22nd October 2015
This interview with well-known philosopher Slavoj Zizek was conducted for Kurdish MedNuçe TV in the Slovenian capital Ljubljana. In this, the first part of the interview Zizek talks about the Kurdish question and his views on the Kurdish people. The interview was translated by Kurdish Question.
A photo of you and Kurdish leader Abdullah Öcalan is being shared on social media. What is the story behind this?
Yes. They showed me that photo in Turkey. It’s on the Internet and says that it’s from the 80s. But I must say that unfortunately it’s not real. However I’m definitely not against it being done. Conversely I think there’s a beautiful story behind it.
Öcalan is currently in prison and I think he attaches importance to his identity as an intellectual. I saw the list of books he has asked for in prison. He’s reading Foucault for example. As far as I know there’s a cliché about Kurds: They live in mountains and are a primitive tribe who are in pain. However I have witnessed that Kurds on the contrary are very secular. The Kurds are endeavouring to present themselves to the world as being enlightened and modern. This is the correct method. If I were in your position I’d do the same.
So you never met Öcalan…
No unfortunately not. I would like to visit him in prison. But I’ve heard he is in isolation, in fact he can’t even meet his lawyers.
I know that nowadays he is engaging in more modest politics, he even defines himself as a citizen of this country. What he wants is autonomy for Kurds. He should have the opportunity to want more.
Let’s look at history: Kurds are the biggest victims of colonial separation. The approach of Westerners to the Middle East is based on which tribe is going to fight which one. In other words the West decides on this. There’s a tradition of Western intervention in the Middle East.
The biggest catastrophe was following WWI. The Italians, French and English decided on how they were going to divide up the Middle East. Syria was in the hands of Egypt and the other countries were in the hands of others. Due to this all borders are artificial.
Look at Iraq today: Eastern Iraq is Shia and under the influence of Iran, Western Iraq is Sunni. From the perspective of the people a federation would have been reasonable. Look at Afghanistan and Pakistan, it’s the same everywhere.
Do you see the situation changing for Kurds?
Historically and in the background one can see a Kurdish map but in the foreground there are artificial borders. The superpowers will not allow it but if you ask me the best solution is for all Kurds to be united; at least the east and southeast of Turkey, the north of Syria and the north of Iraq. They might still be bound to the state in which they find themselves but historically they have the right to unite.
The safest place in Iraq at the moment is the Kurdish region. There are flights there from many places in the world. A legal system and law prevails. There are three groups in Iraq: the Sunni minority, the Shia majority and Kurds. Under Saddam the Sunnis were powerful, now we have the Shia hegemony. It doesn’t look too good.
Therefore wouldn’t it be good to give the Kurds a chance to govern themselves? We know it is a utopia! Until today the Kurds have settled with defending themselves. They have never had an imperialist, aggressive inclination. They have never killed the others. Giving the Kurds the chance for self-governance means stability for the region. Kurds are the most secular group in the Middle East. To recognise self-governance to Kurds means support for peace. I know this and support the Kurds wholeheartedly.
You were in Istanbul a few days ago. How did you find it?
Yes, two days ago. We spoke about love with a friend. We discussed theology and the slogan, “Love thy neighbour as thyself” in Christianity. We can say this to Turks: Love Kurds as thyself. What is happening now is the test of love.
I clarified something else too: Are you aware of the tragedy of the Kurds and Armenians? The massacre of Kurds and Armenians is not due to traditional Turkish barbarism but to the advent of the Young Turks. These things happened with birth of modernism in Turkey. Compared to today’s state the Ottoman Empire was more tolerant to minorities and different groups. Problems began with the Young Turks.
During the Yugoslavian War the largest Jewish minority lived in Sarajevo. Why? Because the Muslim minority had more tolerance for the Jews than the Christians did.
I would like to prevent any misunderstanding: What Erdoğan is doing today is savagery. Instead of building palaces he needs to look back and see which freedoms they had during the Ottoman Empire and what was better than now.
A short time ago I read the memoirs of a Frenchman who travelled to Istanbul at the beginning of the 19th century. His definition of Istanbul at the time is more tolerant than now. He writes of seeing rabbis and priests on streets. Compared to the nationalist 19th century Europe, Istanbul is more tolerant. If they want to return to the Ottoman Sultanate they should return to its laws and traditions!
The Ottoman era certainly had its ugly sides. For example if you were non-Muslim you had to pay extra tax. However there were some laws for minorities that are better than today.
All leftists know that both the empires in the East before WWII, the Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian, were more progressive on some issues than today’s states.
Kurds have a key role in the Middle East. When the Kurdish question is resolved all the issues in the Middle East will be resolved too. There is an irrational situation in the Balkans at the moment. Albania and Kosovo, two separate states but the same people. The West won’t allow them to unite, because they are afraid of a greater Albania. A Kurdish state in the Middle East conversely isn’t a threat to anyone. In fact it would be a bridge between peoples.
But the current situation shows that the opposite position has been taken. Oppression and violence against Kurds, especially in Turkey, is increasing…
Turkey’s stance is disgraceful, scary. Erdoğan’s party isn’t going to win the majority in the upcoming election either. So I think that leftists, Kemalists and Kurds can form a bloc. Of course these latest clashes are serving Erdoğan. They want to present the Kurds as being the aggressors and pull them under the election threshold.
The threshold in Turkey is very high. That’s why this is a dirty game. It’s not just a matter of killing or beating the Kurds either. If the Kurds are left under the threshold what can social democrats do?
