support was often uncritical, and generally ignored similar democratic self-organisation experiments in the liberated but heavily bombed territories beyond PYD rule.

At first, the PYD governed Syria’s three Kurdish-majority areas, that is the Afrin, Kobani and Jazira cantons. These areas (collectively called Rojava, or Western Kurdistan) are non-contiguous. Kurdish autonomy could work there, but not statehood.

The PYD, however, was able to take advantage of both Russia’s war on the rebels and the American-led coalition’s war against ISIS to join up and expand its territory. In February 2016, in alliance with Russia, the PYD captured Tel Rifaat, Menagh, and surrounding areas close to Afrin. These Arab-majority towns were governed by civilian local councils and defended by non-jihadist rebels. Both people and rebels were driven out by Russian air power (Russian bombs destroyed all three of Tel Rifaat’s health centres during the assault) accompanied by the PYD’s troops on the ground. Next, in July 2016, the PYD captured the Castello Road leading into Aleppo, assisting the Assad regime’s siege on the city and eventually its fall (in December) to Assad’s Iranian-backed militias.

Continue reading “Syria’s Opposition Should Support Kurdish Autonomy”

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Militant Buddhist-Nationalism and the Rohingya Tragedy

This was first published at the National.

rohingya refugees1The Rohingya Muslims are currently the world’s most persecuted minority. Since last year at least 625,000, over half the total population, have fled slaughter in Myanmar (also known as Burma). This is only the latest wave in a series of killings and expulsions starting in 1978. The UN calls it a ‘textbook example’ of ethnic cleansing.

Two recently-published books provide necessary background to the Rohingya tragedy. Francis Wade’s “Myanmar’s Enemy Within: the Making of a Muslim Other” contextualises events politically and historically. Azeem Ibrahim’s “The Rohingyas: Inside Myanmar’s Genocide” covers similar ground while, as the title suggests, convincingly arguing that Myanmar “stands on the brink” of genocide,  a crime defined by the UN as the “intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group.”

The Rohingyas have been designated as ‘Foreigners’ since 1978. The Myanmar state today describes them either as Indians imported by the British or as recent illegal immigrants from Bangladesh. Both books dispute this revisionism. Ibrahim begins Rohingya history as far back as 3,000BCE, when Indo-Aryan people arrived in what is now Arakan (or Rakhine province), while Wade presents evidence of an 11th Century CE Muslim community composed of stranded Indian, Arab and Perisan sailors.

Ibrahim’s account of ancient and colonial history is the most detailed. Rohingyas lived alongside Rakhine people who were connected linguistically and religiously to the Burman, the dominant ethnicity in today’s Myanmar. Though Arakan was influenced by the ancient Burmese kingdom, it wasn’t conquered until 1784. Over the next four decades 30,000 Muslims fled Burmese-Buddhist rule, until the British annexed Arakan in 1826. Burma – with Arakan and its Rohingyas attached – won its independence in 1948.

The Rohingyas entered the new state at a disadvantage. Their loyalty to the British during the 1942 Japanese invasion had sparked conflict with the Rakhine. Nevertheless they participated in national life. Some joined the army and others served in parliament. They were included as an ethnic group in the 1961 census.

In 1962 Myanmar’s military seized power. At this point Wade’s book takes the lead in describing the rage for national homogeneity motivating these Burman generals, in a country where minority groups make forty percent of the population. The army waged wars to subdue the Shan, Kachin and Karen peoples, amongst others. In the 1960s, it expelled Indian and Chinese residents.

Continue reading “Militant Buddhist-Nationalism and the Rohingya Tragedy”

Hope: two new books

the-hope-store-okitaIt just so happens that two friends of mine have new books out on hope — one fiction, one nonfiction. And both are doing readings in Chicago this month:

The Hope Store, by Dwight Okita

Book launch at Women & Children First, Thursday January 11 at 7:30 pm

Two Asian American friends, Luke and Kazu, discover a bold new procedure to import hope into the hopeless. They vow to open the world’s first Hope Store. Customer Jada Upshaw arrives at the store with a hidden agenda, but what happens next no one could have predicted. Meanwhile an activist group called the Natural Hopers emerges, warning that hope installations are a risky, Frankenstein-like procedure and vow to shut down the store.

