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Syrian Kurds and their democratic model of ‘Rojava’

Rojava Syrian Kurds Saleh Muslim PYD leader

Big moves are afoot in Rojava, northeast Syria, where the Kurds are battling ISIS on two fronts. It is a clash of ideologies and will be a fight to the death, as Saleh Muslim, the softly spoken President of the PYD, Syria’s most powerful Kurdish faction, told a full house in the Houses of Parliament last night. So many people came, myself among them, that a room treble the size of the planned one had to be found.

Syrian Kurds have been largely invisible and overlooked in the media so far, but this may be about to change. Saleh Muslim’s organization, the PYD (Syrian Kurdish Democratic Union Party), was founded in 2003 to resist the Assad regime. Affliated to the PKK – the Kurdish resistance party in Turkey – the PYD is regarded as a terrorist organisation by the United States, so Saleh Muslim himself has never been granted a visa to visit and put his case. The jailed leader of the PKK, Abdullah Ocalan, last week released a statement for Newroz, the Kurdish New Year, urging his followers to abandon their armed struggle in favour of a political solution. The UK government and the Foreign Office are as usual dithering and at least six months behind the curve.

For when the Assad regime’s army pulled out of the northeast in mid-2012, the Syrian Kurds were given a once in a lifetime chance to start afresh, creating an inclusive society in which all ethnicities and religions are involved – Kurdish and Arab, Syriac, Yazidi, Sunni, Alawi and Shi’a – a society uniquely based on trust. In November 2013 they declared the self-governing region of Rojava, incorporating the three cantons of Afrin, Kobani and Jezira.

rojava map

From their capital Qamishli they now rule through a series of committees all of which are made up of 40% women, with plans for this to rise to 50%. Women are represented throughout, alongside men, even in the fighting groups known as the YPG, the People’s Protection Units, a fighting force of some 50,000 fighters.

rojava female fighters

These are the same fighters who, without fuss or recognition, led the Yazidis to safety via a back route off Mount Sinjar in August 2014, the same fighters who defended their town of Kobani against ISIS. Their struggles against ISIS continue, but less reported, in the canton of Afrin north of Aleppo, and near the city of Hasakeh in Jezira.

rojava yazidis

An academic delegation to Rojava has recently returned, some of whom were also speakers at last night’s open debate. Without exception they declared themselves deeply impressed by what they found, despite the economic problems due to blockaded borders, the lack of electricity, the struggles with lack of medicine and healthcare. Rojava has established a unique democratic model in which all decisions are reached by consensus, in consultation with all groups. So far it is working remarkably well, without infighting, and frankly puts to shame the pretense of democracy in many western countries. The rich Assad regime flunkies ran away in 2012 when the Assad army pulled out, so their land and property has been redistributed.

But if this democratic pluralistic model is to survive in the region, with its emphasis on the inclusion of women at all levels, it will need help. At the moment it is succeeding in its battles against ISIS through sheer will-power and conviction. It is defending its homeland. But Saleh Muslim says he also sees their approach as the right model for the rest of Syria and indeed for the region as a whole. A massive re-education needs to go on, he says calmly, to convince people that this inclusive model is the only way forward, and the West and the international community needs to commit its support rather than standing on the sidelines dithering while thousands die needlessly. In short, there needs to be a coherent strategy, so far lacking in western governments.

rojava mourning deaths

Related articles:

http://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/security/2015/03/syria-pyd-kurds-federalism-middle-east.html

http://www.thenational.ae/world/middle-east/syria-kurds-struggle-since-battle-for-kobani

http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/oct/08/why-world-ignoring-revolutionary-kurds-syria-isis

 

 

 

 

 

How #ISIS misuses early Islamic history to justify its actions

ISIS gangs smashing a priceless 8th C BC Assyrian statue (May 2014, Tell Ajaja, Syria)

ISIS gangs smashing a priceless 8th C BC Assyrian statue (May 2014, Tell Ajaja, Syria)

Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi, leader of ISIS, declared himself ‘Caliph Ibrahim’ in June 2014. Claiming a genealogy traced back to the Prophet Muhammad and his noble tribe the Quraysh, together with a PhD from the Islamic University of Baghdad, his religious credentials are certainly stronger than previous Al-Qaeda leaders.

