Sunday, August 02, 2015

On extremism, jihadism and counter-jihadism

This post is prompted by David Cameron’s recent speech setting out a new agenda on addressing the threat of Islamist violent extremism, and also by the recent launch of a whole series of “counter-jihadi” initiatives on the British right, including the planning of a Mohammed cartoon exhibition in London in September. The latter has been the subject of a report by the anti-fascist group Hope Not Hate (HnH). My friend Sarah made some sympathetic criticisms of that report at Harry’s Place, for which she got some sharp criticism on Twitter. This whole topic is one which frequently inflames irrational passions and generates more heat than light. This post, therefore, is an attempt to set out a series of propositions on these issues as an attempt to cut through some of the hysteria.  I didn’t mean for it to get so long!

“Extremism” is not a helpful framing of the problem
Cameron frames his approach to Islamism in terms of the wider generic problem of “extremism”, noting that Islamism is just one of many forms of “extremism”, along with that of the far right. Cameron is right to note that other ideologies constitute a threat, and there are certain similarities between the Islamist far right and the British nationalist far right. However, the term “extremism” creates more confusion than it solves, especially when the border between extremism and terrorism is blurred, as it was in Cameron’s speech, and in fact can do damage.

The idea of “extremism” implicitly contrasts these ideologies to the “normal”, acceptable politics of the centre ground, of the mainstream status quo. The concept of “extremism” criminalises the desire for change. It stops us from looking carefully and critically at the ideologies caught in its remit – which closes down debate, imagination and criticism, and stops us from engaging “extremist” ideologies and challenging them politically. The concept of “extremism” can make minor, marginal ideologies seem more dangerous than they often are – and therefore can sometimes make them seem glamourous and exciting.

We know from history that the rubric of “extremism” is most often used against the left. In recent decades, for example, we have seen huge amount of resources put into the policing and surveillance of left-wing politics, with undercover police officers inserted into ecological, anti-fascist and anti-racist movements, sowing havoc and ruining lives. Anti-capitalist groups like Occupy are lumped together with al-Qaeda and the IRA in the category of “domestic extremism”. The language of the guidance on extremism given to universities effectively means that not just jihadism but also anarchism should be excluded from such institutions. We have seen the infiltration and disruption of the campaigns led by the families of victims of racist violence, such as Stephen Lawrence’s; collusion in the blacklisting of union activists; and acts of provocation to push non-violent activists into criminal activity.

Cameron is wrong to think that extremism in general is a conveyer belt to violent extremism and terror
Cameron claims that “many [terrorists] were first influenced by what some would call non-violent extremists”; Islamism, he says, “has often sucked people in from non-violence to violence”. This is true, as far is at goes, but it is also true that most followers of “non-violent” extremism do not get “sucked” to jihadist violence, just as most anti-immigrant racists and casual antisemites do not get “sucked” to violent fascism. Not making that clear is problematic.

The evidence-based blogger Anonymous Mugwump has collated all of the research showing very conclusively that there is no necessary or straightforward step from extremism to violent extremism, no single pathway from Islamism to terrorism.; his case is pretty conclusive.

(Cameron’s mistaken emphasis on this connection is probably due to the emphasis on the government’s thinking of the thinktank Quilliam, who have long argued, with little evidential basis, that extremism in general leads to violent extremism in particular – although their position,  as Amjad Khan argues here, is more subtle than Cameron’s: non-violent extremism, they say, provides the “mood music” for terrorism.)

As Anonymous Mugwump notes, there may well be good reasons to oppose some forms of non-violent extremism – but its connection to terrorism is not one of them. The category of non-violent extremism is basically a form of “pre-crime” or thought crime; making it into a security issue is dangerous because it criminalises beliefs that are not in fact criminally dangerous; it is a licence for authoritarian over-policing, for policing without the consent of communities. As I will argue more fully below, while terrorism is a policing issue, non-violent Islamism is a political issue, which should be challenged politically, by all of us – citizens, communities – and not from above by the state.

Cameron is broadly right to highlight ideology over “root causes”
Image: Jake Goretski
It is a shibboleth of many liberals and leftists that terrorism can be explained through “root causes” such as Western imperialism and foreign policy, or the socio-economic disadvantage of Muslim communities.  (Leftists and liberals rarely look for “root causes” to explain fascism, UKIP support or voting Tory; fascists and xenophobes are usually dismissed as malevolent or stupid. Why is Islamism unique among far right ideologies in needing explanation through root causes?)

The late Norman Geras regularly exposed the folly of root causism and the blowback theory. Cameron echoes Norm in noting that 9/11 came before the Iraq war and that it is often the most rather than least advantaged who engage in terrorism, demonstrating that it is the ideology itself, not deprivation or foreign policy, that is the central explanatory factor. Anonymous Mugwump has summed up much of the literature refuting blowback theory too (hereherehereherehere and here), and Futile Democracy has made some similar points, pointing out how long before 2002 Islamism’s commitment to violence can be dated.

So, Cameron is broadly right here. He is too quick, though, to eliminate the possibility that Western policy has any role in driving terror: surely it is possible that Western intervention can trigger terrorist vengeance even it does not cause it, or that narratives which highlight Western intervention might be used by jihadists to recruit converts? (An analogy would be Israel’s actions and antisemitic incidents, or Islamist terrorism and anti-Muslim hate crime: the former trigger the latter but are not the cause, because for the trigger to work there needs to already be an ideological matrix which blames Israel’s actions on all Jews, terrorist actions on all Muslims – or Western intervention on all Westerners.)

Cameron points to some of the right reason Islamist ideologies are attractive
Focusing on the ideology not the “root causes” does not absolve us from trying to understand why the ideology appeals. Cameron’s explanation of the appeal is incoherent, but hits some of the right notes. The lust for adventure, the desire for identity, a sense of injustice, compassion for suffering members of the ummah and the pleasure of moral certainty are certainly part of the appeal.

And Cameron gestures towards these.  Jihadism, he says, “can offer [young people] a sense of belonging that they can lack here at home” – while “racism, discrimination or sickening Islamophobia” lead them to believe there is no place for them in Britain. (Left-wing critics of Cameron, such as Nafeez Ahmed, seem to have completely missed this large section of the speech.)

Cameron is right to downplay grievances but wrong to dismiss them altogether
As I already noted, Cameron is wrong to refuse the possibility that there’s some connection between foreign policy or socio-economic context and terrorism. The right way to frame this, in my view, is through the category of perceived grievance. Perceived grievance clearly contributes to the appeal of radical responses.

Perceived grievances sometimes have no basis in truth (there is no Western war on Muslims; Jews and Zionists do not control Britain). Some grievances involve a mix of fact and fantasy (the Iraq war has some questionable motives as well as some good ones, and lots of people died because of it). Other grievances a firm basis in truth (Islamophobia is pandemic in modern Europe; Muslims do experience some discrimination in the labour market; Assad is slaughtering Sunni Muslims). 

In this sense, the Islamist appeal to British Muslims mirrors the appeal of UKIP or the far right to some other British people. Immigration and terrorism does not cause or “provoke” xenophobia and anti-Muslim bigotry, but the mixture of real and imagined grievances accumulating around migration and Islam contributes to the appeal. If we recognise the role of grievance in driving Islamism (as the left does), we also need to recognise (as the left refuses to do) its role in driving right-wing ideology too.

Cameron is right to emphasise antisemitism and conspiricism in the Islamist mix
Image: The New Centrist
Cameron put a surprising amount of emphasis in his speech on antisemitism and conspiracy theories. I think he was right to do so, for two reasons. First, because conspirationism and antisemitic memes are behind the false narratives in many of the perceived grievances promoted by Islamist ideology. And second because antisemitism, or more specifically the shift in gear from casual everyday antisemitism to an ideologically committed antisemitic worldview, typically marks the shift from softer sympathy with Islamism to the kinds of Islamist ideology most likely to generate terrorism.

