Summarizing Hamit Bozarslan’s Freedom Lecture for Rojava University

By The Kurdish Center for Studies

On April 24, 2024, the University of Rojava (founded in 2016) held its fourth Freedom Annual Lecture Series. The lecture, featuring the distinguished Kurdish historian Professor Hamit Bozarslan, Director of the School of Advanced Studies in Social Sciences (EHESS) in Paris, France, was entitled: “Reflections on Anti-Democracy and War in the 21st Century.”

With regards to the full series, the inaugural lecture featured American public intellectual Professor Noam Chomsky (January 15, 2021) and was followed by the second lecture featuring Irish sociologist Professor John Holloway, entitled “Hope in Hopeless Times” (April 22, 2022).  The subsequent third lecture featured British anthropologist Professor Alpa Shah, entitled “The Insurgent Jungles: Forest Notes on the Naxalite Guerrillas and Indigenous People of India” (April 21, 2023).

This latest lecture was opened by Dr. Sardar Saadi, Director of the Institute of Social Sciences at the University of Rojava, and moderated by Rosa Burç, a Ph.D. candidate at the Center on Social Movement Studies in Florence, Italy. Dr. Massoume Amini, President of the Center for Graduate Studies at the University of Rojava, delivered the opening remarks.

During the hour-long presentation, Professor Bozarslan—an expert and prolific author on many works related to ‘the Kurdish question’, Turkey, and the wider Middle East—addressed several recent interlinked conflicts, such as Israel’s current war in Gaza, Azerbaijan’s ethnic cleansing of Artsakh (Nagorno-Karabakh), the annihilation of Syrian society since 2011, Turkey’s occupations within Rojava, and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Other geopolitical topics Professor Bozarslan spoke about include: An analysis of Palestine’s political agency, the ramifications of Hamas’ October 7th attack, the Islamization of the Arab World, and how Turkish nationalism fuels desires for Turanist expansionist lebensraum.

Philosophical themes Professor Bozarslan focused on include wars of decivilization which are carried out with the intent of destroying urbanity, why genocides attempt to annihilate a people’s living memory, and how anti-democratic regimes mentally merge the state and the nation so that autocrats such as Erdoğan and Putin become the living embodiments of the people they claim to represent. These were coupled with historical reflections on how passive democracies overlooked Turkey’s role in the Armenian Genocide and fascism’s assault during the Spanish Civil War.

Lastly, on the Kurdish front specifically, Professor Bozarslan opined on all four regions of Greater Kurdistan, discussing internal regional disunity between Rojava (Western Kurdistan) and Bashur (Southern Kurdistan), the effective mobilization of municipal civil society in Bakur (Northern Kurdistan), and the cultural impact of the Jin, Jiyan, Azadi (Women, Life, Freedom) movement in Rojhilat (Eastern Kurdistan). Moreover, he tied the mass violence against Kurds throughout the 20th century to the current day colonialist policies of Turkey and Iran, where both states wish to keep the Kurds divided and Kurdistan as a buffer zone between their spheres of control.

The ensuing bulleted passages are excerpts from Professor Hamit Bozarslan’s lecture, organized by theme and either slightly reworded for clarity or quoted verbatim where specified.

On Civilization & Wars

“Civilization is neither Eastern nor Western. Civilization is neither Christian nor Islamic, or Chinese or Indian. Civilization is trust in time and space.”

‣     Our wars now are focused on destroying trust, urbanity, and civilization. You cannot give meaning to your past. You cannot project yourself into the future. The destruction becomes the only moment when your history starts. The Armenian Genocide and the Holocaust were similar situations aimed at destroying time and space.

‣     We call it the “Syrian Civil War,” but it is much worse. It is a war of destruction, an annihilation of a society, as many parts of Syria have been destroyed. Syria in 2011, had 23 million people. Today, we have 500,000 killed and 13 million exiles or internally displaced people. The Syrian society has basically been destroyed. It was a war of decivilization.

‣     Take another case of Nagorno Karabakh (Artsakh), where the population was almost 100% Armenian, and their civilization has been destroyed by the Azeri military. In this war, Russia, Turkey, and Israel have supported Azerbaijan against the Armenians. Russia did this because Armenian had their own democratic revolution. While Israel has supported Azerbaijan for cynical reasons to counter Iran.

‣     In the case of Ukraine, we have a similar situation. It is a global war—a war on urbanity. Each attack is a war on urban space that can continue for weeks and months and create so-called “liberated spaces” when the population is destroyed. This form of war is against life and civilization.

‣     As for historical examples of wars against civilization and urban spaces, look at the Siege of Sarajevo in the 1990s (1992-1996), the Second World War (1941-1945), or the Civil War in Spain (1936-1938).

