The Arab uprisings of the last decade—and similar protest movements in Iran and Turkey—have given way to counterrevolution, authoritarian retrenchment, and state failure across much of the Middle East. In some places the aftermath has delivered conflicts cast in terms of ethnic, sectarian, and regional identity. Western analysts have long resorted to explaining conflicts in the region through broad claims of intolerance, positing that these countries are incapable of managing diversity without violence. Why—in a region that has been characterized by religious, linguistic, and cultural pluralism for millennia—do these explanations gain purchase?
Colonialism’s disfiguring impact on the region is one reason these explanations persist today. The postcolonial emergence of the region’s nation-states centralized political authority around national identity, disrupting earlier modes of governance. These states enforced a kind of ethno-majoritarianism that has produced a politics of intolerance. But to conclude that the region’s pluralism is a source of violence is to mistake cause and effect.
The ethno-majoritarian model for political membership and authority entailed top-down homogenization and centralization. Nation-building and state formation tore through the fabric of the pluralist makeup of the region. In the multiethnic, multi-sectarian territories that comprise the post-Ottoman Middle East, defining membership in the polity by elevating one communal identity as the basis for national belonging is a violent project. The nation-state is a Western political technology ill suited to the region.
This essay is featured in Imagining Global Futures.
Even so, today’s dystopian characterizations of the region as suffering through an “Arab winter” miss, and even obscure, important regional developments. Surprising and innovative political experiments are emerging in the region, even amid the authoritarian order propped up by external patrons and a long military occupation tolerated by the international community. Indeed, communities are pursuing alternative forms of self-government and undertaking local experiments, reimagining coexistence amid state failure and the collapse of international diplomacy.
Some stateless communities of the region have reconfigured ideas of self-determination. For example, the Kurds and the Palestinians have faced extreme postcolonial precarity as they have been denied access to the levers of state power. This precarity, however, has forced a fundamental rethinking of how political authority should be produced, organized, and institutionalized. These communities are experimenting with ideas of decentralized governance and confederalism that complicate depictions of the region as reproducing authoritarianism. Moreover, their experiments represent innovative, bottom-up democratic practices that hold relevance beyond their immediate geographic context.
Today the Middle East may well have the world’s highest degree of centralized rule. Yet decentralized rule characterized the region’s politics until the nineteenth century. Dynastic empires, from the Umayyads to the Ottomans, organized diverse territories under models of highly decentralized rule. They facilitated travel across vast swathes of the Mediterranean, Persian Gulf, and Indian Ocean regions with few borders and little disruption to long-standing local governance practices. This tradition of coexistence is today dismissed by the region’s political elites who invoke legitimate anxieties that latter-day decentralization would allow for the forms of territorial fragmentation exploited by colonial divide-and-rule strategies. Still, the nation-state, now the norm in the region, remains just a recent development borne of colonial encounters.
The mandate system that followed the dismemberment of the Ottoman empire transformed provincial identities and boundaries into fixed borders with distinct governing arrangements. Post-colonial self-determination created independent nation-states organized along a similar logic. The territorial integrity of the lands within these borders was tied to a communal identity encompassing the population of the new nation. Boundaries became fixed, while national capitals exerted their authority all the way to the periphery of their territories.
As the central state imposed a unifying conception of national identity, some communities found their fortunes elevated, while others’ identities were transformed overnight into threats to the newfound territorial integrity of the nation. Some assumed a minority status that produced further demands for self-determination. This might mean the pursuit of external self-determination through a national liberation movement contesting the validity of postcolonial borders and seeking to secede and form a new state. Another alternative, that of internal self-determination, amounted to seeking minority rights protections to resist being conscripted into the new national identity. In practice, however, minority rights schemes in the Middle East offered little protection in an age of nation-building.
The international framework for self-determination—choosing either minority rights or to pursue an independent state—presented a dead end for the region’s stateless communities. Wars for national liberation produced violence without independence. Meanwhile, minority rights frameworks have failed to protect against predatory central states and intercommunal violence, failing, too, to enable the full expression of minority ethnic, cultural, linguistic, and religious identities. Initiatives to reconfigure self-determination through decentralized politics offer the possibility of overcoming the exhausted binary of minority rights or an independent state. Moreover, local reconceptualizations of self-determination may provide a way beyond the impasse of identity-based conflict and authoritarianism that characterizes the region’s states.