(We can see something similar on the far right, both with antisemitism, which remains the esoteric core of fascist ideology even as anti-Muslim bigotry becomes a more prominent part of the public appeal, and with Islamophobia as new far right groups move beyond soft anti-Muslim bigotry to a full scale, paranoid conspiricist and civilisationist anti-Islamic ideological worldview.)

Cameron is wrong to think that failed integration is a driver of extremism
The Islamist appeal to forms of everyday antisemitism that are wired into British society at large is a good example of how “failed integration” is the wrong frame for understanding extremism. Many of the ingredients of Islamism – e.g. anti-Americanism, misogyny, homophobia – are not unique to Islamism but float around in mainstream society. The humanitarian impulse that says we must do something about the suffering of the children of Gaza or Syria is not profoundly un-British either.

And so it is not surprising that recruits to jihad are not the least “integrated” of British Muslims, but often the most integrated – including converts. They are English-speaking, British-educated, often high achieving, often from comfortable socio-economic backgrounds, on the surface indistinguishable from their non-jihadi peers.

Very few come from the tiny handful of places in Britain that could be thought of as de facto segregated communities; there are no all-Muslim ghettos in Portsmouth, Southampton, Brighton, Cardiff or Lewisham, to name some of the places where jihadist cells have operated. (I have made that argument before, here.)

Young people who turn to radical Wahhabi or Salafi faith or to political Islam are often doing so in rebellion against their parents’ or grandparents’ conservative Sufi or Barelvi practices. They go to English-speaking mosques to get out of Urdu-speaking mosques. They prefer the multi-ethnic solidarity of jihad to the restrictive ties of ethnic community.

Cameron is right to care about issues such as FGM and forced marriage, but wrong to link to Islamism
“Failed integration”, where it exists, might be a problem, then, but it is not the problem of jihad. Practices such as forced marriage and female genital mutilation are problems which need to be fought vigorously, but they are problems that flourish in completely different contexts than those in which jihadi ideology flourishes. FGM and forced marriage are issues of patriarchy and cultural –conservatism driven by elders in particular micro-communities, exactly the cultural conservatism jihadi youth seek to escape.

By associating these kinds of practices (which are cultural and not religious, and found among some Muslim ethnic groups and not others) with jihad, Cameron is helping to sustain a false idea of a generic “Muslim” problem, rather than thinking seriously about how to combat jihadi ideology. (And in doing so,  of course, sustains the perceived grievance of a “war on Muslims” that jihadist promote to broaden their appeal.)

Islamism and the far right are both dangers, but are not equivalents
Image: TNC
The narrative of generic “extremism”, including both the far right and jihadis, at war with our British mainstream sometimes shades in to thinking of these different “extremisms” as equivalent to each other. (For instance, the HnH report describes the counter-jihadists as “as dangerous as the Islamists they claim to dislike” (p.2).) There are some ways in which the far right and Islamism do mirror or feed off each other. This is most obvious with the relationship between the EDL (and its offshoots) and Anjem Chaudhary’s outfit, locked in a childish cycle of media-amplified face-offs. But we shouldn’t be too quick to equate the two sides.

Like Islamism, the far right is a very heterogeneous formation. At its softer end, it blurs with a kind of xenophobic authoritarian populism which is actually quite mainstream in our political culture. At its far end, the kind of hardcore Nazism of a Joshua Bonehill is extremely marginal in its threat or appeal.

Instances of actual violence and terrorism have come from various points on this spectrum, as I discussed here. The new CST report on antisemitic incidents in 2015 shows that suggests that the far right remain much more prominent as known perpetrators than Islamism (122 incidents involved far right discourse; 16 involved Islamist discourse). And, to use Quilliam’s language, figures like Stephen Yaxley-Lennon provide the “mood music” for the disturbing (and growing) number of anti-Muslim attacks on Britain’s streets. So, the far right is a threat.

But is it equivalent to the Islamist threat, as Hope not Hate and others suggest? I don’t think so, for two reasons. First, the British far right recruits from a fairly large population of angry white males – but only manages to recruit a tiny proportion of them. The toxicity of the fascist brand in this constituency keeps it marginal (for now). Islamism, in contrast, has a much smaller pool to recruit from, but its appeal seems to be more successful in that constituency. For example, you’re unlikely to join a student Islamic society without coming into contact with hardcore jihadist views, whereas the British nationalist far right is actually quite hard to join.

Second, I think that only at the most extreme end of the spectrum does violence become a central part of far right ideology – whereas the message of military jihad is central not just to the most extreme jihadists. As Amjad Khan recently wrote, allegedly “non-violent extremists” such as Hisb-ut-Tahrir do believe in a caliphate and a war of offensive jihad, and justify terrorist attacks on Israeli civilians. The centrality of jihad to a broad spectrum of Islamists is the danger of terrorism follows more often (even if not automatically) from the prevalence of Islamism than from the prevalence of the far right. Hence all but the most hardcore on the far right disavow the likes of Breivik and Dylann Roof, while quite broad a broad swathe of Islamist opinion apologise for, defend or even applaud their Breiviks and Roofs (to give just two examples, Cage describe jihadists as victims of the British state, while Cage’s director Moazzam Begg has recently argued that as a counterweight to ISIS we should back al-Nusra, al-Qaeda’s franchise in Syria!).

The counter-jihadi movement is toxic and dangerous
This brings us to the counter-jihad movement, that part of the far right whose central narrative is threat posed to Western civilisation by Islam, as described in the new HnH report. The counter-jihad movement is not homogeneous, but some of its themes are: a refusal to distinguish between Muslims and people, Islam as a faith and Islamism as a politics; an obsession with demographics and immigration which echo older right-wing themes; a  civilisationist discourse, which frames more or less everything in terms of the epic clash of a decadent Western civilisation against ascendant Islam; its paranoid, conspiracist worldview in which Islam is not seen in religious or cultural terms but as a vast co-ordinated secret plot; and a superficial claim to defend liberal values such as women’s or gay rights or free speech, which typically doesn’t translate into caring about violations of these values that come from any source other than Islam.

The counter-jihad movement is toxic and dangerous because it picks up on real and imagined grievances about Islam and immigration circulating in mainstream culture and translates them into a fully-formed ideological narrative, which gives it more reach than the discredited race theories traditional fascists still cleave to. It is toxic and dangerous because it sees bloody conflict between the West and Islam as both inevitable and good, thus licensing both petty and serious hate crimes against Muslims on the streets and even of terrorist activities such as those of Zack Davies, Pavlo Lapshyn or Ryan McGee.

Finally, the counter-jihad movement has strong links with actual fascism, links embodied by Paul Weston and his British Freedom Party/Liberty GB party, by the English Defence League, and by Britain First, all of which involved in the planning of the Mohammed cartoon exhibition in September.

The counter-jihadi movement has exactly the wrong strategy for contesting Islamism
Unlike classical fascism, counter-jihadism’s narrative does contain some elements of the truth. As noted above, Islamism is a clear and present danger, as are illiberal practices (such as FGM and forced marriage) that exist in some Muslim populations. But if we’re serious about combating these things, counter-jihadism takes exactly the wrong approach to doing so.

Using Crusader imagery, flying the George cross, publishing cartoons of the Prophet fucking goats, getting tanked up on Stella and Charlie to march through Asian neighbourhoods, muttering about the eclipse of the white race, demanding bans on halal food – the strategies the counter-jihad movement uses are far more likely to inflame and entrench Islamist support and to confirm the grievances Islamists use to recruit.

