Limits of Municipalism in the Age of Trump

As a result of the November 8 election, the Republican Party has amassed more power in the federal government than at any time since the 1920s. It controls the entire U.S. executive branch, and in the Senate and House, Democrats have only minority roles. At the level of the states, 68 of the 99 legislative chambers and 34 of the 50 governorships are in the hands of Republicans. That includes 25 Republican trifectas, compared to only 6 Democratic ones.

But large cities, even in otherwise red states, skewed Democratic. They tend to be more progressive than their rural counterparts, as the phenomenon of “blue islands in a sea of red” is now well known. Clinton won 31 of the country’s 35 largest cities. It’s no small consideration, since cities are powerful in many respects. They are populous: a majority of Americans live in cities. About 80 percent of Americans live in census-designated urban areas, and one-third live in or around the ten largest U.S. cities. Cities have enormous economic power—counties representing a whopping two-thirds of the nation’s economy went for Clinton. As media centers, cities have great cultural power as well.

Cities are clearly going to be strongholds for the opposition to the Republican initiatives in the Trump administration. No sooner had the election results been announced than some prominent municipal officials threw down a gauntlet. New York mayor Bill De Blasio assured citizens that “we’re not going to take anything lying down” and that “we have a lot of tools at our disposal; we’re going to use them” to resist the Republican agenda. San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors passed an eloquent resolution that affirmed the city’s commitment to furthering racial, gender, and LGBTQ rights, and to advancing economic justice, regardless of Trump’s threats: “We will not be bullied by threats to revoke our federal funding, nor will we sacrifice our values or members of our community for your dollar.”

And against Trump’s promise to deport undocumented immigrants from the United States, San Francisco reaffirmed its commitment to being a sanctuary city. It is one of some thirty-nine cities and 364 counties across the United States had already said they are sanctuary cities– that is, should federal immigration authorities request that they detain undocumented immigrants, they would limit the cooperation of local law enforcement. Officials in Oakland, Los Angeles, New York, Chicago, Boston, and Washington, D.C., have issued statements ranging from nonbinding resolutions to enforceable municipal ordinances. Trump has threatened to block federal funding to cities that follow through on this commitment.

Many organizations and networks are already in place ready to constitute a popular opposition to Trump’s policies and new ones are being formed very day, in the name of civil rights and gender equity and inclusiveness. Cities have long been out in front in the fight against climate change. Large cities including New York, Chicago, Atlanta have set emissions reduction goals of 80 percent or higher by 2050. And cities are home to growing experiments in a democratic economy. Gar Alperovitz of the impressive Next System Project points out that in cities across the country activists have been developing “local socialist” institutions like cooperative businesses owend by communities, worker-owned cooperatives, community-based land trusts, credit unions, publicly own broadband companies and networks, and electric utilities for conversion to sustainable energy. City governments in New York and Madison, WI, for example, are aiding the creation of worker cooperatives, while Cleveland, through a nonprofit corporation committed to broader community development, has created the the Evergreen Cooperatives group of worker-owned enterprises.


In the process of struggle against Trump and affirming an inclusive and hopeful America, the municipal democracy itself could be transformed. Some years ago the social theorist Murray Bookchin wrote that cities are potential place for a new public sphere grounded in institutions of face-to-face democracy—citizens’ assemblies. Bookchin offered a specific program, libertarian municipalism, for forming citizen’s assemblies in towns and city wards, confederating them into a dual power that could be pitted against the nation state. It was a revolutionary program urging a revolutionary confrontation against he nation-state and capitalism.

Since his death in 2006, Bookchin’s ideas about municipalism have become increasingly popular: even leftists who don’t necessarily share his kind of revolutionary anticapitalism are sympathetic to local democracy and recommended democratizing and radicalizing cities as a force against Trump. The Working Families Party, for one, considers cities to be “spaces in which we can talk about reclaiming popular sovereignty for a demos other than the nation.” Municipalities are “uniquely able to generate new, citizen-led and participatory models of politics that return a sense of agency and belonging to people’s lives.” The party calls for “a network of rebel cities” where progressive local elected officials “exchange policy ideas, develop joint strategies, and speak with a united voice on the national stage.” And in ROAR magazine, Alex Kolokotronis suggests that radicals create a municipalist movement in the United States to combat Trump.


The term “municipalist” is potentially misleading when it is applied as a political program. It raises the question of whether urban progressives to turn their backs on vulnerable people in rural areas, whose lives stand to be wrecked by Republican rule. I don’t think the authors mean for progressives to abandon the gay couple in rural Indiana, the black family in a southern state who get health care only through Medicaid, or the young woman in Texas with no abortion access. Surely most of us are eager to defend communities at risk both in cities and in the countryside. In my view, progressives in cities have the responsibility not to turn inward, but to cast their nets wider to bridge the divide between urban and rural.

After all, progressive people who live in cities are the base for action not only at the municipal level but at the state and federal levels as well. Were they to confine their efforts to the municipal level, then resistance to Trump at the other levels would all but disappear.

Finally, the progressive concentration in cities is in some respects a problem—as a kind of ghettoization. As liberal voters move to larger cities (or as they became more liberal while living there), the states where they tend to cluster tend to be those that already go blue. Far more productive politically, in terms of expanding the progressive base, would be for urbanites to move to rural areas.

The fact is that the U.S. system of governance is constitutionally tilted to favor rural areas. Both Wyoming (pop. 584,000) and California (pop. 38.8 million) have two senators, an acutely undemocratic arrangement. State governments tend to be based not in blue-leaning metropolises but in redder cities in more rural areas. In many state legislatures, representatives from progressive cities are outnumbered by more conservative rural representatives. For these and other reasons, state legislatures tend to be controlled by Republicans—something that will continue unless consciously resisted.


Cities’ governmental power is plagued by yet another constraint: their derivation from state government.

We tend to think of municipal democracy as somehow natural, as grounded in natural right. Cities are natural venues for democracy, by virtue of being closer to the people, They seem more responsive to local needs than federal or state systems. Thus their claims to a degree of autonomy and to democratic self-governance seem legitimate. And it’s been borne out by history: over the centuries, cities have democratically enacted laws and rules that govern many aspects of daily life.

But in legal technical terms, that is not the nature of our system. Local self-government actually derives from higher governmental structures, and legally state governments have preeminence over local governments. The principle, known as the Dillon Rule, was enunciated in an 1868 Iowa case: “Municipal corporations owe their origin to, and derive their powers and rights wholly from, the legislature. It breathes into them the breath of life, without which they cannot exist. As it creates, so may it destroy. If it may destroy, it may abridge and control.” In 1907, in Hunter v. Pittsburgh, the U.S. Supreme Court accepted this primacy of state power over municipalities. It said that municipalities essentially possess the powers that the state legislature expressly grants them. Hundreds of U.S. court decisions have employed the Dillon Rule to determine the scope of municipal powers and rights. Some 40 of the 50 states follow the Dillon Rule in allocating power to localities.

To be sure, the Court did not prevent states from explicitly allowing localities to have home rule if they choose. That competing doctrine was expressed in 1871 by a Michigan Supreme Court judge Thomas M. Cooley stated, “local government is a matter of absolute right; and the state cannot take it away.” Today some ten states have variations on home rule.