Kurdistan and Israel and Palestine have become sites for innovative thinking about pluralist territorial arrangements, especially those centered on confederal institutions. The Kurdish communities of Turkey and Syria have explored “democratic confederalism,” which has been implemented in the Syrian Kurdish cantons and to a limited extent at the municipal level in southeastern Turkey. Israelis and Palestinians are also building a grassroots movement to advocate for a binational confederal future. These nascent experiments, grounded in the political experiences of the stateless communities of the Middle East, suggest an innovative politics able to exist beyond the nation-state.
The emergence of the state system in the Middle East divided Kurdish lands among four contemporary states: Turkey, Syria, Iraq, and Iran. As the post-Ottoman Middle East took shape, the Kurdish population resisted forced inclusion in the new order through a series of failed revolts, which ended in the partition of Kurdistan. Today the Kurdish community comprises the largest ethnic minority in Iraq, Syria, and Turkey with a distinct language; history; and, in some cases, sectarian identity. Although the political fortunes of the Kurdish communities in these states varied, each experienced the searing dispossession of centralized states premised on exclusionary nationalism.
The Kurdish communities of the region have approached the question of self-determination in divergent ways after these experiences. Initially, they attempted to form an independent Kurdistan through armed, secessionist insurgencies against one or more of the existing states of the region. That effort was met with brutal repression. Uprisings were crushed with overwhelming violence in Iraq (with credible allegations of genocide in the 1980s) and Turkey, and to a lesser extent in Syria and Iran. That trajectory changed in Iraqi Kurdistan in the aftermath of the 2003 invasion of Iraq and the introduction of a Western-sponsored federal constitution that afforded asymmetric autonomy to the Kurdish community of that country. Outside of Iraq, however, Kurdish communities continued to chafe against the assimilationist politics of the nation-states in which they were located.
More recently, the Kurdish communities of Syria and Turkey have pursued an alternative to secession, one that emphasizes internal self-determination within the existing borders of the region’s states. The strategy does not depend on minority rights protections but instead involves a reconceptualization of confederalism. This new model emphasizes decentralized territorial arrangements. It gives robust governance authority to regional and local actors, facilitates investment in grassroots democratic practices, and allows for the self-constituting capacities of civil society without contesting existing borders. Communities are self-determining at the local level, where most of their affairs are governed, allocating less power to a confederal state apparatus comprised of delegates from different communities.
This innovative approach to internal self-determination emerged from the Kurdish national movement in Turkey. In the first decades of the republic, the Kurdish community resisted Turkish national assimilation and was subjected to military incursions and governed under martial law. In the 1960s and ’70s, the Kurdish national movement joined broader leftist mobilizations in the country, which were quashed by a military coup in 1980. With the post-coup demobilization of the Turkish left, Kurdish activists regrouped around an explicitly nationalist, Marxist-influenced platform. They joined the Kurdish Worker’s Party (known by its Kurdish acronym, PKK) and launched an armed insurgency against the Turkish state with the goal of secession. During this period the PKK was led by Abdullah Öcalan, a Kurdish citizen of Turkey who had been a leftist student of political science in Ankara during the 1970s and was deeply influenced by contemporaneous anti-colonial movements.
The Turkish state responded to the PKK insurgency by launching a low-grade civil war in the country’s southeastern provinces in 1984. It raged until 1999, when Öcalan was forced out of a safe haven in Syria and captured by Turkish agents in Kenya. Since 1999 Öcalan has been imprisoned, often in solitary confinement, on the island of İmralı in the Marmara Sea. There, he resumed his leftist studies, fashioning for himself a curriculum that has informed a post-Marxist political turn that fundamentally transformed the Kurdish national movement. Öcalan’s political project calls for ideological renewal, abandoning secessionism in favor of highly decentralized radical democracy within existing borders.
Öcalan’s new model, which he labels “democratic confederalism,” builds on several elements, the first of which is the rejection of traditional nationalism. Instead of nationalism, Öcalan argues that the Kurdish community should pursue greater autonomy, cultural rights, and the decentralization of political power within existing states. His conception of citizenship is more civic than ethnic, separating state institutions from national identities.
Öcalan once championed a Kurdish nation-state. Later, however, in an interview in the Turkish newspaper Radikal, he dismissed this earlier aspiration as a capitalist distortion. Other elements of Öcalan’s thinking—inspired by post-Marxist theorists such as Murray Bookchin, an ecological activist and anarchist—draw from feminist, ecological, and participatory democratic theories. He has written numerous tracts, contained in dozens of volumes, that provide detailed accounts of his proposed system of confederal participatory democracies. While his ideas have garnered significant academic attention, particularly among European scholars of Kurdish politics, what is more significant is their impact on Kurdish communities’ politics on the ground in Turkey and Syria.
