The 5th edition of the New World Summit opened today in Derik / Al Malikiyyah in northwestern Syria. The Dutch artist Jonas Staal and his team, in tandem with the authorities of the autonomous canton of Cizire, drew full audiences with a thorough, two-day discussion of ‘Democratic Confederalism’ by international delegates and local specialists.
The event, which was supposed to take place within the parliamentary structure designed by Jonas Staal, was in the city’s cultural center instead. This was due to delays in the construction, caused by the Turkish blockade and the ensuing difficulty of finding construction materials and tools, and by the fact that the reconstruction of Kobane, now connected to Cizire since the Kurds captured the territory from ISIS, is taking precedence.
The room was packed; besides the 27 members of the international delegation, several hundred civil society and political leaders took part. I sat next to two women representing the Aramaean church, who immediately pulled out their mobiles to show me contemporary icons of Jesus and Mary photoshopped with dramatic compassion in Eastern style.
The set was decorated with the striking iconography of the New World Summit, including impressions of the parliament under construction, which will be a domed structure supported by 34 pillars, with canvas panels covering it almost until the ground level.The space, surrounded by a vast parterre and a park, can be entered from all sides, giving it an open character. The floor is composed of 5 concentric circles ensconced at progressively deeper levels, with a raised circle in the platform behind which the speakers can stand; the ‘steps’ provide seating all around at each level. The structure reflects the inverted power structure of Rojava, where ‘higher’ levels of representation represent ‘deeper’ levels of community service.
The summit started with an exposé by Jonas Staal, including visuals. He explained the objectives and trajectory of the New World Summit, previous editions of which have taken place in Berlin, Leiden, Kochi and Brussels. Concerning the question what this has to do with art, Jonas replied that the imagination of art is necessary to imagine new forms of self-representation in politics.
The first session was about democratic confederalism, and featured Dr. Amina Osse, the Minister of Foreign Affairs of the canton of Cizire, the main canton of Rojava. She has been the local counterpart of this project from the outset. The Rojava government, far from being a passive recipient of this project initiated in the Netherlands, has invested heavily, notably in the parliamentary structure but also in this summit, and by covering the expenses of the international delegation, feeding and accommodating them, and touring them around Cizire.
Each of the four delegation groups was guided by an official of the canton of Cizire, who are normally very busy, but who took the time to introduce us to the local reality, culture and institutions. Our delegation, as described in previous blogs, was led by the Minister of Women’s Affairs, Amina Omar.
Dr. Amina Osse, of Foreign Affairs, explained the theory and practice of democratic confederalism. Unfortunately much was lost in the translation, but I hope to link her paper here soon. She was followed by Janet Biehl, companion and biographer of Murray Bookchin, whose ideas about libertarian municipalism were a major inspiration for Abdullah Ocalan when he developed his theory of democratic confederalism.
After the first session we had a lovely lunch in the garden, in the spirit of the amazing hospitality and lovely food we’ve been enjoying since we arrived in Rojava. The bonding between participants in the conference was immediate, fostered by a great positive spirit and seemingly unhampered by the considerable language barrier.
This New World Summit is a big deal for the local population: it is relayed live by the local Ronahi TV, including interviews of participants in the breaks, and by four other Kurdish satellite channels. The hit on social media, according to the summit producer Younes Bouadi, was amazing – although we couldn’t find out in the conference center, being mercifully isolated from the internet.
In the afternoon there were three more sessions: the first dedicated to self-defense, the second to gender equality, and the third to secularism.
Hussein Shawish, of the YPG – the local self-defense units – started by stating that each organism has its own mechanism of self-defense, using the Persian metaphor of the rose with thorns. It was touching to hear a military man with many years of frontline experience cast the whole theme of defense in social, cultural and ecological terms. For him, free media, public health, respect of the environment and sports & counternarcotics activities for the youth are more important for the defense of a community than military action. He noted that a genocide starts with the intellectuals and culture.
Next was Sana El Mansouri of the World Amazigh Congress, who compared the situation in Libya to that she had encountered in Rojava. She could not envisage another solution than the creation of a state in Western Libya, as it is the only manner to achieve self-representation in this world – all other methods through civil society action and the attempt to inscribe the existence of the Amazigh and their language in the constitution had failed. But she was inspired by what she had seen in terms of communal self-organization in the past days. Her presentation was moving and also very professional, as she is a TV presenter based in Qatar for an Amazigh satellite channel.
The session about gender equality saw Amina Omar, the Minister of Women’s Affairs, together with Nathalie McGuire, a MP in Westminster for the Scottish National Party. Amina has become our personal favorite, with her liberal style, hearty laughs and open-mindedness. She is the embodiment of the success of the women’s revolution in Rojava. A lawyer by training, she gave her presentation in Arabic, despite being a Kurd, and insisted on having her personal translator, a rather religious Arab girl, sit next to her to give the translation.
Natalie McGarry explained how the Scottish national struggle continued and deepened despite the ‘No’ of the referendum, and told how she had been inspired by what she had experienced in Rojava. About the quotas (50-50 of the political jobs for women, a reality in Rojava) she said: “you have achieved in a few years what we still have to attain after many decades of struggle”.
The final session was about secularism. Akram Mahshosh, member of Cizire’s legislative council, mentioned how the ‘secular Islam’ that Turkey had tried had utterly failed, and that it was intimately linked with the fundamentalist Islam of Daesh. Secular Islam is, anyhow, a contradiction in terms, as he noted. He opposed it with the democratic nationalism practiced in Rojava, which does have space for religions.
That reminded me of the Minister of Religious Affairs of Cizire, Sheikh Al Qadiri, who had given me a photocopy of his manuscript about religions, where he compounds fragments of the Quran, the Bible and many other religious texts, including the Torah, and Yezidi proverbs as well as local wisdom. There is, for example, a section on ‘the innocence of blasphemy and polytheism’ – quite a refreshing sound from a sheikh in this age.
Finally, Ilena Saturay of the National Democratic Movement (NDM) in the Philippines – the political movement associated with the New People’s Army which has been trying to implement alternatives to the State in the territories it controls – gave a moving speech about this movement, and its similarities to what she had encountered in Rojava. About secularism, she mentioned that the NDM in the Philippines was not anti-religious, and that education and empowerment activities by the NDM had even deepened the faith of some Christians associated with the movement.
Day one of the New World Summit thus ended on a very positive note, with a general feeling that we were experiencing a truly remarkable, even historic, moment.