The struggle of the Kurdish people against Isis in northern Syria and Iraq has all the trappings of a left-wing cause celebre. Here is a relatively secular and embattled minority fighting against a religious movement backed by oil money which seeks, among other things, to reduce a large number of people to chattel slavery.
Writing about the sheer irrationality of Nazism in the 1930s, Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky noted that “Today…there lives alongside the twentieth century the tenth or thirteenth”. Today in the Middle East a concerted attempt is being made to turn the clock back to the seventh century; an attempt which has so far been thwarted by one of the few forces in the region that is prepared to embrace the twenty-first.
I am talking of course about the Kurds. In a part of the world where ‘radicalism’ too often means antisemitism and the subordination of women, the Kurdish people in northern Iraq and Syria have spent recent years dispelling the orientalist notion that the people of the Middle East are ‘unsuited’ to things like democracy, secularism and women’s rights.
In northern Syria, in territories which have long been abandoned by the ultra-violent Assad regime, the Kurds have been busy establishing grassroots democratic assemblies which extend right down to neighbourhood level. The latter have already passed a ‘social agreement’ which guarantees free education, healthcare, housing and an end to discrimination against women. Defending these are the Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPD), around 30 per cent of which are women. All-woman fighting units are also common in the battle against the Islamic State.
It is, to paraphrase George Orwell’s assessment of revolutionary Spain, a state of affairs worth fighting for.
Meanwhile in northern Iraq it is the Kurds that have taken full advantage of the overthrow of Saddam Hussein by consolidating their hard-won autonomy in the three Kurdish majority provinces. For Westerners the big lie about Iraq was the non-existent weapons of mass destruction. For Iraq’s Kurds the greatest falsehood about the war is that it was an unmitigated disaster for everyone. Since it gained autonomy in 1991, thanks to the US-imposed no fly zone, Iraqi Kurdistan has gone from being dirt poor to being the most successful and prosperous region of Iraq. In the West we all know a good wisecrack about President Bush, but how many of you know that Erbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan, was this year voted the Arab Tourism Capital?
It is these modest gains which are under threat from the Islamic State. And yet thus far the Kurdish struggle has attracted only lukewarm support here in Britain, especially among those who ought to be its biggest cheerleaders on the progressive left. It is certainly winning over some on the left and it would be wrong to suggest otherwise; but in contrast to the recent outrage over, say, the Israeli bombardment of Gaza, the Kurdish defence of Kobane appears largely to have passed liberals by.
What’s worse is that some people have become so hamstrung by identity politics that they are no longer even willing to take a moral position on fascism unless it has a shaved head and is carrying a St George’s flag.
The National Union of Students, which went berserk last year over a misogynistic pop song by Robin Thicke, has found itself unable even to condemn IS, a group which enslaves women as the ‘spoils of war’. To support the struggle of Kurdish women would be to accept a ‘western racist narrative around Isis’, as one member of the NUS Executive wrote on Twitter (implying unintentionally that IS somehow represent Muslims).
Meanwhile the Stop the War Coalition decided that, rather than join one of the many Kurdish anti-Isis demonstrations in London, it was more appropriate to protest against US airstrikes on Isispositions.
Considering it is those same airstrikes - in support of Kurdish fighters – that are helping to holding back Isis forces in Kobane, this is as good as to say that a massacre of Kurdish civilians is preferable to any US involvement in the conflict. Or to pursue this as a metaphor, it is a bit like protesting against the solving of a murder because you do not like the police.
The reluctance on the part of some to kick up a fuss about the predicament of the Kurds is letting our own leaders off the hook. Turkey is bombing the very people who are on the front line fighting Isis. Turkey has also blocked Kurdish reinforcements from crossing south to help their comrades. Despite the objectionable nature of the ‘Kurdistan Workers’ Party’ (PKK) – a cultish Stalinist outfit that has a grisly record of terrorism and extrajudicial killings - a NATO member is objectively helping Isis by bombing one of the few groups on the ground that is preventing IS from sweeping across further swathes of the Middle East. If the term ‘lesser evil’ is ever appropriate, it is in the case of the PKK in this instance. We protested against Israel for its bombing of Gaza because it is a Western ally. Turkey is a Western ally with the second largest army in NATO. Where is the comparable outrage? Where is the pressure on David Cameron to come down hard on our Turkish ally?
Blaming Turkey is too convenient, though. The Obama administration has already decided that saving Kobane from the Islamic State is not a priority. One of the reasons an ostensibly ‘idealistic’ President can get away with this is because there will never be any protests or calls for his impeachment when Kurds are killed. Indeed, anti-war activism today is such that the placards will only come out if the US tries to step in and prevent a genocide.
There are of course plenty of good arguments against American intervention in Iraq and Syria in the form of so-called ‘boots on the ground’. And we should always be suspicious of those whose first response to a crisis is to brazenly demand that armed white men drop out hatches of planes to ‘rescue’ people. But if the left cannot decide which side it is on in a struggle as monumental as that of the Kurds and the Islamic State, there is very little reason for people to have faith in us when it comes to far smaller questions.
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