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Who are the Yazidis?

By Ishaan Tharoor August 7 at 1:36 PM



Yazidi women who fled the violence in the northern Iraqi town of Sinjar, take shelter in a
school in the Kurdish city of Dohuk (Safin Hamed/Agence France-Presse via Getty Images)

It's tragic that the world pays attention to largely forgotten communities only
in their moments of greatest peril. This week, we've watched as tens of
thousands of Yazidis a mostly Kurdish-speaking people who practice a
unique, syncretic faith fled the advance through northern Iraq of the Islamic
State's Sunni jihadists, who have set about abducting and killing hundreds of
members of this religious minority. As The Washington Post's Loveday
Morris reports, as many as 40,000 remain stranded on "the craggy peaks of
Mount Sinjar," dying of hunger and thirst and devoid of much support from a
faltering Iraqi government.
Ever since seizing Mosul, Iraq's main urban center in the north, the forces of
the Islamic State have embarked on a gruesome mission to transform their
domain into an idealized Caliphate on the way, they've forced the
conversion of religious minorities, destroyed the shrines of rival sects and
butchered those they consider apostates. Yesterday, a distraught Yazidi
member of parliament in Baghdad made an impassioned appeal on behalf of
her people: "An entire religion is being exterminated from the face of the
Earth," she said.
The Yazidis, globally, number about 700,000 people, but the vast majority of
the community about half a million to 600,000 live concentrated in
Iraq's north. The city of Sinjar was their heartland. Now, it's in the possession
of extremists who seem bent on ethnic cleansing.
The Yazidi faith is a fascinating mix of ancient religions. Its reputed founder
was an 11th-century Umayyad sheik whose lineage connected him to the first
great Islamic political dynasty. His tomb in the Iraqi city of Lalish is a site of
Yazidi pilgrimage, mirroring the Sufi practices of millions of Muslims
elsewhere; now, there are reports of the town being turned into a refugee
camp for the displaced.
Despite its connections to Islam, the faith remains distinctly apart. It was one
of the non-Abrahamic creeds left in the Middle East, drawing on various pre-
Islamic and Persian traditions. Yazidis believe in a form of reincarnation and
adhere to a strict caste system. Yazidism borrows from Zoroastrianism, which
held sway in what's now Iran and its environs before the advent of Islam, and
even the mysteries of Mithraism, a quasi-monotheistic religion that was
popular for centuries in the Roman Empire, particularly among soldiers. Not
unlike the rituals of India's Parsis latter-day Zoroastrians Yazidis light
candles in religious ceremonies as a sign of the triumph of light over darkness.
Yazidis believe in one God who is represented by seven angels. According to
Yazidi lore, one of the angels, Malak Tawous, was sent to Earth after refusing
to bow to Adam, explains the Economist. Represented in peacock form, he is
considered neither wholly good nor evil by Yazidis, but Muslim outsiders
know him as "shaytan," or Satan. The Islamic State has justified its slaughter
of Yazidis on the basis of the long-standing slur that they are "devil-
worshipers."
Bobby Ghosh, former Time magazine Baghdad bureau chief, writes that his
Sunni and Shiite colleagues referred to Yazidis as devil-worshipers "as a joke,
even a term of endearment." But the Islamic State "is taking the false claim of
satanism far too seriously."
Well before the current outrages which have targeted other religious
minorities in Iraq as well the sect suffered a long history of persecution,
caught amid the overlapping ambitions of empires and later the emergence of
fractious Arab states. The Yazidi member in the Iraqi parliament referenced
"72 massacres" in her people's history, ranging from the rampages of
conquering Mongols to the zealous purges of the Ottomans, who at various
moments targeted the Yazidis, including during the early 20th-century
massacres of Armenians that many now consider a genocide.
The Yazidis' fragile existence in northern Iraq grew more delicate after the
2003 U.S.-led invasion of the country and the ousting of Saddam Hussein's
nominally secular dictatorial regime. In 2007, coordinated bomb blasts in a
Yazidi village in northwestern Iraq killed about 800 people it was at the
time the worst single terror attack since the American invasion.
After Baghdad's deeply polarized sectarian politics took hold and militants
gained sway, much of northern Iraq's ancient Christian population has
steadily fled to diasporic communities in Europe. The Yazidis largely remained
in their historical homeland, by their mountains and shrines. That life,
though, also may now be a thing of the past.