The Anarchist Bookfair and Robin Yassin Kassab’s Problematic Approach to Rojava


“An uncalled-for and upsetting incident took place at the Anarchist Bookfair in London on 29 October 2016. Several people claiming to represent the Kurdish people or the Rojava Revolution shut down an event attended by speakers Leila Al Shami, Robin Yassin Kassab and Shiar Neyo about the situation in Syria.

I’d like to emphasise that the two people, ‘Amir’ and the man described as being the ‘guy in military garb’ are not representatives of the Kurdish community and are not even part of the community or the work that the community organisations here do. I have been a member of the Kurdish community in London for a long time and had not seen ‘Amir’ in person until yesterday. The man in the military garb I’ve caught sight of at a few demonstrations because he wears the same military uniform but again he has never been involved on an organisational level.

I met ‘Amir’ at the Rojava stand at the Bookfair and at first glance he did not seem very well. Immediately you could tell he was jittery and socially awkward. I had been made aware of his attempts to get a slot at the event and his accusations against the speakers, Al Shami and Kassab. I had also been made aware that some Kurdish youths intended to attend the event to protest. My suggestion to some of these youths, who did not attend in the end (others did) was to make their feelings known but in a more constructive and creative way (by asking questions, making a point and pressuring the speakers about their controversial views). Before I gave them this advice I did some research on Robin Yassin Kassab and indeed found many issues with his approach.

I know that the organisers of the Bookfair were also aware of ‘Amir’s presence and intentions and tried to contain him by being as democratic as possible and not banning him from the event, which in hindsight may have been a more effective measure. This is why I and some other Kurdish activists at the event did not try to intervene in the matter as we thought it would be kept ‘under control’ since ‘Amir’ had been given the chance to speak. Unfortunately this wasn’t the case.

Whatever the case the actions of these two people and other Kurdish youths at the Anarchist Bookfair, which I didn’t witness, but have listened to from several sources, are completely inexcusable, indefensible and must be condemned.

Both Al-Shami and Kassab have written articles about the incident. Shami’s is more focused on what happened at the Bookfair and is a condemnation of the incident, which does not need a response. However Kassab’s is a more comprehensive opinion about his position and is called ‘Anarchism,’ as a response I believe to the accusation that he is not an anarchist but a ‘fascist’ at the event. Kassab’s attempt to make his position on matters clear however brings up more issues and reveals his problematic approach. This can be seen not exactly from what Kassab writes, but what he chooses to omit and in-between the lines of what he writes.

After ruminating on his political identity and some of the tenets of anarchism, half way through his piece Kassab turns his attention to the PYD and Rojava and accuses it of being authoritarian, seizing money, monopolising violence and banning other parties and writes: “That its occupation of Arab-majority towns outside of the Rojava cantons is not ‘democratic confederalism’ but an attempt to build a territorially-contiguous state.”

What Kassab doesn’t mention here is that the Rojava-Northern Syria Federation administration is not based on ethnicity. Despite the majority Kurdish presence in the movement it has a social charter that includes all ethnic components in the region. In fact it has and continues developing ties with Arabs, Turkmen and Assyrians across the area.

Secondly Kassab doesn’t give examples to his claim and doesn’t mention that these Arab-majority towns were taken by the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) a majority Kurdish, but also Arab militia, from the Islamic State. Moreover he does not acknowledge that Rojava, as a federal entity, does not have pre-defined borders that are the ‘Rojava Cantons’ and have the intention of uniting the 3 cantons both for security purposes but also to strengthen the autonomous-federal system they are building as a model for the rest of Syria. If the Rojava administration and its initial organisers had given any credence to borders they would not have been able to create the Rojava system in the first place.

In this sentence Kassab also chooses to omit the fact that large parts of northern Syria-Rojava were ‘Arabised’ by the Baathists starting as far back as the 60s and 70s, in what was called the ‘Arab cordon‘. This is a problematic approach in that it does not historicise the dynamics in the region and carries the underpinnings of rejecting Kurdish self-determination, something the Kurds have a right to after decades of oppression, which Kassab thankfully acknowledges.

It is only because of the ideas and system proposed by Abdullah Ocalan, who came to the conclusion that their can be no freedom for the Kurds without freedom for everybody else and that a sovereign Kurdish nation-state is not a solution, that the movement leading the Kurds of Rojava, has taken this approach. Otherwise the Kurds would most likely have taken a more nationalist approach, similarly to the Kurds in the Kurdistan Regional Government in Iraq’s north.

Kassab goes on: “The PYD undoubtedly represents many Syrian Kurds, and is working in a very difficult environment, sinned against (most notably by ISIS, at Kobani) as well as sinning. Within the larger Syrian context it often acts as a counter-revolutionary force…”

Kassab doesn’t expand on what he means by ‘counter-revolutionary force’ here. Does he mean the ‘tacit co-operation’ that some quarters accuse the Kurds (PYD-TEVDEM) of having with the Syrian regime or the balancing act the Kurds are trying to engage in with the Russians and US? We don’t know. However again Kassab assumes that the Kurds and those in alliance with them need to submit to what those who call themselves ‘Syria’s revolutionaries’ mean by revolution for Syria.