As I argued above, jihadi terrorism (like far right terrorism) is a security issue which should be policed as sharply as necessary. But non-terrorist Islamism (like fascism in general) is a political problem that should be combated politically. Combating Islamism means clearly articulating the values it abhors: intellectual doubt, religious tolerance (including the right to heresy and apostasy and the right not to believe), secular public space, sexual freedom, the rights of women and non-heterosexual people, free expression (including the right to laugh and to offend).

But just as UKIP supporters will never be won over by merely celebrating multiculturalism, winning potential Islamists to these values requires more than treating them as catchphrases. Instead, we need to work out how to articulate them in credible and imaginative ways; we need to show we are prepared for dialogue not just to lecture; we need to show willingness to take seriously the grievances that Islamism latches on to. And, crucially, we need to find credible, trusted voices to articulate them.

Cameron is right that some Muslim voices are drowning out others
The issue of credible, trusted voices is vital. Cameron is right that some of the least welcome voices are too loud in the Muslim public sphere. Malignant and unrepresentative “community leaders” are given too much airplay both amongst Muslims and in communicating to the wider world.

It would be great instead if, both in Muslim communities and in mainstream media, we could hear more varied Muslim voices, young Muslim voices, reforming Muslim voices, feminist Muslim voices. Fortunately, there are more now than there were a decade ago. Unfortunately, though, the Muslim voices nurtured by the state tend to lack credibility on the Muslim street – by being selected and patronised by the establishment undermines their credibility. Unless radical and reforming representatives actually come from below, then conservative and “extremist” voices will continue to be heard the loudest.

The free speech principle has been hijacked by the anti-Muslim right…
Free speech has been one of the themes the counter-jihadi movement has used extensively. Now, it is true that free speech is increasingly fragile, that Islamism – and especially Islamist terrorism, such as that against Charlie Hebdo in Paris – constitutes one of the gravest of dangers to free speech.

But Islamism is one among many threats – as a quick glance at Spiked or Index on Censorship would tell you. Yet the likes of Anne-Marie Waters, Douglas Murray or Charlie Klendjian – let alone the likes of Paul Weston, Jim Dowson or Pamela Geller – rarely if ever speak out about threats to free speech from any other source. This shows that their claim to be advocates of free speech is hollow and cynical, a cover for anti-Muslim racism.

It is commonly said that if you care about free speech you should care about the free speech of those you oppose the most. Perhaps my dislike of the far right should not stop me from defending their right to speak out. Maybe – that does not mean I should approve their actions when they go out of their way to provide a platform for racism or when their primary intention is causing offence.

I don’t know if Hope not Hate is right in claiming that Waters and the other organisers of the Mohammed cartoons exhibition are doing it to provoke a civil war. But it certainly is a provocative thing to do, likely to lead to unrest, and unlikely to have any positive impact in politically challenging Islamism.

We should treat a Mohammed cartoon exhibition the way we would treat the Iranian state’s Holocaust cartoon contest: it is not a matter of free speech, but a case of provocation, incitement and racism.

…but it doesn’t mean we should embrace illiberal strategies
Although I see the toon exhibition as malignant and dangerous, I do not agree with Hope not Hate’s main policy recommendations in response to it: ban the exhibition and institute better state surveillance of counter-jihadis. These kinds of strategies are ill-advised for two reasons. First, they are ineffective in an age when images circulate on social media whether the exhibition is banned or not – and indeed will be used by the counter-jihadis to sell their victimhood narrative, the perceived grievance they use to recruit. Second, bans and policing are authoritarian solutions, which empower the state. Instead, we should empower communities and citizens by promoting an adult conversation about the issues, and by promoting alternative, democratic values.

See also:
Far right violence from Charleston to Mold Tesco; Has Tommy Robinson changed?; Anders Breivik, Counter-jihad and right-wing terror; The EDL and global counter-jihad; The lessons of the Lucozade plane plot; Anne Marie Waters in Lewisham East; Liberty GB in Lewisham West.

Thursday, July 16, 2015

Syria questions and answers

What does the Iran deal mean for Syria?
Many liberal and mainstream voices are talking up the "historic" Vienna deal allowing Iran to continue its nuclear proliferation as some kind of "triumph of diplomacy", simply because the two sides actually reached an agreement.

The deal has been welcomed by Bashar al-Assad and greeted with dismay by the Syrian opposition and rebels. The economic benefit to Iran, and relaxation of control on its arms trade, will boost Russia and China's weapons (and fuel) sales to Iran and its proxies. This can only benefit Tehran's Damascus partner, who will reap that benefit in increased firepower and increased finance - which will be felt by the Syrian civilians on whom Assad's bombs fall day by day. Aron Lund spells it out here, and Hassan Hassan here.

This is quite a post by the Syrian in exile blogger "Maysaloon", on the "progressive"/Pan-Arabist betrayal of humanity in supporting the Iran deal. Here is the final paragraph:
I'm sorry that Syrians are inconvenient, that we're not being killed by the right type of enemy for you people. I'm sorry we haven't received your stamp of approval. Pan-Arabists are cheering a deal with Iran, because, as they keep reminding us, Israel is the real enemy; Palestine the real goal. Never mind the untold misery, guts and excrement that we are being forced to crawl through in the name of this mythical liberation that hovers on our horizon like a promised paradise for the wretched of the world. Syria is "complicated". Syrians are only to be felt "sorry for", like the victims of some flood or an earthquake. From your glass towers in Dubai you intellectual pan-Arabists can toast a deal with Iran, and celebrate the fact that nothing has been allowed to deviate your attention from the lofty goal of "liberating Palestine".
Are Kurds ethnically cleansing non-Kurds in Rojava?
Relating to my recent post on Patrick Cockburn's lies, here a Kurdish writer refutes the concerted media smear (originating from Turkish and Gulf spin doctors) that Kurdish forces in Syria are "ethnically cleansing" Sunni Arabs. I have seen several vague allegations (similar to Cockburn's) about the Kurdish YPJ/YPG militias under the political control of the PYD party mistreating non-Kurds - but I have seen not one single credible article detailing actual instances of these. And there are credible accounts of non-Kurds afraid of the Kurds - but no stories showing that this fear is grounded in experience rather than in rumours spread via partisan media sources.

The Syrian Network for Human Rights, the best source of casualty statistics, recorded a total of 67 civilians killed by the PYD's forces in the first half of 2015 - 67 too many, but less than killed in Coalition air strikes, a twentieth of the number killed by IS and al-Nusra, a tenth of the number killed by Syrian rebel groups. There is no record that any of these 67 were acts of deliberate ethnic cleansing rather than collateral deaths in war zones. (To get a sense of the scale of the war zone: PYD forces are engaged on a frontline of about 300 miles; the Maginot Line in WWII was 200 miles long.) In short, it is probably a myth that Syrian Kurds are committing ethnic cleansing.

Does ISIS really control a half of Syria?
From October, lots of Western media sources started claiming ISIS control a third of Syria's land. In May, when Palmyra fell, the Guardian, Fox and others said it controlled more than 50% of the country, based on claims from the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. But is this true?

Patrick Cockburn, whose account always leans towards the Damascus government's slant, notes that "these proportions are a little deceptive because the government still holds most of Damascus, the main cities and the roads linking them". The further caveat, though, is that the areas allegedly controlled by ISIS to make up that 50% include very sparsely populated areas,  where there is actually no ISIS presence at all.

As was clear from maps of its advance in 2014, ISIS's m.o. is that of what Deleuze and Guattari called the "nomadic war machine": moving in flows along routes such as roads and oil pipelines without attempting to occupy the empty spaces in between,
moving away from the center, creating a new center, departing and returning, ebbing and flowing in relation to no one central point... consuming flesh, and committing violence [along the way].
The Caliphate is a "state" which ignores conventional state borders. It operates up-close and not at a distance.

