War Starts at Home

As her Junior Research Fellowship at LMH comes to an end, political sociologist Dr Dilar Dirik reflects on researching forced migration at Oxford, and asks challenging questions about whether universities should be doing more to acknowledge and confront their own links to conflict.

Ever since fleeing Turkey with my parents as a child refugee in the 1990s, the question of ‘Why do wars exist?’ has haunted me. Unsatisfied with simplistic statements about human nature, I turned to research to get to the root of the matter of war, violence and forced displacement.

Sceptical of power structures based on my own experience and expertise, I believe that scholarly analyses of law, policy and lived experience must be accompanied by profound political and philosophical questions about the role of war and violence in the contemporary global order. Despite the variety of disciplinary approaches in the field of forced migration studies, scholarship seldom centres on the politics and economy of war in today’s world. Instead, it focuses on the experience and management of displacement. While many people are keen on learning about the conditions of people experiencing war and forced migration, few know of the role our educational institutions play within this, for example.

My appointment in late 2019 as the Joyce Pearce Junior Research Fellow at LMH and the Refugee Studies Centre at the University of Oxford made me one of the first and only scholars at the Centre with a forced displacement background focusing on refugees and forced migration. Previously, I studied the revolutionary women’s movement in Kurdistan within the scope of my doctoral thesis at Cambridge. I conducted archival work, as well as ethnographic fieldwork in the Kurdish regions of Turkey, Iraq, and Syria. Last year, I published my findings in my book The Kurdish Women’s Movement: History, Theory, Practice.

As part of my research agenda in Oxford, I had planned fieldwork in different parts of Kurdistan on stateless forms of self-determination. I wanted to examine democratic self-governance and confederalism in refugee camps co-administered by members of the revolutionary Kurdistan freedom movement, with a particular focus on women’s struggles. A second aspect of my project related to women seeking justice in the aftermath of ISIS. Overall, I was keen on analysing the ways in which non-state, political communities develop and embrace radical models of democracy, from the margins of nation states. I wanted to consider how this can lead to alternative notions of justice and social organisation. My university-funded project, Women & War: a Feminist Podcast, launched in mid-2022, built on this, aiming to make cutting-edge research on the gendered dimensions of war and violence accessible to wider audiences.

A broader view on contemporary conflict
Refugees and IDPs from Syria and Iraq in the autonomously-run Newroz refugee camp, Northern Syria. Photograph: Dilar Dirik, 2015

As has been the case for many scholars, my research agenda was disrupted by the emergence of the global Covid-19 pandemic. Another factor was the resurgence of war. Mere weeks into my fellowship, in October 2019, in violation of international law, the Turkish army launched another comprehensive military operation (‘Peace Spring’) in the majority-Kurdish regions of Northern Syria, displacing hundreds of thousands of people within days.

Unable to conduct fieldwork as planned due to these developments, I came to ‘shift the gaze’ away from the Middle East and instead study the ways in which war is enabled and normalised – including through our knowledge production in the Global North. Most of today’s conflicts can be traced back to earlier periods in history, and in particular to centuries-old legacies of slavery, colonisation, capitalism and imperialism. Taking a long view provides the necessary historical context to make sense of today’s social, political and economic issues, such as state violence, dispossession and exploitation, racism, gendered violence and environmental destruction.

Ongoing issues are not only an outcome of the borders drawn in the early 20th century for the imperialist interests of the British and French (Gertrude Bell, one of the key actors in this period, is an alumna of LMH), but also of decades of aggressive nation-state building in the region, as well as contemporary geopolitical affairs, driven by state interests. The term ‘conflict’ often fails to capture the deep historical and sociological realities of violence and oppression endured by communities over the past century in different parts of the Middle East. It is also unable to capture the international dynamics that organise power on a global scale and render justice out of reach, especially for non-state groups.

