Unpacking Rojava: Examining power dynamics in Northern Syria – [Region Piece & University Submission]

Syria’s Kurds are altering the political landscape of Northern Syria, reducing the power of Bashar al-Assad’s government and reorganising the power dynamics of the country – allowing for political and legal rights for Kurds, Assyrians, Syriacs, Turkmen and other minorities that were absent under Arab Socialist Baath rule. It is through organisation of political and military resistance, establishment of place of authority and abstaining from taking sides in Syria’s civil war, as well as the engagement in the war against the Islamic State, that Kurds in Syria now are in process of achieving self-determination and autonomy.

Figure 1: Kurdish Inhabited areas and population distribution.

Kurds are one of the largest ethnicities in the Middle East with a population of over thirty million, occupying parts of Iraq, Syria, Iran and Turkey  (Yildiz, 2005, p. 1). Descendants of Indo-European tribes that migrated westward from Zagros Mountains in Iran, Kurds have a distinct culture and identity that sets Kurds apart from other Middle Eastern ethnic minorities (Mcdowall, 2004, p. 8). In northern Syria, Kurds make up 8-10% of the nation’s population (over thirteen million people) and have been the subject of Arab assimilation policies – Arabization. One such policy was conducted in Hassakah governate in 1962, when a consensus rendered over 110, 000 Syrian Kurds without citizenship – giving these individuals status of ‘ajanibs’ (foreigners), well absentees were given status of ‘maktoumin’ or, ‘hidden’ (Fragiskatos, 2007, pp. 112-114; Sherry, 1996, pp. 13-19). Discrimination and persecution followed in subsequent decades, right into early 21st century. When Syria fell into civil war after the wake of the Syrian revolution in 2011, Syrian Kurds revolted against Bashar Al-Assad’s government and started the ‘Rojava revolution’ – ‘Rojava’ is Kurdish for ‘Western Kurdistan’ (Savran, 2016, p. 7).

Figure 2: Rojava.

The Kurdish uprisings in Northern Syria have subverted the traditional authority of Bashar Al-Assad’s government, as political and military resistance has formed to resist Baath hegemony. ‘Power’, as defined by German sociologist Max Weber, is the potential of an actor to achieve personal objectives in a social relationship in the face of opposition (Uphoff, 1989, p. 299). When a subordinate entity can limit or reduce the potential of an entity to achieve personal objectives, then that denotes ‘resistance’ (Barbalet, 1985, p. 541). For decades, the Arab Socialist Baath party government, under first the leadership of Hafez al-Assad and then Bashar al-Assad, enacted its power through coercion, fear, state repression, manipulation and bribery.

Figure 3: Hafez al-Assad (Left) and Bashar al-Assad (Right).

Any other party, such as the Muslim Brotherhood, that stood in the Baath party’s way would be heavily suppressed and have its members locked up in jail. Policies, such as those of assimilation and Arabization, aided in the consolidation of the government’s power and the pursuit of its aims – Arab nationalism (Pace, 2005, p. 37; Talhami, 2001, p. 112).

When peaceful demonstrations in Damascus and Idlib were suppressed by Syrian government troops in 2010, armed resistance developed, as defectors of the ‘Syrian Arab Army’ (SAA) and local dissidents established the ‘Free Syrian Army’ (FSA) and its political wing ‘Syrian National Coalition’ (SNC) (Spyer, 2012, pp. 46-49). Uprisings occurred all over Syria, including Northern Syria in cities, such as Qamishli, Kobane and Afrin. These armed uprisings resulted in the start of a civil war between Syria’s government, FSA and Islamist entities of Al-Qaeda (JFS), and the Islamic state (ISIS) after 2013. However, what distinguishes the Northern Syrian Uprisings in 2012 from the other uprisings in the rest of Syria is the organisation and direction.

