An Interview with Bernard-Henri Lévy
Octavian Report: How did you first become aware of the Kurdish cause?
Bernard-Henri Lévy: I first became aware a long time ago. My first trip to Kurdistan was in the fall of 1991. So: not yesterday. It was just after the first war against Saddam. I went to Kurdistan, and I discovered that it was very a peculiar situation. They practiced a very special sort of Islam — an enlightened Islam, compatible with democracy and human rights.
I have been fully aware of that for nearly 30 years. But I knew it even before. One of the main searches of my life was for an enlightened Islam. This has been one of my biggest concerns all my life, as an activist for democracy. Since my first trip there I have known that Kurdistan is one of the embodiments of that.
OR: What was it that prompted you to take action now, to create an organization devoted to bringing attention to this issue?
Lévy: The betrayal of the Kurds by the West, and especially by America. This took place last September, at the date of their referendum: September 25, 2017. That was when I saw the extent of the betrayal by the West, when I understood the extent of the misunderstanding. When I understood the extent of the ignorance about the role the Kurds played in the common battle against obscurantism and terrorism. I realized then that there was a huge job to do, a huge work which remains to be done in order to let the world know that this people is a great people very close in spirit to the West.
OR: Why are the Kurds not a bigger cause célèbre internationally?
Lévy: Because they are embarrassing for the “cold monsters,” to quote Friedrich Nietzsche, that are the big states. They are embarrassing because they complicate our relationship with Turkey; they complicate our relationship with Iran; they complicate our relationship with Iraq; they complicate the geopolitics and the diplomacy of the core of the “cold monsters.”
OR: Why do you think we continue to privilege our relationships with those countries — all somewhere between very strained allies and outright adversaries — over the needs of the Kurds?
Lévy: This, for me, is really an enigma. I was in Erbil, in the beginning of October, and I saw exactly what you are describing. I saw America offering on a silver plate the head of the Kurds to Iran; to Iraq; and to Turkey. For me, it was so absurd. On one side, a true, faithful ally — the Kurds. On the other side, our worst enemy, Iran; and our false friend, Turkey.
We preferred the false friend and the biggest enemy. Why? Probably because it makes our life easier. Probably because we are afraid of these countries. Don’t forget that Erdoğan, for example, is a blackmailer. He blackmails the West on migrants and blackmails the West on terrorism. Migrants, as you know, he considers a bomb which he has in hands, ready to be thrown to us. On terrorism, when he had an argument with Anglea Merkel in March 2017, he said, “Be careful. Starting from now, no European citizen will be safe in any city of Europe.” Which was an appeal to terrorism. So we are afraid of this blackmail. We are afraid of the threats.
OR: What your take on the abstention, basically, of the global Left from Kurdish support vis-à-vis its support of the Palestinians?
Lévy: It is probably because in the Palestinian issue, there are Jews in the middle. There are no Jews in the middle, no Jews in the landscape, in the case of the Kurds. No one wants harm to come to the Palestinians, but to use Palestinians as a cause, to use Palestinians as a hammer means using them as a hammer against the Jews. The Palestinians are being used as a tool in the revival of anti-Semitism.
OR: How did the Kurds end up stateless and spread out across four countries?
Lévy: The decision to not give them a country was just after the First World War. First they were treated as a salve. And then, two years after, treated as the opposite because of the protest of the Iranians and the Turks. The international community renounced its promise because there were the same forces which are opposing the Kurdish cause today.
OR: Do you foresee the Kurdish state in northern Iraq ever getting international recognition?
Lévy: A few things stand in the way. They don’t have a monopoly on violence. We saw that last October. When the Iraqis decided to break the monopoly, they did it in a blunt way. Number two, it is true that they are much more of a state, and an efficient state. Despite the fact that they were beaten in October, they are much more of a state than Iraq. Iraq is a failed state; the KRG, Iraqi Kurdistan, is a functional state — at least, much more functional than the state of Iraq. And you could say, by the way, that Iraq is a ghost nation. A creation of colonialism, of militarism, of British and French colonialism. Iraqi Kurdistan is a much truer state than Iraq.
When will this be recognized? When will the reality match the vision? I cannot predict when the community of nations will recognize what we are seeing now. But my assessment is that it will happen, though there is a new delay following the referendum of last September.
This will not last forever. I think that the moment will come, maybe sooner than the adversaries of the Kurds believe.
OR: How has the Syrian civil war affected the major Kurdish communities in the region?
Lévy: I don’t it a civil war in Syria. I call it a war against the civilians. It’s not the same. It’s a war of the state of Bashar al-Assad and of ISIS against the civilians of Syria.
The Kurds, as were all the minorities of the country, were taken hostage, were blackmailed by the regime and by ISIS. They were trying to protect the civilian population, sometimes making some compromises. But they were the best and the most ardent and vibrant fighters in the fight against ISIS.