Seen from this perspective, Kurdish forced displacement becomes a matter with large-scale international roots and implications, connected to global events and phenomena. Even a handful of news headlines from recent years illustrate its scope. The photograph of Alan Kurdi, a Syrian-Kurdish toddler who lost his life drowning in the Mediterranean Sea, became the symbol of the so-called refugee crisis in 2015. Behrouz Boochani, an Iranian-Kurdish journalist and activist, spent six years imprisoned on Manus Island, an offshore migrant detention site used by the Australian state to externalise its borders. And many people who lost their lives drowning in the English Channel in recent years due to the UK Home Office’s increasing restrictions on migration were Kurds from Iraq.

Universities and the arms trade

As my research at Oxford continued, I increasingly began to pay attention to an opaque and unholy world, characterised by violence, corruption, secret deals, blackmail and deception: the global arms trade.

According to a 2021 Huffington Post article, more than one-third of UK Russell Group universities invested in or received funding from arms manufacturing companies, with Oxford having ‘taken more than £10.5 million in research and consultancy funding since the 2015/16 financial year’. The Said Business School is named after Wafic Saïd, who struck one of the biggest and most controversial arms deals in history in the 1980s between Britain and Saudi Arabia. The 2021 Huffington Post article also states that: ‘Among the firms [Russell Group] universities [including Oxford] dealt with are BAE Systems, Rolls Royce and Cobham’. The weapons manufactured by such firms can be connected to war crimes committed in different parts of the world, including the regions I planned to visit for my project. Their technologies are frequently used to target civilians, leaders and community organisers, who are struggling for peace and for political solutions.

Newroz Camp was set up by majority-Kurdish self-governance structures inside Syria for Êzidî survivors of the ISIS genocide in Şengal (Sinjar), Iraq in August 2014. Photograph: Dilar Dirik, 2015

At a time when calls to diversify and decolonise the curriculum and to divest from fossil fuel and border industries are on the rise, our universities’ links to the global arms trade continue to remain largely untouched, despite many joint student and staff campaigns. The decentralised nature of governance at Oxford and Cambridge makes it difficult to advocate for divestment at these universities.

In addition, inside a marketised education system, academics are often discouraged from chasing such questions, even though these tackle the core of the national and global political and economic systems that we inhabit, including the UK’s role in conflicts around the world. This in turn raises questions about the climate in which we teach, learn and produce knowledge together. We cannot understand the ‘root causes’ of forced migration if we see war as something far away. I believe that UK universities’ links to the global arms trade are an assault on life, peace and freedom, including academic freedom. How can the same states, institutions and businesses that contribute to or profit from warfare and injustice in different parts of the world also fund research for solutions to forced migration?

Reflections on research life As I approach the end of my Junior Research Fellowship at LMH, I reflect on my own role as a researcher and member of the university community and the future of the study of forced migration. This future depends not only on the politics of funding but also on the freedom of people around the globe. What role will our universities play in a polarised world, with more war and ecological catastrophe on the immediate horizon? How much longer will our universities continue to benefit from the interests of institutions of power and privilege such as the fossil fuel, border and arms industries? Will they truly aspire to become sites of global leadership on the challenges faced by our planet today, as their leaders often suggest? What would genuine change imply for universities’ relationships to funding from industries profiting from violence?

There is certainly no lack of empathy among students and staff at Oxford regarding such questions. However, it is relatively easy to issue statements of concern, hold vigils, establish scholarships and thereby express one’s individual or collective sentiment through various acts of charity. Ultimately, such performances of care remain limited and unsustainable, as long as our universities continue to be a party to the arms trade and border industry. A morally principled and courageous stance would be to take an active stance against war, especially against those led under our watch.

Named in honour of our founder, the Joyce Pearce Junior Research Fellowship is proudly underwritten by Ockenden International and supported by Lady Margaret Hall and the Refugee Studies Centre, University of Oxford.

The Kurdish Women’s Movement: History, Theory, Practice by Dilar Dirik is available now, published by Pluto Press.