The most well-developed example of on the ground political experimentation has occurred in the Kurdish provinces of Syria—known as Rojava—as an unexpected byproduct of the Syrian civil war. Following the initial uprising in March 2011, Damascus lost control over much of the country, producing de facto decentralization across Syria. The opposition held areas in northwestern Syria and the Kurdish provinces in northeastern Syria, both of which experimented with forms of local self-rule. By 2015, with the support of Russia and Iran, the Syrian regime began to retake control of opposition-held areas. However, it focused on consolidating control over restive provinces rather than those in the northeast, where the Kurds were left to battle ISIS and Turkish-backed forces without interference by the central state. As a result, the governing and security arrangements that the Kurds established after 2011 have now been in place for nearly a decade. Öcalan’s idea of democratic confederalism first flourished in this unexpected context.
Öcalan’s idea of confederalism involves delinking nation from state, allowing for pluralist communal politics. This occurs through radical devolution of state power to local democratic councils representing the interests of diverse identity groups. These councils allow power to flow upward from consensus-based local representative bodies to regional or national assemblies comprised of elected delegates from the regions. The political institutions established in Rojava in 2014 implemented Öcalan’s model. Led by the Democratic Union Party (PYD), a socialist Kurdish political party aligned with Öcalan, a system of autonomous administration has emerged that is not independent of the state but embraces asymmetric autonomy within Syria’s borders.
The political system in Rojava—formalized through a constitution known as the Social Contract of the Federation of Northern Syria-Rojava—lays out a non-sectarian, non-ethnic model of democratic federal governance. The region is divided into three cantons: Jazira, Kobane, and Afrin, each designated a Democratic Autonomous Administration (DAA), with delegated responsibility for all areas of policy except collective defense, for which the federal entity has primary responsibility. Legislative assemblies at the canton level pass laws, draft budgets, appoint members to a Supreme Constitutional Court, and retain authority to oversee all administrative and executive bodies. Governance structures in the DAAs also contain strict guidelines for gender, ethnic, and religious inclusion at all levels of authority.
The model of self-governance adopted in Rojava is explicitly designed as non-statist form of self-determination. It emphasizes developing self-organization from the bottom-up, strengthening administrative capacities down to the most local level: neighborhood assemblies. These assemblies feed upward to the district, city, and provincial levels, with elected representatives at each level led by male and female co-chairs. In elections held in 2017, 70 percent of all eligible voters in the region participated, forming over 3,000 elected commune councils. Moreover, the elections included councils comprised of Kurds, Turkmen, Arabs, Yazidis, Assyrians, and other communities in the region. The democratic confederal experiment in Rojava embraced an inclusive and pluralist model that ensured decentralized governance all the way down, enabling each group to administer cultural and religious policies while connecting to the region’s broader political structure on economic, justice, and security matters.
The progressive character of governance in Rojava has received sensationalized international attention, particularly because the institutions were established in a historically resource-deprived and war-ravaged part of Syria under attack by ISIS. Yet the project is neither utopian nor a showcase designed for international audiences. The seriousness of the Syrian Kurdish commitment to enacting a pluralist, decentralized politics is evident in their determination to create elected councils amid a brutal siege by ISIS. Moreover, practices of gender parity and communal inclusion reveal a deep commitment to pluralism along various identity lines. Each executive council in every community in Rojava is co-chaired by a man and a woman, and the councils have a 40 percent gender quota for their composition. Rojava also developed councils to represent identity groups: such as religious and cultural communities (as with Assyrian or Arab councils), and categorical groups (such as women’s and youth councils that have authority over policy issues affecting their members).
The political experiment in Rojava gives institutional form to Öcalan’s ideas, democratizing politics for a multiethnic, multi-sectarian community. The commitment to democratic pluralism—and the willingness to experiment with institutional design strategies—is exemplary but not utopian. While the project in Rojava has faced pragmatic challenges in a fraught geopolitical context, its persistence and commitment to self-governance remain remarkable. The project cultivates habits of self-government and yields a thriving coexistence built on shared institutions.
What is most striking about this Kurdish experiment is not its fragile survival—though its future is today further imperiled by a NATO expansion agreement that may have green lighted further Turkish military incursions in Rojava—but that a community historically denied any international recognition of statehood has innovated a radically democratic conception of self-determination. However contingent the project in Rojava, the model theorized by Öcalan and put into practice by his followers in Syria represents a democratic path forward that eschews the politics of ethno-majoritarian nationalism in favor of plural territorial arrangements within existing borders.
