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Yezidis: A History of Persecution

by on 2020-07-03

By Uzay Bulut

The ISIS genocide in 2014 against Yezidis in Iraq and Turkey’s occupation of parts of northern Syria since 2018 have brought a long-suffering people to the attention of the world.

The Yezidis (or Yazidis/Ezidis) are a non-Muslim community indigenous to northern Mesopotamia. Named after their ancient faith, Yezidis have a rich oral tradition combining aspects of various ancient Mesopotamian religions such as Zoroastrianism.

According to their oral history, Yezidis have suffered from 72 massacres prior to the 2014 genocide of Yezidis in Iraq. “Over the course of 700 years,” according to the Yezidis International Organization, “nearly 23 million Yezidi people have been murdered, thus bringing their civilization to the brink of extinction.”

“We do not know when each of the 72 Yezidi massacres took place. But we do know who the perpetrators are. Everybody in the Middle East: Kurds, Arabs, and Turkmens.”

Territory and political power in the Middle East are often fought over by Muslims. But one thing appears to have united them: their obsessed desire to exterminate Yezidis.

Historian Amed Gökçen, the author of several books on Yezidis, said in a 2014 interview: “We do not know when each of the 72 Yezidi massacres took place. But we do know who the perpetrators are. Everybody in the Middle East: Kurds, Arabs, and Turkmens.”

Like Gökçen, other scholars also agree. Sociologist Dr. İsmail Beşikçi writes:

“Yezidis have been persecuted enormously − particularly at the hands of Muslims − throughout history. Islam has grown and spread since the mid-seventh century. In this process, the Arab conquerors have tremendously persecuted Yezidis in Iraq, Syria and Iran. They took all kinds of measures to Islamize them and implemented those measures. They massacred those who wanted to remain Yezidis in masses, and seized their properties.”

As examples of Kurdish persecution against Yezidis, Beşikçi mentions the ethnic Kurdish commanders “Muhammad Pasha of Rawandiz in 1810s, and Bedir Khan Beg in 1930s and 1840s who persecuted Yezidis enormously to Islamize them.”

This persecution, however, is not just from Muslim governments, armies or organizations. Local Muslims have also participated in the severe mistreatment and pressures against the vulnerable community. A book published in 2014 by Yasar Batman details the varied social, religious, and economic pressures Yezidis were subjected to in Turkey, particularly at the hands of their Kurdish neighbors.

For example, “when a Yezidi brought a few sacks of wheat and a donkey to a mill, they immediately asked him where he was from. When he said ‘I am from Mishacerk’ [a Yezidi village], they said ‘You are a Yezidi. Why don’t you convert to Islam?’ Then they poured his sack to the ground. Meanwhile, his donkey ran away. Then they also beat him. So the Yezidi would not only lose the wheat with which he would feed himself, but also lose his donkey.”

Through his many interviews, Batman heard stories of Yezidis threatened with death if they did not convert and Muslims refusing to trade with Yezidis. Muslims called them “haram,” meaning forbidden.

Ottoman Persecution against Yezidis

According to historian Gökçen, the Ottoman policy on Yezidis was slaughter and forced conversion. The Ottoman archives contain evidence concerning the Yezidi treatment by Muslims such as “sending the slaughtered tongues ​​to the sultan” and “selling women… And all of them [the archives] are about death,” Gökçen said.

“So there is not a positive idea about the Yezidis in the Ottoman archives. Let’s kill them, let’s build mosques to make them Muslim, let’s try to bring them to the right path and give a salary to those who try to bring them to the right path… After a while, [Yezidi] people did not want to live here anymore…. And this is very natural and justified… They now live in Europe, and nobody can bring them back here even if an apocalypse breaks down.”

In his 2009 book Yezidism in Europe: Different Generations Speak about their Religion, Professor Philip Kreyenbroek wrote:

“We know relatively little about the history of Yezidis from the 12th till the 16th century, but they were probably an influential, more or less coherent community under the authority of their own Prince. In the course of the 16th century, however, many Yezidis converted to Islam, thus weakening the community, which increasingly became objects of persecution. The massacre of Yezidis by the Bey [Muslim chieftain] of Rowanduz [or Rawandiz] in 1832 is still part of the communal memory of Iraqi Yezidis.”

He continues, “under the Ottoman Empire, whose heartland was Turkey and which ruled large parts of the Middle East from the 14th until the 20th century, the Yezidis were never recognized as a millet [i.e. a community in its own right, such as Jews or Christians], and did not enjoy any protection by the state.”

During the 1914-23 Christian genocide in Ottoman Turkey perpetrated against Armenians, Assyrians and Greeks, Yezidis were also targeted and driven from their lands. According to author Batman, there was a slogan common during the genocide: “Those who kill 7 Armenians will go to heaven.” The version “those who kill 7 Yezidis will go to heaven” was also used.

