Discovering Syria’s 'real revolution': In conversation with PYD co-chair Salih Muslim

Campaigner Sarah Glynn interviews Salih Muslim of Rojava's Democratic Union Party about democracy, the one per cent and a ‘third way’

SCOTLAND has just received a first visit from Salih Muslim, co-chair of the Democratic Union Party (PYD), the main political party in Rojava, the majority Kurdish autonomous region in North Syria. 

He spoke at large public meetings in Glasgow and Edinburgh as a guest of Scottish Solidarity with Kurdistan and Edinburgh University Kurdish Society, and he met MSPs at the Scottish Parliament - where Ross Greer has co-ordinated the establishment of a new cross-party group on Kurdistan. 

In these dark political times, Rojava provides a source of hope, not just for its brave resistance against Daesh, but also for its bold and popular experiment in grassroots democracy. I interviewed Salih Muslim about this evolving political system for Commonspace.

The Kurds had a long history of political organisation and engagement with radical political theory, so when the uprising against Assad’s autocratic government began in 2011 they were able to take effective control over large parts of Rojava. 

First, a bit of background.

The area inhabited by the Kurds is split between Turkey, Iraq, Syria and Iran. Rojava, the Syrian bit, means Western Kurdistan and has a population of 3-3.5 million. The majority are Kurds but there are also many other ethnic groups, including Arabs, Syriacs and Turkmen. 

Under the Assad regime there was a policy of Arabisation and non-Arab cultures were supressed. The Kurds had a long history of political organisation and engagement with radical political theory, so when the uprising against Assad’s autocratic government began in 2011 they were able to take effective control over large parts of Rojava. 

By 2012 they had established an autonomous grassroots democratic structure that emphasised women’s equality and involvement of all ethnicities. But they had barely begun to get the new system up and running when they came under attack from the Salafists, and especially Daesh, which received crucial backing from Turkey. 

Rojava broke onto the wider Western consciousness when Kobani became the Stalingrad of the Middle East as the Kurds demonstrated the power of organised solidarity in the vital defence of their land and freedom.

Read more – Sarah Glynn: What Scotland can learn about democracy from Syrian Kurdistan

US planes bombed Daesh positions as part of a strategic anti-Daesh alliance, but the Kurds are under no illusions that the US has any sympathy with a radical socialist-inspired democracy, which is also regarded as an enemy by Turkey, its Nato ally. 

Turkey has now sent its own forces into Syria to prevent Rojava’s democratic system spreading to the whole area, and to prevent the Kurds closing the gap through which Turkey and its Salafist friends exchange oil, Islamist fighters and other support. 

While they can’t ignore the military achievements of the Rojava fighters – the male YPG and female YPJ – none of the parties now fighting over Syria see it as in their interests to promote this radical experiment in equality, or even to allow Rojavan representatives a place at the negotiating table for any peace talks. 

Even the Kurdish Regional Government in Iraq maintains strong economic ties with Turkey and regards Rojava as a threat, and it makes it very difficult for people or goods to get in or out. 

By 2012 they had established an autonomous grassroots democratic structure that emphasised women’s equality and involvement of all ethnicities.

Rojava can’t export its oil or bring in essential supplies, so reconstruction of the war damaged areas is slow. In Kobani, which was 80 per cent destroyed, some families are still living in tents two years on, and even publishing new school books has taken longer than it should.

Despite all of this, the people of Rojava hope that their democratic model will spread and be taken up by other areas of Syria and beyond. They see this as a solution - indeed the only solution - to the current divisions. 

And when it comes to protecting what he described as Syria’s "real revolution", Salih Muslim made it clear to his audience in Edinburgh that although they are surrounded by hostile forces, the people of Rojava have demonstrated that they have the unity and organisation to resist any attempt to take over their land or impose external control over their democratic revolution. 

Indeed, he argued that it was the democratic revolution that had made the successful resistance possible, and he was confident – to coin a phrase – that the people united would never be defeated.

I met Salih Muslim in the Kurdish Centre in Wester Hailes, and I began by asking him to describe the key points of 'democratic confederalism'.

Federalism is different from one country to another ... What we are proposing – and of course at the end the people will decide how it should be – [but] it’s our belief that Syria cannot return back as a despotic country and dictatorship.

Ethnically and beliefwise there are very many diversities, you cannot keep them together - only one formula for that, which is decentralisation, we call it federalism.

Can you describe how the grassroots democracy works that you’re setting up in Rojava?

We were enforced to implement this grassroots democracy. It’s our ideas also. Instead of the democracy coming from the top, people should believe [in] what they are doing. They should find [it] themselves. 