In 2012, the Syrian government was pushed out of Jazira (Cizire), Kobane and Afrin cantons by organised local militia of the ‘People Protection Units’ (YPG) and its political wing, the ‘Democratic Union Party’ (PYD). Subverting Assad’s power in Northern Syria by exploiting the conflict dynamics of the civil war, with Assad’s forces focused on fighting FSA in other parts of Syria, PYD established a political alternative to Assad’s government with formation of a de facto autonomous government – Rojava Autonomous Administration (Federici, 2015, pp. 82-84). Organised under the ideology of Abdullah Ocalan, the founder of the ‘Kurdistan Worker’s Party’ (PKK), the PYD and other parties in the ‘Movement for a Democratic Society’ (TEVDEM) coalition (leadership of Rojava) adopted a ‘Democratic Confederalism’ ideology and implemented it in governing (Paasche, 2015, pp. 78-80).

Figure 4: Abdullah Ocalan

Figure 5: Flag of TEVDEM

The ‘Rojava project’ spearheaded by TEVDEM undermines the ideology of Arab nationalism and political hegemony of Assad’s Arab Socialist Baath Party, as the ideology of Democratic confederalism focuses on empowerment of minorities through local governance and aims at decentralising power – redistributing power among local municipalities. Instead of adopting a Kurdish nationalist project – similar to that of the ‘Kurdish Democratic Party’ (KDP) in Iraq – that aims at establishing a Kurdish region (Kurdistan), TEVDEM adopted a Democratic Confederalist project – similar to that of the PKK – that aims at establishing grassroots, democratic and parliamentary system (Ibid, p. 78):

…[TEVDEM] sought a bottom-up system of self-administration whereby the direction of the flow of power is from the local municipally organized councils toward a larger democratic confederation of libertarian municipalities with local councils directly controlling policy-making. Such organization of politics is to provide it with concrete social content and reduces the likelihood of potential relations of domination, thereby contributing to advancing the cause of freedom as non-domination (Cemgil, 2016, pp. 424-425).

Through the implementation of ideology of Democratic Confederalism in Rojava’s Autonomous Administration in Northern Syria, the influence of ideology of Arab nationalism that had disenfranchised non-Arabs was significantly reduced. Kurds and other minorities in Northern Syria, such as Syriacs and Assyrians, could now establish local assemblies – form militias, police and self-administrate (Ibid, p.425; Duman, 2017, p. 85).

Figure 6: Syriac Military Council (MFS)

This system decentralises power and prevents power from establishing in one party, thus weakening Assad’s central government in Damascus from having total domination in Northern Syria.

The opposition to taking sides in the Syrian Civil war and the fight against the ‘Islamic State of Iraq and Syria’ (ISIS), significantly increased TEVDEM’s influence in Syria’s political landscape and increased western support for the Rojava project – altering Syria’s power dynamics, and allowing TEVDEM more territorial control and political power. A strategy was adopted early on by the Rojava Autonomous Administration to not officially declare allegiance to any side in Syria’s civil war, instead opting to provide a ‘third path’ to the competing factions (Government forces versus rebels). This strategy aimed at allowing TEVDEM to focus on self-governance and self-defence, well keeping the war from reaching the de facto borders, therefore allowing TEVDEM to not lose local support and allow negotiation power with both sides, if need be (Hevian, 2013, pp. 50-52).

However, despite YPG clashes between both the FSA, JFS and SAA, the introduction of ISIS in 2014 would significantly alter TEVDEM’s trajectory.

Figure 7: (In clockwise direction) SAA, JFS, ISIS, FSA and YPG

The Siege of Kobane in 2014 by ISIS, brought global media attention to Rojava and increased Public Relations of TEVDEM with International Community. Victory by Kurdish forces against ISIS in 2015 was a huge Public Relations boost to TEVDEM, as the victory appealed to all sides of western political landscape.

Figure 8: Rojava flag on radio tower after ISIS is defeated in Kobane.

Conservatives had a force to support that was ‘western’ and hard-line Leftists could sympathise with Rojava revolution, and the Kurdish ‘struggle’. The United States-led Coalition to battle ISIS formed a military alliance with Rojava at Kobane, which started US supporting and supplying arms to YPG, as well as other militias (Dalton, 2017, p. 2).