 

We: Reviving Social Hope, by Ronald Aronson

Reading at The Book Cellar, Saturday January 20 at 6:00 pm

The election of Donald Trump has exposed American society’s profound crisis of hope. By 2016 a generation of shrinking employment, rising inequality, the attack on public education, and the shredding of the social safety net, had set the stage for stunning insurgencies at opposite ends of the political spectrum. Against this dire background, Ronald Aronson offers an answer. He argues for a unique conception of social hope, one with the power for understanding and acting upon the present situation. Hope, he argues, is far more than a mood or feeling—it is the very basis of social will and political action. It is this kind of hope that Aronson sees brewing in the supporters of Bernie Sanders, who advocated the tough-minded and inspired disposition to act collectively to make the world more equal, more democratic, more peaceful, and more just.  And it was directly contrasted by Trump’s supporters who showed a cynical and nostalgic faith in an authoritarian strongman replete with bigotry and misogyny.

Beneath today’s crisis Aronson examines our heartbreaking story: a century of catastrophic violence and the bewildering ambiguity of progress—all of which have contributed to the evaporation of social hope. As he shows, we are now in a time when hope is increasingly privatized, when—despite all the ways we are connected to each other—we are desperately alone, struggling to weather the maelstrom around us, demoralized by the cynicism that permeates our culture and politics, and burdened with finding personal solutions to social problems.

Yet, Aronson argues, even at a time when false hopes are rife, social hope still persists. Carefully exploring what we mean when we say we “hope” and teasing hope apart from its dangerously misconstrued sibling, “progress,” he locates seeds of real change. He argues that always underlying our experience—even if we completely ignore it—is the fact of our social belonging, and that this can be reactivated into a powerful collective force, an active we. He looks to various political movements, from the massive collective force of environmentalists to the movements around Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn, as powerful examples of socially energized, politically determined, and actionably engaged forms of hope. Even in this age of Donald Trump, the result is an illuminating and inspiring call that anyone can clearly hear: we can still create a better future for everyone, but only if we resist false hopes and act together.

 

Essential reading on the protests in Iran

Toxic effusions and formulaic pronouncements abound in response to the protests in Iran, from the neocons to Robert Fisk  (a consistent source of ideological distortion over the last several years). In sharp and refreshing contrast, here are some pieces that offer particularly valuable insights and analysis:

Here’s What’s Behind Iran’s Biggest Protests In Seven Years Borzou Daragahi (@borzou)

Why the Other Iran Is Taking to the Streetsby Gissou Nia (@GissouNia)

In Iran’s surprise uprising of the poor, dents to revolution’s legitimacy — by Scott Peterson (@peterson__scott)

Protests in Iran Took Many By Surprise — But Not Iranian Labor Activists — by Murtaza Hussain (@MazMHussain)

Growing dissent adds to Iranian regime’s troubles — Najmeh Bozorgmehr (@Najmeh_Tehran)

On The Astonishment That Nazis Can “Still” Have Taste

Evelyn Waugh, on a visit to Germany in 1933 shortly after the boycott of Jewish businesses, wrote: “I had come across antisemitism in Eastern Europe before, but I thought racial persecution belonged to another age. Half-civilized peoples might still indulge in it but surely not the Germany I had known.”

 

Waugh’s inability to amputate the image of the exceeding greatness of the German kulturnation from the barbarism it could thus deport itself to was by no means uncharacteristic of his age, nor, apparently, ours. Consider the New York Times article in which its author is too incapacitated in his fascination with a self-described white nationalist’ highbrow cultural tastes and lifestyle (he watches Seinfeld!) to aptly represent the danger that his subject poses. The New York Times’ decision to publish it—if the institution is to be taken as a yardstick for enlightened opinion—suggests that the intellectual class, or at least a fraction of it, is no longer able to imagine, along with George Steiner, that we “now know that a man can read Goethe or Rilke in the evening, that he can play Bach and Schubert, and go to his day’s work at Auschwitz in the morning.”