“In addition to the Armenians,” writes Dr. Maria Six-Hohenbalken, “demographically smaller groups of Christian denominations as well as non-Christian groups such as the Yezidi were targeted by the politics of annihilation. It is nearly impossible to know the number of the victims; about 12,000 Yezidis managed to find refuge in Armenia, where they established a diasporic community in the Soviet realm.”

Yezidi persecution in Turkey

Following the genocide, modern day Turkey was founded in 1923. The state made intense efforts to Islamize the Yezidis by using widespread state terror, according to Dr. Beşikçi: “As a result, many Yezidis took refuge in other countries such as Armenia and Georgia… Many of them immigrated to Europe. Those who stayed in Turkey had to convert to Islam and led a half-Yezidi, half-Muslim lifestyle.”

Batman writes that the Turkish state changed the names of Yezidi villages and gave them Turkish names. They destroyed Yezidi temples and defaced Yezidi graves.

Yezidis lay their dead in graves on their backs facing the sun. But according to Batman, many Yezidi graves were opened and the dead bodies were placed again according to Islamic rules: facing the direction of the Kaaba in Mecca.

A 30-year old man from Diyarbakir, Turkey, who wanted to remain anonymous, told the author:

“There were few Yezidis left in the village of Mishacek that I knew. But they pretended to be Muslim because they were scared. And when they died, they were buried according to Islamic faith. Can you imagine that? Even though you are not Muslim, your burial ceremony is held in a mosque. This is so devastating, isn’t it?”

Approximately 80,000 Yezidis lived in Turkey until the 1970s. But the majority of Yezidis migrated from Turkey to Europe in decades following due to the continued persecution they faced, as well as because of the violent conflicts between the Kurdish PKK and the Turkish army.

“After they moved to Europe, even their private registered lands were invaded. Their trees were ripped off. The Yazidi owners of those lands were threatened, and some of their villages were abandoned and became uninhabitable places,” read a 2014 parliamentary motion in Turkey.

Today, the Turkish government still does not officially recognize Yezidism as a religion. The religion box on the ID papers of the Yezidis are either marked as an “unknown religion” or marked with an “X”. In many cases, Yezidis are registered as either Muslim or “irreligious.”

The Islamic State: The Latest Persecutor

In August 2014, the Islamic State (ISIS) jihadists invaded the Yezidi-populated Sinjar region in Iraq. Some Yezidis managed to flee for their lives. But those who couldn’t were murdered. Yezidi women were raped and sold as sex slaves.

One victim was Zinab, a 31-year-old Yezidi who was captured by ISIS in Kocho on Aug. 3, 2014. “She was made a sex slave, endured constant rapes and beatings; she escaped her captors three times, was caught and sold again four times. On March 21, 2016, she was sold to a man who turned out to be a rescuer sent by her family,” reported Maclean’s, a Canadian weekly news magazine. “Her uncle’s two daughters, ages 12 and 15, are still in the hands of ISIS.”

The number of Yezidi children and women who are still missing after being kidnapped by ISIS is about 2,800, according to Saad Murad, the Director of Media and Relations of the Yazda organization.

Not Even “People of the Book”

What is it that has united so many Muslims from different ethnic backgrounds in their hatred and aggression against Yezidis?

Islamic theology distinguishes two types of non-Muslims:

  • Ahl al-Kitab (“People of the Book”), a euphemism for Jews and Christians
  • All others

The common assertion that the “People of the Book” are protected in Islamic law is actually false. “People of the Book” are dhimmis — second-class subjects − who are forced to buy their lives from Muslims with a “dhimmi pact.” According to Islamic theology, the “People of the Book” must be fought against until they either convert to Islam or pay the jizya tax to Muslim rulers.

The jizya tax is a symbol of non-Muslim submission to Islamic hegemony. Only conversion to Islam can make them “equal” to Muslims. Otherwise, they are exploited, humiliated and impoverished.

The Yezidis, however, are not even a “People of the Book.” Thus, they are not given the opportunity to submit. Instead, they are often given two choices: conversion to Islam or death.

Yezidis — like other non-Muslims — are also considered “kafirs” by Islamic theology. “Kafir is an actual word the Koran uses for non-Muslims,” notes Dr. Bill Warner. “It is usually translated as unbeliever or infidel, but that translation is wrong. The word unbeliever is neutral, while the attitude of the Koran towards unbelievers is very negative. The Koran defines the Kafir as hated by Allah. A Muslim is never the true friend of a Kafir. Kafirs can be enslaved, raped, beheaded, plotted against, terrorized, and humiliated. A Kafir is not a full human.”

This seems to be the main reason why Yezidis have historically been persecuted by several Muslim peoples since the Islamic takeover of the Middle East.

The Yezidis, one of the most peaceful peoples on earth, have been suffering enormously for centuries. They have been largely forgotten by world governments and the international community. The world should finally pay attention to them in their moments of greatest suffering.

Uzay Bulut is a Turkish journalist and political analyst formerly based in Ankara.

Courtesy: Assyrian International News Agency