Capitalising off this new-found support, TEVDEM mobilised forces to resist ISIS occupation in order to increase influence in Syria’s political landscape, liberate civilians and expand the borders of the de-facto Autonomous region through acquisition of territory (Kaya & Whiting, 2017, p. 86). The Islamisation of the opposition to Assad had also contributed in bolstering number of defectors to Rojava, as former secular FSA factions started aligning with YPG – this led to the formation of ‘Syrian Democratic Forces’ (SDF) in late 2015, a multi-ethnic coalition of anti-ISIS fighters (Gunter, 2017, p. 79; Krajeski, 2015, pp. 94-97).

Figure 9: The Syrian Democratic Forces’ flag.

The success of Rojava against ISIS and the territorial expansion of the de facto autonomous region’s borders altered Syria’s power dynamics, as TEVDEM posed an increasing threat to Assad’s government and legitimacy. The acquisition of oil fields has expanded Rojava’s economic and political power, as TEVDEM has leverage to negotiate its future and achieve Rojava’s goals of self-determination, as well as autonomy for Syrian Kurds and other minorities (Krajeski, 2015, p. 95). Though the war is not over, Rojava Autonomous Administration is in a greater position than ever before in its short history to negotiate and achieve its personal objectives, despite resistance of Assad’s government and external threats, such as ISIS and JFS (now Hay’at tahrir al-sham – HTS).

Figure 10: Map of Northern Syria showing territorial control of each faction.

However, as with everything in the Syrian conflict, the precarious nature of these relations and situations can change at any moment. In the recent months for example, with the liberation of Raqqa by the SDF, Turkish-US relations have begun to heat up. A new offensive into Idlib by the Syrian government and its allies in early 2017 has given way to a Turkish offensive in the Afrin canton of Rojava ().

Figure 11: Map of situation in Syria circa January 2018.

The power dynamics are shifting and TEVDEM officials face a difficult uphill battle in 2018. Despite these difficulties, the determination of the Kurds is stronger than ever before and international support for Rojava continues to grow with each passing month.

Through the organisation of political and military resistance to Assad’s government, establishment of an alternative government and abstaining from taking sides in Syria’s civil war, as well as the engagement in the war against the Islamic State, Kurds in Syria now are in process of achieving self-determination and autonomy. The implementation of ideology of Democratic confederalism in Rojava Autonomous Administration governance has challenged the hegemony of Bashar al-Assad and the ideology of Arab nationalism, empowering disenfranchised in Syrian society. The war against ISIS has allowed TEVDEM to acquire territory and has led to alteration of power dynamics within Syria, allowing for greater potential for Rojava in pursuing its personal objectives.

Written by Anthony Avice Du Buisson ( Originally written for James Cook University on the 09/11/2017 – Updated and released for the Region on 28/01/2018). Region version: https://theregion.org/article/12639-unpacking-rojava-examining-power-dynamics-in-northern-syria

References

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Kurdish women’s Poetry as Resistance: Reclaiming ‘the self’ through literary expression

“Even if we douse it in the sea.
this fire will burn forever.
It beats out light in the darkness.
It burns on.”
– Bejan Matur

To be able to understand the importance of Kurdish women’s poetry in the contemporary context, it is first necessary to illustrate the condition of the Kurdish identity—regardless of gender—in the present day Middle East. The position of the Kurdish people within modern day society is possibly best portrayed by the old Kurdish proverb, “The Kurds have no friends but the mountains.” Following the end of World War One—the consequence of which was a thorough reconstruction of middle-eastern borders and the creation of a new geopolitical landscape—the Kurdish people have become a thoroughly disjointed, stateless entity dispersed across the mountainous territories now encompassed by the Iranian, Iraqi, Syrian and Turkish borders. Denying the Kurds their own independent state, and forever erasing Kurdistan off the map, ushered in an era of oppression suffered at the hands of the regimes of either of the four aforementioned countries. Since they were no longer considered a legitimate nation, but rather a numerous minority in every country that they now inhabited, the Kurds have more often than not been subjected to ethnic cleansing (be it at the hands of the remnants of the fallen Ottoman Empire known as Turkey or the deceased Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein), involuntary resettlement and forced attempts at assimilation via language bans.