The primacy of state governments mean they can exercise preemption over municipal and county authorities if they choose to do so. For much of American history, they did not necessarily choose to exercise that power and adhered to norms of local self-governance. But in the past few years Republican-dominated state legislatures have been breaking this norm and using the states’ material power to try to destroy the right of localities to enact laws, using the principle of preemption.

The right-wing organization known as ALEC (American Legislative Exchange Council) brings together state legislators and corporate lobbyists who develop model legislation, to wreck progressive local ordinances. They state legislators introduce the model bills into Republican-dominated chambers and thereby attempt to gut progressive laws on hundreds of issues, as Lisa Graves, executive director of the Center for Media and Democracy, points out. These issues have notably included increased minimum wage, paid sick leave for workers, fracking, rent control, community broadband, plastic bag bans, gun safety laws, e-cigarettes, solar energy incentives, net metering, GMO restrictions, and more.

Minimum wage: Dozens of cities have introduced local minimum wages in recent years. The campaigns have been very popular. But multiple states have adopted a model “Living Wage Preemption Act,” pushed by ALEC. In Oklahoma, Governor Mary Fallin signed it into law it to prohibit cities from raising the minimum wage. When mostly black Birmingham, Alabama, tried to institute a modest increase in the minimum wage, the governor and the legislature preempted it.

Fracking: November 2014, the citizens of Denton, Texas, voted for a ballot measure to ban fracking. The state government responded by preempting local authority over public health and safety.

LGBTQ rights: As soon as the Charlotte, North Carolina, city council passed a measure to allow transsexuals to use restrooms based on gender identity, the governor and the legislature preempt it with a bill requiring restroom use based on birth certificate gender. The North Carolina legislature passed it with blinding speed, and it was signed into law, overturning Charlotte’s measure.

Paid sick leave: In Milwaukee over 70 percent of the voters voted to ensure that employers paid workers for sick days. But Governor Scott Walker and the state legislature passed a preemption bill making it impossible to enforce the Milwaukee measure. In other states where cities were considering or adopted paid sick leave, the National Restaurant Association has worked to ensure that the legislatures to preempt them. In Tempe, Arizona, city councilors were considering paid sick leave, but the Republican=dominated state legislature said if it did, the state would hold back funds for firefighters, for police. So now if a city in Arizona dares to go for paid sick leave, it will forfeit those services.

Voter suppression: State legislatures have notoriously gone after democracy itself by attempting to suppress voter participation, by passing photo ID laws and proof of citizenship requirements intended to disenfranchise voters.

The point is, in the current climate of preemption, municipal actions are at the mercy of the states.


The federal level, of course, preempts the state level. Based in great part on the superior federal power that the United States made progress in civil rights, women’s rights, gay rights, inclusiveness, in the 1965 Voting Rights Act, Roe v. Wade, the Fair Housing Act, gay marriage, and more. It has been the federal government that provides social insurance–the New Deal and the Great Society—on a scale that municipalities could not dream of providing. States had to submit and provide Medicare, Medicaid (until recently), and Social Security whether they wanted to or not.

I don’t believe municipalities have solutions for these matters equal to the US Supreme Court or the protections that the federal government can provide. I’m glad, as Working Families asserts, that “cities across the US have already started to mobilize to combat Islamophobia, … to tackle hate crimes against Muslims, including the monitoring of religious bullying in schools, intercultural education programmes, and council resolutions condemning Islamophobia and declaring support for Muslim communities.” Fine, but municipalities have nothing to offer on the scale that the First Amendment to the Constitution, guaranteeing freedom of religion, can provide.

And even the resolutions of sanctuary cities are not entirely secure, as Alex Kotlowitz points out: “There is only so much protection that sanctuary cities can offer. There’s nothing to keep federal agents from, say, conducting a raid at a factory or an individual residence within a sanctuary city.”


Republicans, unlike many progressives, have no difficulty recognizing that levers of power exist in our institutions of government at all levels. They have no difficulty engaging in contests to achieve that power. While progressives too often turn their back on electoral contests for power, regarding them as sordid, or regarding the Democratic party as compromised, Republicans tend to put great energy into them. That is one reason why Democrats are now facing a future not only out of power in Washington, but with limited power at the state level. Democrats have lost almost 1,000 state-level representatives since 2008.

In 2018 the country will face midterm elections. After the census in 2020, electoral districts will be redrawn. Unless people who object take action, we are looking at Republican rule for a long time to come.

Movements and protests are vitally important, for political engagement and to pressure the system. I’m thrilled to read that the Working Families Party advocates the development “a new generation of local leaders, particularly women and people of color, who are prepared to take the leap from protest to electoral politics. … The search for new local leaders needs to be scaled up so that there is a pipeline of candidates to stand for school boards, zoning boards and local councils in 2017 and beyond..” But why in the world stop with school boards and zoning boards and councils?

“Municipalism” can become a problem if it limits progressive action to cities rather than working to it to rural areas and to state and federal levels of government. After all, those progressive people in cities are the base for power not only at the municipal level but at the state and federal levels as well. In the age of Trump, progressives must undertake an all out assault at all levels, wherever power is in play. Ironically, thanks to preemption, progressive must be sufficiently represented in state legislatures to ensure municipal democracy. To ignore politics at any level is to surrender to Republican rule.

And what is the vehicle by which progressives can achieve power across different populations and parts of the country?


It is a painful conclusion, but the “winner take all” system of determining electoral outcomes in this country means that the US system is almost irretrievably binary. Whether we like it or not, we have the Republican Party and then we have … the other party.

But the Democratic Party, as is well known, has abandoned its erstwhile working-class base and become little more than an elite fundraising machine, oriented toward pleasing donors. The only solution that comes to mind is the one that Robert Reich recently offered: the Democratic Party must be transformed from a money-raising operation to a progressive movement.

To that end, progressives must treat the Democratic Party the way certain Republicans treat their party. When Republicans don’t like their leadership, they try to change it, calling them RINOs, primarying them. They try to remake the party according to their likes. Progressive Democrats have to do the same. They must remake the Democratic Party into their vehicle and not rest until it becomes the party of Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, Keith Ellison, and Jamie Raskin.

It’s excellent for progressives to get politically engaged at the municipal level. But defining progressive action in cities as “municipalist” must not lead to ignoring the need for progressive action at the other levels. Engagement and the state and federal levels is equally necessary, even for the viability of municipal action itself. Those who dream of the Paris Commune of 1871 must remember how that urban experiment ended: in a bloodbath at the hands of a military force made up of soldiers from rural France.




Özgür Gündem and Press Freedom in Turkey

After the July 15 military coup attempt, Turkey’s AKP government declared a state of emergency and fired or suspended tens thousands of civil servants, academics, military, and others for alleged association with the plot. In the process, it has closed down dozens of media outlets.

The story of each must be told, but one may stand in for many. Özgür Gündem is an Istanbul-based daily newspaper launched in May 1992, as the armed conflict between Turkish forces and the Kurdish freedom movement raged. At that time a State of Emergency was in effect, which allowed Turkish forces to destroy Kurdish villages and at the same time banned unofficial reporting about those appalling atrocities. Ozgur Gundem defied the ban and began reporting not only on the conflict but on the Turkish state’s gross human rights violations.

The state accused the daily of propagandizing for the “terrorist” PKK. It seized most of the paper’s issues in the first two years and plagued editors and journalists with lawsuits, arrests, detentions, and office raids. Twenty-seven staff members were murdered, mostly in extrajudicial executions.

