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Reaction and revolution in the Middle East

| Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Kayla Mueller, an American aid worker taken hostage by the Islamic State, was confirmed dead yesterday. It is unclear whether she was killed in Jordan’s airstrikes on the Islamic State last week or if she had died prior to that. Those Jordan airstrikes occurred following the execution of a Jordanian pilot by Islamic State militants.

Frequently abbreviated ISIS for one of its previous names — the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria — the Islamic State has torn a bloody swath across Syria, Iraq and Kurdistan. The United Nations and a number of international organizations have decried ISIS for its strict religious laws, repression of women, war crimes, slaughter of ethnic and religious minorities and execution of foreign aid workers and journalists. There is a broad international consensus that the Islamic State must be opposed and destroyed. To do that, we must understand how movements like this come to be.

When people feel disadvantaged by certain social and economic structures, they tend to act against those systems. There are two broad impulses that manifest themselves in extreme cases — the revolutionary/progressive impulse and the reactionary/regressive impulse. Whatever the truth of their claims, these two camps are respectively characterized by either endeavoring to move forward to a new social structure thought to be better or endeavoring to move back to an old social structure thought to be better. Reacting to feelings of alienation produced by global inequality and to the perceived humiliation of the Arab world at the hands of imperialist and neo-imperialist powers, thousands of disaffected young men in the region have turned to religious fundamentalism and the real and imagined glories of past empires.

This reactionary impulse is most familiar to the Western world in the examples of European fascism. European fascism sought to “fix” collapsing capitalism by incorporating elements of classical conservatism, including a corporatist social structure, class collaboration, traditional family values and religious conservatism. A militaristic state presided over the glorification of the nation, giving the ideology a stronger foothold in nations that had suffered real and perceived humiliations. Class divisions and inequality persisted, and private ownership of production was retained in much of the economy, but all was subject to the “nation” and fascism saw itself as a “third way” distinct from capitalism and socialism.

Born out of dissatisfaction with the inequality and exploitation of European capitalism, fascism committed grave crimes on the continent. The first major war against fascism was fought by Spanish republicans and anarchists that opposed the military coup led by General Francisco Franco. Backed by Adolf Hitler’s Germany, Benito Mussolini’s Italy, the Catholic Church and major American businesses, Franco eventually prevailed, but not until after years of bloody war that kept Spain out of World War II. The Battle for Madrid, a long destructive siege surrounding the Republic’s capital, was burned into the continent’s memory. It was another long destructive siege that marked the turning point against fascism years later — the Battle of Stalingrad.

Today, those doing the fiercest fighting against the reactionary Islamic State are the stateless Kurds. In Rojava — Syrian Kurdistan — the Siege of Kobanî was recently won by Kurdish forces following the deaths of thousands and the displacement of hundreds of thousands. The Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), based out of Turkey, and its Syrian affiliates, the Democratic Union Party (PYD) and the People’s Protection Units (YPG), have been most intimately involved in Kurdish resistance around the city of Kobanî.

Formerly a Marxist-Leninist party, the PKK was until recently best known for its conflict with the Turkish government. Following an ideological shift, the PKK and its affiliates now adhere to a quasi-anarchist, libertarian socialist program termed “democratic confederalism” and focused on community autonomy and a collective, mutual aid economy. 35 percent of YPG soldiers are women, who equal within their secular militias. Not only are the Kurds fighting the Islamic State physically, they are also seeking to reorganize society to eliminate the problems that led to religious fundamentalism and social reaction in the first place.

Last month, a conference was held in London on how to best counter ISIS. 21 countries were invited, but the Kurds were ignored. While some of these countries, including the United States, have aided Kurds through airstrikes, leaving Kurdish groups out of the conference betrayed the trust of the stateless people. The leftist revolution that has taken hold in Rojava threatens surrounding countries that repress Kurds (Turkey), women (Saudi Arabia) and workers (all of them), so these countries want to leave the Kurds behind.

Kurdish groups are leading the fight against the Islamic State, fighting reaction with progress — the only way victory can be permanent. If the international community ignores this, these groups threaten to botch the operation and create more reactionaries in the process. Kobanî could be the Middle East’s Stalingrad, marking the turning of the tide and the rolling back of murderous reaction, or it could just be another destroyed city.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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