AL ARABIYA INSTITUTE FOR STUDIES

What you did not know about Iraq’s Yazidi minority

Displaced people from the minority Yazidi sect, fleeing the violence in the Iraqi town of Sinjar, re-enter Iraq from Syria at the Iraqi-Syrian border crossing in Fishkhabour, Dohuk Province, August 10, 2014. (Reuters)

Yazidis in Iraq face the threat of genocide following recent developments in which the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria took over Sinjar and expelled Kurdish Peshmerga forces from them.

Who are the Yazidis? Is it a religion on its own or a sect of Muslims who lost their way like many Arab authors pictured them for centuries?

The Yazidi minority in Iraq is an ethno-religious community that practices an ancient religion linked to Zoroastrianism. They recently made headlines after their cities north of the country - like Sinjar - fell in the hands of ISIS fighters. These cities were under the control of Kurdish Peshmerga forces but after ISIS seized control and expelled these forces, Yazidis had to flee for their lives.

Yazidis used to be situated in the north and northwest of Iraq, particularly in the area surrounding the Sinjar mountains, west of Mosul, and the Shekhan district, northeast of Mosul. They were also present in the surroundings of Tell Kayf and Bashiqa and the districts of Zakho and Semel in the Dohuk governorate. They are one of the oldest ethno-religious communities in Iraq as their roots date back to thousands of years in the history of Mesopotamia.

Behind the name

This community's name "Yazidi" has stirred controversy and confusion and developed a stereotype on the nature of their beliefs. The term "Yazidi" means "the servant of the creator" and is not linked to Yazid Bin Muawiya like many believe.

Infographic: Iraq's Yazidi sect. (Design by Farwa Rizwan/ Al Arabiya News)

There are no official statistics on their numbers in Iraq but Yazidis say their population in Iraq alone exceeds 560,000. Their secular and religious leader is an emir, or prince, and he resides in the city of Ain Sifni in the Shekhan district. Their current emir is Tahseen Said and he's head of the world's Yazidi Supreme Spiritual Council.

Spiritual leader

Their spiritual leader is a "Baba Sheikh" and he's tantamount to the Christians' pope. The current "Baba Sheikh" is Khurto Hajj Ismail and he also resides in Ain Sifni. He's considered to be in charge of religious issues and legislations which are made following a consensus among the spiritual council members and upon the emir's approval.

Yazidis have throughout history confronted several challenges including the fact that areas in which they inhabit lie within the "disputed lands" between the central Iraqi government and the Kurdistan government.

Other challenges are related to their community social structure and cultural isolation because they does not allow marriage outside the community. Also, the Yazidi castes marry only within their group.

In addition to these challenges, Yazidis have confronted several accusations and stereotypes since Islamic conquests of Iraq. The repercussions of these accusations continue to this very day as several modern researchers picture them as bandits, stubborn rebels, devil worshippers and infidels.

During the Ottoman role, there were attempts to force them into converting to Islam and fatwas (religious edicts) categorizing them as a heretical group were issued against Yazidis.

Yazidis thus survived around 72 genocides as they upheld a religion amidst a pure Muslim atmosphere. They were harshly persecuted on the religious and nationalistic levels. In addition to the Ottomans' attempts to force them into Islam, there were attempts to forcefully "Arabize" them during the phase of national governance in Iraq's modern history from 1921-2003.

Worrisome future

The future of Yazidis in Iraq seems worrisome as ISIS has sanctioned shedding their blood and enslaving their women.

Yazidis' current fears increase as political Islam powers rise in the region. The idea of the rise of extremist Islamic movements in Iraq's Kurdistan terrifies Yazidis and pushes them to maintain their religious privacy because they are different from Kurds on a religious level although they share the same ethnicity.

Yazidis' and other religious minorities' fears of losing their identity encourages young people in the community to consider immigration or isolate themselves even further thus developing a terrified and defensive identity.

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Last Update: Monday, 11 August 2014 KSA 12:39 - GMT 09:39
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What you did not know about Iraq’s Yazidi minority
The term "Yazidi" means "the servant of the creator" and is not linked to Yazid Bin Muawiya like many believe
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