Islamic State terrorists, formerly known as ISIS, have killed at least 500 members of Iraq’s Yezidi religious minority in and around the city of Sinjar and taken hundreds of women as slaves. Some of the victims were buried alive. Their only crime: not being Muslims.
Tens of thousands bolted from Sinjar and fled to a remote mountaintop without food, water, or shelter where many more perished. If the United States hadn’t air dropped supplies or blasted the Islamic State from the skies, the number of dead Yezidis could have mushroomed to genocidal proportions.
Even so, the Islamic State’s genocidal intentions are obvious now. Christians, Jews, Druze, Alawites, Shia Muslims, and mainstream Sunni Muslims should expect precisely the same treatment if they find themselves conquered.
If war teaches us about geography, genocide teaches us about ethnic and religious minorities who might remain obscure otherwise. I had never heard of the Yezidis myself until I went to Iraq in 2006 and interviewed the president of Duhok University in the Kurdish autonomous region. He told me to go to Lalish, the Yezidi “Mecca,” where the last of the region’s ancient fire-worshippers believe the universe was born.
The place is scorching hot during the summer like everywhere else in Iraq, but I drove there through empty snow-covered land during the winter. Lalish didn’t look or feel like the center of the universe. It looked and felt like the ends of the earth. The area is as unpopulated as the Wyoming outback, which offers the Yezidis a certain measure of protection. If their “Mecca” were in the center of Baghdad—or, worse, Fallujah—they’d be in more serious danger right now than they already are.
I showed up unannounced, but Baba Sheikh, the caretaker of Lalish and head of the Yezidi faith, showed me around. At the site’s center is a conical stone monument depicting heaven and the supposed seven layers of Earth. An eternal flame representing the life force of the universe burns inside.
“Fire is from God,” Baba Sheikh said. “Without fire, no one would live. When Kurdish Muslims swear today they still say I swear by this fire.” He then sent me into a dark and spooky old temple with a guide who lit a fire in a square oil pan.
Yezidism as practiced today began in the 12th century, but its roots are much older, stretching back to pre-Islamic Zoroastrianism and the ancient religions of Mesopotamia. Like nearly all faiths, it has absorbed fragments of nearby religions and includes aspects of Sufi Islam, Judaism, Christianity, and Gnosticism.
And like all religions from the point of view of outsiders, it’s strange. Lettuce, of all things, is prohibited. The Yezidis worship a peacock angel named Malek Taus who long ago refused to submit to God and bow to Adam, but later redeemed himself. Fundamentalist Muslims consider the Yezidis Satan-worshippers, but Kurdish Muslims are less likely to think so than Arabs, in large part because the Yezidi religion is based on the original religion of the Kurds before most of them converted to Islam. The Kurds know perfectly well they were not Satan-worshippers earlier in their history.
In fact, the Yezidi religion is still an integral part of the Kurdish identity even all these centuries later. When designing their flag, Iraq’s Kurds took a pass on the crescent moon symbol so common on the flags of Muslim countries and chose fire imagery—a blazing sun—from the Yezidi religion instead.
“They are peaceful people,” one of my Kurdish friends told me, “but they resisted Islam for so many centuries. You have to admire them.”
Like other Middle Eastern minorities, they’re good at resisting conquerors and oppressors. They would have been obliterated long ago otherwise. And they are not themselves conquerors. They aren’t even proselytizers. You’re free to find the Yezidi religion compelling, but you can’t convert into it. The community is closed now. All the Yezidis want to do is go their own way and live their lives unmolested.
They’re among the easiest people in the entire world to make peace with, but no one on earth can make peace with the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria.
I asked Baba Sheikh if they consider themselves Kurds first or Yezidis first and he gave me a quintessentially Middle East answer.
“When there is politics,” he said, "we are Kurds. When there is no politics, we are Yezidis.”
There are politics now, to put it mildly, in Northern Iraq, both inside and outside the Kurdish autonomous region. With the Islamic State on the rampage, the Yezidis are in grave danger, as are the majority of Kurds who call themselves Muslims. Iraq’s Kurds may as well say “We are all Yezidis now,” but the truth is they always have been.
Michael J. Totten is a contributing editor at World Affairs and City Journal and the author of five books, including Where the West Ends and The Road to Fatima Gate.