If somebody [is] taking the decision for them, well maybe this is not complete democracy. We were facing a lot of problems and the only solution was this radical democracy, because if you have any problem anywhere you have good people over there. You go to the people, say 'how we should solve it?'. Please do it. And they decide and you just do what they want from you. Any solution for any problem facing the society, make the society decide what you do.

Does this also involve decisions on taxing, on how to fund the decisions that are made?

Exactly. The grassroots democracy’s coming from the bottom for all the people. They select their representatives, the committees, the communes, and at the top you have law makers.

So the decisions on taxing are taken a bit higher up the chain?

Yes

We can all admire the emphasis on democratic process and how it’s learnt from the failures of the more bureaucratic centralised systems that we’ve seen in the past, but the question is how you get to that position. Would it have been possible in Rojava without the table raza that was created by the war…

I think the main thing [is] for the people to be educated. They’re learning to trust themselves. They can do many things. Boxes for the elections is not democracy, but if you start from the bottom and at the first stage they can do work for their village and then for their province and so on, they feel that they are deciding the things, so they get more encouraged. 

Before everything, education’s very important to teach the people how to implement their rights of decision.

And it’s something that’s been discussed for many years in Rojava.

Of course, theoretically, we were discussing that a lot of the time, but, practically, we were in this war, there were no other ways.

If you were to try and implement a system like that here, the people might make very good decisions, but there’s all those other structures that are telling us what we should think and do – and they get in first.

I don’t know how you can do it with living with a system already called democracy, but I think the education can change everything, the education of the people. They can see the differences between somebody deciding instead of them and they are deciding.

We can all admire the emphasis on equality – particularly on gender equality – we see in Rojava, but you seem to have very little to say about class, and I wondered what you are doing to break down existing class hierarchies.

The 20th century everybody was talking about the proletarian, the capitalism and so on, and now everything is changed. You couldn’t find a proletariat as the meaning that was meant by Leninism or by the Marxist ideology.

We’re finding bigger income differences than we’ve seen for decades.

That’s right, but not with the old measures. The capitalism even changed. Before, we thought the imperialism is the United States, which is a state, but now the United States, they are rather just a tool of this capitalism. All the wealth has gone to the one per cent...

So what are you doing about the one per cent in Rojava?

We are thinking of the social economy. The people, they decide what to do for themselves, what is necessary. The banking system is huge, it should be limited in some ways. 

We are not against banking, but this banking should help the people. They should be property of the people themselves.

You haven’t done that yet?

Not yet because it’s a bigger project.

So you’re creating a sort of parallel system with the co-operatives - but you must have a legacy of people who are very wealthy, so are you doing anything to redistribute that wealth?

No, it’s not like that. The Kurdish society especially, people living there, they’re not so wealthy because the big wealth was for the Baath Party, so we are doing everything from the beginning.

But you must have some wealthy families that want to hang onto their wealth and their position and the power that goes with it.

Yes, of course, but they cannot stand against the society because, specially [with] this war, they have lost everything.

So you are building from scratch.

And the people who defended this system, defended this country, defended this land, these people on the ground, they should decide. And the rich people, a lot of them, because they had money, so they are not over there [i.e. Rojava] anymore, because they are afraid.

But if they come back with their wealth?

Well anybody can, but they should respect the people’s will. They are rich - OK, they have money - OK, but this could be used in the country for the benefit of the people.

We talked about land ownership and Salih Muslim explained:

There are problems mainly because there are lands taken from the Kurds [by the Assad regime and] given to some Arabs, still some of them are there. Some of these lands were given to state farms, and these lands now [are] in the hands of the administration and they are trying to make some co-operatives. It is still underway.

We are not against the private lands, private properties, but what we want is private properties to be in kind of coordination with the society.

I asked how they would avoid profiteering by property owners, especially with the shortage of housing:

We are not going to decide everything. If there is a community in any village or any place they decide for themselves what’s convenient. That’s OK. We just follow. So the people will find the ways. 

Their representatives will find the ways for all these complicated things. But, for profits it shouldn’t be personal. One person cannot use all these people for benefit of one person. People wouldn’t accept it, and of course we’ll be beside our people.

Are rents controlled?

Yes, [we have] the People’s House. Most of the representatives of the people come to there. It’s a kind of court for the people so they can bring it and discuss it. They decide.

So they would prevent people exploiting the housing shortage?

That’s right. These people who decide, even they are controlling the administration also.

[Any]body complains about anything, it comes to this house and is discussed. This People’s House is respected by everybody. The common decision, when you have maybe 10, 15 or 20 people deciding, they will decide the right things. It’s not depend[ent] on one person’s mood.

