I’ve talked about the Yezidis many times over the years. The main reason is that I find the obscure marginal sects of the Middle East interesting. This is a part of the world where religious pluralism existed under very precise and strict conditions, and these groups deviated from those conditions and lived to tell the tale. The Muslim rulers, and more specifically in historical memory the Ottomans, tolerated a specific set of enumerated dhimmi, generally traditional Christian and Jewish groups. Though subject to persecution and oppression, in principle these groups had rights to exist within the Islamic framework. Heretics and pagans on the other hand were not tolerated. For example, I have read the account from the 17th century of an Ottoman official who was making a progress from Baghdad to Istanbul, which turns out to be an excellent piece of ethnography. His entourage stopped in an isolated mountain valley in what is today Kurdistan. The local population were not Muslims, and when the official inquired as to their religion they told of how they worshiped the sun. Whatever the details of their origin this group obviously would be classed as pagans, and so the official was faced with what to do with these people. The choices were conversion to Islam or death, the implementation of which would have been difficult at that moment. As a solution the local Jacobite Orthodox Christian bishop agreed to accept them as his own, with nominal baptism. Presumably these people eventually became Christians in fact as well as name. But it goes to show that in the pre-modern world of the Middle East religious diversity persisted in the isolated places.
Groups such as the Druze offend Sunni Muslims because they are clearly derived from Islam itself, and Islam is the capstone religion in its own conception. Alawites seem to have emerged from the same milieu as the Druze, but they have retained a tenuous Muslim identity, which has accelerated under the Assad family. The Sunni Muslim stance toward these groups is that they are viewed as illegitimate heresies, not protected religions. The extent of Salafi* influence in one’s orientation also conditions how Sunnis view Shia (and there is variation within the Shia group, the Ismailis in particular viewed as heretical because their practice and theology differs more in obvious ways from Sunni orthodoxy; the Zaydi Shia are at the opposite extreme, being very similar to Sunni norms).
All this leads up to why the Islamic State, and Muslims generally to a lesser extent, tend to be extremely harsh in their attitude toward the Yezidi sect. The details of the Yezidi belief system are somewhat obscure, like that of the Druze, but they are clearly not Muslim. The media reports that the Yezidi are an ancient religion, with some relationship to Zoroastrianism. Many Kurds will also agree with this statement, assuming that something like Yezidism was the primal faith of their ethnic group. This may or may not be true. The origins of the Yezidi may actually be more like the Druze, if somewhat more ancient and obscure. Part of the lack of clarity I think goes back to the fact that there is some opaqueness overall in the first century or so of Islam. The social-religious world of the Middle East was a product of those years, but it is very different from them. For example Zoroastrianism and Zoroastrian-influenced syncretistic Muslim sects were powerful anti-establishment forces across the Iranian cultural zone down to the 9th century. Quite a few extremist Shia sects (ghulat) seem to have made the transition to post-Islam, often imbibing Zoroastrianism of a Mazdakite flavor. Such a transition though was usually a cultural death sentence. Survival depended upon attaching oneself to a Shia identity, however tenuous (the Alawite strategy), or, fleeing to a geographically isolated region (in some cases these sectarians fled to the Byzantine Empire, and converted to Orthodox Christianity rather than revert to normative Islam!). Flight from the world is what the Druze and Yezidi have done in their fastness.
The current capture of Sinjar has been a humanitarian catastrophe for the Yezidi because it has been one of their traditional redoubts. The kidnapping of women, and the summary beheading or crucifixion of men, can be comprehensible in light of the Salafi Muslim vision of groups such as the Yezidi, which literally should not exist. Their obliteration would bring balance back into the Salafi world. While Christians and Jews may persist with the barest of sufferance, the existence of the Yezidi is an abomination to Salafi Muslims. What is occurring is a ethnic cleansing and genocide in straightforward terms. In fact Salafi Muslims would probably agree with the appellation cleansing, because the Yezidi to them are an offence to Being itself. Their existence is a matter of ritual purity in a metaphysical sense. I am wary of ever making analogies to Nazi Germany and the way it viewed the Jews, but this one clearly is a close fit. There is no path toward accommodation of Yezidi existence for the Islamic State, it is now down to an animal battle of survival for them, as they flee into the mountains as they have done so many times in the past.