The emergence of the state system in the Middle East left the Palestinian people, like the Kurds, outside the fold. For most of the four centuries prior to World War I, the Ottoman Empire ruled Palestine, whose religiously diverse population was linked administratively, socially, and economically to greater Syria (bilad al-Sham). In 1917, within a year of occupying Palestine and without consulting its inhabitants, Great Britain declared its support for the establishment of a “Jewish national home” in the country. The meaning of that phrase, at a time when Palestine’s political borders had yet to be defined and only 10 percent of its population were Jews, was purposefully left ambiguous. What did become clear was that Palestine under the British Mandate would not be governed on the basis of majoritarian democracy: through a variety of means, Britain blocked Palestinian access to governmental institutions, while at the same time facilitating substantial Jewish immigration and granting the organized Jewish community in Palestine (the Yishuv) near total autonomy.
When these measures predictably placed the Zionist and Palestinian national movements on a collision course, British officials shifted to advocating partition of Palestine. This approach was embraced by segments of the Zionist movement but rejected by Palestinians, who demanded that the country be granted independence as a whole. Despite their objections, the United Nations General Assembly voted in 1947 to endorse Palestine’s partition into two states. During the civil war that ensued, the State of Israel declared independence, consolidating control over 78 percent of Mandate Palestine. In order to preserve the Jewish majority it had won in the war, Israel barred Palestinian refugees who had fled or been expelled in 1948–49 from returning to their homes. The remainder of Palestine—the West Bank and Gaza Strip—fell, respectively, under Jordanian and Egyptian administration until 1967, when Israel conquered these areas, too. Today, a century after the Mandate, Palestinians find themselves without a state of their own, and many—including those in the West Bank, Gaza Strip, and in refugee communities in Lebanon and Syria—lack citizenship in any state at all.
For the last several decades, diplomatic efforts to address this predicament have reprised the idea of partition, following years of pressure on Palestinian leaders to abandon the goal of “liberating” all the territory that comprised Mandate Palestine. The broad contours of what has come to be called the two-state solution materialized during talks between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) in 1999–2001 and 2007–08. Underlying this vision was a logic, advanced by Israeli leaders, that peace was best achieved by maximizing physical separation between the two peoples. A Palestinian state would be established on the West Bank and Gaza Strip, its border with Israel based on the armistice line in place between 1949 and 1967. Palestine’s capital would be in East Jerusalem, while West Jerusalem would be recognized as the capital of Israel. Israel would annex some of the Jewish settlements it established in the West Bank (in violation of international law), while the residents of others would be obliged to relocate inside Israel. A symbolic number of Palestinian refugees would be permitted to return to homes inside Israel, but the vast majority would make their homes in the Palestinian state or in third countries. The vision largely conformed with the campaign slogan with which Ehud Barak won Israel’s premiership in 1999: “Us here. Them there.”
As prospects for the realization of this vision have dimmed—in large part as a consequence of rapid expansion of Israel’s West Bank settlements and a pronounced rightward shift in its politics—public support has also fallen among Israelis and Palestinians. An alternative idea that is commanding increasing interest, if not yet widespread support, is an Israeli-Palestinian confederation. The idea is less a repudiation of a two-state solution than a variation of it. The confederation would be comprised of two sovereign states, offering both Palestinians and Jews full self-determination. It deviates from the long prevailing vision of partition, however, by rejecting the logic of separation. Advocates for confederation call for a relatively open border between Israel and Palestine, affording Israelis and Palestinians the right to move freely across all of Israel and Palestine (e.g., for work, study, travel, religious observance), as in Europe’s Schengen area. They also envision freedom of residence within the two states, which would permit some or all of each state’s citizens to become permanent residents in the other.
Confederal solutions have not only attracted attention within policy circles—the draft of one proposal circulated at the White House, Capitol Hill, and the United Nations earlier this year—they have also created a foundation for grass-roots coalition building inside Israel and Palestine. “A Land for All” (ALFA), a bi-national group co-founded by Israeli journalist Meron Rapoport and Palestinian functionary Awni al-Mashni, has developed a platform document from “in-depth discussions and hundreds of meetings between Palestinian and Israeli citizens and public figures.” In it they reject the idea that the territory of each state should constitute the homeland of the nation it represents. Instead “mutual recognition that this land is a shared homeland—a homeland for Jewish Israelis and for Palestinians—is a must.” While borders in this scheme “will not vanish,” and freedom of movement and residence may need to be implemented gradually, both states are expected to commit to “the vision of an open land, where citizens of both countries have the right to travel, work, and live anywhere.” Pursuant to this vision, Israeli settlers in the West Bank would have the right to remain in their homes as residents of a Palestinian state. In addition, Palestinians who are currently citizens of Israel would remain citizens, and all other Palestinians, including refugees, would have the right to reside in Israel. Permanent residents in both states would be entitled to vote in municipal, but not national, elections. Moreover, the city of Jerusalem, which straddles the territory of the two states, would be “whole, open, and shared rather than carved by walls and fences.”
