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Why Is the Islamic State Trying to Eradicate Iraq's Yazidi Minority?

For the past week, the world's gaze has been fixed on northern Iraq, where the Islamic State is besieging, scattering, and starving out the Yazidis, an ethno-religious minority on the run.

The Yazidi people are in trouble. Photo via Wikimedia Commons

On Tuesday, a helicopter bearing supplies for the embattled Yazidi people crashed in the mountains outside the city of Sinjar in Iraq's volatile northwest. There, the Islamic State (the IS, formerly the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham, ISIS) is besieging, scattering, and starving out the remainder of a population of Iraqi Yazidis, an ethno-religious group to whom most of us have been introduced by their current plight. Over the two and a half months since the IS seized nearby Mosul, we've learned to expect bigoted terror targeted at vulnerable, non-compliant populations around their strongholds. Early coverage focused on the destruction of shrines, imposition of taxes on or complete expulsion of Christian groups, and execution of Shi‘a and resistors. But the attacks on Sinjar move beyond the horrors of cleansing and control—the old ISIS refrain of get in line, get out, or die—and towards the complete, intentional, and targeted eradication of a people and culture.

Information coming out of Sinjar is spotty, with estimates of the number of Yazidis fled and under threat varying by tens of thousands and almost no information about the fate of refugees or captives. We are certain of a few facts about the conflict, though. “This is definitely targeted,” says Joe Stork, the deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s Middle East and North Africa division who spoke to VICE from Iraq after spending a week amongst Yazidi communities. That is to say, the Yazidis are not just random casualties who happened to get wedged, as a group, against the IS’s progressive march with no escape. The IS appears to want more than just the dispersal, conversion, or subjugation of the Yazidis, and instead their outright eradication. “Everyone we know believes this is their intention,” Stork says. By August 7, both the UN and US President Barack Obama were openly declaring the IS campaign against the Yazidis a genocide. But why the IS has decided to initiate the eradication of an entire people now—whether the campaign is entirely ideological or at least partly strategic—remains unknown, making it hard to judge whether there is any chance for abatement or whether they will pursue the Yazidis beyond Sinjar if they manage to flee. “None of us are in a position to ask ISIS,” says Stork.

A small community numbering perhaps 700,000 worldwide, the Yazidis are members of a faith that displays elements of Christianity, Islam, Judaism, and Zoroastrianism, but is distinct from all of them. Perhaps half a million adherents live in northern Iraq, mostly in Nineveh Province, where their holiest shrine and pilgrimage site, the temple at Lalish, houses the tomb of their reincarnated demigod saint Sheikh Adi bin Musafir. Unfortunately, Nineveh Province is also ground zero for the Islamic State.

The Yazidis believe in a monotheistic God, but think he created the world only to leave its affairs in the hands of seven Holy Beings, often referred to as angels. Chief amongst them was the Peacock Angel, Melek Taus, known in Islamic tradition as Iblis or Shaytan and in Christianity as Satan. But while in most Judeo-Christian traditions, the devil is condemned for his refusal to acknowledge and honor God’s creation, Adam, the Yazidis revere his choice to honor no other creature than God. They believed Sheikh Musafir was a reincarnation of Melek Taus, the speaker of God on earth. Besides the occasional creation of avatars of angels and reincarnation of spirits, the Yazidi also believe in elements of nature worship, purification rituals, and a type of caste system, all of which leads them to near-total endogamy, a practice of marrying within their own community.

A Yazidi temple in Sinjar. Photo via Flickr user James Gordon

Ethnically, they are usually described as Kurds thanks to their use of the Kurdish language and customs and residence in Kurdish lands. But given their historic aversion to marrying into even nearby and culturally similar Kurdish clans, this equation may be an oversimplification and is often rejected. They are their own people—a unique culture astonishing for its survival despite years of persecution for their allegedly heretical devil worship.

