Who Are the Yazidis, the Ancient, Persecuted Religious Minority Struggling to Survive in Iraq?

Aug 11, 2014

By Avi Asher-Schapiro

 

For their beliefs, they have been the target of hatred for centuries. Considered heretical devil worshippers by many Muslims—including the advancing militants overrunning Iraq—the Yazidis have faced the possibility of genocide many times over. Now, with the capture of Sinjar and northward thrust of extremists calling themselves the Islamic State of the Levant, or ISIL (also known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS), Iraq’s estimated 500,000 Yazidis fear the end of their people and their religion. “Sinjar is (hopefully not was) home to the oldest, biggest, and most compact Yazidi community,” explains Khanna Omarkhali, a Yazidi scholar at the University of Göttingen. “Extermination, emigration, and settlement of this community will bring tragic transformations to the Yazidi religion,” she adds.

The Yazidis have inhabited the mountains of northwestern 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 theKurdish-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 front lines.

As the Islamic State continues to swallow up more Yazidi territory, the Yazidis are being forced to convert, face execution, or flee. “Our entire religion is being wiped off the face of the earth,” warned Yazidi leader Vian Dakhil.

While the advance of the militants constitutes a grave threat to Yazidis, persecution has been a painful historical constant for the small religious community almost since its formation.  “This dilemma to convert or die is not new,” says Christine Allison, an expert on Yazidism at Exeter University.

A Misunderstood Religion

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.

Yazidis began to face accusations of devil worship from Muslims beginning in the late 16th and early 17th centuries. While the Yazidis believe in one god, a central figure in their faith is Tawusî Melek, an angel who defies God and serves as an intermediary between man and the divine. To Muslims, the Yazidi account of Tawusî Melek often sounds like the Quranic rendering of Shaytan—the devil—even though Tawusî Melek is a force for good in the Yazidi religion.

“To this day, many Muslims consider them to be  devil worshipers,” says Thomas Schmidinger, an expert on Kurdish politics the University of Vienna. “So in the face of religious persecution, Yazidis have concentrated in strongholds located in remote mountain regions,” he adds.

19 comments on “Who Are the Yazidis, the Ancient, Persecuted Religious Minority Struggling to Survive in Iraq?

  • The United States claims to be re-engaging in Iraq on a humanitarian basis, sparked by the knowledge of the suppression of the Yazidi. I am always cynical about the connection between US foreign policy and humanitarianism, but that aside, I wonder what they want to do with the Yazidi. Perhaps they can write a new Balfour Amendment and partition a part of Israel for them. Say, around Haifa. They appear to deserve a ‘place to forever be safe’ too.



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  • Apart from the awful human tragedy, half a million men, women, children, old people and the sick, driven into pitiless desert, here is yet another ancient, defenceless community being exterminated. As with the Christian people of Syria, Iraq and Palestine, whose culture, languages and beliefs date back to Biblical times, this community is destined to be eliminated by brutal, violent hidebound obscurantism. Nine hundred years of culture, reaching back further in time, to the religion of the Roman legions, wiped out in one fell swoop. Another gain for Islam, and another loss for humanity.



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  • I agree with you about being skeptical about humanitarian claims. Of course if this were happening somewhere in Africa or essentially somewhere that wasn’t in the middle of one of the largest oil reserves still left on the planet the US wouldn’t care. But still, from what I’ve heard about ISIS they seem to be such scumbags that even I’m not that opposed to using the US military to help stop them. BTW, one thing I wonder about, I heard a journalist on Democracy Now! who claimed that ISIS in the past has gotten significant support from the CIA and may even still be getting some. It would be ironic (although not all that unprecedented, see Al Queda) if the US ended up spending resources to blow up the people we were helping (in the name of getting rid of Assad) a few months ago.

    Also, every time the Navy fires a cruise missile Lockheed makes a few million $$ in profit. There are politicians like John McCain who I think are just in the pocket of the “defense” industry and who just want us to make war because it leads to bigger profits and don’t care all that much who we bomb, as long as we use up bombs that we then have to buy more of.



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  • I think that it did. The Roman Empire was particularly good at importing religions from the East. It is said that Buddism was found in Roman Egypt, and the triple godhead of Christianity reflected many faceted gods in Indian religions in particular. Roman soldiers adopted Mithraism which became a very powerful force at around the time of Christ. Some emperors flirted with it, but it remained largely a religion of the lower orders.



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  • Remember the scene in The Life of Brian? The variouus factions of the liberation movements were quarrelling, and Brian said “We’re supposed to be fighting the Romans!” For some reason, organisations always hate the people closest to them in belief, rather than the enemy. Think of Catholics and Protestants, Jews and Muslims, Shia and Sunni, Coke and Pepsi, Trots and Stalinists, Labour and Liberal….



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  • . For some reason, organisations always hate the people closest to them in belief, rather than the enemy. Think of Catholics and Protestants, Jews and Muslims, Shia and Sunni, Coke and Pepsi, Trots and Stalinists, Labour and Liberal….