The movement would also establish joint institutions for managing issues of concern to both states, including minority rights, security, intelligence, policing, socioeconomic rights, labor, welfare, economic development, customs, financial institutions, education, tourism, transportation, environmental protection, and natural resource extraction. The idea of creating joint institutions is by no means unprecedented: the Oslo Accords established Israeli-Palestinian coordinating bodies to address a wide range of issues. However, two features of the approach proposed by ALFA are distinctive. First, the design of the joint institutions will be guided by the principles of “mutual respect, fairness, and equality.” While the practical implications of these principles are not addressed in detail in the platform, in at least two of those areas—security and natural resource exploitation (i.e., water in particular)—an approach premised on equality would mark a radical departure from the scheme implemented under Oslo and urged by Israel during previous peace talks. Second, ALFA’s embrace of joint institutions to safeguard human rights—including an inter-state court—goes much further than two-state proposals toward establishing a supranational normative framework for Israel and Palestine.
To be sure, the movement for an Israeli-Palestinian confederation is less ideologically coherent and innovative than its Kurdish counterpart. It is advocated by an array of thinkers with diverse ideological commitments and political goals, and it seeks not to jettison the idea of “two states for two peoples,” but to embed it within a supranational governance framework and liberalized movement regime. Moreover, the realization of this vision faces significant challenges. While it has won some grass roots support among Israelis and Palestinians, the ideas underpinning it have yet to be implemented anywhere in Israel and Palestine. Meanwhile, ALFA lacks the territorial base, popular support, and party infrastructure that the Kurdish movement for democratic confederalism has successfully leveraged.
Even so, the vision it embraces would offer Palestinians in the occupied territory liberation from a reality in which they lack both a state and a voice in the politics that controls their lives. At the same time, this vision attends to Israeli Jews’ desire for self-determination, offering an alternative to a majoritarian democracy in Israel and Palestine in which Jews are a minority. Moreover, it moves beyond conventional nationalist paradigms. By combining a two-state solution with shared confederal institutions and freedom of movement and residence, it reframes the concept of partition. In this way, it accepts the reality that the lands of Israel and Palestine occupy the same space, and that both peoples are attached to the territory. Rather than achieving mutual self-determination by dividing the territory into ethnic enclaves through gerrymandering (or, worse, ethnic cleansing), it assumes that both states in the confederal union will be ethnically heterogeneous. It offers a compelling alternative to the binary choice between, and stale debate about, one- and two-state solutions.
There are clear differences in the origins, motivations, and trajectories of confederal thinking in the Kurdish and Israeli-Palestinian contexts, but they also share significant aspects. First, in both contexts, confederalism entails a degree of commitment to coexistence, shared authority, and transnational coordination. This is an explicit feature of the political theory articulated in Öcalan’s treatises, and it is central to the ideological commitments of his followers. In Israel and Palestine as well, binational confederalism is a project that shifts the communities from a model of hard partition to one of self-determination without separation. Although its proponents urge incremental steps toward the development of joint institutions, they recognize that shared governance over Israel and Palestine would more effectively address political issues than could uncoordinated policies implemented by two separate national governments. Similarly, confederal approaches would render borders more permeable than they are in the current nation-states. For communities that straddle borders, as Kurds, Palestinians, and Jewish Israelis do, such permeability could reduce tensions regarding the location of national borders, a continual source of conflict. By embracing a more open conception of borders, these confederal models also return to indigenous traditions that enabled far greater transborder mobility.
These ideas reconceptualize the relationship between territory and political authority, aiming to destabilize the prioritization of the nation-state. The Kurdish case aims to detach communal identity from the institutions of the central state, which has enormous appeal for the multiethnic, multi-sectarian communities in the four states across which the Kurds are divided. In Israel and Palestine, the model of binational confederalism remains tied to a national conception of identity, which in turn is tied to political authority for each community. However, the commitment to freedom of residence helps to delink the nation-state from the idea of the national homeland. In both contexts, these communities are formulating an expansive and emancipatory vision of self-determination that enhances self-government at the local level. They foreground the potential of alternative conceptions of sovereignty that reimagine the state and shift the relationship between political authority and communal identity.