Devil worshipers get rich - Dialogue with the Islamic World

The flight of tens of thousands of Yazidis from the jihadist group "Islamic State" (IS) in the Sinjar Mountains in northern Iraq shocked the public in August. The global community was alarmed by the threat of genocide against this small religious community, which has been subject to persecution and displacement for centuries. With international support, Syrian Kurdish fighters finally managed to get most of the Yazidis out of the mountains to safety. But there are still regular reports of executions, forced conversion and the enslavement of Yazidi women.

Why are the Yazidis persecuted? Despite interest in their fate, little is known about their origins, culture, or beliefs. With her book "The Yezidis", the Turkish orientalist and art historian, Birgül Acikyildiz, gives an understandable and comprehensive introduction to this religious community, which could soon have completely disappeared from the Middle East. For her work, Acikyildiz undertook several, sometimes adventurous, research trips to the settlement areas in northern Iraq, but also to Syria, Armenia and Turkey between 2002 and 2005.

According to the author, a total of 518,000 Yazidis lived in northern Iraq before the latest conflict, 300,000 of them in the Sinjar region alone. The Yazidi communities in neighboring countries are therefore much smaller, especially since most Yazidis from Turkey have emigrated to Germany since the 1960s. Most of the Yazidis are Kurds. In the autonomous Kurdish regions in northern Iraq, where the most important Yazidis shrines are also located, they enjoy protection and respect, but otherwise the relationship with the Muslims is characterized by tensions.

One of the oldest religions in the region

The Yazidis consider themselves one of the oldest religions in the region, but their current practice of faith goes back to Sheikh Adi (1073-1163) - a Muslim Sufi scholar who retired from Baghdad to the northern Iraqi Lalisch Valley, where he founded a convent and established the Sufi order of Adawija. Sections of the local population who practiced a belief influenced by ancient Iranian religions such as Zoroastrianism joined Sheikh Adi and adopted his teachings. After his death, they in turn contributed elements of their faith.

By the 15th century, a Yazidi religion of its own developed, which is passed down orally to this day - mainly through religious chants. Although there are individual Islamic elements in it, it differs significantly from Islam in general.

The Yazidis believe in one god (Xwede), but he made "Melek Taus", the angel peacock, his representative on earth. "Melek Taus" is the head of the seven angels and forms the holy trinity with Sheikh Adi and Sheikh Ezi, with Sheikh Ezi possibly going back to the Islamic caliph Yazid.

"Melek Taus", whose symbol is the blue peacock, plays a central role in the Yazidis' beliefs. The fact that the figure of this angel also exists in Islam and Christianity, but is equated there with Satan (a fallen angel), led to the Yazidis being viewed as "devil worshipers".

As Acikyildiz emphasizes, this is a misunderstanding, since "Melek Taus" is not considered Satan by the Yazidis. He also has none of his characteristics and is not considered an opponent of God, but as a mediator between God and man.

Heretic and persecuted

Nevertheless, the Yazidis were repeatedly persecuted as "devil worshipers". Even if they are monotheists, Muslims did not consider them to be followers of a book religion like Jews and Christians, but rather as unbelievers who had fallen away from Islam. In the Ottoman Empire, the Yazidis refused to pay taxes and do military service. In 1890, the Ottomans gave the Yazidis an ultimatum to convert to Islam. Because they refused, their settlement areas in Sinjar and Sheikhan were occupied and the residents were massacred.

During the First World War, the Yazidis were persecuted again in addition to the Armenians, which is why thousands fled to Soviet Armenia. As Acikyildiz writes, the experience of persecution has made the Yazidis an inward-looking community who treat strangers with caution. Marriage is almost exclusively among each other, and there are also marriage bans between the three so-called "castes". Anyone who does marry a Muslim or Christian will be excluded from the community. Conversely, a conversion to the Yazidi faith is not possible.

Acikyildiz describes the Yazidis as a strongly patriarchal community in which women are mainly responsible for children and the household to this day. When the researcher wanted to eat in the restaurant in the town of Behzane in the evening, she was told that women did not. When she insisted, as her guide said, she became the first woman in Behzane to eat in public. In the village communities, marriages continue to be arranged by the parents. The level of education is low - until not long ago reading and writing were reserved for the clergy.

Undogmatic, but traditional

In her book, Acikyildiz describes in detail the tomb and shrine architecture of the Yazidis, which is characterized by conical, ribbed roofs. The mausoleums of the saints, especially the tomb of Sheikh Adi in Lalisch, play a central role in rituals and festivals, as there are no mosques or churches comparable to places of prayer. According to Acikyildiz, there is no tradition of communal prayer, but everyone prays for himself, facing the sun. There is therefore no fixed form, and prayer, like fasting, is not an obligation.

As Acikyildiz describes the Yazidis, they appear as an undogmatic, yet deeply traditional community. The Yazidis had been exposed to attacks by radical Islamists since the US invasion in 2003 - in August 2007 alone, more than 500 deaths.

The persecution by the IS terrorist militia has now reached a level that calls into question the existence of the ethnic group. "How they want to protect themselves from their extinction remains an open and pressing question," writes Acikyildiz. "Without international protection, the survival of Yazidi culture is threatened."

Ulrich von Schwerin

© 2014

Birgül Acikyildiz: "The Yezidis: The History of a Community, Culture and Religion", London, I.B. Tauris, 2014, 283 pages.