The Kurds’ democratic resistance to ISIS demonstrates that anti-fascism cannot be separated from the wider struggle against capitalism, patriarchy and the state.
By Dilar Dirik
It was in the fall of 2014, only months after the so-called Islamic State (ISIS) made massive territorial gains inside Syria and Iraq, committing genocidal and feminicidal massacres, that a powerful, revolutionary silver lining rose from the horizon of the little-known town of Kobane.
Having overrun Mosul, Tel Afar and Sinjar in Iraq, as well as a vast expanse of territories inside Syria since 2013, ISIS prepared to launch an attack on the north of Syria, known by Kurds as Rojava. What it did not anticipate in Kobane was to encounter an enemy of a different kind — an organized, political community that was ready to defend itself courageously by all means, and with a worldview that turns ISIS’ ideology of death on its head.
It was Arîn Mîrkan, a young, revolutionary, free Kurdish woman, who would become the symbol of Kobane’s victory — the city that broke the myth of the undefeatable fascism of ISIS. A fighter of the Women’s Defense Units (YPJ), Arîn Mîrkan detonated herself in October 2014 near the strategically critical Mishtenur Hill to rescue her comrades and to capture the position from ISIS. This eventually shifted the battle in favor of the People’s Defense Forces (YPG/YPJ) and other co-operating armed groups, pushing ISIS onto the defensive. After months of tireless fighting, which moved the US-led coalition to provide aerial military support, Kobane was free.
Almost every day, videos emerge of villagers celebrating their liberation from the grip of ISIS: people dance and smoke their cigarettes for the first time again, men shave their beards with tears of joy, women burn and step on their black veils and chant cries of freedom. In the eyes of the fighters and the organized community in the region, especially women, this epic war was perceived not as an ethnic or religious conflict, but as a historic battle between the concentrated evil of male-dominated statist, capitalist modernity — embodied by the rapist gangs of ISIS — and the alternative of a free life personified by the liberated woman in struggle.
The victory of revolutionary Kobane practically illustrated that the fight against ISIS did not consist merely of weapons, but of a radical rupture with fascism and the underlying frameworks that make it possible. This in turn necessitates radical democratic and autonomous social, political and economic institutions, especially women’s structures that position themselves in flat opposition to the state system of class, hierarchy and domination. In order to liberate society from a mentality and system like ISIS’, anti-fascist self-defense must occupy all areas of social life — from the family to education to the wider economy.
A Product of Capitalist Modernity
There have been many attempts to explain the phenomenon of ISIS and its appeal to thousands of young people, especially considering the brutality of the organization’s methods. Many came to the conclusion that those who live under ISIS often serve the group because of fear or economic rewards. But clearly thousands of people worldwide voluntarily joined the atrocious group not despite, but precisely because of its ability to commit the most unthinkable evils. It seems that it is not religion, but a cruel, merciless sense of power — even at the cost of death — radiating from ISIS that attracts people from across the globe to the extremist group.
Single-factor theories generally fail to consider the regional and international political, economic, social context that enables an anti-life doctrine like that of ISIS to emerge. We must acknowledge ISIS’ appeal to young men, deprived of the chance to be adequate, decent human beings, without justifying the group’s mind-blowing rapist, genocidal agenda or removing the agency and accountability of individuals who commit these crimes against humanity. It is crucial to contextualize the sense of instant gratification in the form of authoritarian power, money and sex that ISIS offers in a cancerous society under patriarchal capitalism, which renders life meaningless, empty and hopeless.
Pathologizing the appeal of ISIS behind the backdrop of the so-called “war on terror,” instead of situating it in the context of wider institutions of power and violence which in interplay generate entire systems of authoritarianism, will not allow us to begin to understand what drives “good boys” from Germany to travel to the Middle East to become slaughterers. And yet ISIS is only the most extreme manifestation of a seemingly apocalyptic global trend. With the recent shift towards authoritarian right-wing politics worldwide, one word — once considered banished from human society forever — has re-entered our everyday lives and our political lexicon: fascism.
Clearly, there are immense differences between the contexts, features and methods of various fascist movements. But when it comes to its hierarchical organization, authoritarian thought process, extreme sexism, populist terminology, and clever recruitment patterns, capitalizing on perceived needs, fears or desires among vulnerable social groups, ISIS in many ways mirrors its international counterparts.