Where Kurds are located in the Middle East via ‘The Kurdish Project’.

Within this whirlwind of endeavours to render the Kurdish identity non-existent by stripping the people of the rights to their own language, as well as abolishing their rights to freedom of cultural expression, and numerous armed uprisings in an attempt to reclaim the sense of ‘self’ from the merciless jaws of new identities assigned by none other than the oppressors, another, more covert struggle was taking place — the women’s struggle. In the midst of the Kurdish cultural apocalypse and perpetual ‘linguicide’, women have been—and still are—fighting their own battle in both the public and the domestic sphere of existence. They commenced not only fighting against ‘culturcide’ perpetuated by either of the previously mentioned countries by directly facing the oppressor in the field of battle, but also decided to stand up to another, less visible, but ever so dangerous enemy — the patriarchal mentality ingrained into every pore of society, thus dictating clandestinely each and every aspect of their every day lives. In a sense, the Kurdish women were victims of ‘double oppression’, that of the regime that turned the Kurd into the unmentionable ‘other’— an undesirable, barely existent, leper-like entity whose very language and culture are a threat to society — and that of the ever present notion of the dominant male/submissive female dynamics still deep-rooted in the middle-eastern society, thus becoming forced to tackle an array of gender-specific obstacles in an effort to save their own identities from extinction.

“Their political struggle, especially when armed, was often met with harsh state violence, which used a gross combination of racism and sexism, centered around sexualized torture, systematic rape, and propaganda campaigns that portrayed militant women as prostitutes, because they dared to pose themselves as enemies of hyper-masculine armies. In the Western discourse, Kurdish women’s agency in their struggle was often denied by claims that they are “being instrumentalized for the national cause” or that they participate in the liberation struggle in order to escape their sad lives as “victims of a backward culture”.” (‘Feminism and the Kurdish Freedom Movement’, Dirik, paragraph 3)

In the aforementioned passage, Dilar Dirik manages to perfectly illustrate the issues experienced by Kurdish women caused by the prevalent patriarchal mentality. It became clear that Kurdish women’s liberation cannot be achieved solely through the means of armed struggle, since the efforts will only continue to be undermined by mistreatment of women in other aspects of life. In order to fight the regime, one first had to destroy the notion of the dominant male and reimagine the woman not as a submissive ‘extension’ of a man, but an equal. Thus, in order to be able to successfully reclaim her culture, the Kurdish woman first had to reclaim herself.

Dilar Dirik in Rojava, Syrian Kurdistan.

In a society where women’s actions are heavily dictated by the will of men, where there is little space left for women in the context of the public sphere—as well as regulated by the oppressive nation-state intent on reducing her cultural and linguistic identity to absolute nothingness—literature became a new battlefront, an act of defiance and unconditional resistance. Poetry replaced a gun, and verses written in Kurdish became bullets shooting through the walls encasing the Kurdish woman and piercing holes, however small, which allowed her to become seen by her oppressor and yet remain protected from him. The ambiguity of poetry allowed the Kurdish woman to express and explore a myriad of issues — from those addressing the taboo status of women’s sexuality, to those providing harsh political criticism cleverly disguised in the form of a seemingly innocent musing — while still remaining safely hidden from prosecution and ostracising by using the socially imposed ‘walls’ to her advantage, and fighting the oppression by ever so carefully filling her every word with vagueness, sure to enable her to render herself a submissive woman acceptable within the framework of patriarchy, if the need arises.

