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Living under ISIL rule as a religious minority

Non-Muslims are treated harshly in areas controlled by ISIL, but a particular level of brutality is aimed at the Yazidis

new report by Amnesty International exposes the terrible plight of least 3,500 young Yazidi women and girls.

The Yazidis are ethnic Kurds who practice an ancient monotheistic religion linked to Zoroastrianism that many Muslims — including the Sunni absolutists who make up the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant — consider heretical.

The report says in August 2014, ISIL fighters abducted hundreds and possibly thousands of Yazidi men, women and children who were fleeing the Sinjar region in northwestern Iraq as the group approached. Younger women and girls, some as young as 12, were separated from their families and sold, given as gifts or forced to marry fighters and supporters. Many have been subjected to abuse, torture and rape.

Although a few hundred have escaped, many more remain in ISIL custody in Syria and Iraq. In desperation, some have committed suicide.

We spoke to three experts about the struggles experienced by the Yazidis in ISIL-controlled territory.

Daniel Marans: Who are the Yazidis? Why do people believe they are devil worshipers ?

Khidher Domle: The Yazidi religion is one of the old Kurdish religions. It is different from Islam, Christianity and Judaism. Some Islamic researchers have written Yazidis are devil worshipers. That is because they compare it to Islam and get it confused. In Yazidi mythology, there are no demons. I am Yazidi, and we believe that there are high angels … If [Melek Tawus] did not help them come out of heaven, then humanity would not be born.

Tell me about what you saw and what role you played in helping people escaping the siege of Sinjar in June and July.

ISIL created a strategy to control Sinjar and the Yazidi area of Nineveh. Their operation in the Yazidi area was different than other places like Mosul. They killed everyone they found and kidnapped girls and women. And after they kidnapped 3,500 women and children, they disappeared. When they surrounded the mountain, thousands of Yazidis were in a terrible situation. For more than three months, thousands of Yazidis were surrounded by ISIL, who tried implement a genocide against the Yazidis. They killed more than 400 men and kidnapped 700 women and children in just a few days. A lot of peshmerga and Yazidi fighters found out after they captured ISIL-held villages in the north.

What role have you been playing as a volunteer helping Yazidi refugees?

We worked hard to help IDPs [internally displaced people] from Sinjar find shelter and work with international humanitarian groups. I started a small group of volunteers to help women escape from ISIL. Starting now, we are working very hard to help women escape from Raqqa. 

Daniel Marans: Have the Yazidis ever gone through this before in their history?

Sebastian Maisel: Yes. The problem with this is that their history is not documented like Western histories. They are based on unwritten sources. It is almost completely and entirely oral cultural narration. Part of their history is a series of genocides that happened in their history. They speak of the current one in Sinjar as their 74th genocide.

But those have not occurred in the past 50 years?

It is tricky to really to count these 72 or 73 or 74 events. You deal with some legends and myths. There are some events in recent history that they consider pogrom-style executions. The 73rd, they say, was in 2007, when there were two attacks in Sinjar as well. That was the single deadliest attack in the Iraq War.

And I assume that enmity was mostly born of religious differences?

Correct. In recent memory they also had their share of ethnic persecution, but in the past it was strictly religious persecution. Others call them devil worshipers and heretics. There are all kinds of misunderstandings and stereotypes. In the long run, this means they are not “people of the book.” The people under those guidelines, such as Christians and Jews, have protections. Yazidis are not, so you can do whatever you want with them. Also, the Jews all left in the 1950s. Christians almost all left since the sectarian war of 2006. Yazidis are now the second-largest religious group. They are still there, and they are a prime target.

Juan Cole: What can you tell us about the history and politics of the Yazidis of Iraq?

Juan Cole: The Kurds of northern Iraq are a linguistic group above all, and that linguistic group is spread around northern Iraq, Iran, Syria and Turkey, and it is multireligious. The majority of the Kurds are Sunnis, though they tend to be more Sufi. There are a few [Shias], and there are some other groups amongst them, and Yazidis are among them.

“Yazidi” is a corruption of “Azadi,” which in Farsi means “divine.” Yazidi religion seems to be a syncretic religion with Zoroastrian and gnostic elements. So they are not considered Muslims. They do not behave like Muslims or have a Muslim doctrine. Gnosticism works by turning things on their head sometimes. God honored Adam by having angels bow down to him, and Satan refused to and was cast out. Yazidis consider this good that Satan refused to bow down to man because you only bow to God. So they respect him and call him the Peacock. He is an angel, a figure with a divine aura.

Both the Yazidis’ Kurdish and their non-Muslim markers of identity have been important in the current crisis.

Where do Yazidis stand in the coalition effort to degrade and destroy ISIL?

The humanitarian tragedy, massacre and displacement caught on video did help create public demand for an intervention that President Barack Obama acquiesced in despite his reservations. The Obama administration is more or less committed to using airpower to seeing that the Yazidis are left in peace.

There is a political wrinkle in that the Syrian Kurds right next to Sinjar are close to the PKK [Kurdistan Workers’ Party], which had fought with the Turks. The Syrian Kurds and YPG [People’s Protection Units] in particular have been absolutely crucial to protection of Sinjar in the last few months. There is a rivalry between peshmerga and YPG in this regard. There is some feeling in Sinjar that the peshmerga left them alone for too long. The whole question of this rivalry and Turkey’s attitude to Syrian Kurds still looms.

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