The IS never hinted at any fondness for or acceptance of the Yazidis, but it wasn’t until late July that signs of systematic aggression started to emerge. On July 25, Kurdish news outlets reported that militants had distributed leaflets in and around Sinjar, a major Yazidi town, threatening to forcibly convert them to Islam. On August 1, the IS pushed into Sinjar, taking the town within two days. “For the first hour they said to stay calm, and we have no problem with you,” relates Stork. “Then an hour later they were rounding people up in cars.” Within days, hundreds of Yazidis had been captured, some of whom were killed and some of whom—mainly women—may currently be enslaved or enduring efforts at forced conversion. Yazidis attempted an armed retreat, using old rifles to hold back the IS as they fled into the mountains, but eventually ran out of ammunition.

Tens of thousands fled the immediate area, and tens of thousands more have abandoned the surrounding region. At present, it is unclear what has happened to those who fled into the mountains, north towards Turkey. But many remained trapped without provisions in the mountains, pinned in by the IS forces, for much of the last week. At least 20,000 became trapped atop a single mountain, as Iraqi state and Peshmerga forces of the autonomous region of Kurdistan, who are now fighting to hold an often flagging border against the IS, failed to open a route of escape or to deliver effectual aid to the exposed refugees. By August 8, the Peshmerga opened a corridor for Yazidi families—all of whom seem to have lost someone to violence or attrition—to flee. By the next day, the United States had initiated a still-ongoing air support campaign targeting the IS militants in and around Sinjar to relieve pressure on the community. The effects on the Yazidi community, their destination, and their fate, remain unknown.

The most obvious explanation for the IS’s decision to eradicate the Yazidi is that the notoriously puritanical sect considers them devil worshippers, irredeemable and corrosive heretics who deserve extinction. Many other Muslims in the region condemn Yazidis for the same reason, but ISIS differentiates itself by the desire to fully eradicate their culture and religion. According to Stork, "that’s the hardline ISIS type of image of this community.” While the Islamic State claims it has room for other monotheists, recognized in the Qur‘an as the ahl al-kitab—the people of the book, which historically encompassed Christians and Jews, as well as the Zoroastrains, all of whom the Yazidis resemble—they appear to have determined that the deification of Melek Taus invalidates the Yazidis from that protected status.

This fits with the religious motivation in other targeted IS campaigns against ethno-religious minorities, some of whose plight, despite documentation by human rights monitors, have not received as much international recognition as Nineveh’s Christians or the Yazidis. At least 11 villages belonging to the Shabak have been taken by the IS, forcing members of the ethno-religious minority to flee to Kurdistan. The Shabak, 100,000 or more northern Iraqi Turkmen related to the Qizilbash tribes who helped the Safavid dynasty conquer Iran in the 16th century only to face extermination at the hands of their masters (who saw them as a threat in peacetime), take both Sunni and Shi‘a labels. However, they also show reverence and take pilgrimages to the shrines of past leaders. Their invocations show a quasi-deification of their divine leaders, and their cultural practices allow them to drink alcohol, earning the ire of the IS.

The IS has also killed members of the Mandaean ethno-religious community, most notably one of the few female taxi drivers in Nineveh Province, whom they executed in early July. Once a major force in Iraq, but now reduced to a few thousand dispersed adherents, the Mandaeans are remnants of Gnostic Christianity who revere St. John the Baptist as a Christ-like savior, relying on their own gospels—which refer to the world in Zoroastrain terms as divided between a realm of darkness and a realm of light. They’ve long identified themselves as the Sabians, given protection as ahl al-kitab, but likewise have been denied that status by radical Islamic clerics through the ages, most notably during a purge in 2003.