In April 1994 a Turkish court shut Özgür Gündem down, but its staff resumed publishing under a different name. Thereafter the cycle of shutdown and relaunch was repeated. On 14 April 2011, Özgür Gündem resumed publishing under its original name. Starting in 2013, as the Turkish state and the Kurdish movement engaged in talks about a resolution, the daily became a forum where people of different political views could express themselves. But in 2015 President Erdoğan unilaterally ended the process, forbade Kurdish dissent, and instituted a military campaign against Kurdish cities. The newspaper, continuing to report on state abuses, faced dozens of investigations, fines, and arrests of correspondents on allegations of “producing terror propaganda” for the PKK.

On August 16 a Turkish court ordered a “temporary shutdown” of Özgür Gündem on the same charge. But before court could even issue the order, special operations police raided the newspaper’s Istanbul office, ransacked it, destroyed archives, and seized hard drives. Around 40 people were detained in the illegal raid, including more than 20 staff, outside reporters trying to cover the raid, and people who were at the office for solidarity.

Police then raided the homes of prominent editors and columnists including Eren Keskin, former editor-in-chief and a human rights advocate; Ragip Zarakolu, editor-in-chief of the Belge Pubishing House; and Aslı Erdoğan, a columnist and advisory board member who is also a human rights activist and an award-winning novelist whose books have been translated into 15 languages.

While others have since been released, Aslı Erdoğan remains imprisoned, as do editor in-chief Zana Kaya and newsroom editor İnan Kızılkaya, on charges of “membership of a terrorist organization.” Board member and linguist Necmiye Alpay has also been jailed on the same charge.

Özgür Gündem issued a statement saying that in the past “we have seen our offices bombed and our workers murdered. We have moved on from these with great consequences. … We answer the autocratic political power once more today, …. Your predecessors the torturers couldn’t silence us, and you can’t either … you cannot silence us.” And it called supporters to show solidarity and defend press freedom. On August 23, the newspaper staff followed in their own tradition and launched Özgürlükçü Demokrasi (“Libertarian Democracy”), which features a daily column called “Aslı’s Friends.”

Many other domestic journalists in Turkey now face threats, as do foreign correspondents—the BBC and the Economist have both voiced concerns that Turkish authorities are intimidating their reporters. But the right to freedom of expression is internationally recognized and is enshrined in the 1982 Turkish Constitution. The world must solidarize with the brave and indomitable staff of Özgür Gündem and demand that the rights of all of Turkey’s journalists and media, including dissident voices, be upheld.


Published in Turkish inÖzgür Gündem at

Act Like a Friend

by Janet Biehl

The United States excels at sustaining friendly relations with dictatorial regimes, especially those that control oilfields and other resources. Such exploitative ties are useful for enhancing the profits of wealthy elites but contradict the country’s stated values of democracy and secularism. Normally the contradiction can be smoothly overlooked by our governing professionals, as US policy accommodates powers that are inimical to those values.

But now a situation has arisen in which a people friendly to the United States not only shares those values but actually attempts to put them into practice. Where the US says it favors democracy, Kurds in Syria have created an innovative and progressive form of democracy. Where the US favors separation of church and state, the Kurdish system emphasizes ethnic and religious toleration and inclusiveness in way that embodies it in practical terms.

The Kurdish defense forces YPG and YPJ are certainly the US-led coalition’s most valued allies in the war against ISIS, having amply demonstrated a unique military prowess against the jihadists.

And ever since the battle for Kobani in 2014-15, the US-led coalition has provided weapons and air support for them and, more recently, for the Syrian Democratic Force (SDF), of which the YPG and YPJ are the chief components. Despite the insistent objections of its NATO ally Turkey, the US has deployed 50 Special Forces on the ground to assist the SDF, and recently it added another 250. Such aid is crucial for the SDF’s continued military success against ISIS and an in broad terms an act of friendliness.

The US military cooperation with the SDF is “very good,” PYD co-chair Salih Muslim told a gathering at the National Press Club in Washington on April 29.

But US support for Kurds stops there, and indeed in other respects accommodates the interests of enemies not only of Kurdish aspirations but also of Kurdish identity as such. This restraint raises alarms that the friendliness is based on Kurdish military usefulness to the coalition, and that once it has passed, the US will abandon them. Salih Muslim, for example, had to speak to the gathering via Skype since he is not permitted to enter the US.

To have a friend, one must behave like a friend. How would the US–and indeed the international community as a whole–behave if it were to choose to be a friend to Kurds?

Kurds in Syria

A US that acted like a friend would, for one thing, provide the Syrian Kurds with political and diplomatic support as well as military aid. The fact that it does not is “wrong,” said Salih Muslim.

A US that acted like a friend would not obstruct the participation of the Syrian Kurds in the Geneva talks on the future of Syria. This exclusion is an error on many counts, not least because the democratic system that they have been creating in northern Syria since 2012 is highly relevant to the future of the rest of the country.

That system, known as democratic autonomy or democratic confederalism, is a social and political framework that formally decentralizes power to localities so that diverse ethnic and religious groups—Kurds, Arabs, Chechens, Syriacs, and Turkmens—have autonomy, enabling them to coexist in. Women enjoy full political and social rights. It’s “not top-down democracy,” Muslim pointed out, “but democracy coming from the people themselves” in assemblies and councils.

Indeed, Muslim attributed the YPG and YPJ’s military success precisely to the democratic system. At Kobani and elsewhere, “we defeated IS because we have a democracy.” he says. How? Because “everyone feels the threat is his or her problem. They feel they have to do something against it.”

Not only is democratic autonomy progressive, but in geopolitical terms the power-sharing inherent to decentralization, as analyst David Phillips pointed out to the same gathering, is essential to stability. The Kurds have recently formed the North Syrian Federation to advance this system in the rest of Syria. “We want all of Syria to be democratic,” says Muslim.

Yet the US advocates the resuscitation of a unitary state in Syria. Were it to act like a friend, the US would drop the illusion that the erstwhile dictatorial, ethnically homogeneous system of Baath Syria can be revived and instead recognize the legitimacy of the North Syrian Federation, support the expansion of the democratic autonomy system into the rest of Syria, and admit the Syrian Kurds to the Geneva process.

Lamentably, it has failed to date to do any of this, because it yields to the irrational demands of the state lying immediately to Syria’s north.

Kurds in Turkey

The Turkish state legally denies the existence of ethnic minorities within its borders; the Kurds, the largest minority, have resisted such denial for four generations, demanding at minimum basic linguistic and cultural rights. Since the 1980s the Turkish state has waged war on the Kurdish resistance Decades of fighting have proved only that a military solution to the conflict is impossible: the Kurds can never defeat the far stronger Turkish armed forces, yet Turkey cannot suppress the wishes of a 20-million-strong minority, not even by demonizing the PKK and, increasingly, anyone who regards it positively, as “terrorist.”

Yet the US, as a NATO ally of Turkey, affirms Turkey’s right to try to suppress the “terrorists” within by using brute force.

The Turkish state’s war against the Kurds is increasingly cruel, having escalated to a level that surpasses basic human rights standards. Starting in the summer of 2015, Turkish forces imposed sieges and 24-hour shoot-to-kill curfews on cities and neighborhoods in the southeast, such as Cizre, Silopi, Sur neighborhood of Diyarbakir, and many others. It used and continues to use heavy weapons against civilian areas, killing even children, and in the process displacing almost half a million people.

