Using Kurdish statelessness to rethink citizenship

In her article Stateless citizenship: ‘radical democracy as consciousness-raising’ in the Rojava revolution’[1], the Kurdish sociologist Dilar Dirik describes the concept of radical democratic citizenship and criticism of the ‘nation-state’ in the context of the Rojava Revolution, which she describes as “an ongoing society-building effort that emerged in majority Kurdish regions in the context of the Syrian war”. The following article consists of a number of excerpts from her paper.

Dr. Dilar Dirik is a sociologist at Oxford University. She is the author of the book The Kurdish Women’s Movement: History, Theory, Practice (July 2022, PlutoPress), which is based on her research on the Kurdish women’s movement. Her academic work focuses on political resistance, feminisms and revolutionary women’s movements, statelessness and non-state struggles for autonomy and self-determination. She grew up in Germany and is active in the Kurdish women’s movement in Europe.

The Kurdish people are often referred to as the “largest nation without a state”. This negative definition of a group of approximately 40 million people reflects a state-centric geopolitical order that privileges the expression of politics within clearly defined international systems. This default definition of Kurds in relation to their colonially-imposed fragmentation and subsequent collective exclusion from the most universally legitimised form of political belonging or self-determination – the possession of an independent nation-state – impacts knowledge production on democracy in the context of Kurdistan. As argued by Rosa Burç, the methodological nationalism that permeates much of the literature on the Kurds “led to a situation where politics from below put forward by communities within the wider, predominantly Kurdish, geography have been vastly disregarded or marginalized when studying popular politics in the Middle East” (Burç 2020, 321). The Kurds’ negative relationship to the state system is marked by their oppression and marginalisation within four different colonial contexts and by their lack of collective status in an international system organised politically and economically on the basis of nation-states. In the absence of recognition and protection due to this lack of political status and due to anti-Kurdish state policies and transnational criminalisation, means such as protests, petitions, hunger strikes, occupations, riots, boycotts, self-defence and international solidarity campaigns have historically constituted alternative ways of expressing the political will of Kurdish constituencies. These realities have been occasions for the Kurdish freedom movement to radically rethink politics as an anti-state decolonisation project, from Kurdistan, to the region, to the world.

The main source of inspiration for this movement was the thinking of the Kurdish leader Abdullah Öcalan, who was strongly influenced by the writings of the social theorist Murray Bookchin, in particular his books The Ecology of Freedom[2] and Urbanization Without Cities[3]. Öcalan introduced the concept of ‘Democratic Confederalism’ as a revolutionary social, economic and political effort to build alternative institutions for peoples’ self-determination in 2005, although his organisation’s abandonment of the nation-state ideal dates back to the mid-1990s. At the 5th PKK Congress in 1995, the goal of creating a Kurdish state was formally dropped from the party’s programme in favour of seeking new perspectives to democratise socialism by emancipating it from the state.

The nation-state as a force of domination

In Öcalan’s prison writings, the ‘state’ is not merely understood as the actual nation-states that colonise Kurdistan, but as a historical system of domination, power, enslavement, violence, subjugation and exploitation that eradicates life forms of the oppressed (Öcalan 2015, 2010). He points to the rise of a civilisation based on hierarchy, violence, slavery and the subjugation of women in the Sumerian state in Mesopotamia in the Neolithic Age as constituting a major rupture in human history and sees ‘Capitalist Modernity’ as the product of a 5,000-year-old ‘statist civilization’, which continues its existence today through the nation-state, positivist science, industrialism, financial monopolism, ecocide and feminicide. The nation-state is particularly critiqued as a hegemonic project to colonise, monopolise, control, discipline, measure and order by employing systematic attacks on the ecologies of communities, peoples, nature and women.

Claiming that a radical rejection of such modernity is required to begin to understand liberationist, non-statist freedom histories, practices and mentalities in the region, Öcalan (2010a) proposes what he calls an anti-Orientalist, anti-modernist history of the Middle East, showing how a history of ‘democratic civilization’ has existed parallel to and despite the dominant ‘statist civilization’, within resistance cultures and practices of the oppressed and excluded. He argues that in the Middle East, the birthplace of power and hierarchy, systems of domination have always been challenged by a parallel and resilient democratic culture underground, a liberationist social fabric manifested in regional mentalities, tales, epics and practices.