 

It’s not incidental that no other killing field can compete with symbolic resonance of the Nazis’ concentration camps in the postwar moral economy. For Tony Judt, National Socialism’s ultimate demonic status serves “a rather distinctive reminder—or a distinctive warning—of what happens when the patina cracks . . . civil society, public life, open political systems and the forms of behavior they encourage and on which they depend, are all paper-thin constructions. They are all more fragile than it suits us to believe.” Judt here is arguing in an idiosyncratically Benjaminian spirit in tangible terms. That which appears as progress—and that cultivation which Fauccet and Waugh are disarmed by in fascists’ tastes contra their monstrous beliefs—is in fact the storm that drives the Angel of History “irresistibly into the future, to which his back is turned, while the rubble-heap before him grows sky-high.”

The Nazis’ uniqueness was in their ability to successfully conceal their true nature behind the sheen of Progress to a public easily astonished by Speer’s grandiose architecture and august Wagner symphonies. At any rate, we came to see that our prewar narcissistic obsession with the modern, civilized and sophisticated causes one to be too disoriented to suspect that the civilizing mission may perhaps be a pretence for something sinister—the bread and butter of colonialism’s stated historic mission and moral valence. Hitler’s crimes occurred in the house next door. Not against faceless peasants in the Congo or the Soviet Union, but against a key, though problematic, component of Western civilization: European Jewry. This time, as Philip Lopate pointed out, it was “gentle, scholarly, middle-class, civilized people who are then packed into cattle cars . . . images of Jews lined up in their fedoras and overcoats tug at our hearts precisely because we see them as individuals.” Civilization was not a guarantee against barbarism, neither at home nor abroad.

This somewhat commonplace realization and its impingement on Europeans’ conscience in the post-war era necessitated the popularization of that now-familiar epoch-defining Herculean-pledge—“Never Again.” Lest it loses its moral valence, it had to be universalized. Atrocities at the edges of Europe and beyond were rendered more or less visible. The entire affair of memorializing genocide—be it that of the Armenian genocide or Stalin’s Gulags—wasn’t a reality before the aftermath of the Shoah. When Europeans had learned that, in Steiner’s words, “the high places of literacy, of philosophy, of artistic expression, became the setting for Belsen,” the crimes their states were committing against Non-Europeans were too unbearable to imagine. As Jeremy Rifkin noted, the developed postwar societies saw “the greatest single empathic surge in history . . . When we say to civilize, we mean to empathize.” This is a key paradigmatic shift which has facilitated de-colonization and the ascent of human rights discourse in the West. The Holocaust’s capacity to solidify this paradigmatic shift, for Judt, was in its ability to capture “something for which we lack a modern vocabulary, but which lies at the heart of our recent past and thus our present inheritance. That something is the idea of evil.”

That something seems to be an anachronism today and it can be attested to in the nation’s “paper of record.”

‘We Crossed a Bridge and it Trembled’ — a reading

Our friend Stanley Heller has recorded this excellent reading by Wendy Pearlman of her classic-in-the-making book We Crossed a Bridge and it Trembled. The event was introduced by Molly Crabapple and the reading was followed by a discussion between the two.

Two Upcoming Screenings of SYRIA’S DISAPPEARED in Chicago

The film Syria’s Disappeared has been called “brilliant and sickening” and a “must-view can’t-look documentary…about the 200,000 people arrested and detained after the Arab Spring took hold in Syria.”

Amnesty International is partnering with the filmmakers on a series of screenings and panel discussions around the world. Amnesty International – UK recently hosted one in London.

Amnesty International – Chicago is hosting two screenings: one at Loyola University’s lake shore campus on Wednesday October 25 at 6pm; one at DePaul University’s downtown campus on Thursday October 26 at 6pm. Following both screenings, Sara Afshar, the film’s director and co-producer, ​will discuss the film and take audience questions. At DePaul, she’ll be joined by Elisabeth Ward, executive director of the university’s International Human Rights Law Institute. Both screenings are free of charge and open to the public.

Want to organize a screening in your city? Want to review the film? Get in touch with Sara Afshar.

Highly recommended reading:

‘Please don’t forget us’: the hellish search for Syria’s lost prisoners (Nicola Cutcher)

The Syrians Campaigning for Justice for Those ‘Disappeared’ by Assad (Nicola Cutcher and Sara Afshar)

“Syria’s Desaparecidos (Budour Hassan)

“Syria’s Disappeared” (Bente Scheller)