The US, if it were a friend to Kurds and to human rights as such, would by now have grown hoarse with protest at this appalling human-rights criminality. It would at the very least insist that Turkey investigate the security forces that committed these crimes, or failing that, insist that an international fact-finding commission be permitted to do so.

Moreover the Turkish state is increasingly authoritarian and Islamist, cracking down on newspapers, shutting down TV channels, and persecuting academics and journalists. On May 2 it decided strip the pro-Kurdish, peace-advocating Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) of diplomatic immunity and prosecute its members as supporters of “terrorism.” The US and the rest of the international community must raise their voices in vigorous objection.

Behind the scenes, journalist Amberin Zaman told the National Press Club meeting, the US has been pressuring the PKK to lay down its arms, but it is pressuring the wrong party. If the US were a friend to Kurds, it would instead pressure the Turkish state to resume peace talks with the PKK as the legitimate representative of the Kurdish people in Turkey; to free the Kurds’ spokesperson, Abdullah Öcalan, from 17 years of solitary imprisonment; and to negotiate with him for peaceful solution to the Kurdish question.

The US cooperates with Turkey by placing the PKK on the State Department list of foreign terrorist organizations. If the US were a friend to Kurds, it would grasp that given the Turkish state’s failure to accommodate their will, the Kurds have every reason to object to their treatment, and it would discard the notion that the PKK is terrorist and remove it from this list.

That solution, when it comes, will no longer be a matter of achieving Kurdish linguistic or cultural rights alone. The longer the war grinds fruitlessly on, and the longer the Turkish state persists in ignoring the will of 20 million citizens, the more obvious it becomes that the Turkish state has forfeited its legitimacy to govern the mostly Kurdish southeast. The US, were it a friend to Kurds, would recognize this fact and press for Kurdish autonomy.

Indeed, the very nature of the Turkish system of government should be in play. Two contrasting proposals for a new system have been floated. The AKP proposes to create a presidential dictatorship, a neo-Ottoman caliphate, featuring authoritarian structures, ethnic homogeneity, the suppression of dissent, and traditional roles for women. The Kurdish proposal, by contrast, calls for the democratization and decentralization of Turkey, along the lines of democratic autonomy, with acknowledgment of ethnic diversity, freedom of expression, and gender equality. The US, if it were a friend to Kurds and true to its stated ideals, would raise its voice in support the Kurdish proposal.

The US, if it were truly a friend of human rights, let alone the Kurds, would rethink its entire alliance with Turkey as a member of NATO. “If NATO were established today,” said David Phillips, “Turkey would not meet criteria of membership.”

Kurds in Iraq

The United States and much of the international community still harbors the notion that Iraq is a unitary state. President Obama insists that the Kurds of the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) have to work with Baghdad. But Iraq, like Syria, is fragmenting, and the unitary state centered in Baghdad increasingly belongs to history. If the US were a friend to Kurds, it would accept this reality and adjust its policy.

Iraq’s 2005 constitution promised decentralization and autonomy for the KRG, but those promises remain unfulfilled, as both the Al-Maliki and Al-Abadi governments have failed to implement provisions for regional control of new oilfields as well as devolution of certain powers to the regions. Al-Maliki even cut the KRG’s proceeds from oil sales.

KRG president Massoud Barzani has called for a referendum on independence in September or October. The US, as a friend to Kurds, should support independence for Iraqi Kurdistan and, further, a devolution of powers for local autonomy along the lines of democratic autonomy.

One group of Kurds in northern Iraq, the Ezidis of SInjar, require special attention. If the US were a friend to Kurds, it would acknowledge that in August 2014 ISIS committed genocide against them, massacring thousands, some by beheading, and selling women into sexual slavery. The KRG’s peshmerga, the force that was supposed to protect them, failed to do so, forcing the PKK to come and rescue those who survived. The US and the international community, as friends to Kurds, must acknowledge the genocide and intervene to protect their rights according to international laws. They should open an investigation into the genocide through international institutions and bring the perpetrators to justice.

The US as a friend to Kurds should aid Ezidi resistance forces, tasked with protecting the people against further attacks from ISIS. The US as a friend to Kurds would work to create democratic autonomy in Iraqi Kurdistan, a confederal system in which Ezidis could continue to live in Sinjar as they have for millennia.

* * *

During the week of April 23, a delegation from the HDP visited Washington. afterward co-chair Selahattin Demirtas was asked about his expectations on this visit.

“We don’t ask anything of anyone,” he replied. “Rather we have proposals for a solution, and that’s what we focus on. We just explain our views, so that people know what they are firsthand, directly, so that they can avoid misconceptions when formulating policy. Our position doesn’t change in different circumstances.”

He urged people in every country where the government has influence over Turkey—the United States, Europe, and Russia—to pressure that government on behalf of democratic autonomy for Kurds and their allies. And where information about the Turkish conflict is shut out of the mainstream media, alternative media can step in and provide “mass education” so that people “can pressure the government to change policy.”

“Organized people can do everything,” co-chair Muslim told the gathering. He was referring to the creation and defense of democratic autonomy in North Syria, but the same principle applies to international solidarity work. And friendships, however inadequate at present, can be developed. US policy toward the Kurds, says David Phillips, “is evolving,” and “to the extent we raise our voices we have an opportunity to shape it.” Continued organizing, he believes, can pressure the US government to finally act like the friend that the long-neglected Kurdish people deserve.

May 2, 2015 2016




“The places are hermetically sealed”

For the past few weeks, special forces of Turkish police and military have been cracking down on rebels in the country’s southeast. Journalists are being kept out of the closed-off towns and cities.  Ercan Ayboga, on the scene in Diyarbakir (Amed), was interviewed by Marcus Staiger for Junge Welt, December 30, 2015. Translated by Janet Biehl.

Q. For weeks we’ve been hearing about fighting in Turkey’s southeast and about numerous fatalities. Who is dying in the streets of Cizre, Silopi, Dargecit, and Sur?

A. On one side, Turkish security forces—police, soldiers and special forces. On the other, mainly civilians. It depends on who’s making the statement. The Turkish government says that from the beginning of the operation till now, it has killed more than 200 terrorists. But the Youth Organization YDG-H, which participates in the fighting, says most of those killed have been civilians, and that they themselves have lost no more than ten fighters. I think the YDG-H number is closer to the truth, because otherwise we would have had more public funerals. What I can confirm is that civilians are dying. In Cizre, a woman was shot and lay in the street for several days, severely wounded, and her family couldn’t come and get her because they too would have been shot. The woman finally died, in sight of her family. Such things happen here every day.

Q. The media report that curfews are being imposed on the besieged cities. What does that actually mean?

A. The curfews are in effect indefinitely, until the governor announces something else. No one is allowed to go into the streets, and there are also no times when people can go outside and get supplies. In Sur this curfew has been going on for twenty-eight days. In Cizre and Silopi, for sixteen. After the military coup, in the 1980s, there were also curfews, but only during nighttime. Now the towns and villages are hermetically sealed by the police and the army, so no one from outside can enter.

