Messy motions towards a better world

The more alive reality is, the less clear-cut it seems to be. If we look closely and fairly, what seems bright and true almost always has in or around it things that seem darker and not so true – and the reverse also shows up over and over, how bright lessons and possibilities wait for us in the darkness. I think this is not because things ARE bright or dark, or true or false, but that living reality is more complex than these things, and so dependent on how we look at them. Here I briefly explore two exciting, innovative social realities – Rojava and Bhutan – that I was sad to find were more complex, clouded with cruelty and oppression. These discoveries made me think – once again – about the alternatives to dualistic judgment, about which I’ll write more soon.

Watching out-of-the-box developments unfolding all over the world, it strikes me how often “dark side” and “bright side” accompany each other. I offer here two vivid examples as reminders – at least to myself – to not focus solely on one aspect of complex situations but to keep myself open, curious, and sensing into the dynamics of the whole. It makes me think we need to develop our “capacitance” to hold more of the actual complexity around us, for within that complexity we’re likely to discover both immense realities and immense possibilities.


Have you ever heard of Rojava? I only learned about it a few months ago. The term refers to a group of three Kurdish-held territories (“cantons”) in northern Syria – one of them 15 miles from an ISIS-controlled area in Iraq – which together contain 4.6 million people. Rojavans in this self-declared “autonomous region” are inspired by their Kurdish leader Abdullah Ocalan (currently imprisoned in Turkey) who in turn has been inspired by the late Vermont visionary Murray Bookchin, advocate of “social ecology”, “libertarian municipalism” and an end to all forms of domination.

Rojava is moving rapidly to feminist-leaning gender equity (including co-ed universities, co-leadership in all parts of government, women-only fighting forces – and a female police force which handles sexual assault and rape cases), environmental responsibility, and radically local direct democracy (elected municipal assemblies, confederation instead of central government, military units led by elected officers, and so on).

Their warriors (notably the women) have been declared the most effective fighting force opposing ISIS, so the U.S. supports them, albeit with considerable ambivalence. Bombed by Turkey (who bomb them literally a hundred times more than they bomb ISIS), persistently attacked by ISIS, and suffering from a drain of youth and intellectuals from their war zone, they are recruiting sympathetic outsiders, both as fighters and as helpers in their on-the-ground revolutionary development.

Years ago Ocalan – who was a founder of the Kurdish independence movement PKK (which is considered a terrorist group by both Turkey and the U.S.) – converted from Maoism to social ecology. He “instructed his followers to stop attacking the government and instead create municipal assemblies, which he called ‘democracy without the state.’ These assemblies would form a grand confederation that would extend across all Kurdish regions of Syria, Iraq, Turkey and Iran and would be united by a common set of values based on defending the environment; respecting religious, political and cultural pluralism; and self-defense. He insisted that women be made equal leaders at all levels of society.”

Some Rojavan students once asked an American journalist if Murray Bookchin was alive, in prison, followed by a movement… She told them that no, he wasn’t any of those things. Most Americans have never heard of him. The students couldn’t comprehend how Bookchin – who to them was an ideological titan – had been so thoroughly forgotten in his own country. (In fact Bookchin died heartbroken and bitter in 2006, thinking himself a failure and despairing of the revolutionary possibilities that were so real to him.)

Yet we find Bookchin’s belated revolution underway in Northern Syria. However, many Rojavans are new to democracy, feminism, and freedom of speech and belief. They still carry old patterns of thought and behavior. Despite the overall inclusive attitudes regarding other religious and political views that are enshrined in their new constitution, Kurdish Rojavans have beaten up opponents. And the cult of personality around Ocalan (posters everywhere, fanatic parroting of his words, etc.) is very disturbing to many Westerners. There have been reports of forced displacements and home demolitions. With a history of oppression in Turkey, Syria, and elsewhere, Kurdish students are suspicious of questions about their pasts. An opposition leader accused the Ocalan-allied police force of “repression, assassinations and detentions for those who oppose [its] policies.” Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have accused the Rojavan army of war crimes against civilians and of using child soldiers. In response, Rojava’s officials claim such reports are either false or that the perpetrators have been dealt with.

How deep and how fast can a revolution happen – and at what cost? How are we to think about Rojava?

If you want to explore this fascinating and troubling world of contradictions, check out:


And then there’s the tiny kingdom of Bhutan – mythologized as Shangri La – now the first country to not only be carbon neutral but carbon-negative. Furthermore, it has plans to preserve and plant so many trees and to produce and export so much hydropower that it will significantly help reduce climate impacts for everyone else. And it will do so while increasing the happiness and wellbeing of its own population, guided by its measure of Gross National Happiness (GNH). It even mandates a retirement age for its kings. Check out this remarkable TED talk by Bhutan’s prime minister.

But there is a darker side. Although GNH includes “cultural diversity and resilience”, Bhutan for several decades has oppressed its Nepalese-rooted minority known as Lhotshampa who have lived for a couple of centuries in southern Bhutan. Starting in the late 1980s or early 1990s the Bhutan government has engaged in violence, abuse, dispossession, forced migration (into Nepal and other countries, including the U.S.), cultural repression (e.g., forbidding use of the Nepali language and forcing Buddhist religious practices on Hindu and Christian Lhotshampa), and denial of citizenship rights to reduce and marginalize the Lhotshampa population. Many Lhotshampa have ended up trapped in refugee camps in Nepal for years. See “The ethnic cleansing hidden behind Bhutan’s happy face” and this article, “The Refugees of Shangri La”, which includes a TEDx talk video that’s a counterpoint to the TED talk video above and which also happens to be a very compelling call to welcome all refugees.

I’m having a hard time finding out if conditions in Bhutan for Lhotshampa have improved over the last several years. The most recent reports of contemporary Bhutanese repression I have found date from 2013 and more than 2 years have passed since then. It seems odd that more recent data is difficult to find. Furthermore, it seems there are a number of Lhotshampa in government positions in Bhutan.  I just don’t know the background story on that or whether the happiness of Lhotshampa has been included in the whole country’s measures of Gross National Happiness.

So how do we respond? In each case, must we decide which view is true? Are Rojava and Bhutan “good” or “bad”?

Might there be positives and negatives in each of these – and all – situations? Might there be significant dynamics dancing between them? Might we be wise to accept Rumi’s invitation:

Beyond ideas of right-thinking
and wrong-thinking
there is a field.
I’ll meet you there.

Perhaps that’s where all of us could meet to make positive differences in the world. And perhaps the contexts in which we meet can be designed to ease us onto Rumi’s field – even if it is the last place we thought we would ever end up…

I’ll be exploring this more soon.



Tom Atlee, The Co-Intelligence Institute, POB 493, Eugene, OR 97440
Calling forth the wisdom of the whole for the wellbeing of the whole

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