The caliphate in early Islam was a military and political office, not simply a religious one. The Prophet Muhammad during his lifetime was religious leader, lawgiver, chief judge, commander of the army and civil head of state all in one. ‘Caliph Ibrahim’ is following this model. The Prophet Muhammad died suddenly in 632 leaving no male children. Disputes over who was to be his khalifa or caliph, (Arabic ‘successor’) have been responsible for most of the schisms of Islam, including the major Sunni/Shi’a division. ‘Never was there an Islamic issue which brought about more bloodshed than the caliphate,’ wrote the respected historian Al-Shahrastani (1086-1153) in his Book of Sects and Creeds.

To boost his standing further, ‘Caliph Ibrahim’ appears to be modelling himself on the first four Sunni Orthodox caliphs – Abu Bakr, Umar, Uthman and Ali – known as Al-Rashidoun, ‘the rightly-guided ones’, who succeeded the Prophet Muhammad. Under them the Islamic state expanded within a decade from Arabia to conquer first Syria, then Iraq, Persia, Egypt and beyond. Those early conquests were characterised by military campaigns led by brilliant strategists like Khalid ibn al-Walid and Amr ibn al-Aas, using horses and camels in lightning raids against their enemies – the Byzantines and the Sassanians – whose armies were generally on foot. Today’s ISIS attacks too are characterised by their speed and surprise, always mounted on vehicles, attacking from many sides like a Bedouin ghazwa (raid). Raiding was seen as a noble occupation in early Arabia – much poetry is devoted to its praise. Acquisition of new territories was one of the principal duties of the caliph, and it is to this tenet of jihad (religious war) that Islam owed its fast early growth.

The Prophet Muhammad’s great achievement was to break tribal allegiances and replace them with a new fraternity of Islam: “Know ye that every Muslim is a brother unto every other Muslim, and that ye are now one brotherhood.”  All new converts of whatever tribe, race or nationality were welcomed. The new ‘Caliph Ibrahim’ is using the same tradition to welcome foreign fighters to his fold.

New actors on the world stage like ‘Caliph Ibrahim’ do not come out of nowhere. Conditions have to be right for them to flourish. When the Prophet Muhammad preached the new religion of Islam in what is now Saudi Arabia, anarchy already reigned in the 7th century world around him. Arabia’s political structures had broken down, sapped of energy by never-ending tribal feuds and disputes over springs, pasture and livestock – the bare necessities of life in an arid desert environment.  Long-running wars between the Byzantines and the Persian Sassanians, heavy taxes imposed by both empires and the multiple schisms of the Christian Church paved the way for the rapid advance of the early Muslim armies.

Like the early caliphs, ‘Caliph Ibrahim’s’ conquests have been eased and enabled by the chaotic regional environment. The post-2003 ‘de-Ba’athification’ process carried out by the Americans after deposing Saddam Hussein left an Iraq reeling and beset with government in-fighting. Ripe for harvest, its oilfields beckoned tantalisingly.

Syria’s tragic revolution-turned- civil-war provided the perfect cloak to ISIS ambitions. Under a general amnesty in early 2012, Al-Qaeda-affiliated extremists were released from Assad prisons. Some regrouped with remnants of Al-Qaeda-in-Iraq and organised themselves into what has evolved as ISIS. In March 2013 they captured Al-Raqqa on the Euphrates, 25 miles east of Tabqa, Syria’s largest dam, just as in August 2014 they captured the Mosul Dam, Iraq’s largest, on the Tigris – now wrested back for the time being by the Kurdish peshmerga with the help of US air cover. In Syria ISIS practised its fighting skills, not on the well-equipped Assad army, but on Syria’s Kurds and on the poorly-armed rebel fighters of the Free Syrian Army. ISIS now controls most of Syria’s eastern oilfields, and in Iraq too its strategy involves systematically seizing the northern oil installations, fuelling its wealth. Conservative estimates put ISIS income from oil alone at US$1 million a day. The bearded chiefs have grown rich beyond their wildest dreams.

