Updated: Feb 10, 2020
When I consider the kinds of reforms I advocate to create a human-shaped life, I prefer to think of the good things that will result. It gives me pleasure to imagine, even if I’m not going to see it myself, that one day there will be more coherent communities supporting themselves sustainably and using technologies that unite people and benefit all equally. While I’m too familiar with human nature to allow myself to imagine a truly utopian world, still I like to hold up an ideal of sane living to work toward.
But – that’s probably not how things will happen. The life I dream of is objectively good, and good things seem to be antithetical to the majority of humankind. Socrates, Cicero, Jesus, Gandhi, Martin Luther King, and countless martyrs old and new have called for peace and sanity and have been killed as a result. And this is still going on.
One community has been trying to do many of the things I write about, to experiment with human-shaped practices and institutions as they fit within their own culture. It is the autonomous region of Northeast Syria, sometimes called Rojava. Rojava came into being in 2011 and 2012, when the central government of Syria was embroiled in an ongoing civil war and the largely Kurdish population in Northeast Syria were left alone to do what they liked. What they liked was to create a geographical and governmental entity that had three main goals.
The first goal is direct democracy. As I and others have pointed out, people are happier and saner in smaller communities. Rojava’s most important layer of government is local, where people have direct access to leaders – they can walk into their houses or stop them in the street – and leaders share the conditions of the people. There is an overarching regional administration, but the decisions that affect most people’s daily lives come from their own communities.
The second goal is equality. Northeast Syria is a complicated region. Its land is claimed by the administration of Rojava, but it is still in Syria, and Turkey wants part of it, too. Its people are an ethnic, linguistic, and religious mix: the majority are Kurds, but there are also Arabs, Turks, Syriacs, and Armenians; among them are Muslim, Christian, Yazidi, Druze, and other believers. The languages spoken in this small region represent three vast and unrelated families: Indo-European, Turkic, and Semitic. As you can imagine, the potential for discord is great, given people’s tendency to identify themselves by their differences. But Rojava makes no distinction among ethnic groups or religions.
They work toward radical gender and economic equality, too. Local decision-makers must be both men and women. The armed forces have men’s and women’s branches. There is mutual respect in how both men and women treat each other in public. And as far as possible, people’s needs are provided for by their communities.
The third goal is environmental sustainability, an ideal shared by all of us who advocate for sane living. The people of Rojava want to invest in soil, water, and air. They have invited gardeners and farmers from all over the world to come and share expertise in their aim to Make Rojava Green Again. This is especially pressing in Syria, where the effects of climate change were part of what drove the Syrian civil war.
The Rojava experiment is still young, and it's not perfect, of course. But the people of Rojava are determined to persevere – which is a good thing, given how this attempt at decency and fairness has been received by their neighbors and the world at large.
Direct democracy is challenged in every possible way. World powers negotiate away Rojava’s autonomy without even inviting their leaders to the table – President Trump talks to President Erdogan of Turkey about withdrawing American troops, but he doesn’t seem to have talked to the Northeast Syrian leadership. Turkey and Russia broker a deal that involves the retreat of Kurdish forces from their own lands, but the Kurds were not at the table. Syria and Russia – this time with the limited agreement of Rojava – agree to patrol the border of Northeast Syria with Turkey. Turkey is supposed to observe the ceasefire agreed with Russia but continues to invade and wants to control most of the autonomous region. No one, whether they are more or less on the side of Rojava or overtly hostile to it, seems to respect their desire to live democratically on their own land. It would be bad enough if everyone just ignored them. In fact, their experiment in genuine democracy has stirred up suspicion and even virulent hatred on the part of the power-hungry individuals and entities surrounding Rojava.
Equality is also under threat. The people of Rojava are concerned that Turkey, by moving people into Northeast Syria as well as by direct attack on its inhabitants, is attempting once again to eliminate the Kurds. Religious equality is at risk as well, as Turkish-backed militias target the Christian communities of Qamishlo and surrounding towns. The Turkish invasion has also allowed ISIS members to escape from the now poorly guarded prison camps. Just this week ISIS claimed responsibility for the murder of a Christian priest and his father, who, while driving from one town to another, were pulled from their cars and shot. It is hard to tell if these extremists have any genuine religious goal or if they just seek violence for its own sake, but they say that they want to establish radical Islam. What that looks like on the ground is abuse of women, both civilians and soldiers, including rape, kidnapping, and forced prostitution.
And Rojava’s struggle for economic equality is threatened by the effects of war: businesses are destroyed, infrastructure is destroyed, stores of food, water works, major roads, houses, schools, hospitals, and factories are destroyed. The invasion is not over, either. The rest of the world may think that the Turkish onslaught has died down and that there is a ceasefire, but many of the atrocities I have linked to in this essay have happened since the “ceasefire” was declared.
Finally, how can anyone work toward environmental sustainability when shelling, drone attacks, tanks, and car bombs are creating a wasteland? The residents of Rojava themselves, in their desperation, have had to pollute: the thick, black smoke of burning tires is the best screen they can come up with against Turkey’s drone attacks on civilian centers. Farm fields are ruined, harvests interfered with, and most heinous of all, the ancient olive groves, the soul of their land, have been cut down in spite.
What is it about attempts at justice and peace, like Rojava’s, that infuriate the rest of the world? Is this what all people should expect when they try to carve a new life out of the ruins of post-industrial, post-imperial society? Will something similar to the current war in Syria afflict us in our own countries as we call for change and sacrifice?
I hate to say it, but yes, it probably will. It’s worth planning for a backlash.
As climate change and the end of the industrial age force us to leave behind our sense of entitlement, those who embrace simplicity become a living criticism of wealth and power – and wealth and power don’t like it. Here in the developed world we are already seeing a reaction to the spreading conviction that our way of life is not sustainable, mild in comparison to the one against Rojava but still obvious: aggressively conspicuous consumption of goods and resources, the kind represented in old cartoons by a plutocrat in spats lighting his cigar with a dollar bill; anti-immigrant feeling; belligerent governments; and polarized neighbors within each community. I anticipate it will get worse. The more lofty the dream, it seems, the more violent the reaction against it.
This is depressing, but it does not mean we stop trying and just hunker down with our freeze-dried food and our shotguns. No, we should do what the Rojavans are doing, even in the midst of war. We should build up a community of mutual support with our neighbors. We should be willing to sacrifice for the good of all, to hold one another to a high standard, to put justice above comfort, to cheerfully make do with less, to find moments of pleasure in the middle of conflict, to sit down to a meal together, sing together, cry together – to be real people in the real world. The ideal society we dream of will never exist, except perhaps for one brief shining moment, like the Camelot of King Arthur. Life never gives us constancy; as each wave breaks over us, the next one is boiling up behind it. But we can learn to enjoy the moments of calm between the waves, and we can help each other to keep our heads above water when we need to.
I encourage you to find out more about what is happening in Northeast Syria and how you can express solidarity with the people there. For news, you can follow the Rojava Information Center, which provides on-the-ground eyewitness updates daily. You can support the work of the Kurdish Red Crescent. You can donate to organizations like Shelterbox that are working to alleviate the suffering of displaced people. You can pressure your leaders to educate themselves and stand up for what is right. And, not least, you can be inspired by the people of Rojava to create a better society here and now, in the midst of chaos and hostility – because apparently that’s how better societies are always created.