Thus more accurate maps of the Syria battleground - such as those produced by the Institute for the Study of War - do not shade in the un-occupied zones behind the IS lines. This ISW map shows recent changes in the Syrian theatre:

A simpler version of this map was used by Liz Sly of the Washington Post here. What the map shows is Assad controls a lot of urban territory and the Caliphate controls key strategic sites, but in terms of territory IS controls far less than a third and nothing like 50% of Syria.

What's going on in Yarmouk?
Back in May I posted a long piece on Yarmouk, the site which exemplifies the suffering brought about by Assad and his frenemies ISIS - and which exemplifies the indifference of the Western left to this suffering. The sad fact is that nothing has improved since then, and in fact things have worsened.

Most media sources still recite the figure of 18.000 left in the camp (less than a tenth of the original population), but the PLO is saying there are only 7,000 left, with deaths to starvation and untreated illness and with more residents fleeing (some to other Palestinian communities and camps around Damascus, many of which are on the frontline of fighting and little safer). This heart-breaking piece in the Guardian chronicles life in Yarmouk.

Why have the US trained so few rebels?
There has been a lot of crowing about desultory US attempt to train Syrian rebels to fight ISIS. For many, this has been taken as evidence there are no good guys left: no "moderate" rebels. Kyle Orton explains why this is wrong:
Why it was expected that the rebels would abandon their fight against Assad—whom they are after all rebelling against in defence of their families—to become the U.S.’s Arab JSOC force is not clear.
Hassan Hassan adds: "even those who have joined the programme will be treated as mercenaries by fellow rebels as long as the focus is ISIL not the regime." As Kyle argues, "the failure of this program is a feature not a bug". It is an indicator of Obama's wrong strategy, not his failed strategy.

What about the refugees?
The lack of concern about what goes on in Syria from the Western left is contrasted to its noble concern about the refugees in the Mediterranean. Syrians now account for a third of Mediterranean migrants and up to 60% of refugees arriving in austerity-crippled Greece, for instance. Tory politicians have tried to downplay the Syrian dimension by highlighting Africans or claiming these are "economic migrants". Leftists, human rights advocates and liberals have rightly challenged this.

However, the next step from this should be obvious: addressing the refugee crisis means addressing the Syria crisis. It is shameful that pro-refugee voices are not also speaking out on what causes the refugee crisis. It is the Assad regime, and especially his airstrikes, which is doing this. This Syria UK post makes the argument and sets out what we can do to stop it. And we do need to stop it, before it's too late.


Also read: Kellie Strom "Never again, and again, and again"; Hassan Hassan "Between bombs and butchery".

Wednesday, July 08, 2015

Assad v ISIS? Patrick Cockburn's economy with the truth

assad cartoon iranwire mana neyestani
IranWire/Mana Neyestani via Vox

Assad over Daesh?

There is a growing consensus that the fight in Syria is between ISIS and Assad. Given a choice between these two evils, a growing number of voices say that Assad is the lesser evil and that the West should back him to defeat Daesh.

For instance, Alison Pearson in the Mirror, spoke two years ago in a Jordanian refugee camp to escapees from Assad's chemical attacks. Now, she thinks that we should cuddle up to the perpetrator of these war crimes:
Two years on I still believe Assad to be a vile, nasty bully. But now, rather than bomb him I think it’s time to bond with him. With him and every tin pot dictator like him, if they can bring back some stability to a region so insecure and chaotic it has become the perfect breeding ground for Islamic State.
Politicians too talk this talk. Conservative Julian Lewis said in parliament that
In 2013, the Government wanted to remove Assad without helping al-Qaeda or similar groups that later became Daesh. Now we apparently want to remove Daesh but without helping Assad. Those two things are incompatible. It is a choice of two evils.
Labour's Peter Hain similarly thinks we should "liaise" with Assad's military to stop ISIL:
As Syria Solidarity UK argue here, Lewis' "choice of two evils" is a false choice.

Assad has killed and continues to kill far more people than Daesh ever has or probably ever will. The overall death toll in Syria is now around a quarter of a million: over a hundred a day every day. Civilians killed by the regime are around half of this; the Violations Documentation Centre, for example, has named over 80,000 civilians killed by the state, mainly in airstrikes, since the start of the conflict. Since the start of 2015 alone, government forces have killed 8509 people, two-thirds of them civilians, compared to ISIS, which has killed 1490 in Syria, two-thirds of them civilians. Why liaise or "bond" with killers on this scale? 

Support for Assad is support for Daesh

From Archicivilians, via Not George
Assad has done more than anyone else, not to defeat Daesh but to build them up. Kings College expert Peter Neumann a year ago in the LRB laid out the detailed story of how and why Assad did this. In December, NBC's careful analysis of regime strikes catalogued in the IHS Jane's Terrorism and Insurgency Center's (JTIC) database showed that the government has been largely ignoring ISIS in order to defeat other rebel groups:
JTIC's data shows that [Assad's] counterterrorism operations — more than two-thirds of which were airstrikes — skew heavily towards groups whose names aren't ISIS. Of 982 counterterrorism operations for the year up through Nov. 21, just 6 percent directly targeted ISIS.
The same NBC report also quoted other rebel groups claiming to have experienced co-ordination between ISIS and the regime against specific rebel outfits - which has been reported again and again by other sources. Last month, for instance, the Guardian reported instances of this kind of co-operation, alleged both by the US and by major rebel groups.

In short, there is no "choice of two evils": they are working together. And, crucially, there is a third choice, the right choice: a free, democratic, secular Syria. Although under-supported and out-gunned, the Free Syrian Army (FSA) has started to gain ground in southern Syria in recent weeks, and in the North is advancing side by side with the YPJ/YPG, the Syrian Kurdish militia, which tenaciously defends the large liberated zone of Rojava.

Patrick Cockburn's dishonesty

Who's Lying About Syria's Christian Massacre?
From The Daily Beast
One of the voices influencing this growing complacent consensus on the alleged "choice of two evils" is Patrick Cockburn. I have long been a respectful reader of Cockburn, who has been reporting from the Middle East for two decades now.

However, his reportage relating to Syria has been marred over the last two years by systematic distortion in favour of the Assad regime narrative. In March this year, Robin Yassin-Kassab, in a book review written for the Guardian but only published after its main points were removed, documented several incidents where Cockburn has been economical with the truth in relation to Syria. You should read it in full here.

Yassin-Kassab's colleague Muhammad Idrees Ahmad in May provided extremely detailed further documentation of Cockburn's outight dishonesty. (I have taken the illustration above from there.)

I won't repeat their careful allegations here, but instead turn to two recent Cockburn articles. The first is in the highly esteemed London Review of Books of 2 July and has been repeatedly recommended to me on social media. 

Cockburn in the LRB: slandering the Kurds

The article is not without its merits, including a compelling description of how the ISIS war machine works and how it recruits ordinary Sunni Muslim men. However, it distorts the truth in a number of ways. 

First, Cockburn repeatedly refers to Kurdish sectarian violence. The article opens with the spectacle of Arab and Turkmen refugees fleeing the advance of the Kurdish YPJ/YPG. In fact, numerous observers have testified to Kurdish Rojava hosting large numbers of Sunni, Turkmen, Christian and other refugees who have fled Assad, ISIS or both. Cockburn does not mention a specific instance of ethnic cleansing or eviction, but simply alludes to it happening. Cockburn's only concrete example actually refutes his claim:
as we drove away from the front, we saw a family of Arabs carrying their belongings back to their house in an otherwise deserted village. They waved with exaggerated enthusiasm at our vehicle, as if uncertain about how they would be treated by the victorious Kurds.
An enthusiastic wave is interpreted as fear; returning Arabs to Kurdish-liberated land are somehow meant to tell us Arabs are oppressed by Kurds.