But can they be enforced? Are you punished if you don’t obey those decisions?

Yes, they are in contact with the management. They are in direct contact with the Asayîş [security forces for defending society]. 

For example, there is a kind of court if they want anybody to investigate somebody. If he doesn’t come they just tell the Asayîş to go and bring him. All the institutions, respect what are being decided, and they are in direct contact with the canton administration [Rojava is divided into three cantons]. Everybody respect their decision.

You are co-chair of a political party. I was wondering how political parties function when you’ve also got grassroots democracy. You’ve got democracy coming up from below, which presumably isn’t party based, so how does a political party function in that sort of system?

First of all let me say we are not in power. We are not governing anything as a party.

Maybe some of our members, they can work in some institutions as just ordinary officials but he is a member of the party - and our party members cannot work in the Asayîş, they cannot work in the YPG, the armed forces, also. So we have no power of those decisions.

For each area usually we have the executive committees over there. Maybe one [member] is representing the women’s congress. We have for the martyrs’ families a member, and members from different institutions, including one [from] PYD.

The role [of the PYD] mainly is for political education. You have your own structure, you are educating the people and supervising what’s going on, and you are sharing in the committees. 

In every level there is a committee there is a member of the PYD representing PYD in it. They are talking about our vision, our ideas.

There are some other parties also, they can share in these committees also as the political section of this structure.

So you see yourselves mainly as a think tank for political ideas?

That’s right. But not in the power sharing. Because now, the lesson we have learned from the regime, they were enforcing anywhere it should be a member of Baathist party, and he decide everything. So we refuse this one. PYD doesn’t decide.

On a more personal note, have you been involved in politics all your life? How did you get involved yourself and end up as co-chair of the PYD?

It’s a long story, because if you are living in the society, and you find all this politics affecting your society, so you have to look for the reasons for that. 

And everything, I believe now, the piece of bread you eat, is mixed with some politics, so you have to look at the source of these problems for your society. And when you are young and open minded you look for the solution for it. 

So this is the way I was interested in the politics from the beginning. And then, after graduation from the university I went to Saudi Arabia for work as a chemical engineer for 12 years. After the 1990s I came back to Syria. 

I was involved in the society, so when there are problems, you have to be involved, you have to look for some ways. And during this you find some people think like you, so you come together. And then there were many attempts to establish a kind of organisation. 

Then we agreed to establish this PYD in 2003, and we are continuing now.

Did you know Öcalan? [Abdullah Öcalan was exiled in Syria from 1979 to 1998]

Yes, I met him many times. I think it was 1984 I met him the first time, in Damascus, and we were hearing about Rojava and what he [is] thinking, especially the Kurdish community. 

They are interested in each other because we are sharing the same identity. Even the problems are similar, we are looking for freedom of those people…

Could you clarify the relationship between the PYD and the PKK and the HDP as well?

We have now the classical philosophical idea which depends on the nation state, which has failed in the Middle East. And we have modern ideas of philosophy, especially in the Kurdish society, which represented Öcalan’s ideas, his philosophy, his vision for the future of the Middle East.

It’s not only for the Kurdish people but for the others also, so we get the ideas of Öcalan and we adopted according to our society in Rojava. All Kurdish parties, we have good relations with all the parties.

Some of them belong to this philosophy, some of them not. The relations with the PKK are nearer because we have the same philosophies and same ideas, the same sorts of visions for our society. Otherwise, of course, we are different parties.

We are different parts of Kurdistan and societies.

Could you explain what people in Rojava mean when they talk about a 'third way' in Syria?

We were in struggle against the regime since 2004, and then somebody came looking for a religious way, calling for Islamism – so which one? We cannot be with the regime and we cannot be with those people. 

[They are] turning back all the society 2,000 years, and the regime already we are in struggle [with]. We are not with the regime and we are not with those, and we have our own way. We are going to organise ourselves as we want, and the people, our people, will decide what to do.

So this is the way, but it was difficult, because the regime consider you as from them [so with their enemies], and those the other side consider, if you are not with them you are with the regime.

So everybody’s your enemy?

Yes, but actually we were free.

For a detailed discussion of what is happening see Revolution in Rojava: Democratic autonomy and women’s liberation in Syrian Kurdistan by Michael Knapp, Anja Flach and Ercan Ayboga (Pluto Press 2016)

To find out about what is happening in Scotland in support of the Kurdish democratic movement in Syria and also in Turkey, find Scottish Solidarity with Kurdistan on Facebook or email scottishsolidaritywithkurdistan@outlook.com

Picture courtesy of Margaret Gallacher

 

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