Sadly we can now add genocide to the crimes committed by the radical Sunni movement ISIS. The news out of northern Iraq over recent weeks is heartbreaking in almost every respect, but for those who value religious pluralism the evidence that ISIS is doing its best to exterminate Iraq’s Christian and Yazidi communities is especially depressing.
According to most reports, Christian Iraqis are given the choice to convert on the spot to Sunni Islam or die. Either that, or they are killed outright without being given the choice of apostasy. For Yazidis, at least in most reports I have read, no choice is offered. The men are killed and the women and children (those deemed worth using at least) are taken as slaves. Some witnesses who’ve managed to escape speak of groups of Yazidis buried alive; at least one report speaks of a pregnant Yazidi woman having being cut open, her womb and unborn child yanked out of her.
As one Yazidi man put it: “These ISIS fighters cry out ‘God is great’, and then do such things. What kind of human beings are they?”
Indeed. It it were me writing the battle cry for ISIS, it would go: “God is great, but our version of Islam is greater!”
The concept of God, and of how God relates to humanity, has clearly gone haywire in this branch of Sunni Islam. ISIS brings not a return to the Islam of the Prophet Mohammed, but yet another modern utopianism run amok. We can add it to the list: Nazism, Stalinism, Maoism, Sunni Jihadism.
The crime of genocide against the Yazidi represents a special threat to our human religious inheritance because the Yazidi community is so small. Worldwide there are around 700,000 Yazidis, 93% of which live in the Iraqi province now under ISIS control.
The Yazidi religion is, according to most authorities, a syncretism of elements from Sufism and the Zoroastrianism of ancient Persia. The creation story they subscribe to includes a first human named Adam, as with the other western monotheisms, but the importance they give angels, particularly the angel they call Melek Taus, puts them more in line with Zoroastrianism and even with ancient Gnosticism.
According to the Yazidi, God created the world and then put it under the command of seven angels, emanations from the Godhead, chief of which is Melek Taus, literally “the Peacock Angel”. That the Yazidi symbolize their chief angel with a peacock has led some to assert flippantly that the Yazidi “worship peacocks”--an explanation about as subtle as would be the assertion that Christians worship doves because the Holy Spirit is symbolized by that bird. The story of Melek Taus is a fascinating one; and, one would think, may have led the Yazidi to a uniquely nuanced understanding of authority.
When God created the first human, Adam, he asked the seven angels to bow down before the new creation. One of the seven, Melek Taus, refused.
“How can I bow to another being!” the angel said to God. “I am from your illumination [i.e., a direct emanation from the Godhead] while Adam is made of dust.”
God accepted this argument,and made Melek Taus leader of the other six angels.
The Yazidi, then, conceive of this highest angel as the power that rules directly over the world, their God being more removed, somewhat as in western Deism. What’s more, human good and ill fortune are meted out by Melek Taus according to his wisdom and will, and it is not proper for humans to question their lot. Good and evil are seen as inherent in every human heart, and individuals may choose one or the other. The Yazidi teach that we are to do as Melek Taus did, and choose the true and good.
Of course this is only a very rough sketch, but it gives some idea of the Yazidi belief system, how it is similar to yet different from what is found in the three Abrahamic religions.
Another striking difference is found in the Yazidi belief regarding their ancestral heritage. According to a tale in one of the two collections of Yazidi scripture, they are descended not from Adam and Eve, but from Adam alone. The story is told that a child was born of Adam from his seed stored in a jar, and when this child grew to adulthood he married an houri. The Yazidi are descendants of this “son of Jar” and the houri. It is presumably for this reason that the Yazidi forbid exogamy, i.e., marriage to someone who is not him- or herself a Yazidi. Likewise one cannot convert to Yazidism, as the religion is that of the people born in this lineage from Adam and the houri.
It is the Yazidi’s worship of Melek Taus, and the story of this angel’s refusal to bow to Adam, that has led their Muslim neighbors to characterize them as “worshippers of Satan”. In both the Christian story and in Islam, the angel Lucifer (or, in Islam, Iblis) refused to submit to God through pride, and was cast down from God’s presence--thus our image of Satan as fallen angel. The Yazidi story however is different, as Melek Taus does not refuse through pride, but through respect for the element of God in himself: in other words, through wisdom. In fact the Yazidi consider that the command to bow down to Adam was God’s way of testing the angels, and that Melek Taus is the only one to have passed the test.
Yazidi beliefs are known to outsiders largely through two texts compiled in the early 20th century: the Book of Revelation and the Black Book. These texts, which most scholars agree were not actually written by Yazidis, contain internal contradictions but have been judged to be generally accurate regarding main beliefs and customs.
Since the first appearance of the sect sometime in the Middle Ages, the Yazidi have been persecuted by their Muslim overlords. The current genocide being practiced by ISIS fanatics however poses a special threat to this faith community. Small Yazidi communities exist in Germany, Russia, Georgia, and Armenia, there is a community of several hundred in Lincoln, Nebraska in the US, but the vast majority of Yazidis are now being massacred and enslaved by the barbarians now overrunning northern Iraq.
President Obama’s decision to call for bombing raids in support of the Kurds, Christians and Yazidis against ISIS was overdue. Like many others, I believe our 2003 invasion of Iraq was a grave miscalculation, and that much of the mayhem that has ensued there is a direct result of this initial major blunder. We should not have troops on the ground in Iraq forever, but we should do what we can to beat back the Sunni extremists who are now and always have been our real enemy. The Obama administration shouldn’t have let ISIS get as far as Mosul, much less to within striking reach of the Kurdish capital Erbil.
1. Check this article at CNN. In the upper left (at least at present) is a link to the full video report from CNN’s Ivan Watson, who accompanied a helicopter supply and rescue operation to Yazidis trapped atop Mt. Sinjar. One of the most striking pieces of video journalism I’ve seen in years.
2. Yazidis in America, thankful for the support they’ve gotten, nonetheless fear their Iraqi community has been left to fall through the cracks of US insistence on a “unified Iraq”. Voice of America reports.
3. Faced with news of what's happening to their family members in Iraq, Yazidis in Nebraska are paralyzed by guilt, reports the LA Times.
4. Son of Yazidi leader calls for British aid.
5. The Catholic organization Caritas: one of the legitimate and reliable ways to help Iraq’s persecuted religious minorities. I would offer more possibilities, but this is the only one I've been able to find that is already up and running in Kurdish territory.