Perhaps we can think of fascism as a spectrum, in which established states on top of the capitalist world-system have the means to reproduce their authority through certain political institutions, economic policies, arms trade, media and cultural hegemony, while others, in reaction, rely on more “primitive” forms of fascism, such as seemingly random extremist violence. There are clear parallels in how fascists everywhere rely on a regime of paranoia, mistrust and fear to strengthen the strong hand of the state. Those who challenge their enemies are labelled “terrorists” or “enemies of God” — any action to destroy them is permissible.
Fascism strongly relies on the complete lack of decision-making agency within the broader community. It is nourished by a climate in which the community is stripped of its ability to initiate direct action, express creativity and develop its own alternatives. Any form of solidarity and any loyalty directed at anything or anyone other than the state must be systematically eradicated, so that the isolated, individualized citizen is dependent on the state and its policing institutions and knowledge systems.
That is why one of the most critical pillars of fascism is capitalism, as an economic system, ideology and form of social interaction. In the value system of capitalist modernity, human relations need to be reduced to mere economic interactions, calculable and measurable by interest and profit. It is easy to see capitalism’s ability to dispose of life in the name of larger interests as running parallel to ISIS’ wasting of lives for the sake of its pseudo-caliphate of rape, pillage and murder.
The Oldest Colony of All
Perhaps most crucially, fascism could never emerge if not for the enslavement of the oldest colony of all: women. Of all oppressed and brutalized groups, women have been subjected to the most ancient forms of institutionalized violence. The view of women as war spoils, as tools in the service of men, as objects of sexual gratification and sites to assert ultimate power persists in every single fascist manifesto. The emergence of the state, together with the fetishization of private property, was enabled above all by the submission of women.
Indeed, it is impossible to assert control over entire populations or create deep-cutting social divisions without the oppression and marginalization of women, promoted in male-dominated history-writing, theory production, meaning-giving practices, and economic and political administration. The state is modelled after the patriarchal family and vice versa. All forms of social domination are at some level replications of the most comprehensive, intimate, direct and harmful form of slavery, which is the sexual subjugation of women in all spheres of life.
Different structures and institutions of violence and hierarchy — such as capitalism or patriarchy — have distinct features, but fascism constitutes the concentrated, inter-related, systematized collaboration between them. And this is where fascism and capitalism, together with the most ancient form of human domination — patriarchy — find their most monopolized, systematic expressions in the modern nation-state.
Previous regimes over the course of history had despotic characters, but always relied on moral codes, religious theologies and divine or spiritual institutions to be seen as legitimate by the population. It is a particularity of capitalist modernity that it sheds all pretentions and claims to morality in relation to law and order, and exposes its obscenely destructive systems for the sake of nothing but the state itself.
Without the hierarchical, hegemonic nature of the state, which monopolizes the use of force, the economy, official ideology, information and culture; without the omnipresent security apparatuses that penetrate all aspects of life, from the media to the bedroom; without the disciplinary hand of the state as God on Earth, no system of exploitation or violence could survive. ISIS is a direct product of both: ancient models of hierarchy and violence, as well as capitalist modernity with its particular mindset, economy and culture. Understanding ISIS — and fascism more generally — means understanding the relationship between patriarchy, capitalism and the state.
Radical Democracy versus Totalitarian Extremism
If the fascist enemy is one that combines patriarchy, capitalism, nationalism, sectarianism and authoritarian statism in its methods and practices, it is clear that a meaningfully anti-fascist struggle must necessarily employ a mentality and ethics that fundamentally opposes the pillars of such systems of violence. The self-defense forces of Rojava attempt to do just that.
Since the liberation of Kobane, the YPG/YPJ have been strengthened in both qualitative and quantitative terms, enabling the fighters to connect two of the three cantons, Jazira and Kobane. In the initial stages of the war, the overwhelming majority of the forces were Kurdish, but the ethnic make-up has changed immensely over time.