Guernica in Spain was the very symbol of this destruction of urbanity.”

Guernica (1937) by Pablo Picasso, showing Nazi Germany’s aerial destruction of the Basque city during the Spanish Civil War.

On Anti-Democratic Forces

‣     Unfortunately, democratic regimes are very passive against anti-democratic regimes now, just like they were in the 1920s and 1930s.

‣     We have seen the emergence of two anti-democratic regimes: Turkey and Russia. Erdoğan and Putin both think that their nations have a historical mission to dominate the world that has been given by history and certified by God. The Quran and Bible are read as forms of legitimization. You have history, God, and Darwinian science, since they believe that only the strong win.

‣     Putin explains that is not the Russian state invading Ukraine but the Russian nation itself. The nation is the sovereign entity. Such anti-democratic regimes juxtapose the state and the nation itself. As a result, for Russia, the future cannot be a future of equality between nations and states. The future can only be one of war.

On the Arab World & Palestine

‣     In the 20th century, “Palestine has never been a subject of its own history”. It has been either defeated by Israeli forces or manipulated or abandoned by regional Arab governments.

‣     In 1947 and 1948, there were no Palestinian actors or forces; there were only Arab armies who thought they could defeat Israeli forces very easily. The end result was the Nakba (catastrophe) for the Palestinians.

‣     In 1967, once again, the Arab armies thought they could defeat Israel in a couple of days. During the Black September (1970-71) the Palestinians were again abandoned. In the 1980’s, many Arab countries massacred Palestinian refugees and abandoned Palestine.

‣     No Arab states in the Middle East currently support the Palestinian cause. The Arab world is in total silence. “Cairo is silent. Riyadh is silent… Almost all Arab capitals are silent. There is no diplomatic, strategic, or moral support given to the Palestinians.” Consequently, “Palestine remains alone.”

On Palestinian Society

‣     Palestinian society is in crisis because it is “a defeated society”. The 14th-century historian Ibn Khaldun explained that: “Defeated societies do not have a history; their history belongs to those who dominate them.”

‣     Palestinian society has been fragmented and as a result, it has not been able to provide a new alternative following the second Intifada of the 2000s.

‣     Despite being a defeated society, Palestinian society is still a dynamic one. In which there are intellectuals, including many women, engaged in the fight for emancipation for national and gender emancipation. I hope that this society will be able to develop a new political alternative that is not Islamist, jihadist, or based on violence.

On Hamas & the War in Gaza

‣     “Hamas was not a part of the solution, but rather was part of the problem.”

‣     We must support Palestinian society, but we have to be aware that October 7th has changed a lot of things, and we cannot support in any way what happened on that day. It was a moment that now calls for an assessment of responsibility and rationality.

‣     The October 7th Hamas attackers thought they could reduce the history of Palestine and Israel into a span of 27 hours. But they forgot to anticipate the extremely heavy cost of that decision. Their actions represent the destruction of rationality.

‣     It is true that there were 7,500 prisoners in Israeli jails, many of whom were not guilty of anything. But the October 7th attack, which was supposed to liberate them, has instead brought about 40,000 Palestinian deaths.

‣     One of the Hamas goals for October 7th was to break up relations between Saudi Arabia and Israel and draw Saudi Arabia closer to Iran. But we see the reality that Saudi Arabia continues to help Israel.

‣     When you take the case of Iran and their groups, such as Hezbollah in Lebanon, the PMF In Iraq, the Houthis in Yemen, and their groups in Syria, you realize that organizing a militia-based diplomacy for Iranian hegemony is the goal, not the liberation of Palestine or the wish of improving Palestinian’s conditions.

‣     In Turkey, the President (Erdoğan) has made harsh declarations, but there have been no diplomatic changes with Israel; on the contrary, Turkish commerce has continued.

‣     Despite these factors, the “brutal war going on in Palestine” requires us to express our solidarity with the civilian population in Gaza of 2 million people, who have been suffering for over seven months.

On Israel

‣     Israel was built more by the United States and the Soviet Union to have a space in the Middle East than the British Empire.

‣     From the very beginning, it was obvious that it was impossible to have a state that was an ethnocracy. Israel, as constructed, could not be both a religious state and a democratic state. This caused an internal crisis in Israeli society that has been intensified since the 1967 War and especially since the 1990s.

‣     Israel has become a state of domination comprised of religious sects, kleptocrats, and military forces. But this does not mean that we deny the existence of Israel; it is there and part of the Middle East.  But we must fight for democracy within Israel, which is connected to a democratic Middle East.