The relationship of Kurdish Muslims to the Yezidi has often been fraught, but there has been a modus vivendi of late. The Yezidi looked to the Peshmerga to protect them, though in this case the Peshmerga failed. The Kurdish reaction overall seems to confirm much of the argument in Azar Gat’s Nations. It is not civic virtue which is drawing out their outrage, or adherence to the state, but ethnic-national honor as a whole, irrespective of boundary. Their identity as Kurds is motivating them to fight the Islamic State first and foremost (whether the Yezidi are Kurds is under debate, but they are of the same general group of Iranian speaking mountain people). See in The New York Times, Iraq Agrees to Help Kurds Battle Sunni Extremists:
On Monday, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, a militant Kurdish separatist group in Turkey that for decades has waged an insurgency against the Turkish state, in a statement called for its fighters to go to Sinjar, one of three Iraqi towns where the Kurds were pushed out on Sunday.
The soldiers of the Islamic State certainly seem to behave in a manner which we find ghoulish. But ghoulish behavior is not a monopoly of religious fundamentalists; Assad’s Syrian regime has sent militias to rape and murder children in front of their parents to sow fear into the opposition. The moderate Free Syrian Army has also committed war crimes. But the Islamic State is fighting for principles, a vision, with atrocity as the end and not the means. For the Assad regime atrocity is a tool to instill terror. For the Free Syrian Army atrocity is a reflex against the brutality of the Assad regime. An eye for an eye. In contrast, the vision of the Islamic State necessitates atrocity as the ends of their existence. In theory Yezidis could be given the option to convert to Islam, but the current pattern of killings indicates that pure elimination seems just as likely an end. From my perspective, and most people’s, it is an evil vision. But it is giving its fighters something to fight for. This vision has prompted four upper middle class Indian men to join them, to the shock of the Indian security establishment. The article waxes on about the privileged background of these men, but transnational jihadists have long had a more “up market” demographic. The Islamic State is fundamentally an abstraction, and so appeals to those who deal in abstractions. It is utopian in its fundamentals, just as the Khmer Rouge was utopian. They are attempting to go back to the “year zero” of Islam.
But even error sometimes speaks truth. The Islamic State is right that the Sykes-Pico Agreement is a shambles and ended. The delusion of a multi-ethnic and multi-religious Iraq and Syria has collapsed. What replaces it we do not know. Currently the American government continues to support policies which strengthen the unitary Iraqi state. The major weak point in this strategy is that even the superficial appearance of a unitary Iraqi state seems out of reach. That game is lost. We don’t want to admit it, but it is over. We don’t know what gambits with follow, but the local actors will be ultimate deciders.
What can be done? The Iraq invasion and occupation has made Americans wary of direct intervention. And rightly so. Unless we wish to take upon the mantle of a New Rome, sending our sons (and now daughters) to impose order and justice, and implicitly the American Way, in foreign lands we are better off not getting deeply involved. On the other hand there is no point in pretending that we are neutral in the clash between antinomian barbarians and ethno-religious autocrats. The latter are imperfect, but they have a vision of life which we recognize as life.** We must stand in some way with imperfect humans when they are battling against organic automata, motivated by an ideology which bears false witness to any traditional social order. People can disagree on the details, but there is a moderate position between total detachment and taking upon the burdens of the world upon one’s shoulders.
I do think that the rise of the Islamic State, and the past 10 years of chaos and violence, suggest that this is the end of the persistence of ethno-religious sects such as the Yezidi across most of the Fertile Crescent. The Jacobites Christians, Assyrians, and Yezidi, lack powerful patrons and protectors. Though most Sunni and Shia would not countenance genocide, they are focused more on the exigencies of their own internecine conflicts. Many minorities already have large Diaspora populations Europe. Tens of thousands of Yezidi live in Germany, and tens of thousands of Assyrians live in Sweden. The most practical short-term solution would be to extend refugee status selectively to ethno-religious minorities to prevent them from being eliminated by genocide. Certainly the dominant Muslim groups of the Fertile Crescent are dying in large numbers in the conflicts, but at the end of the day when peace comes the Syrian and Iraqi state(s) are going to be their making, their dominion. They will have something to build up from. In the long term it seems implausible that the Sunni majority can be excluded from the leading role in governance in Syria. When majoritarianism does come I doubt it will look keenly upon the rights of the minorities after the litany of horrors afflicted upon the Sunni populace by the Assad regime and its Alawite militias.
