Saleh Muslim Mohamed is co-president of the Democratic Union Party (PYD), representing the independent communities of Rojava (Syrian Kurdistan) and its armed wings, the People’s Defence Units (YPG) and Women’s Defence Units (YPJ).
In an interview with Dutch site Tenk, Muslim spoke to Jonas Staal about the fight of Rojava against the Islamic State (IS) and the development of democratic autonomy during the Rojava revolution.
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You have said the battle in Rojava is not just about fighting against the Islamic State, it is also a fight for a specific political idea: the model of democratic autonomy. What exactly is this model of democratic autonomy that lies at the heart of the Rojava revolution?
The reason we are under attack is because of the democratic model we are establishing in our area. Many local forces and governments do not like to see these alternative democratic models being developed in Rojava. They are afraid of our system.
We have created, in the middle of the civil war in Syria, three independent cantons in the Rojava region that function by democratic, autonomous rule.
Together with the ethnic and religious minorities of the region ― Arabs, Turkmen, Assyrians, Armenians, Christians, Kurds ― we have written a collective political structure for these autonomous cantons: our social contract.
We have established a people’s council including 101 representatives from all cooperatives, committees and assemblies running each of our cantons.
And we established a model of co-presidency ― each political entity always has both a female and a male president ― and a quota of 40% gender representation in order to enforce gender equality throughout all forms of public life and political representation.
We have, in essence, developed a democracy without the state. That is a unique alternative in a region plagued by the internally conflicted Free Syrian Army, the Assad regime and the self-proclaimed Islamic State.
Another way of referring to this concept of democratic confederalism or democratic autonomy is radical democracy: to mobilise people to organise themselves and to defend themselves by means of people's armies like the YPG and YPJ.
We are practising this model of self-rule and self-organisation without the state as we speak. Other people will speak of self-rule in theory, but for us, this search for self-rule is our daily revolution.
Women, men, all strands of our society are now organised. The reason why Kobane still stands is because we have built these structures.
You often use the words “democracy”, “freedom” and “humanity”. Could you explain what you regard as the fundamental difference between capitalist democracy and what you have just described as democratic autonomy?
Everyone knows how capitalist democracy plays for the votes; it is a play of elections. In many places, parliamentary elections are just about propaganda, only addressing the direct self-interest of a voter.
Democratic autonomy is about the long term. It is about people understanding and exercising their rights. To get society to become politicised: that is the core of building democratic autonomy.
In Europe, you will find a society that is not politicised. Political parties are only about persuasion and individual benefits, not about actual emancipation and politicisation. Real democracy is based on a politicised society.
If you now go to Kobane and you meet the fighters of the YPG and the YPJ you will find that they know exactly why they are fighting and what they are fighting for. They are not there for money or interests. They are there for elementary values, which they practise at the same time.
There is no difference between what they do and what they represent.
So how do you politicise a society to that level of political consciousness?
You have to educate, 24-hours-a-day, to learn how to discuss, to learn how to decide collectively. You have to reject the idea that you have to wait for some leader to come and tell the people what to do, and instead learn to exercise self-rule as a collective practice.
In dealing with daily matters that concern us all: these have to be explained, criticised and shared collectively. From the geopolitics of the region to basic humanitarian values, these matters are discussed communally. There has to be collective education so we know who we are, why we are facing certain enemies and what it is we are fighting for.
In a community that is at war and facing humanitarian crisis, who is the educator?
The peoples themselves educate each other. When you put 10 people together and ask them for a solution to a problem or propose them a question, they collectively look for an answer. I believe in this way they will find the right one. This collective discussion will make them politicised.
What you are describing as the heart of democratic autonomy is in essence the model of the assembly.
Yes, we have assemblies, committees; we have every possible structure to exercise self-rule throughout all strands of our society.
What do you consider the conditions for such a democratic experiment to be able to take place?
It is a long-term process. I myself have been involved for decades in this movement, in this fight ― I have been in jail, I have been tortured. So the people of my community also know why I do what I do.
I am not there to collect money or to benefit personally. The reason for the Syrian government at the time to capture and torture me was that I was educating the people.
And I am just one person; so many friends like me have gone through the same. Many have become martyrs as they died as a result of the torture of the regime.
Democratic autonomy is not an idea to be realised in a day; it is an approach, a process that takes explaining, education: it’s a revolution that takes all of our lives.
There are many students, intellectuals and artists who are looking to Rojava, who are looking to Kobane, and who recognise that the promise of stateless internationalism in a way has found its way back in our time. What do you say to these people who are not in Rojava, but who see its revolution as a horizon. What can they do?
Well, go to Kobane. Meet the people and listen to them, understand how they have brought their political model about. Speak to the YPG, the YPJ and learn what they are doing; ask them, meet their society.
In the near future, the conditions will allow you to go, and you can learn about the model of democratic autonomy that was defended in the worst imaginable conditions, with threat to life, with a lack of food and water.
Go and speak to the people and you will understand how and why they did it. And what our society looks like as a result of it.
Do you believe that democratic autonomy could be a model enacted on a global level?
I believe that the democratic administration that we have established is one that everyone feels they are sharing in, so yes, that is a model to the world.
There were many prejudices about our revolution, but when people from outside visited and sat down with our communities, they started to believe that democratic autonomy was the right thing: we had people joining our revolution even from Damascus.
Everyone can come and see for themselves that our revolution is being fought and realised every day. It is a revolution of life, and as such, our struggle is a struggle for humanity.