By: Sanjeev Sanyal
The world has watched with impotent horror as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), since renamed the Islamic State (IS), took over large parts of Syria and Iraq and went about systematically erasing the region’s social, cultural and demographic past. Already, the IS has virtually eliminated the entire Shia Muslim and Christian populations from the lands they control. The city of Mosul, home to one of the oldest Christian communities, no longer has any Christians left. The IS has not even spared Sunni Muslims who do not adhere to their extreme interpretation of Islam.
Terrible as these may be, the worst persecution has been aimed at a tiny community that now faces extinction — the Yazidis. They are an ancient religious group that lives among the Kurds of northern Iraq. The Yazidi number less than half a million and two-thirds live around Mosul. The rest are scattered across Armenia, Turkey and Syria (there are also recent immigrant communities in Germany and the US).
The Yazidi heartlands around Mosul are now mostly under IS control. The Christians of Mosul were given the choice to convert, pay the jiziya tax or leave. The Yazidis were given no such choice and are often killed on sight as “devil-worshippers”. The small town of Sinjar, the only place in the world with a Yazidi majority, fell to the IS in August and there are several reports of massacres. News reports suggest that 500 Yazidis, including children, were massacred in the town in a single instance, many buried alive. Hundreds of young women have been enslaved, and dozens are said to have killed themselves rather than be captured. Meanwhile, tens of thousands of refugees have fled into the neighbouring mountains where they are trapped in encircled enclaves. When US-backed rescue operations finally broke through to one such enclave on Mt Sinjar, they found thousands who had died of thirst.
Who are the Yazidi and why does the IS want to exterminate them? Although influenced by Christianity and Islam, the Yazidi religion has ancient roots that go back at least to the late Bronze Age. Interestingly, their beliefs have many similarities with Hinduism — for instance, they believe in reincarnation, say their prayers facing the sun at sunrise and sunset, etc. They also worship Tawuse-Melek, the peacock angel — a bird not found in Yazidi lands, but only in the Indian subcontinent.
Once, these cultural links would have been explained away in terms of an “Aryan invasion” from Central Asia. However, we now know that the great Harappan cities continued…