World

The tragedy of the Yazidis: WHO are they, WHERE do they come from, WHY are they so persecuted?

By J Brooks Spector 11 August 2014

With the sudden emergence of the Yazidis as the newest victim of the ISIS advance in Iraq, J. BROOKS SPECTOR takes a preliminary look at just who the Yazidis are. What emerged is a genuinely sad story.

Out of the chaos of post-Saddam Hussein Iraq comes still another in a growing line of human miseries. This time around it is the dire predicament of the Yazidis – a group who, until just a few weeks ago, were, for most people, just about as an obscure an ethnic or religious minority as any throughout the Middle East. So, who are they; why are they being persecuted; and why are they suddenly in the news? Good questions, all of these. According to specialists on the Middle East, there are around 700,000 adherents to the unique Yazidi faith.

Most of these people are Kurdish speaking (the language of south-eastern Turkey and northern Iraq as well as smaller parts of Syria and Iran) and they have kept to themselves for centuries in the face of outsiders’ distrust of their beliefs. Now, as ISIS forces have swept across eastern Syria and northern Iraq, the Yazidis are facing the severe wrath of those religiously radical ISIS forces, in part because of their unique religious heritage – a religion that is part Islam, partly Zoroastrian, partly Christian, and even partly ancient animist beliefs. In recent days, 50,000 or more Yazidis have been driven out of their towns and villages – or who have fled in advance of the arrival of ISIS forces – and they have taken a shaky, very uncertain refuge on the slopes of Sinjar Mountain, a barren retreat where they are now virtually without food, water or shelter in the sweltering summer heat. For a while, they were relatively secure while Kurdish forces, the Pesh Merga, had been able to hold their ground against the encroaching ISIS, but as the Kurds were forced to retreat by the ISIS, Yazidis have now come into the line of fire themselves.

The whole northern tier of the Middle East – from the Levant through to the societies around the Black Sea littoral and onto Iran – has been a complex stew of ethnicities for millennia in the isolated mountains and valleys of the region. And many of these groups have fought with one another, or been pressed very, very hard by the more dominant powers of the region at their various, respective times of strength. Armenians, Circassians, Ossetians, Chechens, the Ingush, Kurds, Azeris, Turcomans, and Georgians – and then on through to the Alawites, Druze, Maronite and Chaldean Christians, in addition to more standard Shiite and Sunni Muslims – are all part of this complex, tangled mix of peoples, languages and religions. Some of these groups, such as the Circassians and the Armenians, have undergone historical genocides by their respective overlords, while others, like the Chechens, have periodically fought off their conquerors in sustained insurrections for generations.

National Geographic, in discussing the Yazidis’ circumstances, notes that they have “inhabited the mountains of north-western Iraq for centuries, and the region is home to their holy places, shrines, and ancestral villages. Outside of Sinjar, the Yazidis are concentrated in areas north of Mosul, and in the Kurdish-controlled province of Dohuk. For Yazidis, the land holds deep religious significance; adherents from all over the world—remnant communities exist in Turkey, Germany, and elsewhere—make pilgrimages to the holy Iraqi city of Lalesh. The city is now less than 40 miles from the Islamic State’s front lines.

Says National Geographic: “The Yazidi religion is often misunderstood, as it does not fit neatly into Iraq’s sectarian mosaic. Most Yazidis are Kurdish speakers, and while the majority consider themselves ethnically Kurdish, Yazidis are religiously distinct from Iraq’s predominantly Sunni Kurdish population. Yazidism is an ancient faith, with a rich oral tradition that mixes with Islam some elements of Zoroastrianism, the ancient Persian religion, and Mithraism, a mystery religion originating in the Eastern Mediterranean. This combining of various belief systems, known religiously as syncretism, was part of what branded them as heretics among Muslims. While its exact origins are a matter of dispute, some scholars believe that Yazidism was formed when the Sufi leader Adi ibn Musafir settled in Kurdistan in the 12th century, and founded a community that mixed elements of Islam with local Zoroastrian beliefs.”

A recent BBC report notes, however, that modern linguistic and historical research has clarified that this group’s commonly used name is actually derived from the Farsi word “ized”, which means angel or deity. As a result, the group’s name translates into the phrase, “worshippers of God”, which is, in fact, just how the Yazidis describe themselves to outsiders.

With their panoply of celestial spirits, however, the Yazidi have earned an unfavourable reputation as devil worshippers, especially since the description of one of their deities, Tawusi Melek, bears a close resemblance to the traditional rendering of Shaytan, the devil in Islam (as well as its close correspondence to the Satan of Biblical tradition as well.). The name, Shaytan, is apparently also sometimes used as a synonym for Tawusi Melek. However, Tawusi Melek is a go-between between the supreme deity and humans, rather than the traditional satanic tempter for the commission of sins. Or, as Thomas Schmidinger, an expert on Kurdish politics at the University of Vienna explains, “To this day, many Muslims consider them to be devil worshipers. So in the face of religious persecution, Yazidis have concentrated in strongholds located in remote mountain regions.”