Thanks to such control of oil and water, new followers flow strongly into the fold. An impoverished population suffering from the effects of drought, unemployment and disenchantment with the powers-that-be, makes fertile recruiting ground. Most of the Prophet Muhammad’s early converts to Islam were slaves and lower classes – people with something to gain. The first caliph Abu Bakr, when recruiting for his armies, wrote to the people of Mecca promising them there was rich booty to be won from the Byzantines. To raise more money from its conquered territories, early Islam also imposed a means-assessed poll tax on Jews, Christians, Sabians (and later Zoroastrians) considered ‘People of the Book’, acknowledged to be monotheists. Only groups like the Yazidis, who were misunderstood as ‘devil-worshippers’, were presented with the stark choice of ‘convert or be killed’. The poor paid a quarter of the rich, while women, children, beggars, the old, the insane and the sick were exempt. ISIS has been taking taxes from towns under its control in Syria since 2013. In Iraq it has been demanding protection money from local business, whilst also presenting a generous face through handing out food, petrol and subsidising electricity.

As well as offering an attractive and powerful identity, ISIS can offer $400-500 a month as regular income to young Sunnis only too happy to believe in a new ideology based on their own supremacy, and in which the Arabian concept of ghanimah, booty, is legitimate.  Sura 8:42 of the Koran says ‘one-fifth of the booty is for God, the Prophet, those close to him, orphans, the poor and the wayfarer’ ie belongs to the state. By implication therefore the rest can be taken by the fighters. Yezidi women and children are legitimate spoils of war in this ideology.

Under the rallying cry of religion, the ISIS of today is driven by motives it sees as sanctioned under Islam – to gain territory, to acquire new converts, and to spread its strict Islamic rule of law – the Shari’a – with punishments like amputation for theft and beheading for apostasy or for non-believers who refuse to convert. It is copying the social mores of 14 centuries ago.

But behind this religious cloak the same economic forces that drove the Prophet Muhammad’s followers and led to his early conquests are driving the speed of ISIS’s advance. Many despairing Syrians and Iraqis who have watched their countries crumble around them are now joining ISIS out of pragmatism, rather than ideology. The attraction of being on the winning side cannot be overestimated. As long as the region remains in disarray, the likelihood is that ISIS will increasingly be seen by many as the only answer – and a rewarding one to boot.

Bombs

 

Iraqi/ISIS/Yazidi conflict is less about religion than about oil, water and power

Yazidi tombstone in southeast Turkey showing the peacock symbol, representing God on earth [DD, May 2014]

Yazidi tombstone in southeast Turkey showing the peacock symbol, representing the Peacock Angel, as God’s interlocutor on earth [DD, May 2014]

Article below as published in The Sunday Times 10 August 2014:

http://www.thesundaytimes.co.uk/sto/news/focus/article1444902.ece

Oil and water, not religion, are fuelling Isis campaign to wipe out minorities

Who could have dreamt that the plight of the secretive Yazidis, stranded without food and water up Mt Sinjar, would suddenly command worldwide attention, let alone lead to US air strikes against the self-styled caliphate of the insurgent group Isis? But the epic, near Biblical scenes of this resilient group of people fleeing up a bare mountain have caught the public imagination.

Look more closely at a map and it becomes clear that this entire region is filled with religious minorities, the remnants of the intermingling of many faiths. For here in the once Fertile Crescent was the birthplace of religion, even the birthplace of civilization itself. Three of the world’s great monotheistic religions were born here – Judaism, Christianity and Islam. It is a deeply spiritual part of the world.

The origins of many of the religions practiced here remain shrouded in obscurity. Yazidi ancestry is Assyrian-Semitic but over the centuries they are thought to have moved north from Basra and become Kurdicised.

Successive persecutions at the hands of local rulers have stemmed from two misunderstandings:  that their name referred to the detested early caliph Yazid bin Mu’awiya (when it derives instead from the Persian for angel ized), and that they worshipped the devil (a confusion of the name shaytan, Arabic for devil, with the Peacock Angel whom Yazidis see as God’s alter ego on earth).

 

Yazidi tombstone in southeast Turkey, with symbols of the peacock and the sun, representing God on earth [DD, May 2014]

Yazidi tombstone in southeast Turkey, with symbols of the peacock and the sun, representing God on earth [DD, May 2014]

Physically they resemble Kurds and most speak Kermanji Kurdish, though the Yazidis from Mt Sinjar also speak Arabic. They live separately from neighbouring tribes and do not intermarry, mainly settled in remote villages but are sometimes nomadic with herds of sheep. They have never been politically important – till now, when they have come under the glare of the international spotlight.