The aforementioned can be said to be rather similar to the notion of the veiled Algerian woman in Frantz Fanon’s essay, ‘Algeria unveiled‘:

[In the essay] the colonizer’s attempt to unveil the Algerian woman does not simply turn the veil into the symbol of resistance; it becomes a technique of camouflage, a means of struggle – the veil conceals bombs. The veil that once secured the boundary of the hone – the limits of woman – now masks the woman in her revolutionary activity (…) (Bhabha, pg. 63)

Much like the Algerian woman from Fanon’s essay, the Kurdish woman has learned how to turn the oppression suffered by women into her own advantage and seemingly give into the concept of an obedient, submissive woman by retreating from the frontline back into her own home. Her submissiveness is her veil which allows her to stand up to the oppressor and convey her revolutionary ideas to others maybe even more efficiently than a man — simply because she is not expected to engage in any of those activities simply due to the perceived nature of her gender. Her pages littered with words written in Kurdish and subtly portraying the long history of the Kurdish people is a weapon as effective as a gun wielded by a man fighting fervently on the frontline, maybe even more so. Unlike the frenzied gun fire in the midst of battle that sends a clear message of defiance and unwillingness to yield, poetry sends a much different, but an even more compelling message.

Frantz Fanon

While soldiers and various other Kurdish individuals may perish, reading and writing poetry will ensure that the notion of ‘Kurdishness’ never does, for once the poem is completed it no longer depends on the poet. It becomes a part of society, slowly making its way from one individual to another remaining forever embedded in people’s minds. Once the poem is read for the first time after being written it cannot be destroyed. Its physical copies may be destroyed or banned, but the impact it left on its reader is something that can never be taken away from them since it is safely nested within the walls of their own minds, where it rests and waits to transferred to the minds of others. In that regard, the poem has more power than any other weapon used to fight the aggressor. It exists defiantly and indestructibly, sending a clear message — We exist. We are Kurds. We are women. And our existence can never be erased.

In the following paragraph is one of the poems possibly best illustrating all of the aforementioned, titled Separation from Earth and written by a Kurdish female poet by the name of Kajal Ahmad:

“When I exploded
Like the horizon, my hair
Became a belt around the Earth’s waist.
For the frozen poles of the south,
I turned myself into a pair of socks,
For the chills in the North, from threads of my soul
I wore hats and turbans.
The homeland was sick of me:
It wanted to tear me off like an old coat,
But I hung myself on the mercy of its beard
And from earth I was thrown off into the arms of the universe.
In the sky I became a star
And now I have my own place and my own passion
And I am denser with lives than Earth.”

In this compelling poem originally written in Kurdish, Ahmad tells not only a story of herself, nor does she solely provide her own personalized experience of the world as it may seem at first glance. Her poem is her story, but behind its carefully draped veil of vagueness, it is also every woman’s and every Kurd’s simultaneously. While speaking of her own experience of forcing herself into submission and reshaping the very core of her identity for various metaphorically expressed reasons (e.g. “For the frozen poles of the south, I turned myself into a pair of socks”), Ahmad also speaks for every woman suffering from oppression at the hands of the dominant male. She speaks for every woman desperately twisting and turning her own sense of self in a desperate attempt to conform to the expectations of society by becoming a submissive ‘extension’ of a male figure, but no matter how hard she tries to conform, any remaining particle of her true, independent self will remain an object of scrutiny by the dominant male (e.g. “It wanted to tear me off like an old coat, but I hung myself on the mercy of its beard.”).

The very same verses that speak of the women speak of the condition of the Kurdish culture in today’s society as well. It ever so covertly tells a story of the Kurds as a stateless nation, scattered and forced to wander the earth in search for a homeland that can never be found. It subtly evokes the notion of ethnic cleansings and forced resettlements that both played a significant role in creating the modern Kurdish identity (e.g. “The homeland was sick of me” (…) And from the earth I was thrown off into the arms of the universe. In the sky I became a star”).

Ruined city of Kobane, Syria.