On Turkish Expansionism

“Afrin had a population of 90% Kurds and today it is less than 10%. When I hear in Turkey some AKP partisans criticizing Israel, what I want to say to them, ‘If Netanyahu is Gaza’s hangman, in Rojava the Netanyahu is named Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.’”

‣     With Erdoğan, the Turkish state is presented as merely being an organ of the Turkish nation. Therefore, when Turkey occupies Afrin, it is the Turkish nation itself that occupies Afrin.

‣     “Turkey has never abandoned the project of building a narrow Turan, which was a theory of Ziya Gökalp.” This narrow Turan wants to unify Turkey and Azerbaijan, which would mean the destruction of Armenia.

‣     Turkey and Russia are pursuing Lebensraum (living space), similar to the way the Nazis viewed the concept.

On Turkish Jihadism & Genocide

“Take another case, of Rojava, Afrin, Serê Kaniyê, and Girê Spî, who have been destroyed by Turkey. These places have been transformed into a ‘Jihadistan’, where jihadi groups fight each other to have the maximum authority. In this war, we have on one part, the cynicism of Russia and Putin who wanted to improve their relations with Turkey, and on the other side we had the cynicism of Donald Trump. And today, in these parts of Rojava the Kurdish population have vanished.”

‣     During the Spanish Civil War, democracies did not intervene to stop fascist Germany and Italy from destroying Spain. Today we have a similar capitulation, where parts of Rojava have been transformed into a ‘Jihadistan’, while democracies remain silent.

‣     “Turkey was built by the organizers of the Armenian genocide. They massively participated in the genocide. Those who conducted the Armenian Genocide governed Turkey into the 1950s.” Ataturk was rehabilitated rather than punished for carrying out this genocide.

‣     The genocides that began under the Ottoman Empire continue to some extent in many parts of the Middle East and in Rojava.

On Kurdish History

“From 1961-2024, there have been hundreds of thousands of [Kurdish] people killed, thousands of villages have been destroyed, many towns have been destroyed. And many generations have had a history of brutality and violence.”

‣     Kurdish history is a history of violence throughout the 20th century. Since 1961, there has not been a single historical period where one part of Kurdistan is not in a state of revolt, a state of massive oppression, or a state of violence.

‣     The Kurdish situation today is still precarious, but we find ourselves in a better position than in the 1980s. When there was a crushed Kurdish uprising in Iraq, the Anfal operation destroyed many parts of Southern Kurdistan, there was a brutal military regime in power in Turkey, and in Rojava there were some cultural activities, but nobody could speak of an autonomous Kurdish movement.  Internal Kurdish relations were also violent and there were many cases of Birakujî (inner Kurdish war).

‣     We are in a much better situation today because there are two regions with de facto autonomy in Rojava and Southern Kurdistan.

On Turkey’s Anti-Kurdishness

“Violence is not only a state question, violence is also the refusal of any kind of recognition of Kurdish existence, and equality.  We see that today in Turkey concerning the Kurdish municipalities.”

‣     Turkey has never accepted the existence of Rojava. The Kobanê resistance was a turning point in the revolution against Erdoğanism. “The end of the Islamic State started in Kobanê and still remains problematic in Turkey.”

‣     Turkey requires a democratic movement, not a Kemalist movement.

On Challenges for Kurdistan from Iran and Turkey

‣     When you take Iranian Kurdistan (Rojhilat), the Jin, Jiyan, Azadi movement has become a dynamic and dominant force throughout Iran. There is a passive civil resistance in Rojhilat going on.

‣     Even though Kurds are a majority numerically, they are a minority because they cannot become a subject of their own history.

‣     We have internal problems that can be observed in Bashur, where Southern and Northern Kurdistan are not integrated. One cannot deny that in Bashur, Iran and Turkey both extend a huge influence. For instance, in Kirkuk, they are both against any kind of Kurdish autonomy.

‣     Turkey and Iran both want to divide Kurdistan and use it as a buffer zone, like in the 16th centuries. So, just as Palestine needs to be independent of Arab forces or Iran, the Kurds need to become subjects of their own history and not allied with either Turkey or Iran.

‣     To resist the external pressures from Turkey and Iran, Kurds must say: “We do exist. We have a common history and a common future. We decide our future either with or without the states in the forms that we want.”

Professor Bozarslan’s full video lecture can be → viewed here


  • The Kurdish Center for Studies

    The Kurdish Center for Studies (KCS) is the general term given for articles which are collaborations by the Co-Directors, contributors, or staff from the KCS—where listing each of the specific authors is unnecessary. The KCS Editorial Board reviews and approves such pieces before publication.

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