In October 2015, the YPG/YPJ joined with a great number of regional forces to create a multi-ethnic coalition. The newly formed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) includes Kurds, Arabs, Syriacs, Assyrians, Chechens, Turkmen, Circassians and Armenians, dedicated to a secular, democratic, federal Syria that will neither accept the dictatorship of Bashar al-Assad, nor foreign-appointed undemocratic oppositions. Although constantly under attack by ISIS and a variety of other enemies — including various Islamist militias, the Syrian Army, the Free Syrian Army and the Turkish state — the SDF successfully liberated ISIS strongholds such as Manbij and Shaddadeh, and currently leads the operation to liberate the so-called capital of ISIS, Raqqa. It controls almost the entire border region south of Turkey, which previously constituted the main supply route for ISIS in terms of logistics, ammunition, finance and manpower.
Turkey has since made it its mission to train Turkmen militias with allegiance to the Turkish state in particular, as well as Sunni forces more generally. The US army constantly stresses that its support for the SDF is for Arabs. Meanwhile, Kurdish forces of the ENKS, close to the Kurdistan Democratic Party of Iraq, led by Massoud Barzanî, attempt to build up a Kurdish army in their own image. Thus, the SDF’s cross-cultural make-up upsets not only forces hostile to Kurdish self-determination, but also narrow Kurdish nationalist projects.
While fighting several fascist enemies at the same time, the SDF merely constitute the physical self-defense system of a wider project to defend society against the statist, capitalist, patriarchal order. Since revolution was declared in Rojava in 2012, tireless efforts have been dedicated to creating a realistic, viable alternative to guarantee a meaningful life for the different communities and groups in the region. The system of Democratic Confederalism in Northern Syria was adopted by a large collective of people from all communities in the region and proposes a model for a secular, democratic, gender-egalitarian, federal Syria, while the local population is mobilizing at the grassroots in the form of radical democratic structures, starting from small street communes.
Through Abdullah Öcalan’s proposed model of Democratic Autonomy, as a practice of direct action in a system of Democratic Confederalism, everyday life in Rojava is organized through the transformation of politics into a vital affair of each inhabitant. By creating alternative forms of social organization through direct self-management and solidarity, safeguarded by autonomous women’s and youth structures, thousands of people have been turned into active, self-determining agents of their own lives.
Radical democracy thus strengthens the ties of solidarity that capitalism tries so aggressively to sever in order to produce the individualized selfish persons it needs for its profit-oriented agenda. Through direct and communal participation in all spheres of life, local people — organized in autonomous, non-statist structures — attain more meaningful senses of self, the wider community and the links between democracy and identity.
In Rojava, there is an intrinsic link between radical democracy and concepts of belonging and identity that take democratic and ethical values as reference points rather than abstract concepts of nationalist myths, on which fascism relies. With the paradigm of the Democratic Nation as an antidote to the nationalism of the state, the protagonists of the revolution in Rojava attempt to formulate an identity around principles rather than ethnicity. This still accommodates the different identities to diversify and secure the democracy of the new unit of belonging. Only such strong communities, based on ethics and politics — a “moral-political society,” in Abdullah Öcalan’s terms — rather than on the meaningless concepts of national identities, can defend themselves against the mental and physical attacks of the fascist enemy.
Radical democracy must therefore necessarily be internationalist in its perspective, while giving all identities the space required to organize and democratize themselves. The creation of the SDF as the self-defense of all components of the region stems from the realization that the time of the nation-state is over and that a free life cannot be constructed by nationalist mindsets if these have been among the causes of the bloodshed. Moreover, the very presence of an autonomous women’s army — unapologetically committed to the liberation of women from all manifestations of male domination — in a sea of militarist, patriarchal violence constitutes the most liberationist, anti-capitalist, anti-fascist element in Rojava. The principles that motivate a woman in a conservative, patriarchal society to be a militant for a just and beautiful world require an immense mental, emotional and physical effort.
It is in fact quite subversive to pick on the ruling symbol of the man in order to smash patriarchy anywhere. But these moves must be accompanied by a broader social revolution. By organizing in cooperatives, communes, assemblies and academies, women managed to become the most vibrant, revolutionary force in Rojava — the guarantors of freedom. While male domination has still not been overcome, women have already established a general political culture that no longer normalizes patriarchy and that unconditionally respects autonomous women’s decision-making mechanisms.