The ‘democratic nation’ – an alternative to the nation-state

To decolonise, then, Middle Eastern culture needs to undergo a revolution of mentality and lifestyle against the capitalist modernity’s ideological hegemony as well as reactionary forms of resistance. Öcalan’s proposed alternative is to build ‘democratic modernity’ to enable a life in which all social groups, communities and identities, based on their self-defence and self-realisation, can organise themselves in a democratic, socialist and ecological manner and contribute to a wider egalitarian transformation of social relations: “The democratic modernity alternative encompasses the society of anti-monopolist, anti-capitalist democratic communities, the economic society, the democratic socialist society” (my translation, Öcalan 2013). The practical application of this philosophy on society is envisioned as a democratic, autonomous and confederal system within and beyond Kurdistan to disrupt state intervention, borders and transnational systems of oppression. In his work on libertarian municipalism, Murray Bookchin argues that direct political participation requires adequate forms of organisation that can foster egalitarian relations within and among individuals, societies, and nature (see for example Bookchin, 2015). Instead of formless spontaneity, he envisioned an organised and transparent form of citizenship that can render state authority obsolete by undoing hierarchy and domination through radical democratic forms of organisation that generate and grow through creativity, individuality and social justice. As such, an active citizen is one who organises and participates in politics on autonomous terms, neither tied to the electoral cycles determined by states and elites, nor detached from society and free-floating without purpose or political strategy.

Women celebrate the Kurdish festival of Newroz in Rojava. credit: casparsfotos, Caspar Ermert Ig

All of these ideas of grassroots anti-state political self-organisation are embedded in the ‘democratic nation’ solution, outlined in Öcalan’s last two manifesto volumes (Öcalan 2013, 2010a). This is a vision of a locally-rooted, yet internationalist political belonging that is against the nation-state system, which perpetuates nationalism, chauvinism and sectarianism in the region. Even as it actively seeks to protect and defend cultures, languages and identities from assimilation and genocide, the democratic nation solution is simultaneously an attempt to dissociate the idea of the nation from ethnic or culturalist ideas in favour of a more dynamic, constantly rearticulated idea of nationhood based on shared democratic cultures (Dirik 2018).

As a political term, the ‘democratic nation’ has been employed in various sites of the Kurdish freedom struggle (such as in the party programmes of the Peoples’ Democratic Party HDP in Turkey), but it found its most concrete expressions within the Rojava revolution. In any case, the march towards the democratic nation solution is understood by activists as the promotion of a ‘different mentality’ to that of the nation-state, which they often describe as being the main culprit responsible for inciting war and conflict in the region. People involved in different spheres of revolutionary work in Rojava, from fighters to neighbourhood organisers, have pointed out that, behind a backdrop marked by authoritarianism, colonialism, nationalism and state violence, liberation could not come about through the mere establishment of functional state mechanisms to replace the regime. Rather, a profound democratic culture within society and solidarity-based as well as egalitarian relationships across communities were needed to put an end to domination. This in turn required what many described as a decolonisation of the mind from the state’s chauvinistic ideology.

Building democracy through education

Rojava’s education system is multilingual, allowing Kurdish, Syriac, Turkman and Circassian children to be taught in their own languages for the first time in Syria’s history, and explicitly referring to notions such as women’s liberation, democratic nation, ecology and other themes prevalent in the movement’s philosophy. Values like inter-communal solidarity and the protection of minorities are becoming part of the public discourse, in addition to being placed in the curriculum. Furthermore, alongside a new general educational system for children and young people, a communal education system is being developed through hundreds of academies across the region, available to people from all walks of life. These academies are less concerned with teaching knowledge and facts than with creating self-thinking subjects with the ability to be politically active and to solve issues in society.

The examples mentioned in this article illustrate the ways in which the Kurdish freedom movement’s notion of ‘democracy’ does not refer to a mechanical application of a set of formal measures and standards. The revolutionary activities in different spheres of life are seen as crucial sites for organising a new, liberated mentality that will overcome authoritarianism, centralism, sectarianism, patriarchy and nationalistic chauvinism. Democracy is thus understood as a mentality, an attitude towards the right to exist and to let exist, a practice to enable what activists often call a “more just, right, and beautiful life”. In this sense, radical democratic citizenship is meaningful and possible to the extent to which the ‘slow revolution’ within society advances, opening up new possibilities for people to articulate their political will beyond rituals like voting. Reimagining political belonging outside of the statist sphere means that radical democratic citizenship gets enacted within a process of rendering oneself ungovernable in an organised fashion. Such deliberate statelessness enables Kurdish constituencies to make themselves active and protected vis-à-vis the nation-state centric world system.


[1] Dirik, D., ‘Stateless citizenship: ‘radical democracy as consciousness-raising’ in the Rojava revolution’, Identities, 2022, vol. 29, issue 1, pp. 27-44, (viewed on 13 September 2023).

[2] Bookchin, M., The Ecology of Freedom, AK Press, 2005.

[3] Bookchin, M., Urbanization Without Cities: The Rise and Decline of Citizenship, Black Rose Books, 1992.

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