Q. How are the inhabitants reacting to such a long blockade?

A. People probably stockpiled provisions in advance, expecting something like this to happen. After all, these aren’t the first such curfews. In Cizre and Silopi, they’re on the fourth one this year. Here in the old city of Amed it’s the sixth. Most of the residents here say, We’ll stay here in our neighborhood and resist alongside with the armed units. The officials always say that the fighters are PKK cadres, coming in from outside. That could be true in some cases, but mainly they are people from the affected neighborhoods. So the inhabitants stand with the fighters and support them. The fighters have set up barricades all over and have dug ditches so that the security forces’ armored vehicles can’t enter the quarter. Up to now it all seems to be succeeding in preventing the politic and military from significantly penetrating these neighborhoods—and as a result, the shooting from the government side has become wilder and more indiscriminate.

Q. What are the rebels’ goals?

A. The goals of the Kurdish freedom movement are a democratic Turkey, with autonomous institutions, and a new constitution, and gender equality. It’s trying to achieve those goals legally and politically through organizations like the HDP. The YDG-H, on the other hand, wants the same thing but says that in the cities and neighborhoods where it’s strong, it will create free spaces and defend them, keeping the police out. In the cities, which are now so embattled, people have built grassroots-democratic institutions that are stronger and have now called for self-government and autonomy. All these developments have coincided, and you have to realize that now people themselves decide what to do in these legal and democratic institutions They have their own dynamic—and that begins a whole different discussion.

Q. What chance do they have of achieving these goals?

A. I’d say fifty-fifty. It’s very hard to estimate, but people are willing to fight for them, and if the Turkish state wants to block them, then there will surely be a very large massacre.



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BIO book cover

Ecology or Catastrophe: The Life of Murray Bookchin is available from Oxford University Press or your favorite bookstore.

December 18: Akbar Shahid Ahmed’s “America’s Best Allies Against ISIS Are Inspired by a Bronx-Born Libertarian Socialist,” Huffington Post.  The article publishes, for the first time, PDFs of Bookchin’s correspondence with the intermediaries of Abdullah Öcalan in 2004.

December 7: The journal Nature lists Ecology or Catastrophe as a book for the COP negotiator!  In 1965, Barbara Kiser notes, Bookchin presciently foresaw not only climate change but the solution, stepping down from fossil fuels. “Bookchin’s solutions to the crisis were as prescient, not least in integrating social with environmental elements. Working from a vision of urban ecotopias, he inspired and championed community-centred, solar-powered, closed-loop food production as early as the 1970s.”

November 28: “A Dream of a Secular Utopia in ISIS’s Backyard” by Wes Enzinna in The New York Times Magazine. An eloquent article that places the Rojava revolution in the U.S. newspaper of record.

November 28: Interview by Berna Ozgencil for ANF News

November 27: David B. blogged about Bookchin’s influence on the new ideology of the Kurdish freedom movement on Daily Kos.

November 23: Chuck Morse reviews Ecology or Catastrophe: The Life of Murray Bookchin for Perspectives

November 19: “The Flowers of Rojava”: I gave a multimedia presentation at Friends Meeting House, in Burlington, Vt., with a trailer for the forthcoming film “The Flowers of Rojava,” and a slideshow, based on my visits to Rojava in December 2014 and October 2015. Sponsored by the magazine Toward Freedom.

November 17: Interview by Preeti Kaur for ZNet.

November 12: The journal Nature, in reviewing Ecology or Catastrophe, says Bookchin was “incisive, inventive, and pragmatic, a refreshing contrast to today’s environment doom-mongers and technical utopians alike.”

November 10-12: I did three days of book launches in Montreal, Quebec, including one at the Urban Ecology Centre.  Another was at McGill University–Jon Milton wrote about it for a student newspaperThe Link, on November 23.

October 15: “Bookchin a été marginalisé,” an interview for Ballast magazine by Adeline Baldacchino (French).

October 12: “Bookchin: écologie radicale et municipalisme libertaire,” an article in Ballast magazine by Adeline Baldacchino (French).

Ecology or Catastrophe: The Life of Murray Bookchin is available from Oxford University Press or your favorite bookstore.

Oxford University Press blogpost

I’m delighted to announce that the book Ecology or Catastrophe: The Life of Murray Bookchin will finally be published this fall, from Oxford University Press! The release date (for review copies) is September 1, and publication date is October 1. In the meantime, the OUP Blog has run a post from me, based on the book. More to come soon!

Message to Amed Ecology Assembly

I was invited to participate in the Ecology Assembly in Amed (Diyarbakir), which met on February 28. The organizers wanted me to explain Bookchin’s thinking about ecology.  Unfortunately I wasn’t able to attend personally, but I wrote a message to that effect and added some of my own thinking about cities as an ecological issue.  –Janet

Congratulations on the creation of the Amed Ecology Assembly—I wish I could be there with you, to speak about ecology and Murray Bookchin. Thank you for inviting me to send this message. I will summarize his work on ecology and then make some concrete suggestions that may be useful for you toward the creation of ecological Democratic Autonomy in Bakur and Rojava in the coming years.

Bookchin, as you know, was a social ecologist, which means that he saw ecology in social terms and he stated writing about it in the 1950s. Unlike other nature-minded people who revered wilderness, he thought ecology was indissolubly tied to social organization and proceeded on that premise.

Murray Bookchin in 1989

Murray Bookchin in 1989

He started writing about ecology just after the Second World War, when large-scale, industrialized agriculture was just emerging. He saw that small farms were giving way to large factory farms; that traditional farmers with a connection to the land were being replaced by capitalist enterprises that employed farm laborers—employees; that traditional agricultural lifeways, which valued the local rural community, were giving way to the drive for profit; that diverse crops, farmed in rotation, were giving way to monocultures, subject to pest infestation; that as a result pesticides were being used widely; that local farms, where crops were consumed by people living nearby as needed, were giving way to long-distance food transport; that that required chemicals to be added to food like preservatives and coloring agents, to store it when it wasn’t immediately consumed. Many of those chemicals, it was just being discovered, cause illnesses in human beings, including cancer.

Now, sixty years later, all these problems are familiar, and much of great usefulness to you has been written about the problems of capitalist, chemicalized agriculture and need for organic farming. Bookchin argued starting in the 1950s the solution was to decentralize agriculture and indeed all of society, to get break up the large industrial farms and replace them with many small farms. That way farming could be small scale, integrated to the society; crops would be grown close to where they would be consumed, so that no preservatives would be needed; that crops should be diverse and rotate again, so that monocultures could be eliminated; and farming should be restored as a respected practice, with farmers feeling an affinity to and pride in working the soil.

I don’t know how much you are being invaded by industrialized capitalist agriculture, but if you are, it’s important to resist it and hold out for small-scale organic farming and traditional practices. I think you have some ideas about how to do so with the creation of sustainable eco-villages.

Just as Bookchin wrote about agriculture, he also wrote about a parallel development in cities. He argued that cities, too, were becoming too large and industrialized, dehumanizing people who lived there with anonymous office work, the stress of harried city living, and depoliticization. He thought that in the large new metropolises, the diverse communities and neighborhoods that give cities vitality and liveliness were being eliminated by centralization. The urban social fabric was being torn to make way for highways and parking lots for automobiles. Driving cars was more important than walking, and the needs of cars were more important than the needs of people, so cars were accommodated. Gigantic new cities, like gigantic new farms, were monocultures, dehumanized. And much as the chemicals in capitalist agriculture were damaging human health, so too were gigantic cities polluting the air and water, harming people’s health as much as chemicals in food did. He thought people would soon reach the limit of what they would tolerate, in terms of these insults to their health and environment, both in agriculture and in urbanization, and would rebel.