Of course a final irony is that the migration of the ancient Middle Eastern minorities to the West will likely result in their diminishing over the generations. The corporatist straight-jacket of the Middle Eastern milieu was constricting, but it allowed for a communal identity to maintain itself. In the individualist West these small communities are unlikely to be able to self-segregate in large enough ghettos where their cultural norms are dominant. This means that identity will become a choice, and over time intermarriage will likely result in a decrease in numbers. Though the Yezidi are rightly objects of sympathy, their cultural norms are quite retrograde in many ways. These folkways were adaptive in the circumstances of Kurdistan, a persecuted minority which had to maintain a high level of group cohesion. But in the West they are often impediments to full flourishing, and produce inter-generational conflicts.
Finally, currently the world is paying attention to the dire humanitarian situation in northern Iraq because that is where the media spotlight is. And rightly so. But let us remember that these sorts of events have an old pedigree. Consider the Assyrian Genocide of the early 20th century. Many thousands died then, and many thousands are dying now. And what about the three-year-old children shot in front of their parents by the militia loyal to the Assad regime? The events in Gaza are quite raw and fresh, but read Dancing in the Glory of Monsters: The Collapse of the Congo and the Great War in Africa, and you gain perspective as to what atrocity truly is. It reminds me of the apocryphal quote attributed to Stalin, the “Death of one man is a tragedy. Death of a million is a statistic.” Right now infants are dying of thirst in northern Iraq. Horrible. But the Central African Republic still teeters on the edge of genocide. I am not saying that because we cannot do all things we should not do anything, but we should keep in mind that for all the positive trends in the world there is a vale of tears we must confront. The soldiers of the Islamic State fight under the banner of demons, but their enemies are no angels.
But not all distinctions can be erased. When enumerating the horrors meted out by the Assad regime, or noting the ubiquity of rape in the Congo, I can not help but think that these are the products of human venality. The thugs who murder children for Assad, or the soldiers who rape women in the Congo, may have their ad hoc justifications for what they do. But they do what they do not in a spirit of purpose, but on the orders of their paymasters or in a fit of amorality coming to the fore. Atrocity, even on a grand scale, can still be the marshaling of individual human weakness. The power of the Islamic State derives in part from the fact that it inverts the moral order of the world. Some of its soldiers are clear psychopaths, as the most violent and brutal of international jihadis have been drawn to the Islamic State (as opposed to Al Qaeda, which is more pragmatic!). But a substantial number believe in its utopian vision of an Islamic society constructed upon narrow lines. A positive vision of a few evil goals, rather than a grand quantity of small evil pleasures. The Islamic State ushers in an evil new order, it does not unleash unbridled chaos. Though its self-conception that it is resurrecting the first decades of Islam is self-delusion in my opinion, it is still a vision which can entice some in the Islamic international.
I do not think that the Islamic State is here to stay. I believe it will be gone within the next five years, torn apart by its own contradictions and its rebellion against normal human conventions, traditions, and instincts. But that does not mean it is not going to cause misery for many on its way down. The irony is that the iconoclastic Islamic State may as well be worshiping the idols conjured in the most fervid of Christian evangelical apocalyptic literature, because they shall tear the land end to end and leave it in a thousand pieces, a material sacrifice to their god. They live under the illusion that they are building utopia, but they are coming to destroy an imperfect world and leave hell in its wake.
* The modern Salafis are just the latest in a particular extreme of Sunni belief, which goes back to individuals such as Ibn Taymiyyah.
** My distinction here has some similarities to the typology outlined in the Kirkpatrick Doctrine.