July 16, 2016
Photo Credit: Wikipedia
I was in the middle of reading Meredith Tax’s exceptional book, A Road Unforeseen: Women Fight the Islamic State (Bellevue Literary Press, 2016), when the Istanbul terrorist bombing took place. As is so typical of the U.S. media, the level of analysis was superficial. We were given the horrific details but beyond that there was little background as to what might have unfolded on that terrible day. Some mention was made of the Kurds and then Daesh (the so-called Islamic State). The most recent report I have seen is that the suicide bombers may have been Chechens.
Yet it was Tax’s book that actually put the bombings in a much larger context, one that looks at the historic oppression of the Kurdish people, the role of the current administration in Turkey in covertly encouraging—if not supporting—Daesh, and the struggle over the future of the Middle East. What makes this work unique is the manner in which it looks at these issues from the standpoint of women. Tax examines the struggles in that region through central attention to the link between national oppression, patriarchy and evolving global capitalism, and in this context, illuminates the complexities of the moment.
Tax has been an outspoken leftist in critiquing the manner in which many on the left have either fallen prey to knee-jerk anti-imperialism, i.e., if the United States is involved in a situation a) it must be the central player; and b) anyone opposing it must be a positive force, or post-modern visions of the world that permit cultural relativism particularly when it comes to women. For Tax, both of these approaches—which are often linked—are disastrous not only for women but for progressive forces. In that sense, A Road Unforeseen represents an effort to challenge, if not put to bed, a decrepit paradigm that is leading progressive forces into an ideological and political cul de sac.
Though Tax starts by introducing the reader to the struggles in northern Syria led by the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) against Daesh, she quickly turns her attention to providing the reader with background on the regional Kurdish struggle.
The Kurds, a predominantly Muslim population found in Iran, Iraq, Syria and Turkey, are frequently described as the world’s largest nation without a state. Irrespective of whether that is factually accurate, what is clear is that the Kurds have faced ethnic/national oppression at the hands of each of the states in which they find themselves. Though the Kurdish struggle in Turkey is perhaps the most known, Kurdish emancipatory movements have emerged in other locales, generally crushed by the dominant regime.
What brought the current incarnation of the Kurdish movement to Tax’s attention was the unique role women were playing in the struggle in northern Syria in the region known as “Rojava.” Bits and pieces of this story made their way into leftist and mainstream media over the last few years as military units of Kurdish women (and their allies) engaged the Daesh, regularly defeating the latter. This stood in contrast to the near total collapse of the Iraqi military in the face of the Daesh offensive next door. Thus, the question that emerged was, who was behind these units and what was this struggle really about?
Tax gives the reader a look at the 20th-century struggle of the Kurds for freedom, a struggle that found the Kurds frequently played off by either one imperial power against another, or on a regional basis, one nation against another. U.S. readers may be most familiar with the situation that unfolded in Iraq when, in the 1991 war, President George H. W. Bush called upon the Kurds—in northern Iraq—and the Shiites—in southern Iraq—to revolt against Saddam Hussein, only to abandon them when the goals of the U.S.-led coalition were satisfied. The Kurds (and Shiites) suffered terribly, some of which was eased through the introduction of the no-fly zone, prohibiting Hussein’s planes and helicopters from attacking those regions.
Yet, in many respects, the heart of the Kurdish struggle is to be found in Turkey where the Kurds account for approximately 20% of the population and have suffered vicious oppression at the hands of various Turkish governments as those governments attempt to dissolve the Kurdish people into a larger Turkish mass. In Turkey arose the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which was ultimately declared to be a terrorist organization by the Turkish government and by the U.S. Tax presents the PKK, however, as far more complicated.
The link between the PKK and the struggle in northern Syria against Daesh becomes much clearer later in the book, but Tax’s examination of the plight of the Kurds in Turkey is not only informative but heart-wrenching. Turkish governments have repeatedly acted to suppress each and every example of Kurdish strivings for public recognition, including but not limited to the ability to speak their own language. Every political act by Kurdish movements, when it is perceived by the Turkish government to be threatening, is condemned as terrorist, leading to jailings, killings and other forms of persecution.
It is worth noting here that the rise of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) led by Recep Tayyip Erdogan and its specific repression of the Kurdish people represents a continuity in oppression rather than a qualitative shift. The dominant discourse, since the end of the Ottoman Empire and the rise of the secular Kemalist state (named after Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the “father” of modern Turkey) has been that there exists only one people in Turkey. Whether during periods of so-called democratic rule or military juntas, this discourse has prevailed and with it the oppression of the Kurdish people.
The AKP has represented a break with the secularist Kemalist forces and a move in the direction of what some people describe as “moderate Islamism.” This Islamism is much aligned with that of the Muslim Brotherhood of Egypt. The Erdogan regime has had objectives of moving Turkey in the direction of an Islamist state, ending secularism and entrenching a socially conservative authoritarian regime in power. This has included significant repression of popular democratic forces including but not limited to the Kurdish movement.