They would demand that the gigantic cities of industrialized urbanism be broken up into human scaled neighborhoods so that a rich ethnic diversity would once gain make up an urban tapestry. In neighborhoods and villages, people could feasibly create the kind of democratic self-government through citizen assemblies. And in those assemblies they could make decisions to create a healthy society, one that didn’t use food chemicals that cause cancer, and didn’t pollute the air and water through other kinds of chemicals.

Furthermore, cities consumed enormous amounts of energy, which meant they required power plants that ran on fossil fuels: coal and natural gas, as well as petroleum. But in 1965 he wrote that that was producing a crisis called “the greenhouse effect” (what we call global warming today). In a few hundred years, he wrote back in the 1960s, the greenhouse effect would make the planet too hot for life as we know it. Since fossil fuels were creating this greenhouse effect, he said, we have to get off fossil fuels, and use renewable energy—solar, wind, and thermal power. And if those technologies can’t power gigantic cities, then we have to decentralize cities, to break them up into small-scale neighborhoods and villages, which are more suitable for renewable energy.

Decentralization was imperative, then, he argued, for these energy reasons; for health reasons (chemicals and pollution); and also for a broader moral reason: that people are more important than the profit of a few. That people’s well-being is more important than profit of a few. And that democratic self-government, taking power away from the greedy economic elites and put it in the hands of people, is an ethical good in its own right. It’s an end in itself, a fulfillment of natural evolution toward complexity and freedom. That’s why he called his big book “The Ecology of Freedom.”


In Bakur and Rojava, you too could find your traditional cities becoming gigantic. You could find your neighborhoods homogenized and disempowered, your city government centralized, your workplaces capitalized, your vibrant political culture reduced to docile employees punching clocks at boring jobs day after day. The change can happen little by little, without people even noticing it. So it’s important to stay alert and to prevent it, even little by little, and build an ecological society even with small steps.

Solar panels atop the Mesopotamian Academy in Quamislo

Solar panels atop the Mesopotamian Academy in Quamislo

Rojava runs on diesel, from its oil wells, and it’s dirty and sooty. Right now, due to the embargo, Rojava lacks the resources to develop solar. And maybe you have similar problems in Bakur. As one part of democratic autonomy, you could think about adopting solar energy. You have plentiful sun. Solar panels are inexpensive these days—they could power single buildings or entire neighborhoods. I think you should consider embedding it into your infrastructure as much as you can.

Start farming in your urban neighborhoods. Set aside areas for community farms, so that people can farm in the city. Also, trees are very important—not just for beautification. They cool cities in the summertime. They help purify the air. They help keep people sane and calm and civil toward one another. They are one of the best, simplest ways to counteract climate change. Plant trees, everywhere you can, in parks, along streets, in rural areas.

In my opinion, one of the most important ecological issues of all is transportation. Specifically, we have too many cars. People love their cars, probably as much here as in the United States. But they are a real problem. They make city air hard to breathe by generating pollution and smog. And they are an ecological disaster because they produce greenhouse emissions.

But the problems are more than that. When cars are dominant in city streets, they can become harmful to vital, livable, decentralized cities.

They do it by ruining neighborhoods for people. They have to be parked, so people rip up good buildings that could be used for housing or workplaces, and pave over flat areas for parking. And they’re socially isolating. When you’re driving a car, you don’t’ encounter your neighbors and have a conversation. They endanger to pedestrians and bicyclists. And finally, they’re not even efficient as a means of transportation in a city, because they create traffic congestion and then everyone gets stuck in traffic and has to wait. So it’s both a social and an ecological issue to keep cars under control, to keep them from dominating streets.

But people get dependent on cars for a reason. They need them to get from home to work, because there’s no alternative. So it’s an ecological issue to reduce the need for cars

There are several ways to do that. Most important, strengthen your neighborhoods, so that homes and workplaces are within walking distance of each other, and shopping and recreation as well. Don’t centralize workplaces in a downtown—make sure workplaces are spread throughout the city, in the neighborhoods. That way people can walk to them rather than drive a car. And that will help keep your neighborhoods strong and vibrant.

Make it easy to walk. Design streets for people, not for cars, and keep the streets safe for people. Instead of building more roads for cars, build sidewalks. Turn certain streets over to walking and bicycling—ban cars from them. Create car-free zones. Create green networks—interconnected green areas that make it pleasant and easy for people to walk or bike through the city. All these things are being done in other parts of the world now, to reduce the need for cars. You can do it here too, or maybe you are already.

Encourage bicycling. Build bike lanes. Tear up big streets, or transform driving lanes into bike lanes. All this will support decentralization and democratic autonomy. Walkable and bikable neighborhoods are the essence of community—that’s where people meet, where you see each other face to face.

And it’s important to think about public transportation. I didn’t see any in Rojava—everyone drives cars. I know that resources are scarce, because of the embargo, but it’s important to start bringing in buses, and eventually trains, light rail, streetcars. People need cheap or free public transportation, within cities, so they don’t have to drive to the walkable neighborhood on the other side of the city. And crate public transit between cities.

Don’t be afraid of dense population in your neighborhoods. Density is good because it makes public transportation financially possible. It’s better to build up existing areas than create low-density suburbs out in the countryside that make people dependent on cars.

In the United States we have too many, and too many highways, and too many parking lots. We have to undo car dependency. Fortunately young Americans want to move away from car ownership and from driving, but they’re finding it difficult because so much of the American built environment was organized around the automobile.

Build walkability and public transit into your constructed environment from the outset. These are my recommendations for any urban ecology effort. Working with renewable energy, urban farming, walkability, and public transportation will help you support neighborhoods, and decentralization, and ultimately democratic self-government and democratic autonomy. I wish you success.

Thank you for inviting me to contribute. If you need more information about anything I’ve said, please contact me.

Revolutionary Education

Two Academies in Rojava

by Janet Biehl

“You have to educate, twenty-four hours a day, to learn how to discuss, to learn how to decide collectively. You have to reject the idea that you have to wait for some leader to come and tell the people what to do, and instead learn to exercise self-rule as a collective practice. . . . The people themselves educate each other. When you put ten people together and ask them for a solution to a problem or propose them a question, they collectively look for an answer. I believe in this way they will find the right one. This collective discussion will make them politicized.”—Salih Muslim, PYD co-president, November 2014

After the revolution of July 2012, when new self-governing institutions came to power in Rojava, the need for a new kind of education was paramount. Not that the people of western Kurdistan were uneducated—high school graduation rates were and are very high there, as the Academic Delegation learned during our December 2014 visit. But education was crucial to creating the revolutionary culture in which the new institutions could thrive. It is a matter not for children and youths alone but for adults as well, even the elderly.

As Aldar Xelîl, a member of the council of Tev-Dem, explained to us, Rojava’s political project is “not just about changing the regime but creating a mentality to bring the revolution to the society. It’s a revolution for society.” Dorşîn Akîf, a teacher at the academy, agreed: “Perception has to be changed,” she told us, “because mentality is so important for our revolution now. Education is crucial for us.”

