Antiracist and anti-/de-colonial activists have struggled, and continue to do so, against the rhetoric of the “War on Terror,” a rhetoric circulated by states and reinvented by femonationalist and homonationalist circles. We see ourselves as part of this political tradition. Yet we also argue that certain approaches that attempt to critique the binary implicit in the framework of a clash of civilizations run the risk of reproducing this same binary framework—albeit oppositionally—by reading current social and political dynamics, movements, and conflicts in the world only through the critique of this so-called clash.
The discourse of the “War on Terror” is a binary world narrative circulated by the United States of America and its allies to craft the ideological legitimacy of the invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq following the attacks on 11 September, 2001. According to this binary “clash of civilizations” discourse, on one side, there are Western nation-states that defend the values of human rights, freedom and democracy; on the other, barbarian Islamist terrorism and its medieval mentality and practices. The deployment of feminism by imperial states in the service of a politics of war and occupation, all for the sake of “saving” Afghan women, is only one example. This discourse, which has become hegemonic in many countries, also finds support in circles of people who identify themselves as progressive, feminist, LGBTI+ activists. These political approaches, labelled as femonationalism and homonationalism, perceive the very existence of Muslims (globally and in the West) as a threat, and as such, their arguments get tied to the anti-terror politics of the imperialist states in which they reside.
As LGBTI+ individuals from Turkey and Kurdistan, we have confronted this binary world discourse since the early stages of our movement. Particularly in the beginning, left and socialist circles saw the LGBTI+ struggle as a product of capitalist development. Claiming that the LGBTI+ struggle came from advanced capitalist countries, they maintained a distance towards our movement in accordance with their anti-imperialist discourse. According to this viewpoint, furthermore, homosexuality is an identity invented by capitalism; any struggle based on that identity is not compatible with the class struggle. As a direct result of the relentless struggle on the part of both feminist and LGBTI+ activists, sexism began to be discussed amongst the left, and the notion that patriarchy and hetero/cis-sexism should be critically considered along with capitalism eventually began to take hold.
The LGBTI+ and feminist movements in Turkey started to receive widespread support from those opposing the ruling power, and recently the pro-government media have started to portray LGBTI+ organizations as stemming from the West, an intervention by foreign powers. These media have gone so far as to employ discourses of homeland security in order to legitimize repression of the LGBTI+ movements. Fascist groups issue public calls to attack the demonstrations and marches of our movements, embellishing their rhetoric of “stopping the perverts” with comparisons to Turkey’s War of Independence. We are accustomed to reading headlines like “agents supported by the West,” “extensions of the international lobby,” and “a plot of foreign powers” in the media affiliated with those in power. Of course, this narrative is not merely founded upon the Islamic ideology appropriated by the ruling power; it operates in many different ways. The LGBTI+phobia stoked by the discourse of a “national defense against colonizers” is also welcomed by certain segments of nationalists who claim to be more progressive. Thus, the demands of feminists and LGBTI+ people are presented as unjustified within a nationalist discourse which simultaneously averts the question of hetero/cis-sexism. The struggles of feminists and LGBTI+ people are reduced to a temptation of the West. In other words, condemning queer and feminist movements in the non-Western world as “having roots in the imperialist cause” not only plays into the hands of patriarchy and LGBTI+phobia, but also makes it impossible to accurately read actual dynamics within movements in the non-Western world and more broadly in non-Western spaces.
Razan Ghazzawi’s article “Decolonizing Syria’s so-called ‘queer liberation’”, published by Al Jazeera on 5 August 2017, is an example of the above described approach. She discusses the formation of a queer group called TQILA (The Queer Insurrection and Liberation Army) under the banner of the anarchist organization IRPGF (International Revolutionary People’s Guerrilla Forces) fighting in Rojava. In this article, Ghazzawi criticizes “how this announcement, discourse and the logic behind it, situate ‘violence’ and ‘war on terror’ as a ‘revolutionary’ method in achieving social justice on the Syrian front lines.” The passage below can be seen as the culmination of her argument:
By positioning the "war on terror" as context for such a "laboratory" [sic] and "emancipating" narrative, the IRPGF and TQILA end up providing a glossing template for the erasure of local communities' inclusive struggles, including the ones they claim to rescue.
Before concluding, Ghazzawi adds that a series of dichotomies, including “terrorist” versus “secular,” “Kurds” versus “Sunni Arabs,” “Queer anarchists” versus “Islamic terrorists,” and “international leftists” versus “international terrorists,” all serve the efforts of perpetuating the war in Syria as a continuation of the “war on terror” narrative (all of which Ghazzawi puts in quotation marks herself).
In this context, the author herself sees the local political bodies and subjectivities of queers and feminists in Rojava as a window dressed by macro (male) powers. This view blames these queer and feminist subjectivities for the imperialist states’ efforts to use media propaganda to distort this local and unique struggle. By describing TQILA’s presence within the terms of the “war on terror,” which she claims to be criticizing, Ghazzawi wholly disregards the political agency of LGBTI+ individuals in the region. Likewise, the author reduces the group that has been fighting in the war and declared this in their statement, into an “image PYD is trying to sell,” as she quotes from the testimony of an interviewee. By casting the political presence of queers in the region as an extension of imperialism, she objectifies these individuals who are active subjects within the resistance, and she invalidates their struggle. In a similar manner, the author does not recognize the Kurdish women’s movement as a local movement, but merely as a contrived object of Western fascination. Kurdish women are thus accused of allowing “feminism and broader social justice movements [to] replace and silence local communities’ struggles, including women and queers.”
This perspective does not leave room for any political unity arising from below that could surmount the great powers’ wars of domination as well as the border lines they drew. Although Ghazzawi claims to speak from a decolonial position, her argument does nothing but sharpen the contours of the colonial world narrative and reinforce its representational power. A similar framework is adopted to criticize Western queer anarchists who are fighting within TQILA. Ghazzawi judges these people as afflicted by romanticism. She suggests that these LGBTI+ individuals have a “militarised liberation mission,” effectively reducing them to nothing more than the handmaidens of “liberating” imperial powers. Ghazzawi argues that international fighters in Rojava struggled from the beginning only against ISIS, placing these anarchist queers up against Islamic terrorists. However, TQILA clearly asserts that LGBTI+phobia is not limited to ISIS and even further that it is not inherent to any religion. The author thus establishes a binary between anarchist queers versus Islamic terrorists and then accuses the group of perpetuating the very binary she has created.
Recognition of TQILA’s formation in, by, and as an integral part of the people would mean grasping the impact such an initiative could have on LGBTI+ movements in the West as well. In fact, against the perception that TQILA was exported to the region from the West, a transnational alliance as such with TQILA might have the power to challenge the colonial, white supremacist, islamophobic mindset, a mindset that has tended to dominate LGBTI+ organizations in Europe and North America.
As queer and feminist activists in and from Turkey and Kurdistan, we have struggled for decades against the heterosexism and patriarchy surrounding our lives even as we have struggled not to fall prey to the religious and ethnic binaries imposed upon us. The transnational alliances we build for ourselves, we believe, can help us to escape these false binaries. Of course, these alliances are not free from power relationships between us, and we also struggle internally against them. Because ultimately, we need transnational alliances like TQILA against the cis-heterosexist systems that, albeit historically and contextually situated, nonetheless oppress us all over the world. Such alliances might not be very large or have significant political power at the moment, but we know very well from our experience that political positions regarded as “marginal” or “unacceptable” or otherwise patronised for their “invisibility” can only flourish by persistently struggling for their cause and visibility.