The Islamic State is a movement; therefore, it proselytizes. Plenty has been written about IS recruiting young people from the West. Much of the coverage has the timbre of “the kids aren’t alright” exposés on the secret sex lives of teens. There’s an almost titillated tone to pieces like this one, from CNN: “Experts say ISIS has especially ramped up its efforts to lure young women—seen as potential brides for its fighters—into the territory under its brutal control in Syria and Iraq.” It’s a salacious mélange of the contradictory threats paranoid Western parents feel are endangering their children: nihilism and undirected, violent passion; ascetic fundamentalism paired with lusty adventurism.
Less media fanfare has been devoted to the Americans and other Westerners who, often for very similar reasons, head to the Middle East to fight against IS alongside Kurdish revolutionary movements. One recruit who did make the news recently was the Mancunian actor Michael Enright, famous for a role in Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest, who was disgusted enough with IS’s indiscriminate violence to dedicate himself to its destruction. “They need to be wiped off completely from the face of this earth,” Enright told the Dubai-based Al Aan TV. “I didn’t come here to run, I came here to fight and if I have to die, then I die. I didn’t come here to play games.”
Enright will find the British authorities unimpressed by his valor should he ever decide to return home—he stands a chance of being arrested, as ethnic Kurd and UK resident Silhan Ozcelik was upon coming back to London, in January. Ozcelik joined the PKK, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, and assisted in their fight against IS. According to the website Kurdish Question, she now faces a charge of “engaging in conduct in preparation for giving effect to an intention to commit acts of terrorism, contrary to sections 5 (1) of the Terrorism Act 2006.”
Her arrest is just one example of the British government conflating the ends of Kurdish revolutionary groups with those of IS. The body of ex-Royal Marine Konstandinos Erik Scurfield, the first Briton to die fighting IS, had to go through a formal repatriation process to be admitted back into the UK. Scurfield had aligned himself with YPG, like Enright—the Syrian sister group of PKK . On top of this, the United Kingdom Defence Committee recently released a report on “the fight against DAESH (ISIS) in Iraq and Syria,” in which no references were made to YPG’s nearly-three-year struggle against IS, despite testimony from human rights barrister Margaret Owen on that specific topic. The American government is burying its head in the sand just as wilfully, with PKK still considered a terrorist group by Washington, who also withheld a YPG invite to Tuesday’s multinational discussions on the best strategy to defeat IS.
This vacillation between dismissing and misunderstanding the Kurds mirrors the West’s relationship with IS. Failing to interpret both groups’ common origins as responses to the same events—the shortcomings of neoliberalism and the ravages of colonialism—is tightly connected to misinterpreting the differences between them. One of the few prominent Western public intellectuals who seems to have the Kurdish revolutionaries on his radar is Baffler contributing editor David Graeber. Writing in The Guardian, Graeber described YPG as heir to the anarchist Spanish experiments before the Second World War, due to its emphasis on government by inclusive decision-making councils. On the radical gender accomplishments of the Syrian Kurds in the autonomous region of Rojava, Graeber explains: “There are women’s and youth councils, and, in a remarkable echo of the armed Mujeres Libres (Free Women) of Spain, a feminist army, the ‘YJA Star’ militia (the ‘Union of Free Women’, the star here referring to the ancient Mesopotamian goddess Ishtar), that has carried out a large proportion of the combat operations against the forces of the Islamic State.”
Having made peace with the Turkish government in March, the PKK shifted their focus to creating alternative social structures to the capitalist nation state. They declared that they no longer have an interest in creating a nation for the ethnic Kurds, and instead are embracing something akin to “libertarian municipalism.” Similar in this respect to IS, the revolutionary Kurds initially sprung up in the fissures of weak nation states, populated by people forgotten by the status quo. Like IS, PKK doesn’t want to create an actual nation as we would understand it. And these are the reasons the West misinterprets both. They’re radical, and it’s easier to see them as radically alien or ignore them altogether (perhaps the Kurds would be paid more attention to if they traded in violent spectacle like IS). However, the radical goals of the Kurds seem to stand in sharp contrast those of IS: inclusion vs. slavery, democracy vs. theocratic totalitarianism.
It might seem as though the Kurds are articulating a vision of the future while IS is an anachronistic throwback to tribal medievalism, since that’s how many in the West see IS. This is a convenient bit of self-flattery that ignores the groundwork laid by Western colonial powers and the role they played in the creation of modern jihadist terrorism as we know it. A most thorough and readable account of the rise of political Islam as a reaction to (and often nurtured and used by) Western powers, is Good Muslim, Bad Muslim by Mahmood Mamdani, which argues that Islam as a hyperpoliticized, violent, and terrorist force is mostly a post-World War II phenomenon. (As Juan Cole points out, to accept IS’s own interpretation of Islam is to do their PR for them.) In a larger sense, IS is product of history, the effect to neoliberalism’s cause. And in a very literal sense, IS emerged from within the coalition military prisons erected in Iraq after the invasion. They were like incubators for creating little jihadis. If you want to see the dialectic of history in action, here it is: colonial power “liberates” some people, imprisons more than a few, and in the process forms the antithetical ideology of the opposition.
But the West’s assumptions about IS and the Kurdish revolutionary movements belie its post-Cold War stance that history is over, and all we need to do now is tweak the machinery a bit to keep it humming, because we already have all the big questions answered. This presumption leaves us unable to critique our fundamental beliefs or understand people for whom history marches on.