The first issue that the revolution had to confront was the language of instruction. For four decades under the Assad regime, Kurdish children had had to learn Arabic and study in Arabic. The Kurdish language was banned from public life; teaching it was illegal and could be punished by imprisonment and even torture. So when the Syrian Kurds took their communities into their own hands, they immediately set up Kurdish language instruction. The first such school to open was Şehîd Fewzî’s School in Efrîn canton, followed by one each in Kobanê and Cizîre. By August 2014, Cizîrê alone had 670 schools with 3,000 teachers offering Kurdish language courses to 49,000 students.

Mesopotamian Academy, Qamislo

On December 8 the delegation visited Rojava’s first and only institution of higher education, the Mesopotamian Social Sciences Academy in Qamislo. The Assad regime had permitted no such institutions in the Kurdish areas; this one opened in September 2014 and is still very much under construction.


Mesopotamian Academy

Teaching and discussions are mostly in Kurdish, although the sources are often in Arabic, since many essential texts have not yet been translated into Kurdish.

We met with several members of the administration and faculty, including the rector, Rojda Firat, and teachers Adnan Hasan, Dorşîn Akîf, Medya Doz, Mehmod Kalê, Murat Tolhildan, Serhat Mosis, and Xelîl Hussein.

One challenge the academy faces, they told us, is that people in northeastern Syria think they have to go abroad to get a good education. “We want to change that,” said one instructor, dismissing it as a notion instilled by hegemonic forces. “We don’t want people to feel inferior about where they live. In the Middle East there is a huge amount of knowledge and wisdom, and we are trying to uncover it. Many things that have happened in history happened here.”

The school year consists of three terms, each lasting three to four months, progressing from overviews of subjects to specialization to final projects. The curriculum comprises mainly history and sociology. Why those subjects? we asked. They are crucial, we were told. Under the regime, “our existence [as Kurds] was disputed. We are trying to show that we exist and have made many sacrifices along the way. . . . We consider ourselves part of history, subjects of history.” The instruction seeks to “uncover histories of peoples that have been denied, . . . to create a new life to overcome the years and centuries of enslavement of thought that have been imposed on people.” Ultimately its purpose is “to write a new history.”

Photo by Janet Biehl in Rojava

Two academy instructors

The sociology curriculum takes a critical stance toward twentieth-century positivism and instead seeks to develop a new, alternative social science for the twenty-first century, what Abdullah Öcalan calls “sociology of freedom.” For their final projects, students choose a particular social problem, then research it and write a thesis on how to resolve it, in connection with this alternative. So the learning practical as well as intellectual, intended to serve a social good.

Unlike conventional Western approaches, the academy’s pedagogy rejects the unidirectional transmission of facts. Indeed it doesn’t strictly separate teachers and students. Teachers learn from students and vice versa; ideally, through intersubjective discourse, they ideally come to shared conclusions. Nor are the instructors necessarily professors; they are people whose life experience has given them insights that they can impart. One teacher, for example, recounts folk tales once a week. “We want teachers to help us understand the meaning of life,” we were told. “… We focus on giving things meaning, being able to interpret and comment as well as analyze.”

Photo by Janet Biehl. At the Mesopotamian Academy. in Rojava

Two more academy instructors

Students take exams, but those exams don’t measure knowledge–they’re “more like reminders, like dialogues.” And teachers themselves are subject to evaluation by students. “You did not explain this very well,” a student can say. A teacher who is criticized has to talk out the issue with the student until they both feel they understand each other.

In many ways, the academy’s approach reminded me of the educational ideas advanced by the twentieth-century American philosopher John Dewey (1859-1952). Like the Rojava instructors, Dewey was critical of traditional approaches, in which teachers transmit facts unidirectionally to passive students. Instead, he regarded education as an interactive process, in which students explore social issues through critical give-and-take with their teachers.

Dewey would likely have approved the fact that the academy, rather than requiring students to memorize, teaches them to “claim,” or overcome separateness. “We emphasize that everyone is a subject.” Moreover, it instills habits of lifelong learning: “Our goal is to give students the ability to educate themselves,” beyond graduation Dewey too thought learning should address the whole person, not the intellect alone; that it should highlight our common human condition; and that it should continue throughout life.

The academy seeks not to develop professionalism but to cultivate the well-rounded person. “We believe humans are organisms, they can’t be cut up into parts, separated into sciences,” an instructor told us. “One can be a writer or a poet and also be interested in economy, understand it, because human beings are part of all life.”

For decades, the schools of the Baath regime, with its nationalistic focus, had aimed to create an authoritarian mentality. The Mesopotamian Academy is intent on overcoming this grim past by “helping create free individuals and free thoughts.” Once again I was reminded of Dewey, who also rejected the notion that the purpose of education is to create docile workers for hierarchical workplaces. Rather, he thought, education should help students fulfill the full range of their human potentiality.

The Mesopotamian Academy does not encourage professionalism; least of all does it show students how to maximize their economic self-interest. In the United States, far too many top students nowadays head to Wall Street for careers as investment bankers, but education in Rojava is not about “building a career and getting rich.” Rather, academy students are taught to “ask themselves how to enrich society.”

John Dewey thought the ultimate purpose of education was to create reflective beings who participate ethically as citizens in the democratic community; and that education should thus be a force for social reform. As if echoing this thought, one of the instructors remarked to our delegation, “When we do science of society, what we are trying to do is struggle for social freedom.”

None of the Mesopotamian Academy teachers mentioned John Dewey, and I have no reason to think that they knew his approach; surely they arrived at it independently. But the similarity was striking.

I was also struck by a further coincidence. In the mid-twentieth century, Dewey’s ideas influenced several experimental schools in the United States. Most notable was Goddard College, located in central Vermont, which in the 1960s and 1970s was a trailblazer in Deweyite education. During most of the 1970s, one of the teachers at Goddard College was Murray Bookchin, who taught his ideas under the name “social ecology” there. Bookchin did not write much specifically about education, but his writings on democracy and ecology would go on, in translation, to influence Abdullah Öcalan and Democratic Confederalism, the overall ideology to which Rojava is committed.

Yekitiya Star Academy, Rimelan

The women’s academy (Yekitiya Star Academy) in Rimelan pushes the educational approach of the Mesopotamian Academy further. Founded in 2102, its purpose is to educate female revolutionary cadres, so naturally its emphasis on ideology is more pronounced. The Academic Delegation visited on December 3, 2014.

Over the past thirty years, instructor Dorşîn Akîf told us, women participated in the Kurdish freedom movement, first as fighters, then in women’s institutions. Three years ago Kurdish women produced Jineolojî, or “women’s science,” which they regard as the culmination of that decades-long experience. At the academy in Rimelan, students are first given a general overview of Jineolojî, “the kind of knowledge that was stolen from women” and that women today can recover. “We are trying to overcome women’s nonexistence in history. We try to understand how concepts are produced and reproduced within existing social relations, then we come up with our own understanding. We want to establish a true interpretation of history by looking at the role of women and making women visible in history.”

Photo by Janet Biehl

Inspirations at the Star Academy

Jineolojî, said Dorşîn, considers women to be “the main actor in economy, and economy as the main activity of women.” Yet capitalist modernity defines economy as man’s primary responsibility. But we say this is not true, that always and everywhere women are the main actors in the economy.” Because of this basic contradiction, it seems, capitalist modernity will eventually be overcome.