Most importantly, the poem conveys a message of hope. In its last two verses (“And now I have my own place and my own passion, and I am denser with lives than Earth.”) the poem accentuates that even in the face of adversity, the author, the women and the Kurds have only been given a chance to grow stronger and more resilient for what is yet to come. By being written and read this very poem has now found its own place within more minds that there are lives on Earth. Its message of resistance has become embedded within the lives of women, Kurds and Kurdish women thus first allowing woman to utilize its power in their fight against patriarchal oppression and then Kurdish women to stand side by side with their male counterparts and reclaim their identity by speaking, writing and reading in the Kurdish language and openly living the Kurdish culture. Only when the women are free of the chains of the patriarchal mentality will the Kurds be able to efficiently fight the socio-cultural erasure at the hands of other countries and become truly free — and here poetry and its readers, and more specifically, women’s poetry, can play a crucial part.

Originally written in Croatian by Katarina Pavičić-Ivelja (17/07/2017)

Translated by Katarina Pavičić-Ivelja

Edited by Anthony Avice Du Buisson

Link to original post in Croatian here: click here

+ Bibliography
– Ahmad, Kajal. “Magazine.” Words Without Borders. N.p., n.d. Web. 01 July 2017.
– Bhabha, Homi K. The location of culture. London: Routledge, 1997. Print.
– Dirik, Dilar. “Feminism and the Kurdish Freedom Movement.” Home – KurdishQuestion.com. N.p., n.d. Web. 01 July 2017.
– Hale, Thomas. “A short history of the Kurds.” Financial Times. N.p., n.d. Web. 01 July 2017.
– “Kurdish Academy of Language enables the Kurdish language in new horizon.” Kurdish Academy of Language. N.p., n.d. Web. 01 July 2017.


On Infiltration in Political Movements

Totalitarian regimes have a vested interest in limiting information and stifling discussion on matters of importance. A sign that a nation has succumb to the first stages of totalitarianism is that it will deny its citizens access to information and deny their fundamental liberties on superficial bases.

Even the most liberal societies can find themselves giving into regressive policies that seek to reverse progress that has been made. In these times, regress masquerading as ‘progress’ must be fought against. In other words, a conservative stance may be the best position to have when the whole of a society is plummeting itself into darkness.

Many will disagree with such a sentiment, however, if a movement that seeks to emancipate the people is hijacked by those who would seek to fight for the ‘greater good’ in a way that would impose a system of fascism that would seek to do this, then it is imperative in that instance to oppose the hijacked movement.

To emphasise this point with an example:
I see that the anti-Islamic political and Intellectual movements in Europe and America are being infiltrated by far-right wing groups. Well intentioned liberals who are opposed to Islamic fundamentalism and are supporters of Classical Liberal principles have found themselves increasingly having their voices being denied, and instead are witnessing far-right wing groups like PEGIDA, Front National and other such groups speak on their behalf.

These groups have no interest in individual liberty and the freedom of worship or even the freedom from worship, what they instead wish to accomplish is to swap one version of fascism (Islamic fascism) for another form of fascism (‘National fascism’). With this national fascism comes xenophobia, racism and bigotry akin to that of National Socialism in its wake.

Now, well there may be a good number of centrist intellectual individuals in such groups, the intention of said groups and their methods are problematic to say the least. However, this example is just one recent instance of infiltration and provides a warning to those who desire to keep their movement to its fundamental principles without those principles giving way to toxic ones. Another example would be the Iranian revolution of 1979 and so forth.

In all these examples, the point of keeping to one’s fundamental principles and the dangers of allowing those principles to budge is stated. It is important in such times that we not repeat history and not allow, especially for the case of anti-Islamic Intellectual and Political movements, for the hijacking of our movements.

I am a classical Liberal, but I will not allow my grievances against Islam to be hijacked by a Christian or catholic fascist sect just because they may have the same enemy. Their methods are fowl and they are to be opposed just as the Islamic fascists are to be opposed. It is imperative that other Classical Liberals be vigilant of their allies in this movement and be sure to remember one’s principles closely. Better this than have one fascism swapped for another.

Written By: Anthony Avice Du Buisson