The irony in the Kurdish situation, asserts Thomas Schmidinger, is that they only attract our attention by virtue of their enemies. When so-called Islamic State (IS) reached its threatening peak in 2014, it seemed that the Kurds were the only force capable of stopping them. As Syria’s miserable and messy civil war enters its 7th year, the Kurds are increasingly the only combatant side that we don’t find morally questionable. In their heroic defence of their town Kobane, the world cheered them on as they battled to push IS back and out of Kurdish territory.
The Kurdish situation, Schmidinger tells us, has been worthy of our attention long before 2014. They are an ethnic grouping which finds itself dismembered and pulled in several directions by artificially drawn, colonial-era borders; their aspirations for political autonomy (and even the dream of statehood) often ruthlessly suppressed by the nations in which they find themselves. Much to the fascination and delight of Western observers, they have also taken advantage of the civil war to form an autonomous state in northern Syria, independent of the Assad government. The Democratic Federation of Northern Syria, as it is grandly called, has received the drooling praise of Western liberals for its progressivism. For instance, Western media – like a magpie catching sight of silver – was transfixed for the duration of a standard news-cycle by the sight of women-only People’s Protection Units (YPG) battling against IS.
In his talk at the Lighthouse Bookshop, Thomas Schmidinger puts some of our Western fantasies to rest. The Vienna-based author of Rojava: Revolution, War and the Future of Syria’s Kurds talks for about 40 minutes in a reasonable, explanatory kind of tone as he walks us through the tangled web of the history of the Kurds in Syria. Although the audience are not always on the edge of their seats, they are doubtless impressed by Schmidinger’s erudite and masterful handle on the facts.
His central assertion is that Western liberals must exercise caution in projecting their own values, dreams and desires onto Rojava. He confesses that the ‘revolution’ in Rojava is not perfect, and is unlikely to fit into the boxes we make for it. He criticises Western liberals for hankering after a “revolutionary dream land, somewhere else”. Far from creating a utopia, the Kurds in Rojava still operate a market economy, and gender inequality is too deep-rooted to wither immediately under the weight of new laws, even if steps are being made in an encouraging direction.
Rojava is special because it is the only combatant in that tragic maelstrom of a war defending the possibility of democracy. And for that, at least, they deserve our respect and support.
Image: Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung via Flicr