Iraq’s Yazidis: Caught in the crossfire

Caught between Arabs and Kurds, members of the religious minority fear violence as fighting continues across Iraq.

In Iraq, Yazidism - like other religious minorities - is largely seen as 'other' [Getty Images]

Erbil, Iraq – When Mosul fell to the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) over two weeks ago, the Yazidis of Nineveh Province found themselves living next door to the organisation accused of ruthlessly killing six of them in May, and sparking the exodus of hundreds more.

The rapidly developing conflict in Iraq has seen a number of minorities, including Yazidis, Shabaks, and Christians, engulfed in a precarious chapter of Iraqi history. Last week alone, 24 Yazidi border guards were kidnapped by a group claiming to be ISIL. Some, according to Amnesty International, were later released; the rest are still being held across the border in northeast Syria.

Nineveh’s proximity to Syria and the porous border that separates the two countries has allowed groups like ISIL, now calling itself the “Islamic State”, to penetrate Iraq and gradually encroach on the province; one of Iraq’s most ethnically diverse areas and home to Sinjar, where most of Iraq’s estimated 600,000 Yazidis live.

Khairi Bozari, head of Yazidi affairs in the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), told Al Jazeera that despite the Sunni fighters’ takeover of large swathes of Nineveh, Sinjar has seen a relatively calm unfolding of events due to the large Kurdish military presence.

Bozari said, however, that 20 Yazidi-Iraqi soldiers have been killed since the start of the conflict.

A statement issued by the Yazidi Human Rights Organization, a non-profit group advocating for the rights of Iraq’s Yazidi community, claimed that 13 Yazidi soldiers have been tortured to death by the so-called Islamic State after they refused to convert to Islam. 

But the use of terror against Iraq’s Yazidis is not a new phenomenon. Following the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003 and the start of a heightened sectarian warfare, the security situation saw a stark, steady decline in 2007.

Two Yazidi communities near Sinjar were devastated by what is still considered one of Iraq’s worst bombings since 2003, in a coordinated attack that killed approximately 500 Yazidis and left over 1,000 families homeless.

“We have been suffering for centuries and no one bothers to see us,” said Mirza Ismail, chairman of the Yazidi Human Rights Organization.

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Yazidis are primarily defined by their monotheistic religion. The self-proclaimed oldest religion adheres to a syncretic system that amalgamates Zoroastrianism, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, among others. In a country where 99 percent of the population is Muslim, Yazidism – like other religious minorities – is largely seen as ‘other’.

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Their ‘unorthodox’ religious beliefs, particularly the widespread misconception that Yazidism is a religion that worships the devil, are often the cause of ongoing persecution. This misunderstanding partly stems from the ambiguous linguistic and theological links between the devil and Tausi Melek, the venerated Peacock Angel created by God to complete the creation of the universe.

“Part of the problem is that the peacock is identified with Ahriman, the evil principle in Zoroastrianism … but he is in no way the devil,” said Christine Allison, professor of Kurdish Studies at the University of Exeter.

In a country where the constitution provides for religious freedom, not everyone is comfortable being situated alongside a community that is so far removed from the religious status quo. Twenty-seven-year-old Yazidi student Nawaf Ashur relocated from his hometown in Sinjar to Sulaymaniyah four years ago to study business administration and journalism.

“I say I’m Iraqi first, then Yazidi. I don’t specify whether I am Kurdish or Arab,” Ashur told Al Jazeera. 

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While Yazidis are primarily defined by their distinct religious identity, their fluid ethnicity has long been a source of academic interest and, more recently, a convenient political tool for Baghdad and the KRG. The creation of modern nation-states and the change in traditional identities “brought new, ethnicised labels in the place of the old, religiously motivated ones,” write Shane Brennan and Marc Herzog in their forthcoming book, Turkey and the Politics of National Identity. 

“The question of Yazidi identity has always been a bit of a matter of political negotiations,” said Allison, at the University of Exeter. 

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Because they were often regarded as Arabs by the regime, they were partly saved from sharing the fate of the over 100,000 Kurds who were murdered during the rule of Saddam. After the fall of the Baathist regime, the territorial dispute between Baghdad and the KRG became an added source of tension for a community continuously pushed and pulled between the two sides.

“The greatest challenge we have faced has been the change in our identity imposed by the previous regime, and now by the KRG,” Mirza Ismail, of the Yazidi Human Rights Organization, told Al Jazeera.

Another important characteristic of Yazidi identity is the community’s caste division, which forbids inter-caste marriage. Marriages outside the community are also prohibited, and Yazidis who choose to marry a non-Yazidi often face harsh responses. In 2007, the stoning to death of a Yazidi teenager by her own community for falling in love with a Muslim man and converting to Islam made international headlines.

Linguistically, however, there is a clear link between Kurds and Yazidis, as both speak Kurmanji, a dialect of the Kurdish language spoken in the northern areas of Kurdistan.

“Yazidism is a set of religious beliefs and traditions. However, a lot of their cultural traditions, like dancing and clothing are similar to the Kurds – but they also listen to Arab music,” explained Iraq-based researcher Christine van den Toorn.

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While the KRG is adamant that Iraq’s Yazidis are Kurds, the two leading parties, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), have recognised Yazidis as their own when politically convenient, sometimes in bids to win more seats in parliament. 

However, according to Khidher Domle, a minority expert and peace building researcher at Duhok University, 90 percent of Iraq’s Yazidis willingly vote for Kurdish political parties, with the majority supporting the KDP; a reality that is often rejected by those members of the community who do not feel Kurdish.

Ismail, for example, claims to have witnessed election irregularities in Sinjar during the most recent Iraqi elections. According to the Yazidi activist, a number of families received financial support from the KRG “to get as many votes as possible for their political parties to have more seats in the Iraqi parliament.”


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“Some candidates gave $1,000 to families with four or five voters in them; I have witnessed this,” he told Al Jazeera. “When there are elections, the KRG – both the PUK and the KDP – interview the ‘kurdified Yazidis’ on different media outlets and tell viewers that Yazidis are the ‘original Kurds’,” he added.

For a young Yazidi activist from Duhok who asked to remain anonymous, Kurdish identity is relevant and very much part of being Yazidi: “Yazidis are the original Kurds, the oldest text in the Kurdish language is a Yazidi text,” he said.

Nawaf Ashur, however, explained that when they were considered Arabs under the Baathist regime, the Yazidi community faced fewer threats. “It was a dictatorship, but under Saddam minorities were respected and we felt more comfortable. They are more worried now, even though we’ve got this kind of democracy,” Ismail said.

Meanwhile, Letta Tayler, Human Rights Watch’s senior researcher in terrorism and counterterrorism, urged Iraq’s Kurdish and Arab authorities to put a stop to attacks on minorities.

“It seems that for many religious minorities the solution offered by the international community is to help these besieged minorities get visas to leave their homeland,” Tayler told Al Jazeera. “But they should not be offered a choice this stark: stay and be killed or leave your own home.” 

Today, the Yazidis are victims of geography, caught between a largely Islamic State-controlled province, Baghdad’s authority, and the KRG’s often heavy-handed military forces, in addition to Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s frail grip on the Sunni-majority province, shamefully brought to light by the rapid fall of the Iraqi army and the takeover of Mosul by the so-called Islamic State.

Follow @SofiaBarbarani on Twitter. 

Source: Al Jazeera