For this week’s Medya News Podcast interview I was joined by two academics based in Germany. Özlem Yeniay and Oliver Schmidt from the University of Potsdam.
Özlem Yeniay studied classical archeology in her BA. She earned her MA degree in sociology from Mimar Sinan Fine Arts University in İstanbul. She is currently pursuing a Ph.D. at the University of Potsdam with a project focusing on the Landless Rural Workers Movement and the Kurdish Freedom Movement as cases of local interventions against global capitalism in the twenty-first century.
Oliver Schmidt is a research associate at the Centre for Citizenship, Social Pluralism and Religious Diversity. He holds a PhD in sociology from the University of Potsdam and he teaches at the University of Potsdam on social class theory, Marxism, social closure theory and conflict theory.
Özlem and Oliver have organised a series of seminars for Potsdam University’s Department of Sociology winter semester covering topics that include Anarchist Philosophy and the Social Ecology concepts of Murray Bookchin. And within the context of the Rojava revolution, the seminars also cover the ideas and philosophy of the Kurdish leader, Abdullah Öcalan, in relation to his theories of Democratic Nation, Democratic Confederalism and self government. The seminar consists of a 15-week programme that began in October and runs through to February 2022.
Oliver and Özlem explained during the podcast that the course came together through a dialectical dialogue between themselves, from Özlem who came from Turkey to Potsdam studying the Kurdish issue and Oliver who was already teaching revolutionary ideas such as Marxism, and they both came to the realisation that the ideas that are now covered in the seminar are presently in the process of changing a society in NE Syria, and were critically important to discuss on an academic level. The seminar uses various tools of participatory teaching (including open discussions, introducing topics by students, organising sessions by students) so that students can actively engage in discussions and contribute their own ideas to the seminar structure.
Students are invited to contribute to the seminar by giving insights to their own civil society work. The seminar takes place via zoom.
Oliver explained that at the centre of the idea for the seminars was to try and overcome the ‘knowledge of domination’ and by looking at Rojava where there are ideas of liberation, of revolution, that are challenges to the ruling elitist ideas and of capitalism, so it was important to challenge these ideas, he said.
Özlem pointed out that during their seminars they practice the ethical values that are present in the ideas of Democratic Confederalism, and encourage the students to be empowered too. By talking about the ideas of freedom and how to deal with hierarchies, students are empowered. She says that through the ideas presented in the seminars they are trying to understand how Democratic Confederalism as a tool of society, can give us an opportunity to construct a new society based on equality.
Oliver added that their responsibility is to develop an intellectual movement to be able to change the thinking of students so as to act as a positive alternative to the capitalist ideas that dominate society. He said that Öcalan is not only a political actor but also an intellectual actor, through his writings etc. Oliver said that in the past he has had trouble sometimes in conveying revolutionary or liberationist philosophies in the abstract. But what we can do with this seminar, he said, is to show what liberation and freedom actually looks like and that the papers in the seminar of Democratic Confederalism and Democratic Nation are actually concrete ideas of how to implement these ideas.
He gave the example how ideas are made from the bottom up and the whole Democratic Confederalism system. So what we can do is to really show in practice how to change society in a practical way. Özlem added that one of the goals was also to dismantle the hierarchies of academia, to have peer-to-peer learning on a equal basis.
She said that they had also reached out to the University of Rojava and were hoping for future partnerships and projects together. Oliver added that the greater goal was to develop an international exchange with the University of Rojava and the University of Potsdam, and that a conversation was ongoing.
I concluded by asking Oliver about the issue of criminalisation of the Kurdish movement and Öcalan’s ideas, especially in Germany, and whether they had faced any obstacles in relation to this regarding the seminar.
Oliver said firstly, that they had a very good professor who supported them, which was very important and a great help, but he also said that despite the ‘criminalisation’ policies, there was a very strong tradition in Germany of the ‘freedom to teach’ and freedom to do research. He said that although the seminar is very ‘political’ in one sense, the students also criticise and questione the papers, and there is a strong intellectual exchange where students actually discuss the ideas and can disagree or argue against them, and it is not a question of simply presenting ‘propaganda’.
So Oliver concluded that the university is a safe space for teaching such ideas and sent a message to other academics that in relation to the criminalisation against the Kurdish movement and the ideas of Abdullah Öcalan, of course there are other ways to protest, such as going on to the streets to protest, and campaigning, but for academics he said, it is important that we can establish and strengthen a discourse about the Kurdish struggle, the ideas of Öcalan and the PKK. Because there are those who wish this issue to go away or to be hidden or suppressed, it is important for academics to push this discourse to raise awareness, so as hopefully to reach the politicians and affect change.