I find it positive that the Kurds have changed their approach. They need to work to promote and present themselves to the world rather than just looking for pity. In short the Kurds are not just people fighting in the mountains, but the region’s most progressive and democratic nation, group. This is how they need to present themselves. Every time I visit Istanbul I have many Kurdish listeners. The main aim of the Kurds’ propaganda should be to change the perception of the Western world regarding Kurds.
The international left has not supported or developed solidarity with the Kurdish struggle like it has with Palestine or Latin America. Do you think this is just because the Kurds didn’t present themselves in the right way?
This isn’t your problem, but the problem of Western leftists who I am ashamed of. Most of the leftists here have drowned in their own clichés: Anti-fascism, opposition against the Vatican…
An interesting example I heard from Radovan Karadzic (Bosnian-Serbian politician): During the Yugoslavian Civil War Sarajevo was under Serbian siege, a humanitarian corridor could have been opened with very little Western pressure; but the West didn’t request this from the Serbs. Karadzic told me this himself. Again when Slovenia and Croatia separated, leftists opposed it; “It’s time to unite, why are you separating?” they said; but when the Catalans want to break away they support it. In other words there are peoples who have the permission to do this and others who don’t…
I don’t understand. The West supported Kosovo and Chechnya. But no one is saying anything for the Kurds. I think you need to analyse the global geopolitical movements behind the reason for this. As Kurds, and I’m not saying this in terms of violence, you need to play very cruelly. That is to say you need to play the powers against each other and comprehend them well.
But the results of a politics like this in the region is clear for everyone to see… The refugees…
Listen, for me the biggest ethical and political scandal is this: Look at the Middle East, even European countries. If we were to generalise there are three types of countries: Very poor, medium-wealth and very wealthy. Where are the refugees? In poor or medium-wealth countries… So countries like Turkey, Jordan, and Egypt. There are more than a million refugees in each of these countries. Europe is quite wealthy in comparison, and there are some refugees here. However the policy of very wealthy countries like Saudi Arabia, Kuwait or United Arab Emirates is one of ‘No to Refugees.” These countries don’t even have the right to say, “Sorry but this isn’t our war.” Saudi Arabia supports anti-Assad forces. This is shameful. Everyone is ready to isolate and sanction Israel, but what about pressuring Turkey for what it is doing to Kurds? Or pressuring Saudi Arabia? Saudi Arabia is without defence, because it is not just a traditional Muslim country, in a way it represents the Western banks. Its subsistence comes from banks. In other words Saudi Arabia is nothing without Western banks and I’m not even counting Dubai and the others! These aren’t just rich but also Sunni countries. They should have been closer to the refugees on a religious and cultural level too.
The Kurds have a vision, a model for an equal life: Democratic Autonomy…
For me at this point the Kurds are very important. Now I’m going to say something ironic, which most people will not agree with: I think the Kurds need to be another version of Jews in the Middle East. So, not oppressive or invasive, but dynamic and open… The sensitivity of Kurds could be an example. The autonomy of Kurds is a great hope.
A person needs to be realistic. There is a crisis in the Middle East. From where or who can something new come? I think the Kurds are one of the places where something new is going to come from.
I always test my Arab friends who say, “I support democracy,” with the question: What do you think about the Kurds? You can test them with this. I can say this candidly: I want everything to go well for Kurds and want to visit them (in Rojava); but I don’t know how to do this. I really want to. And then I want to visit Öcalan outside his cell.
As you know there are cantons in Rojava…
What is the chance politically of these cantons surviving?
They have made many gains in terms of self-governance until now…
Maybe after a certain time there will be peace. However I don’t believe that Syria can be defended for too much longer. I think it’s too late. I don’t think Syria can be saved.
However there is a system being erected in Rojava, lead by Kurds, that includes all the peoples of Syria who were living together until now.
This is the problem. During the Assad rule, even though he is a dictator, there was some sort of ethnic balance. Yes Assad favoured his own group, and this was the problem.
If I were in the position the Kurds find themselves in I would go a little further. I don’t think it’s sufficient that there are cantons in Syria or the southeast of Turkey. There needs to be permission for these to be joined together. Maybe not as a separate state, but there needs to be unity. This would be a great gain.
I really send my best wishes. I want to visit those areas too. Are there universities in these cantons? How does one go there?
Yes, there are universities. You can go from Turkey or South Kurdistan (KRG)…
And the Turkish state allows this?
Even though they are not very happy about it, they do…
Of course, and then you will find my corpse somewhere nearby. No I’m kidding, I seriously wish to go. Could you tell me something, is there anyone to translate at these universities in Rojava? In other words can I speak English there? How will it work?
I don’t think you will have trouble with language. It is possible to find people who speak Kurdish, Arabic, English, Turkish, Armenian… indeed most languages.
Armenian too? Then I’ll go! And do they have universities there too? If they did it would be amazing. OK, I will fly over from Turkey. I’m lazy. I don’t want to travel 10 hours in a car.
Slavoj Zizek is a Slovenian philosopher, cultural critic, and Marxistintellectual. He is a senior researcher at the Institute for Sociology and Philosophy at the University of Ljubljana, Global Distinguished Professor of German at New York University, and international director of the Birkbeck Institute for the Humanities. His work is located at the intersection of a range of disciplines, including continental philosophy,political theory, cultural studies, psychoanalysis, film criticism, and theology.