(Cockburn also mentions torture of a Kurdish Sunni Islamist militant at the hands of the Kurdish Regional Government, i.e. the autonomous government of Kurdish Iraq; he doesn't inform his readers that the KRG has absolutely nothing to do with the Syrian Kurds.)

The main thrust of the article is to claim that ISIS is enormously powerful, perhaps invincible, and will be almost impossible to eradicate.

Cockburn: advocate for Assad?

The LRB article barely mentions Assad, apart from this, on a Sunni recruit to ISIS:
He is somebody with a deep hatred of the Assad regime who joined the organisation that was most able to fight against it.
This claim is of course untrue, not only because it ignores the regime's complicity in the rise of ISIS (see above) but the fact that ISIS in turn does not attack the regime. The NBC analysis cited above makes this clear:
Around 64 percent of verifiable ISIS attacks in Syria this year targeted other non-state groups, an analysis of the [JITC] database showed. Just 13 percent of the militants' attacks during the same period — the year through Nov. 21 — targeted Syrian security forces. That's a stark contrast to the Sunni extremist group's operations in Iraq, where more than half of ISIS attacks (54 percent) were aimed at security forces.
Cockburn wrote a follow-up piece in the Saturday Independent. This takes up the story precisely here, with the idea that Assad is the key alternative to ISIS. Cockburn approvingly quotes the Tory Julian Lewis' "choice of evils" nonsense. He presents a superficially "realist" argument for conditional co-operation with Assad to destroy ISIS.

Cockburn does not mention the extent to which Assad's fighting force is depleted and completely dependent on foreign fighters - including regular and irregular Iranian forces and Lebanese Shia forces (including Hezbollah), Afghan fighters from Fatimiyun Brigade and so on; as well as Syrian units now commanded by Iranian officers (mainly from the IRGC). Support for Assad against IS is de facto support for Iran and its proxies. And Iran has been a source of instability and sectarianism in the region for some time, as well as being a regime not much less murderous than IS.

Cockburn's argument is also predicated on the insistence that all Syrian rebels are essentially sectarian Salafi jihadists little better than ISIS and that Sunni sectarianism is their key driver and therefore all non-Sunnis rally to Assad. The imposition of a matrix of sectarianism ("ancient tribal rivalries") is a staple of Western orientalist simplification of the politics of the Middle East.

Cockburn's narrative systematically erases the tenacious persistence of non-jihadist rebel groups, who are gaining ground on some fronts. His narrative systematically erases the support of sizable numbers of Allawites and other minorities for rebel groups and for the Kurds (see note below). His narrative systematically erases the existence of resilient Kurdish resistance to both Assad and jihadism, as well strengthening co-operation between the Kurds and Sunni groups. His narrative is essentially dishonest.


Tuesday, July 07, 2015

7/7 Ten Years On

As a London resident, I took the 7/7 attacks personally. 

I had moved to London in 1991, during a period of intense IRA bomb attacks on London. Later in the 1990s, as the Irish Troubles moved towards their uneasy Good Friday resolution and the bombing slowed, I watched London relax, loosen its tension. 

On 7 July 2005, four bombs heading to the four compass points from the transport nexus of Kings Cross, which so many Londoners pass through each day, destroyed that. The attacks were attacks on Britain as a liberal democracy, but also on London as a messy, mongrel, cosmopolitan city. 

The responses to the bombing, and especially extraordinary acts of quiet heroism from ordinary people, showed us the best of London. 

The mayor, Ken Livingstone, by video link from Singapore, where he was fronting our 2012 Olympic bid, gave a speech which captured so well what most Londoners felt. Early in the speech, he said this:
This was not a terrorist attack against the mighty and the powerful. It was not aimed at Presidents or Prime Ministers. It was aimed at ordinary, working-class Londoners, black and white, Muslim and Christian, Hindu and Jew, young and old. It was an indiscriminate attempt to slaughter, irrespective of any considerations for age, for class, for religion, or whatever... 
And he concluded:
Finally, I wish to speak directly to those who came to London today to take life.
I know that you personally do not fear giving up your own life in order to take others - that is why you are so dangerous. But I know you fear that you may fail in your long-term objective to destroy our free society and I can show you why you will fail. 
In the days that follow look at our airports, look at our sea ports and look at our railway stations and, even after your cowardly attack, you will see that people from the rest of Britain, people from around the world will arrive in London to become Londoners and to fulfil their dreams and achieve their potential. 
They choose to come to London, as so many have come before because they come to be free, they come to live the life they choose, they come to be able to be themselves. They flee you because you tell them how they should live. They don't want that and nothing you do, however many of us you kill, will stop that flight to our city where freedom is strong and where people can live in harmony with one another. Whatever you do, however many you kill, you will fail.
7/7 helped change my attitude to the security arm of the state. As a libertarian, I had been antagonistic to all forms of policing and surveillance. I remain suspicious, but knowing how little stands between me (and my family) and terrorist attacks has led me to feel that civil liberties might not always be as important as I thought.

In the days after the attacks, we saw the incompetence and casual racism that led to the killing by police of Jean Charles de Menezes, one of those people who came to London to be themselves. And we saw a liberal community that seemed to care more about his single death than the 52 killed by the terrorists.

We saw even the Sun newspaper acknowledging the multicultural, multi-faith reality of the victims, with the face of Shahara Islam being one of the iconic symbols of the awful attack. And we saw bigots calling for and carrying out revenge attacks on ordinary Muslims, or on people they thought might be Muslims.

I had only recently started blogging, and the politics of these contradiction helped define the project of this blog. The religiously rooted fascist, anti-human, anti-democratic, anti-urban and anti-multicultural ideology behind the 7/7 attacks needs to be fought literally, but it also needs to be fought politically.

And sometimes the hardest and most important political struggle is not with the jihadi fascists themselves, but with the varieties of leftist, liberal and "realist" thought which explain away, apologise for, negotatiate with or accommodate to terrorist ideology.

We need a politics that defends what the terrorists sought to destroy, that celebrates our profane freedoms. A politics that brings communities together around our common stake in the future and our children's future. A politics that neither rushes to blame the other, nor attempts to explain away evil through moral relativism or vulgar materialism. A politics that sees the moral outrage in terrorism, but also understands the need to analyse the context in which terror thrives. A politics that takes seriously the open question of how much freedom can we let go of in order to defend freedom. In short, a difficult politics.

Thursday, June 25, 2015

Far right violence from Charleston to Mold Tesco

Last week saw the horrific attack by Dylann Roof on a black church in Charleston. There has been lots of debate about whether his actions should be named "hate crimes" or "terrorism" or not, which I won't comment on, except to say that the far right, in its various guises, has killed quite a lot of people in America in the past decade. Depending how you count it, there have been well over a hundred incidents of multiple homicide or attempted multiple homicide - see, from different political perspectives, reports by the ADL, SPLC and PRA.

One of the reasons these incidents tend to get classed as "hate crime" rather than "terrorism" is that they are typically carried out by "lone wolves", often "self-radicalised" rather than networked. But typically they have made connections - sometimes online, but often face-to-face - with far right groups. It is far right ideology, not (just) visceral racist hate, that inspires them to mass murder.*

Worth noting is that conspiracy theory, and almost always antisemitic conspiracy theory, rather than racial prejudice, that is usually at the heart of their ideology (as John-Paul Pagano shows here, exposing the antisemitic conspiracism central to Dylann Roof's worldview, in which blacks are the manipulated pawns of Jews, the real enemy).**

Although Fox News and its ilk like to portray the left as full of hate, there have only been a small number of comparable left-wing attacks in the last decade or so: Joseph Andrew Stack and Lee Malvo, and earlier Ted Kaczynski, the eco-primitivist Unabomber.*** It's striking, though, that their worldviews were conspiracist too, and that they shared more memes with survivalists and fringe right groups such as the militia movement and sovereign citizens than with the socialist far left.

