11
Aug

Who are the Yazidis?

Written on August 11, 2014 by Waya Quiviger in International Conflict, Terrorism & Security, Middle East, News, Op Ed

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. (Days after the Yazidis’ plight became known, the Obama administration authorized air strikes in northern Iraq against the Islamist rebels.)

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. Read more….

August 7 published in the Washington Post

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