Education as the Key to the Revolution: In North and East Syria, Democracy is Being Taught and Learned

This article by Müslüm Örtülü was published by Kurdistan Report on 19 September, 2021

How does one learn democracy? This is a central question that the revolution of Rojava is grappling with. The answer is education, education and more education. A society that has been colonized for decades and has had no rights of participation is suddenly faced with the great challenge of developing its own democratic system by means of communes and council structures. This is not an easy challenge that the people in North and East Syria are facing. The process is long, sometimes marked by great difficulties and contradictions. But the will to build their own structures can be felt everywhere. These structures are expected to solve the social problems, of which there are not exactly few in view of the existing war situation. Of course, self-defense is a central pillar of reconstruction. But in the three months I have now spent in the region, I have witnessed that self-defense means much more than having powerful military structures. The most effective self-defense is a society with a democratic political consciousness. And the awareness needs to be created through collective and diverse educational activities.

In his book “Sociology of Freedom,” Abdullah Öcalan, the mastermind behind the revolution in Rojava, repeatedly argues in favor of building your own educational structures that go beyond the existing structures of power and knowledge. For him, these structures are the central cornerstone for the formation of a `political-moral society`. According to Öcalan, education is a central method for society to transmit knowledge and experience from the older generation to the younger. But education is a contested field. The states, as representatives of the official civilization system, have also appropriated the method of knowledge. By means of their educational institutions, they try to utilize the youth in the sense of their system. Öcalan therefore calls for the construction of educational institutions, which do not in any case imitate the educational institutions of this civilization system. The educational institutions of Democratic Modernity need to be places where teachers and learners can learn from each other and together lay the foundation of a democratic society.

Collective Life According to Democratic Principles

So much for theory, but how is all of this being put into practice? In North and East Syria, the academies play a central role in this effort. The `Academies for a Democratic Society` are places where society is supposed to learn the mindset of Democratic Modernity. These academies can be found in every major city. They were founded back in 2014, at that time under the name `Akademiya Nûrî Dêrsimî`. Research and teaching take place in these academies. Participants in the academies are members of society itself. Both council structures and civic organizations can suggest their members for participation in the educations. The duration of the educations ranges from a few weeks to several months. They take place either in Arabic or in Kurdish. In these educations, people deal with their own history, with the ideology of the state and with the concepts of revolution. In addition to the education itself, however, living together is also a central part. People live collectively and according to democratic principles. After each lesson, there is an opportunity to criticize the teachers and make suggestions for improvement. The teachers of the academies also evaluate their work after each completed education and try to develop it further. At the annual congresses of the academies, the entire work structures are put to the test. For example, at the last congress it was decided that in the future there need to be multi-stage educational units. In the first stage participants get to know the ideas of the revolution and its principles. In the next stages, the participants develope the awareness and skills to take on leading responsibility in the social structures. Thus, the educational structures are never set in stone. Ways and means are always being sought to improve the work of the academies and to adapt them to the needs of society.

Building Your Own Educational Structures

The participants of every education have very different backgrounds. They are people from all walks of society. What unites them is the will to do something for their society. The interest of the people is great. They ask questions, join in discussions and share their ideas and thoughts with each other. I learned in my conversations that there had been doubts about the work of the academies in the Arab areas at the beginning, especially because both women and men participate in them. These concerns have since been reversed. One teacher told me how enthusiastic the discussions are at the educations in cities like Tebqa or Raqqa. And among women in particular, the willingness to learn and shed old thought structures is immense.

Creating a new democratic consciousness is a lengthy task. This is because the old `state` mindset is omnipresent. Many people expect the structures of self-administration to provide solutions to society’s problems without seeing their own responsibility in doing so. The system of self-administration is often measured by its ability to solve people’s economic problems. The possibility of democratic participation in the structures from the municipality to the city council often plays a subordinate role. Learning that the search for solutions to problems is a collective task and not that of a “governance structure” of any kind is ultimately a long and difficult road.

In North and East Syria, however, people have embarked on this path. They are building their own educational structures to enable society to follow this path. The `Academies for a Democratic Society` are part of these structures. There are also the women’s academies, the universities, the educations of the municipalities, the city councils, the political parties and the other social structures. In my conversations during my travels through the region, I heard again and again about the importance of these educational units. Even before the end of an education, the diverse social structures I came into contact with are already busy organizing the next. Education is part of everyday life and the cornerstone of revolution. So in North and East Syria, democracy is truly being taught and learned.

This article was first published in the September/October 2021 edition of the Kurdistan Report.