British liberals like to chuckle and sneer at American political wackiness, but this is a British problem too. This week we have seen the trial of Zack Davies, Britain's would-be Dylann Roof, who carried out a machete attack in a Tesco's supermarket in Mold, on a Sikh man he thought was Muslim, attempting to behead him as Lee Rigby was beheaded. Thankfully, a former soldier bravely intervened and saved Dr Bhambra's life.

Davies is not the first. Since David Copeland's nail-bombings at the end of the last century, we've had Robert Cottage, Martyn Gilleard, Nathan Worrell, Neil Lewington, Pavlo Lapshyn, Ryan McGee. In 2013, the Home Secretary
disclosed that one in ten cases referred to a Home Office scheme to stop youngsters being caught up in terrorism related to the Far Right. Seventeen right-wing extremists are serving prison sentences linked to terrorism, including a man who built up the biggest arms cache uncovered recently in Britain, two men convicted of preparing to use home-made poison in an attack and another jailed for circulating terrorist literature.
For some reason, these attacks are not newsworthy in Britain in the way Islamist terrorist attacks are, which is why many of the names I've listed might not ring a bell.

Again, most of these British attackers are "lone wolves" - but most have connected to far right organisations. McGee, for example, had a mum who was active in the EDL.

Zack Davies was connected with a particularly unsavoury far right group, National Action.**** Matthew Collins writes about him and his NA connection here. While Davies thought his victim was Muslim, the heart of National Action ideology (paralleling Dylann Roof) is conspiracist antisemitism.

Davies also admired ISIS in a twisted way, and at his trial clearly emphathised with Lee Rigby's killers even as he claimed he wanted to avenge Rigby's death. This is not so surprising: Davies' fascism mirrors jihadi Islamism in many ways. It is disappointing that many anti- and "counter"-jihadis fail to take the far right seriously, just as many anti-fascists fail to take Islamism seriously.


Saturday, June 06, 2015

On Jewish privilege

The term "Jewish privilege" has been circulating around the identity politics scene, and specifically among Jewish leftists, for some time now - at least since 2010 when deployed particularly ickily by the Canadian Jewish-born Jennifer Peto and by Leah Berkenwald who said Jews need to "own" their Jewish privilege, whatever that means.

The concept draws on the concept of "white privilege" (which ultimately comes from WEB DuBois' insight into the "public and psychological wage" that white workers got by virtue of their whiteness in the Reconstruction period), but subverts it by saying that Jews, not being "people of color", are privileged in the system of white supremacy. This dear, sweet self-flagellating member of the 1%, for example, thinks that being Jewish is part of his privilege that he needs to check.

Maybe I'll write more one day about this, but now I'm not going to go into why I think it's a completely ridiculous line of argument, as that's been done brilliantly by my comrade Disillusioned Marxist already, as has Adam Levick from the opposite end of the political spectrum. (Of course, many Jews are positioned as white in this racist world and therefore do experience many of the "wages" of whiteness -- but not as Jews.)

What I want to note here instead is how the idea has travelled.

Wednesday, June 03, 2015

Morris Beckman z''l

I was very sad to read today of the passing of Morris Beckman, a great anti-fascist, mentsh and citizen historian.

Photo credit to Janette Beckman -
Dan Carrier's obituary of him is nicely titled "Morris Beckman fought fascism, home and away". Here's some of it:
WHEN Morris Beckman returned to London at the end of the Second World War, having risked his life as a radio operator on ships crossing oceans filled with U-Boats, he was disgusted to see British fascists peddling their views on the streets of Camden. Morris, who passed away this week aged 94, would not stand idly by as the far right made speeches and sold pamphlets that denied the Holocaust. Instead, he and other Jewish ex-servicemen set up the 43 Group – an organisation that fought fascists on post-war London’s streets.

Morris was born in Hackney in 1921. He had tried to join the RAF in 1939 but was turned down – instead he learned Morse code and became a radio operator on ships making the dangerous Atlantic crossings. During the Battle of the Atlantic in 1942, two of his ships were torpedoed.  
Morris went into the clothing trade after the war, running a menswear business until the 1970s. In the 1980s, he turned his hand to writing, documenting his life in the Merchant Navy and the 43 Group. Books included The Hackney Crucible, The Jewish Brigade: An Army With Two Masters, Flying The Red Duster and Atlantic Roulette. In his 1992 book The 43 Group, he wrote of the shock servicemen felt when they saw the doctrine they had defeated in Europe still alive in Britain.

He recalled how he was moved to act after he and his cousin Harry Rose watched a fascist rant on the corner of Star Street in Kilburn. Harry had fought with General Wingate behind Japanese lines in Burma.

“He said to me: ‘I’m going to shut that bastard up’,” recalled Morris.
“I calmed him down but we asked ourselves – what is anyone going to do about this?”
They tried lobbying MPs and using lawful means but with no success. Instead, they set about disrupting inflammatory demonstrations by fascists. 
He saw his bravery as merely a twist of fate that put him in extraordinary times and he believed he acted as anyone else would do.
This is from a Guardian piece, with Beckman describing why they set up the 43 Group:
"I had been in the merchant navy, survived two torpedo attacks on the Atlantic convoys, and I came back home to Amhurst Road, Hackney to hugs and kisses. My mother went out to make some tea and my dad said, ' The bastards are back – Mosley and his Blackshirts'."
"The Talmud Torah (religious school) in Dalston had its windows smashed. Jewish shops were daubed 'PJ' (Perish Judah). You heard, 'We have got to get rid of the Yids' and 'They didn't burn enough of them in Belsen'." 
With the Labour home secretary James Chuter Ede refusing to take action and the Jewish establishment urging peaceful protest, the demobbed Jews had had enough.
Famously, Vidal Sassoon was a member. Sandy Rashtry's JC obit explains why it was called the 43 Group:
43 people (38 men and five women) who formed the group at the Maccabi House sports club in Hampstead in 1946. ...[By] 1947 [it] had more than 1,000 members in London, Manchester, Birmingham, Leeds and Newcastle....
“We were one of the very few groups of diaspora Jews who took a stand against Jew-baiting by fighting it instead of passively accepting the situation.” 
He said: “Make no mistake. Mosley was very well connected with the upper echelons of British society. If Hitler had succeeded in invading Britain, there were powerful people in double-breasted suits who would have pinned swastikas on their velvet lapels and supported the deportation of British Jews.”
Paul Stott writes:

Graeme Kennedy and Andrew French's Unfinished War:

Watch his 2010 talk in Bristol on the secret war against the fascists. Listen to an interview at Last Hours.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Kurdish resource page

This page is a list of links to commentaries, mainly from left and anarchist perspectives, on the situation in Kurdish lands. I have tried to follow some of the complex arguments circulating, many of which I have not made up my mind about, and I have also noticed considerable confusion. Along with the understandable ignorance, we are of course dealing with disinformation and willful ignorance (e.g. last week I noticed a lot of social media chatter about "PKK-Peshmerga" being terrorists equivalent to ISIS...) So, while arranging my own thoughts, I thought I would publish this list of resources to help you arrange yours.