The hatred of the Kurdish forces by the Turkish regimes, including but not limited to the AKP, can be illustrated by their tolerance of Daesh—at least until very recently—contrasted with their antipathy toward the Kurdish movement. The AKP regime has been prepared to cut off supplies to besieged Kurdish areas in Syria that have been threatened by Daesh. They have, additionally, been prepared to turn a blind eye toward Daesh forces in transit through Turkey. At the same time, the AKP regime has carried out severe repression against the Kurds, labeling most acts of protest—whether peaceful or not—as terrorist. Martial law has been used and Kurdish political parties have been repeatedly rendered illegal. Thus, portraying the AKP as “moderate Islamists” is taken as a sick joke not only by the Kurdish movement, but by pro-democracy and pro-women activists in Turkey who have experienced the horrors associated with the regime.
The PKK, on the other hand, rose as a fairly typical left-wing national liberation organization in the 1980s, though possessing certain unique features, e.g., not following any of the socialist or so-called socialist states. It chose military action against the Turkish state, concluding that there was no other path. The story of its ups and downs, as well as the role of the iconic and all-present PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan was striking in that Tax makes no effort to gloss over crimes committed by the PKK or the equally troubling tendency, within the PKK towards the deification of Ocalan. Instead, this reads as a critical analysis of a movement that has undergone dramatic transitions, including in its understanding of women and patriarchy.
The heart of the book is actually about patriarchy/male supremacy and the redefinition of liberation For Tax, the revolutionary trend within the Kurdish movement represents an anti-fascist and anti-misogynist force in the region. The link between the anti-fascism and anti-misogynism is key. Tax examines the rise of religio-fascist movements like Al Qaeda and Daesh and sees in them not a revivalist movement but a demonic, barbaric force which seeks to create a neo-fascist "paradise" in the Muslim World. Central to this mission is the renewed oppression of women, including but not limited to overthrowing all of the gains that had been won by progressive and revolutionary forces in the Muslim world during the 20th century.
The religio-fascists may use the rhetoric of a return to the seventh century, but the seventh century that they reference never existed. Instead, this is a movement which gained great support from both Saudi Arabia and the U.S. during the Cold War as an effort to both counter the then Soviet Union but also to crush the broader Left and progressive nationalist movements in the region. The base of this movement, however, are men, and specifically men who have been cast aside by a changing (neo-liberal) global economy. These alienated men see no future for themselves but rather they see a future in a mythical past. Al Qaeda and Daesh offer that and contained within that future is a barbaric oppression of women.
The PYD-led struggle in northern Syria is part and parcel of this anti-fascist/anti-misogynist effort. It is a struggle that Tax identifies as having arisen, to a great degree, out of the evolution of the PKK (in Turkey) whereby the struggle came to be understood as far broader than on the military plane and, most importantly, that the struggle of women for freedom was moved to the center of the theory and practice of the movement, and away from its periphery/afterthought.
In discussing conflict in Syria I was initially concerned Tax was going to walk around the question of the Assad regime. While Tax explains the vibrant anti-fascism of the PYD in its struggle with Daesh, I would argue that the greatest source of terror in Syria has been the Assad regime, though in no way am I suggesting that Daesh is in any respect progressive. Rather, the Assad regime has been brutally repressive and there are sufficient facts now commonly understood that demonstrate that it was Assad’s lethal repression of peaceful protests in 2011 that sparked the militarization of the conflict.
As the story unfolds it becomes clear that Tax does not walk away from a critique of Assad. She holds him responsible for the horror that has unfolded, though she does identify the internationalization of the conflict, particularly the introduction/intervention of Qatar and Saudi Arabia. In fact, she gives important note to the manner in which Assad cooperated with Al Qaeda, in originally providing them safe transit into Iraq, only to later jail and then free their (now Daesh) militants when the Syrian conflict became militarized (an act that she correctly identifies as having been aimed at trying to make the conflict appear to be sectarian and, at base, a war against terrorism). A weakness in her portrayal of the conflict, however, is little attention to the destructive role of both Russia and Iran, key allies of the Assad regime.
In writing this review I have resisted the impulse to retell the entire story. This has been difficult because not only is the book excellent, but the story is compelling. Yet it is the analysis that situates what is otherwise described as a struggle against terrorism or a struggle for national freedom as a more complicated struggle for the emancipation of women, and thereby the emancipation of society, that gripped me as a reader and activist.
Tax closes her book with cautionary notes. Among other things, as an experienced leftist, she has all too often witnessed the romanticizing of various struggles and the blurring of reality. There are countless examples where leftists from the global North have seen only one side of a struggle and drawn overly simplistic conclusions. Khmer Rouge-led Kampuchea/Cambodia was a dramatic and tragic example of this. In the case of women, there have been many progressive and revolutionary movements in which women have taken leadership only to be thrown backward into traditional roles upon the “success” of the movement. Thus, Tax is fully aware that the future is not written but is the result of the struggles and ideas which we elaborate in the present. Indeed, the future is very much related to how we understand the past. In that regard, A Road Unforeseen leaves the reader with both a sense of optimism for the possibilities of a truly radical road, while at the same time a soberness as to the many real dangers that await anyone traveling toward the "undiscovered country."