The YPJ underlines that the most direct way of smashing capitalist modernity, religiously-colored fascism, statism and other forms of authoritarianism is women’s liberation. The Wrath of the Euphrates operation to liberate Raqqa, where ISIS still holds thousands of women as sex slaves, is led by none other than a Kurdish woman named Rojda Felat. The scenes of YPJ fighters being hugged and kissed by women who were forced to live under ISIS rule for years, have come to define the history of the twenty-first-century Middle East.
Anti-Fascism Is Internationalism
The public image of the armed forces of Rojava shifted abruptly in the eyes of sections of the left after the liberation of Kobane. While this was undeniably a historic battle, won by an organized community and the power of free women, the widespread sympathy crumbled the very moment that forces on the ground received aerial support from the US-led coalition. Having long been among the most aggrieved victims of imperialism in the Middle East, the Kurds and their neighbors did not require any further enlightenment about the evils of empire. The genocides and massacres committed against them through collaborations of imperialist forces are still in living memory. Dogmatic, binary worldviews and narrow-minded criticisms do not propose any viable alternatives for people fighting for their lives on the ground. More importantly, they do not save lives.
For the people whose families were being massacred by ISIS, the ease with which Western leftists seemed to advocate for the rejection of military aid in favor of romantic notions of revolutionary purity, were incomprehensible to say the least. Advocacy of unconditional anti-imperialism, detached from real human existence and concrete realities, is a luxury that those far removed from the trauma of war can afford. Well-aware of the dangers of being instrumentalized only to be abandoned by great powers like the US and Russia, but stuck between a rock and a hard place, the priority of the SDF was — and remains — to first of all survive and eliminate the most immediate threats to the existence of hundreds of thousands of people across the vast stretches of territory it controls.
While some in the West adopted a realistic attitude of complex, principled solidarity with the SDF, which understands the dimensions on the ground and works within contradictions, others took the alleged “collaboration with imperialism” as a pretext to refuse any form of acknowledgment of positive elements that the revolution in Rojava could propose in a context of war and chaos. Of course, no revolutionary undertaking in the past centuries has been pure or perfect. And the fact that the SDF cannot only fight such a battle but is also held to higher moral grounds than any of the other armed units in the Syrian war is an important check on their war conduct. But the sectarian dogmatism in which much of the Western left remains embroiled — over the question of Syria in general and Rojava in particular — tells us more about the state of the Western left than about the actual realities of the anti-fascist resistance on the ground.
It is easy to reject any form of authority and power when these are far away from the reach of revolutionaries. But it is inescapable to conceptualize revolutionary power — and when necessary, authority — in order to protect millions. It requires bravery and risk-taking to attempt to institutionalize a liberationist system without falling into the traps of authoritarianism. As long as revolutionary undertakings do not eliminate the danger of home-grown authoritarianism, imperialist co-optation and betrayal, hierarchical mentalities, corruption and abuse will prevail.
The governments involved in the war against ISIS contributed to the chaos through their own policies, warfare and arms trade, and they ultimately share a similar mentality to the one that animates ISIS. They can never be the ones to defeat it. ISIS’ main enemies are precisely those who face it with a radically different way of conceiving of life. Defeating authoritarian extremism is only possible through radical democracy and women’s liberation. Within this context, the SDF constitutes one of the most important anti-fascist struggles of our time. It must be supported.
Arîn Mîrkan’s heroic death was a hymn to life, to freedom, to women’s emancipation. Her selfless action out of solidarity with her people and the freedom of women in particular was a heavy blow not only to ISIS, but to the very mentality that underpins global capitalism’s profit-fetishizing individualism. In a world that sexualizes and objectifies the woman, Arîn Mîrkan used her body as a final frontline against fascism.
The battle for Kobane excited the creative imaginary of people worldwide. It illustrated that a politically conscious, organized society — even one with limited means — can defeat the heaviest of weapons, the darkest of ideologies and the most terrifying of enemies. The task of anti-fascists today must be to never surrender the means of resistance to statist and authoritarian institutions, and to re-claim the means of organizing and defending the community. In order to pay tribute to heroic revolutionaries like Arîn Mîrkan, the anti-fascist struggle must mobilize in all areas of life and say:
Êdî bes e — ya basta — enough!
Not this time!
Dilar Dirik is an activist of the Kurdish women’s movement and regularly writes on the freedom struggles in Kurdistan for an international audience.