In case it is helpful, here are the key players. The PKK (Kurdistan Workers' Party, led by Abdullah Öcalan) has on and off been in a state of insurgency in the Southeast of Anatolia or Turkish (Northern) Kurdistan. The KRG (Kurdish Regional Government) is an autonomous sub-state making up most of Northern Iraq or Iraqi Kurdistan, with its capital in Erbil, ruled by a coalition of president Barzani's centre-right KDP and Jalal Talabani's more left-wing PUK. The armed forces of the KRG are known as the Peshmerga. The PYD (Democratic Union Party) is an affiliate of the PKK which (in coalition with the KNC, Kurdish National Council, an alliance of other Kurdish groups sponsored by Barzani's KRG) governs Northern Syria or Syrian (Western) Kurdistan, known as Rojava. Rojava has been effectively autonomous since 2012, in revolution against Assad's Ba'athist regime in Damascus. Its armed forces are the YPG/YPJ (People's Protection Units - male and female respectively). There is also Iranian Kurdistan, but that's not really relevant to our story. All of these proper nouns are rendered differently in different translations of Kurdish and other languages; I have used the most common. It is worth noting that the Kurds are far from homogeneous, speaking a number of related Indo-Iranian languages and dialects (mostly but not all written in Roman script), and practising a range of religions (most are Sunni Muslims but there are also Shia Muslims, Yazidis, the Yarsan, Alevis,Christians and Jews).

The best single resource on the region, and especially on Rojava, that I have seen is that of the Irish-based anarchist Andrew Flood here. His introduction is worth reading first. In that he summarises what is at stake and the issues that have become contentious in the wake of the Da'esh assault on the Kurdish town of Kobane.

For me, as an internationalist, my bottom line is solidarity with the Kurdish people, who have been oppressed in all the nation-states amongst whom their land is cleft, and who bear the brunt of the genocidal advance of Da'esh (Islamic State or ISIS). This means solidarity with their heroic fighting forces, the YPG/YPJ, who are analogous to the French Résistance or the Republican militias of the Spanish civil war. My strong instinct is that our governments in the West should be helping them out too. The political and also social revolution in Rojava, unfolding alongside and partly within the Syrian revolution, is also incredibly inspiring, and many of the links below describe why, including (apparently) forms of direct democracy and a revolution in gender relations.

The role of the PYD in that revolution stands further analysis though. On the one hand, the heritage of the PKK is the most authoritarian tradition of the nationalist left (a purist form of Marxism-Leninism influenced by Mao) and marked by an unpleasant Stalinist-style cult of personality around Öcalan. On the other hand, Öcalan and his party appear to have gone through a significant political evolution in the last decade, adopting a form of libertarian socialism heavily influenced by the late Murray Bookchin, theorist of libertarian municipalism. This libertarian turn has encouraged parts of the global anarchist movement to embrace the cause of Rojava, while a more sternly purist anti-nationalist left communism continues to be suspicious. That is one of the key faultlines; the other is the question of Western intervention.

In the links below, I rely heavily on Andrew Flood's link list, and where it says AF I am directly quoting him, but with some minor typographical edits and some added hyperlinking. There are also several resources here, collected in January 2015 for Libcom. Texts by Kurdish anarchists are here. Other resources can be found at Tahrir-ICN. It is also worth noting that although anarchist-like Kurdish movements have received a great deal of attention in the anarchist scene, Syrian anarchists seem to have been less noticed, although they played a central role in the 2011 revolution; read about them here.

The Rojava revolution

A mountain river has many bends: an introduction to the Rojava revolution

This zine is an excerpt from the book A Small Key Can Open A Large Door, published in March 2015 by Strangers In A Tangled Wilderness. The full book collects this introduction together with numerous interviews, public statements, firsthand accounts, and other articles that help give context to the struggle in Rojava. The book is available from Combustion Books (, its distributor AK Press (, and major book retailers.

Stefan Bertram-Lee: Dear Mr. Anarchist, You Aren’t Listening (April 2015)

A reply to "Dear Cheerleaders, we need to have a chat about imperialism" about libertarian communist dialogue and criticism in regards to the Rojava revolution and anti-imperialism.
"The Rojava revolution does not need the permission of Western Anarchists to be able to succeed, it does not need us one way or the other... The only people this argument is important for is ourselves. In the west we have failed, while in Chiapas and Rojava a social revolution has occurred. We need to examine our tactics and our methods, and compare them to the PYD and EZLN, and see where we have gone wrong and where they have gone right. We cannot win by fighting as if the territory we are fighting on is the United States prior to WWI, or Spain prior to WWII, the same old tired Anarcho-Syndicalism will not win in the 21st Century. Subcomdanate Marcos says that when he first went to Chiapas all he could do was talk, and not listen, and so he failed. The peasants did not listen to those who could only talk. It is only when he learnt to listen that he was able to move forward, and this lesson is one that must be learnt by all Western Anarchists. We are not winning, and we need to listen to those who are."
The Rojava resistance: rebirth of the anticapitalist struggle - Salvador Zana (April 2015)
An article by Salvador Zana, a volunteer with YPG in Rojava.

Zaher Baher: Anarchist Eyewitness to self-management in Kurdish Syria / West Kurdistan (July 2014)
"Written a few months before the ISIS assault attracted attention this report from a Kurdish anarchist is a great introduction to the region, what is happening and a critical if very sympathetic examination of the reasons why." -AF

The embedded audio above is a recording of Zaher Baher of the Kurdistan Anarchists Forum speaking at the 2014 London Anarchist Bookfair about the two weeks he spent in Syrian Kurdistan in May 2014, looking at the experiences of self-management in the region, experiments that have become more widely discussed as the result of the defense of Kobane against ISIS. Zaher is also a member of Haringey Solidarity Group." - AF

Joseph Daher: On the Syrian Revolution and the Kurdish Issue (April 2014)
"An interview with Syrian-Kurdish activist and journalist Shiar Nayo who while very critical of the PKK/PYD still sees the experiement as worthwhile. It's also very useful at providing some context of the relationship with Syria, the Assad regime and the other rebel movements." - AF [Arabic original]

Rojava Our World: Syria's secret revolution (video, November 2014)
"BBC documentary that makes for a very useful introduction - Out of the chaos of Syria’s civil war, mainly Kurdish leftists have forged an egalitarian, multi-ethnic mini-state run on communal lines. But with ISIS Jihadists attacking them at every opportunity — especially around the beleaguered city of Kobane, how long can this idealistic social experiment last?" - AF

Zafer Onat: Rojava: Fantasies & Realities
"Brief piece that does a good job of quickly outlining both the limited goals of the Rojava revolution and the limitations of the reality of rebellion in the specific economic and social conditions. That it is written as a vehicle to argue for a anarchist international is a little jarring, not least because there is more than one of them already."  - AF

Nedcla Acik: Kobane: the struggle of Kurdish women against Islamic State (22 October 2014)
"Introduction to a 40 page PDF report from a recent delegation to the region that provides a useful summary if one from a position obviously sympathetic to the PKK influence." - AF

Rojava: Syria's Unknown war
"Vice documentary from September of 2013 when the YPG/J had launched a counteroffensive against ISIS. Includes footage of a 4km section of border where the Turkish army removed barbed wire to facilitate ISIS recruits crossing the border. Some interesting footage & interviews with militias on the front line who are described as consisting of local farmers."-AF

The constitution of the Rojava Cantons
"As can be seen this important document is radical republican with a built in social democratic leaning but not anarchist or anti-capitalist." - AF

Adam Curtis: Anarchy in Kurdistan
"Curtis blogs the meeting of Ocalan & Bookchin and the influeces around them. Quite a useful quick history of the PKK." - AF

Rafael Taylor: The new PKK: unleashing a social revolution in Kurdistan (August 17 2014)
"Useful explanation of the adoption of Bookchin's ideas by the PKK under Öcalan's direction and a brief sketch of their implementation in Northern Kurdistan (but that may be drawn from the 'Democratic Autonomy in North Kurdistan' interviews rather than confirming them?)"-AF

Dilar Dirik on "Stateless Democracy" at the New World Summit
"I like her stressing of the importance of the social transformation of society by the women's movement over time--something that I think gets diminished a bit when so much emphasis by the left gets placed on to what degree communal property has been instituted in Rojava and to what extent the PKK is suppressing, tolerating or dealing with the KDP. (video 2, video 3) (via Flint)" - AF

Interview with the Kurdistan Anarchists Forum (KAF) about the situation in Iraq/Kurdistan
"This includes some discussion of anarchist influences in the PKK and how seriously they should be taken."

