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The Yazidis, Past and Present

Klaas Glenewinkel
While the main focus of the media - inside Iraq and abroad - is on the "big three" ethno-sectarian groups (Sunni Arabs, Shi'ite Arabs, Kurds) the countries diverse minorities often only appear in the margins or are…

The Yazidi religion is an autonomous one, with its own rites, rituals, customs and beliefs that differentiate it from other religions. It is a monotheistic religion which, in its theology, contains no concept of absolute evil separate from good, since in Yazidi belief, evil and good share the same source. It is an ancient faith, dating to approximately 1000 BCE - some of its rites actually date back to Sumerian times, to the ancient sun worshipping religions, and to this day, Yazidis pray towards the sun. Two of the major pillars of the Yazidi faith are the symbols of the monarch (Tawous) and the Guide (Sheikh Edi); the first is the foundation of their theology while the second is responsible for their faith’s revival.

This religion has two holy books, Mishaf Rash and Al-Jalwa,, but with the passing of the years and the modifications to the faith, the original versions of these texts are no longer available, particularly since the Yazidis were the objects of military oppression for years, especially during the Ottoman occupation of their lands. The Kurds originally were Yazidis long before they were Jewish, Christian, or Muslim. In fact, the Yazidis are only found in Kurdistan and along the Kurdish border, and the religion’s language is Kurdish (the northern Kurmanci dialect); all of its holy texts and chants are in Kurdish, and all its tribes are Kurdish. Therefore, it can be confidently said that the Yazidi faith preserved the original Kurdish language and culture.

There is no official census of Yazidi believers, but an unofficial, expert estimate puts them at around one million, scattered across Iraq, Turkey, Syria, Armenia, Georgia and Iran as well as certain European countries. Kurdistan-Iraq is their spiritual center, containing the Lalesh temple and the home of the Yazidi principality.

The Yazidi faith has a three-tiered caste system: Al-Thira, Al-Shuyukh and Al-Maridiyya. They are forbidden from marrying across castes. Yazidism does not proselytize. However, it has been in contact with many faiths across the years, and has undoubtedly been affected by (and has affected) them. In fact, it shares very similar beliefs with some of them while differing in others: Yazidis believe in reincarnation, and many of their religious festivals have pagan rites.

Yazidi worshippers have suffered over seventy attempts of ethnic cleansing. From the establishment of the Iraqi state in 1921 until the end of Saddam Hussein’s regime, they were subject to Arabization and forced migration. As if this weren’t enough, in Syria they shared their Muslim Kurdish brothers’ fate of forced Arabization, in Turkey that of Turkification, and Iran aimed to Persianize them, all attempts to stamp out their national identity.

After the fall of the Ba'th regime, and the rapid and delicate changes in Iraq, the Yazidis joined the rest of the Iraqi population in celebrating the liberation of the Iraqis from tyranny and despotism. They also began to participate in politics. It is no secret that the Yazidis joined their other Kurdish brethren, Muslim and otherwise, in the political and military uprisings under the leadership of Khaled Mustafa Barzani and in the uprising of Spring 1991. They also fought many political battles along with the other, different Kurdistan parties. After the fall, certain Yazidi groups established movements, parties and movements independent of the other Kurdish groups. Some of these groups deny the Yazidis their Kurdish identity and believe that Yazidism is a religion and ethnicity, too! Such ideas have been accepted by defeated Ba’thists and neighboring governments which have lent financial and symbolic assistance to these movements, which now have quite a presence on the Iraqi political scene. The most powerful of these groups is the Yazidi movement for Reform and Progress (EMRP), which received twenty thousand votes in the last Iraqi parliamentary elections, the Kurdish Alliance receiving approximately 85,000. The EMRP now has a member in parliament, but no representation in government or administrative offices. Meanwhile, the Yazidis also have an MP in the Iraqi parliament, a member of the Kurdish Alliance. They also have tens of members in local, provincial and regional committees in addition to two and neighborhood leaders …

The EMRP has strong ties to members of the deposed Ba’th and agreements with certain Assyrian parties and movements. In this, it opposes the other Kurdish parties and groups, to which most Yazidis belong. The EMRP’s main purpose is to deprive the Yazidis of their Kurdish identity, and it also tends towards religious extremism due to their contact with extremist Islamic groups, and occasionally announces that it will establish armed groups to fight for its goals. Lately, it has lost legitimacy with the Yazidi people, since it has become obvious that it does not represent their hopes and ambitions.

The biggest fear of the Yazidi community in Iraq nowadays is the presence and dissemination of extremist Islamic parties and movements with fundamentalist religious views. Such groups not only threaten Yazidi survival, but also contradict Yazidi aims to separate politics from religion, spread human rights and peaceful and brotherly coexistence among all of Iraq’s constituencies.

Khayri Bozani

18 June 2007

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