They have only ever sought to practice their religion in peace, away from prying eyes. At the core of their faith is a deep belief in transmigration,  that each life gives the chance to move gradually forward towards a better future. Hell and the existence of evil are denied as absolutes. They see all evil as man-made. Their current persecutors, Isis, are evil personified, threatening them with death or conversion, but no Yazidi can convert religion – it is tantamount to forfeiting the soul. As with the Druze and Alawi minorities found across Lebanon and Syria, it is not possible to convert to their religion, only to be born into it.

The images of bleak deserts that flash across our screens today also serve to obscure the region’s two secret treasures: water and oil.  The mighty Tigris and Euphrates rivers both of which have their headwaters in eastern Turkey, run through Syria and Iraq before exiting into the Gulf near Basra. The very word ‘Mesopotamia’ means ‘the Land between the Two Rivers’.

Whoever controls these waters controls the lifeblood of the region, and IS’s seizure in recent days of the fragile Mosul Dam has the potential to change the course of history – another epic flood of biblical proportions. Downstream, were it to burst, either accidentally from lack of maintenance or deliberately as an act of maniacal vengeance, Iraq’s first and second cities, Baghdad and Mosul, would disappear underwater. The oil wells of northeast Syria, northern Iraq and Iraqi Kurdistan all lie within the grasp of IS, and it is systematically taking control of them to fund its operations.

Beside the religious there are further ethnic  minorities, such as the Turkmen who divide more or less equally between Sunni and Shi’a Islam with their own language and customs, and the Shabak, mainly Shi’a  but with elements of Yazidism. They too have their own language. The numbers of all these minorities have plummeted over the last decade, none more so than the Christians, down to about 400,000 in Iraq alone from 1.5 million before 2003. There are between 70,000 and 500,000 Yazidis worldwide.

It is one of the great ironies of history that all these minorities lived out their beliefs in relative peace under the Ba’athist regimes of Saddam Hussain in Iraq and the Assads in Syria. But the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, the revolutions of the ‘Arab Spring’ and now the rise of Isis have combined to turn this part of the world upside down. Into the power vacuum left by the floundering Syrian Revolution and the chaos of the Maliki-led Iraqi government stepped Isis, making its headquarters at Raqqa on the Euphrates in Syria.

As the patchwork of Iraq and Syria disintegrate under the onslaught of Isis, it is north to Iraqi Kurdistan that the overwhelming majority of persecuted minorities are fleeing. Perceived as a haven of relative stability, the Kurdistan Regional Government is seeking to gain independence from Iraq, though its Peshmerga fighters, low on cash and weaponry, will be tested to the full in the coming weeks and months. Its Education Ministry has introduced the enlightened policy that its schools must teach all world religions equally. Most Kurds are Sunni Muslim but Islam is accorded no special status. A person’s faith is seen as a private matter. For Isis such a policy is of course anathema.

Many refugee minorities would flee to Turkey, if the borders were opened, as the Turkish government now also allows its Syriac Christians and its Yazidis to live unmolested.

The biggest irony is that all the religious groups struggling to co-exist in this region believe in the same God, however they choose to address him or whatever symbol they choose to represent him – be it a peacock, a cross, the sun or simply an abstract geometric pattern. Proof if ever it were needed, that this conflict is less about religion, than about water, oil and power.

Diana Darke is author of My House in Damascus: An Inside View of the Syrian Revolution. She has specialised in the Middle East for more than 30 years.

Related posts on the Yazidis:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/blogs-magazine-monitor-28686607

http://www.independent.co.uk/voices/letters/letters-now-we-can-all-share-the-boris-fantasy-9658001.html (scroll to second letter from Professor Christine Allison, Ancient community faces a grim fate)

Yazidi graveyard showing peacock symbol to represent the Peacock Angel [DD, May 2014]

Yazidi graveyard showing peacock symbol to represent the Peacock Angel, God’s interlocutor on earth [DD, May 2014]

 

 

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