The way people interpret history affects the way they act, said Dorşîn, so “we talk about pre-Sumerian social organization. We also look how the state emerged historically and how the concept has been constructed.” But power and the state are not the same. “Power is everywhere, but the state is not everywhere. Power can operate in different ways.”

Power, for example, is present in grassroots democracy, which has nothing to do with the state. And Jineolojî regards women as quintessentially democratic. The Star Academy educates students (who are still mostly women) in Rojavan civics. “We look at the political mechanisms— women’s parliaments, women’s communes; and the general [mixed] parliaments, general communes, neighborhood parliaments. Here in Rojava we always have both mixed ones and women’s exclusive ones. In the mixed ones, the representation of women is 40 percent plus there is always a co-presidency to ensure equality.”

Photo by Thomas Jeffrey Miley in Rojava

Students at the Star Academy

At the Star Academy, as at the Mesopotamian Academy, students are taught to see themselves as subjects, with “the power to discuss and construct.” “There is no teacher and student. The session is built on sharing experiences.” Students range from teenagers to great-grandmothers. “Some have graduated from universities, and some are illiterate. Each has knowledge, has truth in their life, and all knowledge is crucial for us. … The older woman has experience. A woman at eighteen is spirit, the new generation, representing the future.”

Every program culminates in a final session called the platform. Here each student stands and says how she will participate in Rojava’s democracy. Will she join an organization, or the YPJ, or participate in a women’s council? What kind of responsibility she will take?

We queried Dorşîn about the academy’s teachings on gender (a word that does not exist in Kurdish). “Our dream,” she said, “is that women’s participating and building society will change men, a new kind of masculinity will emerge. Concepts of men and women aren’t biologistic—we’re against that. We define gender as masculine and masculinity in connection with power and hegemony. Of course we believe that gender is socially constructed.”

Moreover, she explained, the woman problem isn’t solely the province of women; “it’s embedded in society, so women’s exclusion is society’s problem. So we have to redefine women, life, and society all together at the same time. The problem of women’s freedom is the problem of society’s freedom.”

She went on to cite a phrase from Öcalan, “Kill the man,” which has become a watchword, meaning “the masculine man has to change.” Equally, women’s colonized subjectivity, or femininity, must be killed. The social ambition embodied by the academy is to overcome domination and hegemonic power and “create an equal life together.”

How much impact do these teachings have on Rojavan society as a whole? That question I cannot answer and will leave it to future researchers to determine.

The quotations from instructors have been edited for conciseness.

Dispatch from Diyarbakir, October 31

by Ulf Petersen

Sixteen YPG/YPG fighters dead in twenty-four hours, and no end is in sight—the brutal game around Kobanê continues. Two friends from the Bağlar neighborhood, aged 32 and 35, tell me that if they didn’t have sole responsibility for their daughters’ care, they would rush to join the fight. “We’re not afraid of İşıd,” they say, using the Turkish shorthand for Islamic State (IS).

Kobanê could become a Kurdish Gallipoli, a founding myth for a “Kurdistan” of some political form. Sentiments that Rojava should unite with the KRG—in northern Iraq, led by Masoud Barzani—and with the PKK movement in Turkey are strong. Barzani’s peshmerga fighters were welcomed joyfully, as Nick Brauns describes.

The battle for Kobanê is strengthening Kurdish identity. That identity, a feeling of a deep connectedness, is the principal source of the Kurds’ spirit of resistance, strengthened by hatred for the Islamic State. Many Kurds consider the PKK’s program of women’s liberation, ecology, and council democracy to be an indispensable component of their Kurdish identity, indeed of Kurdish existence today.

On Tuesday we talked with Ahmet Türk, a Kurdish politician who, along with the Aramaic Christian Februniye Akyol Benno, is co-mayor of the large city of Mardin. He emphasized that the Kurdish people’s struggle points to a solution for the entire Middle East. The goal is “democratic confederalism,” in the sense of Abdullah Öcalan, that transcends borders and guarantees peace and equality for all ethnic and religious groups.

By comparison with the pogrom mentality that is being inflamed by the Islamic State, the Shiite militias in Iraq, and other forces, this project seems a humane and democratic alternative.

Today I met a seventeen-year-old Kurd from Erbil, who three years ago gave up his Muslim beliefs and became an atheist. In fact, he has tattooed on his chest the symbol of the prophet Zarathustra, but he keeps it covered up, since his life is precious to him.

When we return, we will report on the conversations and observations at the border at Kobanê and in the refugee camps. We will consider how leftist movements here and in the West and approach the danger of German, Kurdish, Arabic, and other nationalisms and religious fundamentalisms as a common problem.

Diyarbakır, October 31, 2014

Video: Child care in the refugee camp Arin Mirxan in Suruç


Translated by Janet Biehl.


Dispatch from the war zone, October 26

Back at the Border, Near Kobanê

by Ulf Peterson of TATORT Kurdistan

Yesterday we visited the family of a friend from Cologne in the border town of Mizaynter, where a solidarity vigil was being held.

Solidarity vigil at Myzanter, October 25

Solidarity vigil at Myzanter, October 25

Twenty-eight refugee families have been added to the village’s twelve families; they are living, in part, in mud huts intended for animals. Our host explained that up until 1924, the villages on the Turkish side of the border had belonged to the Kobanê district—the border had been open. Only after the Second World War, during the Cold War, was the border enforced, and then the Turkish army laid 650,000 landmines, against smugglers and PKK: ( [German]).

Thereafter the families were separated. In 1990 construction of the Ataturk Dam was completed. It diverted water to the adjacent plain of Harran ( [German]), but it parched this area. Previously the people had been able to farm the fertile land on the Syrian side of the Kobanê district, as their ancestors had long done, but no more. The poor were left to smuggle tea, sugar, and tobacco for an income. The war has destroyed even this existential source of support.

The battle for Kobanê has been raging for forty-one days now. The day before yesterday, in the “press hill,” we met the ARD correspondent Martin Weiss, who delivered this fine short report for Mittagsmagazin: [German] In the evenings we watch on Kurdish TV reports by the courageous journalists who, cameras in hand, accompany the fighters.

Day and night, throughout city, we can hear gunshots and armor-piercing shells. But yesterday only two air attacks were launched on the Islamic State. An old acquaintance, a member of the executive of the HDP (People’s Democratic Party), said: “Before the IS invaded the city on October 6, while it was still hunkered in its tanks in the countryside, it was like sitting ducks. But back then it wasn’t bombed. Only after the IS invasion, and the great uprising of the Kurds in response, did the coalition strengthen its air attacks, somewhat.”

Human chain at Caykara, October 25

Human chain at Caykara, October 25

Our host family, their strong and joyous children, and the militant village commune in Mizaynter, all affirm that “resistance is life” (Berxwedan Jiyan e). But resistance is death, every day. The ambulances from Suruç overtake us with the dying and the survivors.


Traveling with Brigitte Kiechle, Gül Güzel, and Nick Brauns

Urfa, October 26, 2014
I thank Janet Biehl for the translation into English at: Tomorrow the article “Brutal Game in Kobanê,” by our traveling companion Nick Braun, will appear : [German]. On the rise of the Islamic State, I recommend:!148217/ [German]

Translated by Janet Biehl. This article originally appeared at