They were the ones who made the biggest contribution in the defeat of ISIS. So how did the whole situation affect them? It gave them international recognition de facto.
A lot of people all over the world — not enough, of course — but a lot of people know now how great the Kurds are; how they contributed to the defeat of Daesh.
OR: What steps should be taken to address Erdoğan’s ongoing war against the Kurdish community both within his own national boundaries and just over the border in Syria?
Lévy: You the Americans and we the Europeans should stand at the side of our friends and allies — the Kurds. We should not, on the very day when Erdoğan is attacking them, say: “Who are you?” We should not hold back on delivery of weapons. We have to stand at their sides.
Even if Turkey is a member of NATO. This attack of the Turks against the Kurds, by the way, raises the question of whether Turkey belongs in NATO. I myself have had long-standing doubts. I had major doubts after the battle of Kobane about the place of Turkey in NATO. Now, since Afrin, it is a certainty that the place of Turkey is not in NATO.
OR: What should organizations and individuals who are interested in directly helping do?
Lévy: It depends who they are. If you are a student, get in touch with students in Kurdistan and build some bridges. If you are an intellectual, you go speak with the intellectuals of Kurdistan. If you are a money-maker, you can invest in Kurdistan. We have to make the reality match the commonality of our values.
Judged by values, Kurdistan and America and France are sister nations. This is the reason why, for example, with Justice for Kurds, we have a project — a monument for the Kurds, somewhere in New York. For the Peshmerga, for the Kurds fallen for us — fallen in fighting for our values.
We have to understand; we have to believe; we to celebrate; we have to transmit; and we have to tighten the links.
OR: What are the top organizational priorities of Justice for Kurds?
Lévy: The biggest priority is knowledge. Make the cause of the Kurds, their identity, the sense of their fight much more well-known. For me, and I think it is the same for my friend and comrade Tom Kaplan, one of the biggest achievements of JfK would be this monument.
The dream is really to have, in New York and in Paris, two monuments, beautiful, honoring our cities and these Kurds who shed their blood for us. For our values, for our children. In order to prevent more terrorist attacks on our soil. We want a monument celebrating these brothers in blood, the Kurds.
OR: Why do you think that there is a rising tide of illiberal politics in certain regions of the E.U.?
Lévy: Not only the E.U. You also have illiberal politics in America. We have it, alas, on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean. Why? Because this is the fate of democracy. Democracy is a very fuzzy relationship, which is always naturally at the edge of the crisis.
There was a crisis of democracies just before 1914. There was a crisis of democracies just before 1939. And there is a new crisis of democracy today. And the crisis of democracy always involves attempt to kill democracy with the very weapons democracy wields.
This is when the humanitarian defenders of democracy step back, when the defenders of democracy lower their guards. The natural forces of society don’t go in the direction of democracy. Democracy is not a natural state; democracy is difficult. It’s hard. It takes effort.
OR: Do you think the importance of liberal democracy needs to be explained more clearly to people? What do you think is the best way to combat illiberalism?
Lévy: Not only to explain. Of course we must explain, but what has to be reinforced constantly are all the institutions which made liberal democracy in the first place. There is a tendency to believe that liberal democracy is just a vote.
Voting is a little part of democracy. It’s crucial, of course. But it is a very minimal part. There are many, many other conditions. The rights of the minority. The checking and balancing of powers. Trust in elected representatives. Democracy is the strength of the press, the belief in truth and the belief that truth is more valuable than lies. All these are crucial beliefs for democracy, and we have to feed and build and reinforce all of them.
OR: Do you see this crisis of democracies, as you’ve called it, getting worse before it gets better?
Lévy: I think that it can get even worse, because democracy is being attacked from inside and from outside.
There are some big countries — very strong, much stronger than what the Soviet Union was in the past — who fight against democracy actively. For example modern Russia, which is at least as strong as the Soviet Union. And you have China, which will be very soon the biggest power in the world and which is defending, preaching, and illustrating a bedrock model of society which is not liberal democracy.
Some pretend this proves de facto that markets can do without democracy, that democracy can do without liberalism. This is what I call the attack from all sides.
Even at the time of the Cold War, the part of the world that was under the spell and the curse of communism was less vivid and efficient than China is today. You have today across America, in American campuses, universities, very active groups defending the Chinese model. You have that in the press, you have a big lobby.
OR: Even on this side of the Atlantic, there is a lot of comment that France has become a hostile environment for Jews. To what extent is that true in your experience?
Lévy: Hostile, I don’t know. But there is strong anti-Semitism which is on the rise in France and in Europe in general. And in America, too.
I believe that the fruits of this new anti-Semitism are number one, anti-Zionism; number two, denial of the Holocaust; number three, the supposed competition of victims.
With these three arguments, the place in the West where they are stronger is America. Anti-Zionism is very strong on the campuses of America. The center, the Vatican of Holocaust denial today is on the West Coast of America. And the idea that there should be a competition between Jewish victims and other victims is very vivid in America.