Any heterodoxy or deviation from the tight parameters of the IS’s definition of a protected people appears to merit, in the minds of its leadership and foot soldiers, eradication to create a pure religious state. This willingness to define popular faith—rituals and reverences not found in traditional orthodox Islamic tradition—as heresy gives the IS wide discretion in its choice to persecute, suppress, or eliminate any religious group that doesn’t fall tightly into line with them. All forms of difference have suffered under their occupation, and every human tragedy deserves equal and due response and memorialization. But despite the common religious motive in the IS’s campaigns, it’s clear that certain religious groups, condemned for similar reasons, have born a greater brunt of aggression than others.

In early July, both Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch issued reports acknowledging that the IS seemed to be specially targeting vulnerable minorities. In the initial days of the conquest of and expansion beyond Mosul, certain religious minorities had an easier time escaping the wrath of the militants. “Up until now, Christians had an easier time getting out of the region,” says Stork. But the groups who remained behind mostly lack visibility, wealth, protection, or established and powerful connections beyond their region to whom to flee. This may be why, of all the Shi‘a in the region, some of the greatest atrocities have befallen the ethnic Turkmen, who faced a similar mass slaughter and expulsion from Tel Afar at the end of June.

Yazidis on the run from the Islamic State. Photo via Flickr user Domenico

The Yazidis have suffered previous massacres, most recently in 2007, at the hands of other religious groups in Iraq. In the late 1980s, the Shabak were forced into a mass relocation by endemic Iraqi bigotry. To this day, according to Human Rights Watch , they’re often called devil worshippers or infidels, respectively, by many of their co-nationals. Almost everything is distastefuideol to the IS, but these groups are massively marginalized by the broader population, too. In the case of the Yazidis, they are also, from the IS’s perspective, in the way. “There may be a strategic purpose here in terms of the quest for continuity of control in ISIS-held territory,” explains Stork, with the Islamic State tying up loose ends and demonstrating its power, unfortunately often by catching up and making an example of those who have little recourse or protection. As the IS flexes its muscles and secures its territory, “the Yazidis particularly have born the brunt of it,” says Stork.

For a time, the Yazidis had the avowed protection of Iraqi Kurdistan and its formidable Peshmerga forces. In April, Kurdish regional President Masoud Barzani proclaimed the Yazidis authentic Kurds and paragons of his ethnicity’s resistance to tyranny—his government had previously recognized Yazidi festivals as public holidays. Throughout June, the Peshmerga took on the duty of protecting the Yazidis, as well as Shi‘a Turkemn and Shabak, where the Iraqi state had abdicated its control and responsibility. By so doing, they strategically demonstrated their competency to international powers, and their commitment to a pluralistic society, conveniently scoring points in their quest for global recognition and full independence. The hundreds of thousands of refugees they took in often turned around to bolster Peshmerga resistance to the IS’s advances, implicitly expressing the buy-in of the region’s minorities and Nineveh Province’s fractured territory to a Kurdish state project. Whether strategic or heartfelt, it was a win-win situation.

But that protection failed upon the IS force’s approach to Sinjar. “That probably an understatement,” says Stork. “Confidence in Kurdistan’s protection is now pretty low… no one know’s if it’s a lack of ability or determination, but it certainly has eroded and no one’s sure what’s going on right now.” Despite the Peshmerga’s role in liberating the Yazidis stranded in the mountains outside Sinjar-proper, the IS and the world alike now recognize that even those troops ostensibly under Kurdistan’s protection are, when push comes to shove, extremely vulnerable, often on their own. To the IS, that makes them easy targets.

Whether the ultimate motive is purely ideological, a natural extension of previous campaigns pinning in the most vulnerable communities as they consolidate their control, or perhaps even a conscious effort to specifically target the weak as examples, the fact remains that the Yazidis face extermination. And they recognize the extent of the threat, according to Stork. Few have taken up the IS’s offer of safety in conversion (and those who did have not been seen since), as most doubt it would actually save them. “They were fleeing out last week, but the situation could be different now” he says. “And today, it’s hard getting out. Crossing over to Turkey is total mayhem.” All we know now, Stork tells me, is that “this is a campaign of general eradication, and it’s going all too well for ISIS.”

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