    Ain’t that the truth!
    For some reason we pick out the tiny sliver that differentiates us from some other group and fight to the death. I think of that when I hear arguments about various forms of atheism/anti-theism/agnosticism etc. these differences really don’t matter!
    Also, I’m with those posters who fear US intervention with supposedly humanitarian aims. Africa may be a good place to start helping people if indeed the aims are purely humanitarian. Actually, there are any number of places on the globe that could do with a good dose of intervention. The more time passes, the more similarities I see with Orwell’s “1984”……allies one day, enemies the next, with a seamless transition between the two.



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  • Splitters.

    But, more importantly, who are the Kurds?

    The Kurds are people who more often take charge of their own lives. Mostly self identified as Sunni they, nevertheless are a melting pot of old and very new ideas of a rich and tolerated diversity. They are Muslim because they say they are, whatever the admix of Mithraism and Marxism.

    Nor do these antique traditions curtail advanced political thinking. A Kurdish town must now have a mayor and mayoress. Gender equality is recognised as the latest most important political struggle. For those who can listen to this inspiring BBC World Service documentary on the rise of respected women politicians please do so.

    These, (again, by their own account) are mostly Muslims, and they are culturally more advanced in their thinking than parts of the USA. These natural secularists break moulds and are less culturally contrained than many on the planet. They are the start of Reformations, the happy splitting and splitting again of religious thinking.

    It is on occasions like this I am most happy at fate conferring a left of centre morality upon me. I am so happy my morals don’t make me wince at the thought of Muslims not behaving like Muslims. There is no hypocrisy, no character flaw in not following your parents’ culture with OCD diligence and every ounce of deference you can muster.

    Here is no cutting of the Gordian Knot of Fundamentalism but its proper unravelling.

    Bush recognised just too late that Ahmad Shah Massoud was the one we really needed to support, the enlightened if oil-less Muslim. The Yazidis are interesting, but their significance is that they represent part of the rich secular plurality of the Kurds and it is the Kurds, perhaps trailed by the Iranian educated middle classes, who will most likely subvert that most hateful aspect of Islamism, its reverse gear political aspirations.



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  • Red Dog and Justine Saracen,

    “like” to both comments.

    When I got wind of the fact that the US would start bombing that place again “so that there won’t be another genocide”, as it was reported on American news here, I wondered, with all of the groups that are being slaughtered right now in the Middle East and in fact in the world, why is this one chosen for help? Is it that they’re Christian? But then I read an article in the New York Times the next day which explained that the US has a consulate in that region which employs a large number of Americans and also serves a large number of American oil industry contractors. Ahhhh, yes, that explains everything. You see, Obama is still very much under fire here in the States for his reluctance to send the American military forces into Libya when it was collapsing into anarchy and the so called Libyan terrorists murdered our ambassador there. It would be a political disaster for another murderous rampage to occur on our hallowed American ground. There is always another election-circus on the horizon. Can’t screw up the campaign of Hillary Clinton by having another show of “weakness” by the Democrats now can we. Trust me, the American Government doesn’t give a crap about those Christians over there.



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  • 16
    John332 says:

    I have a better idea.
    Lets put all the fleeing Yazidi in refugee camps and let their children dream of the time when they can return to the homes of their parents.



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  • I always write with the intention of reducing misery. I also love to argue because it is only by argument that we go forward in improving our understanding of the world and how best to decrease misery.

    It is only by argument that we go forward. We stand on the shoulders of giants and see further.

    The converse is that we don’t do history. We should learn not to make the same mistakes again but that is all we should look to history for. You can do history for entertainment but that is your personal business and quite rightly of no interest to me. It is better than peadophilia

    I always write with the intention of reducing misery. I also love to argue because it is only by argument that we go forward in improving our understanding of the world and how best to decrease misery.

    It is only by argument that we go forward. We stand on the shoulders of giants and see further.

    The converse is that we don’t do history. We should learn not to make the same mistakes again but that is all we should look to history for. You can do history for entertianment but that is your personal business and quite rightly of no interest to me. It is better than peadophilia but it will not make a contribution to reducing misery or enhancing our understanding of the world.



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  • Avi Asher-Schapiro,

    Dear sir,

    I am sure that you know more about the Yazibasi than the typical Yazigi. They may even turn to you in the future for Yazebie apology and reinforcement. You may become the Yazebie equivalent of Thomas Aquinas.

    But we stand on the shoulders of giants and see further. We go forward. We don’t do history. There is nothing, repeat nothing, that we will learn from Yazib history that will inform us about the way forward.

    Man is not religious, man is a problem solver. The Yasibie are only such because they have been denied non-dogma education. They probably don’t know that the world is round.

    The only question that we ask of religion is “what is the annual subscription?” The only people promogating religion are those who receive the subscriptions.

    We seek to defend the Yazdie because they are threatened with anilialation by others who’s understanding of the world is just as weak.

    The Western world is in rapture with health, wealth and happiness whilst the Islamic world is delighted to be full of blood and misery for want of one thing; argument.

    Argument is the only game in town. That is a challenge to the IS and all reinforcing dogmas. Put your argument to the test. Is it true or is it false? Does it meet Tarski’s correspondance with the facts? Does it beat all other arguments because it stands on the shoulders of giants and sees further. Or is it dated rubbish?

    If it was written 800 years ago by folk who didn’t even know that the world was round then you have a challenge. Give it go, or pass on argument and admit that you are wrong.



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