Kurdish fighters syria Turkish invasion Rojava
Kurdish YPG fighters (Image: Flikr/Kurdishstruggle)

There is no moment of global solidarity so inspiring that it cannot be ruined by the application of identity politics and neoliberal political branding.

It’s been five days since Turkey invaded northern Syria/Rojava, determined to destroy an autonomous republic created by a Marxist-humanist movement arising from a nationalist struggle. Yet despite the Kurdish YPG’s repeated insistence that what they are fighting for is universal human liberation, the left identitarians have already gathered. Racing around the world is a meme “reminding us” that the Kurds “are an indigenous people”.

Well God, yes: we couldn’t show concern about invasion, bombing, civilian killings and death-squad executions until we’d branded or differentiated those at the blunt end of it, could we? We couldn’t simply express our support for their struggle as fellow humans? Apparently not.

The notion of indigeneity is useful when a people — first or simply prior — is colonised by a people somewhat separated in space and military-technical power. Hence, both First Nations Australians and the Palestinians are indigenous. But the concept has little use in the jostling area of western Asia/Mesopotamia, where people have come and gone for millennia. The Kurds only emerge as a known people in the 600-700s CE, and there is no certainty as to their precursors. The Persians were in Iran long before the Kurds were, the Arabs in Iraq about the time the Kurds emerged. The term “indigenous to” is used of some Kurdish groups, but it is minimally descriptive, not the “indigenous” label being thrown around.

It is only post-Ottoman Turkish nationalism that has made the Kurds an “unpeople” in Turkey. They’re an oppressed stateless people, that’s it.

But above all, the Kurds on the left have always striven to make their struggle universal. Several of the PKKs founders were Turkish communists; the struggle was about Kurdish liberation as part of a wider revolution in the region. The Rojava revolution is an experiment in how to be local and global, modern and traditional at the same time. It doesn’t need unhelpful categories applied by others.

But the identitarian left does. It can’t connect to anyone it hasn’t branded and separated-off. It’s a search for fresh political “raw material” that can be co-opted and harvested, by Western groups desperate for scarce “oppression capital”. Perversely, this is a Western colonisation of another kind, with the categories of local political-cultural wars projected onto fundamentally different struggles.

And in circumstances like this, it can’t be denied that the category of “indigenous” carries a degree of “noble savagery” and victimhood with it. Which is exactly what the identitarian left wants — to pull people rising up back down into the great global pity party.

The Kurds never went far down into that. Maybe some people could use their example to get themselves out.

Peter Fray

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