PYD and TEV-DEM officials have always stressed that they are a part of Syria and have proposed a federal republic that recognises autonomy across the country, not just in the north, as a political system in a post-war Syria. Conversely, since the beginning of the Syrian war, Syrian opposition forces and groups have refused to recognise the Kurds’ right to self-determination. This approach has meant that most Kurdish groups have kept their distance from oppostion groups and instead chosen to develop what they have called a ‘third way‘. I’m sure Kassab can empathise if we say that Kurds have a very traumatic collective history when it comes to being ‘stabbed in the back’ during periods of war and the postponement of their rights till after the conflict.

In another part of the article Kassab criticises anarchists who are supporting Rojava ‘uncritically’ and says that this is problematic. He says that it coheres around a party-militia and so cannot be anarchist. However he excludes the people being defended by or working with that ‘party-militia’ and doesn’t acknowledge that is integral to the setting up of communes, assemblies and other grassroots structures. Neither does Kassab mention in any detail the structures that are being created in Rojava.

More critically however, Kassab does not hold “the councils in liberated Syria” which he terms as being “anarchist” to the same standards as those in Rojava. He says that support for them should be “critical but absolute.” He doesn’t say this for Rojava. Although he doesn’t mention it by name, we can assume from his description that the structures he is referring to are probably in East Aleppo. Are there no militias defending the structures he talks of in this area?

From what Kassab writes we can see that either he does not know of the embargo on Rojava; the shelling, aerial bombardment by the Turkish army, attacks by IS and Assad’s forces, the internal division provoked by the KDP and much more, or he cannot empathise with it. Reading the sentence below shows where Kassab’s allegiance lies and there is no problem with this as long as he reminds himself from time to time that the Kurds, like all Arabs, Persians and Turks, especially since all of these groups have ruled states/empires in the past several hundred years also deserve the benefit of the doubt and that he might also be approaching the matter from place of privilege.

Kassab writes: “In terms of practical community cooperation, grassroots democratic self-organisation, and building civil projects without the state, the councils in liberated Syria are anarchist. Some are more hierarchical than others, of course, some dominated by family or tribal leaders, some directly elected, some only indirectly, and so on. They aren’t perfect, because human beings aren’t perfect, and mainly because they haven’t had a chance in their brief existence to discuss political institutions at length. Instead they’re living an emergency that’s gone on for many years, they’re being hit with missiles, artillery, barrels, chlorine, they have a food problem, a water problem, a fuel problem, an electricity problem. Their work is immediate and practical, and therefore non-ideological. That is, they are not implementing an ideological program.”

Like his other claims, which he does not back-up with any examples or context, Kassab also accuses some anarchists of partaking in PYD propaganda that is racist and Islamophobic. Kassab seems to have forgotten that most of the Kurds in Rojava and indeed across the Kurdistan region are Muslims. Of course this doesn’t mean that the PYD cannot be critical of Islam or indeed Islamophobic, but it does mean that Kassab needs to show concrete evidence of a statement or something that the PYD has done to merit such accusations.

Yes, the PYD promotes secularism in a region that is rife with sectarianism and religionism, but not once in the years that I have been following developments in Syria have I seen the PYD say anything bordering on Islamophobia or racism. Doing this would only alienate the Kurds and Arabs in the region and work against the PYD’s project. Furthermore, this accusation does not sit well with the fact that the SDF includes tens of former FSA batallions or smaller groups that are Arab and are not in any way ideologically similar to the PYD. The PYD’s political stance has been to continue developing ties with groups allied to the FSA, both as a prerequisite for a democratic, plural Syria and Rojava but also for pragmatic reasons, such as defeating IS and other groups attacking SDF-YPG.

However what progressive Kurds will not accept and shy away from is criticising the political axis and ideology of states like Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar, which is founded on Sunni dominance in the region and supports groups like the Islamic State. This dominance is also leveraged by European states and the US when needed as a counter-balance against Iran, Russia and Syria. This does not mean that Shia/Alawite dominance is preferred, as this is no solution to the region’s troubles. However it does mean that the Turkish state, a NATO member and the biggest obstacle preventing Kurdish freedom and Rojava’s recognition, needs to be resisted. Struggling against the Turkish, Saudi and Qatari states does not make someone racist or Islamophobic, just like criticising or struggling against the Israeli state doesn’t make someone anti-Semitic. Kassab’s accusation is unfounded, a smear and needs to be condemned.

In short I think the discussion/dialogue between Kurdish, Arab and other regional activists in the UK and Europe needs to be developed in order for incidents like this to be avoided. There is a great polarisation now not just in Syria but across the world and those claiming to be looking beyond nationalist, religionist/sectarian and capitalist confines need to be more open for critical discussion. I appreciate Robin Yassin Kassab’s article on this matter and thank him for the nuance he has shown in certain regards, (like recognising that those who shut down the event could not be PYD or PKK), but am also critical of him in others. Kassab rightly says that we are all humans and not perfect, similarly the Kurds, PYD officials, SDF/YPG fighters and those who dream of freedom and a progressive system in Rojava are also human. I hope that he can overcome some of the prejudices he seems to have against what is happening in Rojava and in relation to the Kurds and look forward to learning more about each other’s struggles.”


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