Special for the Armenian Weekly
Thousands of people leaving their ancestral homeland. Women and children being kidnapped, raped, and sold as slaves. Men slaughtered by the dozens.
While this sounds like something from the Armenian Genocide, it is going on in the world as I write. In Northern Iraq, where the Babylonians and Assyrians once ruled vast empires, the Islamic State (IS) has been waging a genocidal war against the defenseless Yazidi people.
The IS, also known as ISIS or ISIL (Islamic State of Iraq and Syria/al-Sham/the Levant), is a descendant of al-Qaeda in Iraq, the group the U.S. Army fought against for almost a decade. Taking advantage of the Syrian Civil War, the IS swept through Syria in 2013, capturing towns from Kurds, Syrian government forces, and other rebels. The IS continued to grow this year, and expanded operations into Iraq. Coupled with an Iraqi Army retreat, the IS’s advance led to gains just outside of Baghdad, hundreds of miles from where it started its rampage. After capturing Mosul in the north, Iraq’s second largest city, the IS started to consolidate its gains. Ethnic Yazidis, fleeing from almost certain death, collected on Mount Sinjar, and were soon surrounded by IS forces. Facing starvation, heat stroke in the 100-degree Iraqi sun, and massacres, the Yazidis became a sort of call to action.
As their history is mostly based in oral tradition, Yazidis are often misunderstood. Most scholars identify the Yazidis as a subset of Kurds, as Yazidis speak Kurmanji, the most spoken dialect of Kurdish. A complex syncretism blending elements of Christianity, Islam, and Zoroastrianism, the Yazidi faith is based on the idea that God created the world and entrusted it to seven angels. One of these angels, Melek Taus, refused to obey God’s command to bow down to humanity, which is where many see the connection to the Biblical story of Satan. Melek Taus, usually represented by a peacock, became the most venerated of the seven angels after God forgave him. According to Prof. Keith Watenpaugh of UC Davis, “Over the last several centuries mainstream Sunni Islamic scholars have come to view the Yazidis as pagans—they are not considered people of the book (ahl al-Kitab); they are popularly viewed by many Muslims in Syria and Iraq as worshippers of the devil. This was the basis for their on again off again persecution by the Ottoman authorities through much of the last 500 years. The Salafist idealism of the IS takes a very hardline position on Yazidis as kafirs—unbelievers.”
Iraqi Christians, however, are seen as “of the book,” since Islam, Christianity, and Judaism share many common beliefs, such as monotheism. Because of this, the IS, as was done by the Ottoman Empire and other Islamic nations, has instituted a jizya tax system in some parts of their territories. Christians can pay a tax, often the equivalent of thousands of dollars per year, to continue their religious practices, although many churches, including Armenian ones (for example, St. Etchmiadzin in Mosul, and the Armenian Catholic Church of the Martyrs), have been either destroyed or converted to Islamic centers.
The exorbitant sums of money the IS asks for are simply too much for most Christian families, who have fled their homes en masse. The IS has already killed close to a thousand Yazidis, according to the Iraqi government. It was the Yazidis that were penned up on Mount Sinjar, waiting for an imminent death in the 100-degree heat, trying to pile onto creaky Soviet-era helicopters in an attempt to escape. Some Yazidis marched through the Syrian Desert, away from their homes, the opposite direction marched by Armenians 99 years ago, yet under strikingly similar circumstances.
The world answered the Yazidis’ calls for help, as American airstrikes combined with attacks from the Kurdish Peshmerga broke down the IS’s siege of Mount Sinjar, allowing for thousands to escape. “The Yazidis are facing genocide and the limited Kurdish forces were having a very difficult time defending both Arbil and rescuing Yazidi and other civilians. … American intervention was justified by the civilizational imperative to prevent genocide,” Watenpaugh told the Weekly. With the United Kingdom and France, along with the United States, taking leading roles in humanitarian aid, the United Nations declared the situation in Iraq a humanitarian emergency, and has called for aid from around the world. Military aid, although committed to by many nations, has only started to funnel in, with Iranian arms just reaching the Peshmerga this week.
Watenpaugh noted that there is a degree of hypocrisy to the American position: The Yazidis were facing genocide, but Arab tribesmen just across the border in Syria were being massacred at the same time and the U.S. was unwilling to help. The U.S. has no cooperative, “on the ground” partner that is competent in the way the Kurdish Peshmerga are. American decision-making in Syria is still being guided by the mistaken belief that the Free Syrian Army represents a viable alternative to both the IS and the government of Bashar al-Assad. The U.S. faces no good options or easy answers in Syria; it does in Iraq.
Estimates of the Yazidi population range from 200,000 to 700,000, with the vast majority in Iraq, although that may not be the case for long. With tens of thousands already fleeing the reach of the IS, others are certain to follow. The Yazidi village of Lalish, located on the tomb of Sheikh Adi ibn Musafir, where every Yazidi makes a pilgrimage at least once in their lifetime, has not been attacked by the IS. However, being just about 40 miles to the northeast of Mosul, the village is susceptible to brutality from the self-proclaimed caliphate. The IS has already destroyed religious sites of various faiths, including Muslim ones, in cites they view as idolatrous. Earlier this summer, the IS destroyed the tomb of the Prophet Jonah, an important figure in the Abrahamic faiths.
There are sizable Yazidi communities in Germany, Sweden, Russia, and Armenia. Armenia’s Yazidis number between 30,000 and 50,000. Most fled to Armenia following persecution during Ottoman rule, including during the Armenian Genocide, when Armenians found refuge in Yazidi villages. Concentrated near the Turkish border, Yazidis are allowed to practice their faith freely in Armenia, although villages are often mired in poverty. Education is frequently second-rate, partly because there are not enough textbooks and teachers in the Kurmanji language, although the Armenian government has attempted to remedy the former.
The Armenians are one of a handful of races to have witnessed genocide at the hands of a theocratic enemy. Incidentally, according to Weekly columnist and author of The Struggle for Kirkuk: The Rise of Hussein, Oil, and the Death of Tolerance in Iraq, Dr. Henry Astarjian, support for the IS, at least earlier in its existence, came from Turkey in the form of both medical help and ignoring the smuggling of weapons and oil across the border, which the IS uses as a source of revenue. “Armenians should be concerned about the destruction of non-Muslim communities throughout the Middle East and should see in the Yazidis common victims of Islamist hate and intolerance—hate and intolerance that will be directed against the Armenians of Aleppo were the IS to take it over, which seems a very real possibility in the next month,” Watenpaugh told the Weekly. Perhaps it is because of this that Armenian President Serge Sarkisian has committed $50,000 worth of relief, with the potential for more in the future. The Republic of Nagorno Karabagh has also indicated a willingness to take in refugees.
Iraq seems to be past the point of return in terms of statehood. According to Watenpaugh, it does not appear to be “viable as a state,” and Peshmerga victories, coupled with the capture of several oil fields, “will help those in Kurdistan calling for independence to consolidate their support.”
According to Astarjian, the Yazidis were never really a factor in Iraqi politics. It is thus a cruel irony that the world only took notice after they faced genocidal acts. Despite American airstrikes, and Kurdish Peshmerga advances, Iraq is still bogged down in what may be a long-term conflict. Watenpaugh notes that even in the absence of a formal conflict, Yazidis face attacks from Arab neighbors. Unfortunately for the Yazidis, they may not be returning to their homeland for a long time, if ever. “Such a return will be difficult if not impossible, and the international community should be prepared for the permanent displacement of the majority of the surviving Yazidis,” Watenpaugh concluded.