In fact, the Yazidi have been the officially designated victim for many years. Back in the mid-19th century, for example, Yazidis sometimes took it on the chin from the larger, surrounding Kurdish community while the region was part of the Ottoman Empire. Matthew Barber, a scholar of Yazidi history from the University of Chicago (we’ll bet you didn’t expect there to be many of those), notes, “Yazidis often say they have been the victim of 72 previous genocides, or attempts at annihilation. Memory of persecution is a core component of their identity.”

As a result of this persecution or its carefully conserved memory, the fact that they live in their isolated villages, that the Yazidi rarely marry other Kurds, and that their faith does not accept converts, Khanna Omarkhali of the University of Göettingen comments, “They became a closed community.”  And Farwaz Gerges, an international relations professor at the London School of Economics, adds, “The Yazidis are one of the longest surviving ancient religions or sects in the world.”

In speaking of themselves, however, the Yazidi often use the term, “Daasin” (plural: Dawaaseen). Curiously, this term, Daasin, is actually derived from the ancient Nestorian (the early eastern Christian church creed common in the Middle East) term for a church diocese, and a number of Yazidi belief structures also draw on early Christian traditions as well. They hold both the Bible and the Quran as holy books, even as much of their own religious tradition has remained an oral one. Recent scholarship has also cast some doubt on the frequently presumed connections of their religion to ancient Zoroastrianism, even though the complex Yazidi faith similarly embraces a duality of light and dark as well as worship of the sun.

The Yazidi’s supreme being is named “Yasdan”, but is considered to be so elevated a presence he cannot even be worshipped directly. However, while Yasdan is the creator of the world, he is, nevertheless, a passive force. Seven great spirits come out of him, with the most powerful being the Peacock Angel, or Tawusi Melek – the actual executor of divine will, and effectively Yasdan’s alter ego. From this perspective, the Yazidi faith can be classified as a kind of monotheistic one. But similarly to Muslims, Yazidis pray to Tawusi Melek five times a day. The Yazidis believe souls transmigrate and that a soul’s gradual purification is attainable via continuing rebirth, conveniently turning Hades into a theological redundancy.

Turning to the Yazidis’ current desperate circumstances, as ISIS pursues them into desolate, nearly uninhabitable mountain terrain, even as the British Royal Air Force is dropping a trickle of humanitarian supplies to them, and as the US Air Force chivvies ISIS forces with air strikes so as to halt their advance against the Yazidi and the Kurds; Hayder al-Khoei, an associate fellow at Chatham House’s Middle East and North Africa Program, says, “The Yazidis can’t hope for mercy from ISIS. Unlike Christians, they’re not even given the option of paying a tax to live under [ISIS’] protection. [ISIS] believes they are ‘devil worshippers’ who must either be slaughtered or convert to Islam.” That wouldn’t seem to leave too much room for compromise or getting along together, just as the Chaldean Christians fleeing Mosul have discovered.

Omarkhali adds, “Sinjar is (hopefully not was) home to the oldest, biggest, and most compact Yazidi community. Extermination, emigration, and settlement of this community will bring tragic transformations to the Yazidi religion.” And that seems to be the way it is right now for them, even if ISIS is finally halted in its advance.

After the United States military deposed Saddam Hussein some eleven years earlier, the Kurds in Iraq were able to gain an autonomous region in the northern part of the nation – a kind of proto-nationhood. However, the town of Sinjar, as well as other border regions at the border of the Kurdish area, remained in dispute between the Kurds and the Iraqi central government based in Baghdad – and now it is ISIS that is in at least temporary control of much of the region.

As things stand now, aside from the limited US air raids, the Pesh Merga is about the only thing standing between the Yazidis and ISIS’ depredations. Matthew Barber argues there is now a general panic as hundreds of thousands of new Yazidi arrivals from western Iraq are also seeking shelter behind the Pesh Merga forces. Barber notes, “The Yazidis are terrorised,” as the refugees have begun to call this new massed exodus from the town of Sinjar the 73rd attempted genocide against the Yazidi. Exeter University’s Christine Allison adds, “It’s difficult to see how Yazidism could exist if they all left northern Iraq. The struggle is truly existential.” Not pretty and not likely to change that much, as things stand now. DM

Read more:

  • For Iraq Yazidis, a frantic search for the missing at the AP;
  • Who, What, Why: Who are the Yazidis? At the BBC;
  • Everything You Need to Know About the Yazidis at Time;
  • 10 things to know about Yazidis at Politico.com;
  • YAZIDISIM – A Heterodox Kurdish Religion at the CAIS-SOAS website;
  • Who Are the Yazidis, the Ancient, Persecuted Religious Minority Struggling to Survive in Iraq? At the National Geographic website.

Photo: A displaced woman and child from the minority Yazidi sect, fleeing violence from forces loyal to the Islamic State in Sinjar town, rest as they make their way towards the Syrian border, on the outskirts of Sinjar mountain, near the Syrian border town of Elierbeh of Al-Hasakah Governorate August 10, 2014. Islamic State militants have killed at least 500 members of Iraq’s Yazidi ethnic minority during their offensive in the north, Iraq’s human rights minister told Reuters on Sunday. The Islamic State, which has declared a caliphate in parts of Iraq and Syria, has prompted tens of thousands of Yazidis and Christians to flee for their lives during their push to within a 30-minute drive of the Kurdish regional capital Arbil. Picture taken August 10, 2014. REUTERS/Rodi Said

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