I attended another political seminar in Oslo recently titled “Solidaritet med Kurdistan” (solidarity with Kurdistan) run by an organisation of the same name.
I found the seminar very inspiring and felt it contained some really important lessons for the environmental movement and political activism in general, which is why I have chosen to include it in this blog.
There were four main presentations at the seminar, each one covering a different area of Kurdistan, North, West, East and South. Kurdistan is not in itself a sovereign state but an area divided by the borders of four countries where Kurdish people form a prominent majority of the population. The northern part is within Turkey’s borders, the north western part within Syria, the eastern part within Iran and the southern part is within the borders of Iraq. The Kurdish people have fought a long struggle for basic human rights, the right to speak their own language and the right to cultural expression. A struggle that has been met with brutal oppression by their host nation states. The Turkish state for example have exploited the recent failed coup to impose a crack down on the Kurdish people, occupying Kurdish areas, arresting pro-Kurdish elected politicians and murdering men, women and children from the Kurdish civilian population. The recent arrival of ISIS has also given the Kurdish people a new brutal and ruthless enemy. Despite being under attack from all sides however Kurdish militias have fought back against ISIS with remarkable bravery and have shown time and again to be the most effective fighting force against ISIS on the ground, imposing significant defeats on the terrorist group and liberating key areas from their control.
Perhaps the most interesting talk (they were all excellent) was about the Northwestern region of Kurdistan known as Rojava. Erling Folkvord told us about the remarkable project underway of building a democratic and secular society in the areas that Kurdish militias now have under their control in northern Syria. The democratic model is based upon the principles of direct local democracy, gender equality and rights of religious and ethnic minorities. Another cornerstone of the democratic model is that of sustainability and ecology. This democratic model is also practised by pro Kurdish politicians in local councils in Turkey that are currently being forcefully repressed by the Turkish government. I encourage anyone interested to read up about Rojava. It is at present just a fledgling society under threat from all sides, staving off attacks from Turkish forces in the north and attacks from ISIS from the south. Just how successful it will be remains to be seen, but its emergence in the most extreme and difficult of circumstances is a true inspiration. Experiences from Rojava can provide an important reference for movements the world over aiming to build a fairer society based on direct democracy.
The way the conference was run had some important lessons about public engagement and participation too. I had arranged to go with a friend but she was unfortunately ill on the day so I ended up going on my own. Upon arrival I was immediately greeted by the organisers and asked if I would be eating lunch at the conference, a delicious spread of Kurdish food for a mere 50 krones, very cheap by Norwegian standards. They also asked me general friendly quesitons about who I was and about my interest in Kurdistan. This made me feel immediately at ease and happy to be there. It sounds really obvious but it is something unfortunately neglected at a lot of political events in my experience. After lunch we were invited to try a Kurdish ring dance. I needed very little encouragement and sprang immediately up to the dance floor, finding myself to be the only man standing there. One woman declared me to be the “bravest man in the room” which was a touching compliment. I wasn’t a novice however as I had actually been taught some Kurdish dance through my work running music workshops in asylum centres in and around Oslo. As we were dancing one of the women said “This is our strongest weapon in the fight against Daesh (ISIS)” reminding me of the power of culture and celebration in building common identity and hope in social movements.
This inclusive celebratory atmosphere left me at ease and when the floor was opened up for questions during the talks and panel debate I found my hand raising powered purely by curiosity and virtually unhindered by feelings of doubt which I have talked about in a previous post.
During the panel debate I asked a question about how sustainability and ecology featured in the democratic project in Rojava. This was unfortunately not answered during the debate as the debate and questions from the floor became largely focused on discussions about the importance of cultural and national identity and what Kurdish freedom and liberation actually means in practice. The panel seemed to come to a general consensus that Kurdish people could only achieve liberation through a wider struggle for human rights, but that we must not forget that many Kurds enter this struggle from the viewpoint of being Kurdish, motivated by protecting and promoting cultural expression and their right to be Kurds. It was a really fascinating discussion.
After the debate one of the panellists came up to me and apologised that there was not enough time to talk about ecology in the debate and told me everything she knew on the subject. This included stories of using primarily sustainable and environmentally friendly materials in the reconstruction of Kobane, protection of environmental and cultural sites from destruction (including a cultural site due to be bulldozed in order to build a hydroelectric power station, an important reminder that renewable energy can’t repeat the mistakes of the fossil fuel industry if it is to succeed) and local activists setting up markets for people to exchange clothes and commodities in Turkish Kurdistan. If people can think about sustainability and the environment in the harshest of circumstances in Kurdistan then just think what we can achieve in regions not plagued by war and conflict. The possibilities are endless. I hope that you, like me are inspired to get out there and make them happen.