An Anarchist Communist Reply to ‘Rojava: An Anarcho-Syndicalist Perspective
This text is a response to the article Rojava: An Anarcho-Syndicalist Perspective by K. B., recently published on the Ideas and Action website of the North America-based Workers Solidarity Alliance (WSA). In the article, there is an attack on the Rojava revolution in the Middle East, an event in which the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) has played a key role.

Sardar Saadi: Rojava revolution: building autonomy in the Middle East (July 25, 2014)
"Kurdish rebels are establishing self-rule in war-torn Syria, resembling the Zapatista experience and providing a democratic alternative for the region."


Ocalan on Democratic Confederalism
PDF pamphlet were Ocalan lays down his concepts, drawing on Bookchin.

A nation state is not the solution but rather the problem - Abdullah Öcalan

Article by imprisoned Kurdish Workers Party (PKK) leader Abdullah Öcalan, arguing against nationalism but instead for "democratic confederalism". However we want to point out the gulf which exists between his words and the still essentially nationalist practice of the PKK in reality, discussed here, not to mention the abuse of female members in the Party, including by Ocalan himself, so we reproduce this article for reference only.

Bookchinite commentary

Janet Biehl'Poor in means but rich in spirit'

David Graeber'No. This is a Genuine Revolution'

Critiques of the PKK/PYD

Libcom has several critical pieces, collected here. Here are some.

Dear Cheerleaders, we need to have a chat about imperialism (April 2015) 

"On the process of change in Northern Syria often called the Rojava revolution, the PYD as proponent of the process, and its alliance with Western imperialist powers."

Juraj KatalenacPKK, Democratic Confederalism, and Nonsense

A critical text about PKK and the “Democratic Confederalism” from militants who mainly express themselves in Croatian and gave to their structure the name Svjetska Revolucija (“World Revolution”). 

‘I have seen the future and it works.’ – Critical questions for supporters of the Rojava revolution

"Almost a 100 years ago, the US journalist, Lincoln Steffens visited the Soviet Union and proclaimed: ‘I have seen the future and it works.’[1] Ever since then, leftists have continued to delude themselves, not only about the Soviet Union, but about China, Cuba, Nicaragua, Venezuela and elsewhere. After a century of such delusions it is crucial that we don’t hesitate to ask critical questions of every revolution – even if that revolution is being threatened by a brutal counter-revolution."

Alex De JongStalinist caterpillar into libertarian butterfly? The evolving ideology of the PKK

1. Roots of the PKK
2. People’s War
3. Creating the ’new man’
4. Serok Apo
5. A revolution of women
6. Democratic Civilization
7. Whatever happened to socialism?
8. Potent vagueness

On David Graeber: 'Victory in Kobane. What next in the Rojava revolution?’

Anarchist Federation statement on Rojava: December 2014
The Anarchist Federation looks at the "revolution" in Syrian Kurdistan, and the role of the PKK and compares the reality with the rhetoric.

The battle of Kobane

The defence of Kobane - anarchist reportage from WSM
"When the Turkish anarchist group DAF announced some of its members were heading to Kobane I started to pay much more attention to what what happening. This included writing quick reports for the WSM Facebook page during the first weeks of the siege that presented a political analysis of the events that were emerging from the resistance. The link will bring you to a Facebook album that collects those reports as each was intially posted as the caption of an image, now collected into this album."-AF

WSM: Tell Us Lies About Kobanê -unpicking the demand for Turkish & western intervention (9 October 2014)
"The notion that the fall of Kobanê could be prevented by the intervention of the Turkish army is a smokescreen that covers the truth that they are already intervening - on the side of ISIS. The Turkish state's selective blockade of the border, which allows arms and volunteers to cross for ISIS, but strangles them for the YPG defenders of Kobanê is the decisive intervention that is giving ISIS the upper hand."-AF

Anarchists join fight against IS to defend Kurdish autonomous areas (October 2014)

Taken from a report by the French Anarchist weekly paper Alternative Revolutionaire, this short article gives a taste of developments on the ground in the fight against Islamic State.

Kobane’s Second Phase: Resistance (March 2015)
Text from the Kurdish anarchists of KAF. (Also here.)

Leila Al Shami: The struggle for Kobane: an example of selective solidarity (October 2014)

"The heroic resistance of the people of Kobane in fighting the onslaught of the Daesh (ISIS) fascists since mid-September, has led to a surge of international solidarity. A multitude of articles and statements have been written and protests have been held in cities across the world. Kurds have flooded across the Turkish border to help their compatriots in the fight despite being brutally pushed back by Turkish forces, and others including Turkish comrades from DAF (Revolutionary Anarchist Action) have gone to the border to support in keeping it open to help the flood of refugees escaping to Turkey. There have been calls to arm Kurdish forces and calls to support DAF and send aid for refugees. Yet this solidarity with Syria’s Kurds has not been extended to non-Kurdish groups in the country that have been fighting, and dying, to rid themselves of fascism and violent repression and for freedom and self-determination. It’s often said incorrectly, that sectarianism lies at the heart of the Syrian conflict. It’s necessary to understand to what extent sectarianism plays a role in our response too."
Ali Bektaş: Rojava: a struggle against borders and for autonomy (July 24, 2014)

As ISIS lays siege on the autonomous Kurdish enclave of Kobanê, thousands of Kurds try to break down the Turkish-Syrian border to join their comrades.


ISIS Jihadism and Imperialism in the post Arab Spring period- an anarchist analysis (Audio & Video)
Following on from the rapid spread of Isis in Iraq & Syria Paul Bowman presented an update intended to inform on the contemporary politics of Jihadism and its entanglement with regional and global imperialist power plays.

WSM: Origins of the hostility and the split between Al Qa’ida and ISIS (17 September 2014)
An anarchist perspective: "Geo-strategically the Al Qa’ida leadership (Azzam, bin Laden, Zawahiri) are products of the Cold War, specifically the Afghan Mujahidin war against the USSR. Rather like their American neo-con previous employers, Al Qa’ida view the end of the Cold War as a victory over the USSR by their own side. The Al Qa’ida perspective is that, having “defeated” one superpower, the global jihad now needs to turn its offensive against the remaining superpower. Al Qa’ida worry that the Zarqawists of ISIS may be restricting the struggle to a parochial Mesopotamian sectarian struggle that could fail to engage Muslim jihadists around the world, outside the MENA region, say in West Africa or Indonesia and the Philippines where the US is a more credible #1 enemy than Iran.

North Kurdistan (Turkey)

Kurdish Communalism
2011 piece by Janet Biehly interviewing Kurdish activist Ercan Ayboga about who the Kurds are, the background of the PKK and the Democratic Autonomy process.

Democratic Autonomy in North Kurdistan By TATORT Kurdistan, trans Janet Biehl
Book length examiniation of 'Democratic Autonomy' in a couple of parts of 'Turkish' Kurdistan based around interview by members of a solidarity group who briefly vistited the area in 2011. Clearly from a PKK sympatheic perspective but alsol a useful source in terms of understanding the idealised structures and methods of 'Democratic Autonomy' and the real world problems of implementation.