The Yazidis of Iraq: A Litmus Test for Democratic Progress by Christian Chung

As misunderstood as Iraq is, there is perhaps no other group, and no other religion, more mysterious than the Yazidis. Simply mentioning the Yazidi faith to most Muslims in Iraq evokes an almost immediate condemnation of the “devil-worshipers in Ninawa” followed by a warning: don’t trust them and don’t eat their food.

An ancient blend of indigenous-Mesopotamian religion with strong Islamic, Sufi and Christian influences, Yazidism centers its worldview in the belief that after creating the world, God left its care to seven Holy Beings, the most eminent of which, and the central figure of the Yazidi faith, is called Melek Taus. Melek Taus is also central in Islam and Christianity, where the mystical Peacock Angel, as Melek Taus is depicted, was said to have refused to bow to the authority of Adam, which is the source of Islamic and Christian claims that Melek Taus becomes Satan. The Yazidis, on the other hand, believe that God first created Melek Taus in self-emulation, commanded him not to bow down to any other creature. This contradiction has fueled an age-old and inaccurate depiction of Yazidism as “devil worshipping.”

As a consequence, the Yazidis have been the victims of hundreds of years of persecution and genocide, starting with the ancient Ottoman Empires and continuing well into the reign of Saddam Hussein. Their dwindling population, numbering roughly 500,000 in Iraq, is today only a fraction of its strength years ago.

Tensions with the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), and continued communal enmity from ever-present cultural and religious misconceptions seem to ensure that this small and endangered—yet hospitable and proud—people will continue to struggle in a hostile state as a stark indication that cultural biases may very well contradict KRG goals for freedom and democracy. The vitriol with which many demonize the mostly Kurdish people of this minority religion is surprising, especially when it comes from Kurdish Sunnis who have long suffered oppression by the secular Ba’athists.

I knew I wanted to explore this complicated group in further detail as soon as I got to Iraq, and with the help of a friend with connections in the Yazidi community, I was off with my driver to visit the central city home to the main temple, in a small city named Lalish about 50 kilometers north of Mosul.

Lalish is as secluded a city as they come, even by Iraqi standards: getting to the first gate on the one and only road to enter the small community involves driving for an hour on a long, windy road with little traffic. The guards, both suspicious of outsiders and equally eager to welcome them and share the story of the Yazidi people, have a right to be concerned given the history of violence against the community.

The son of the Baba Sheikh, the religious leader of the community at Lalish, met us as our driver parked the car and nervously followed us into the temple grounds. Touring the sacred worshipping grounds showcased the unique attributes of the Yazidi faith, including a spring water well thought to contain water from the founding of the earth, and clothes tied with hundreds of knots, where tradition holds that one makes a wish by tying a knot, and then untying a knot to grant someone else their wish.

The community was beautiful and the atmosphere was festive, and after our tour, the Baba Sheikh’s son invited us for lunch. Immediately, our driver and guard protested, saying that they would not eat here and instead that we should find a restaurant in the next town. Beyond shocked at the lack of appreciation for the hospitality offered, I tried to apologize, but the elders had a look of familiarity on their face. No, they were used to such intolerance, they told me.

After taking tea, the driver began to question and challenge the son of the Baba Sheikh on the major tenants of Yazidism: did they really worship a devil? Why are they secluded from society?

As we departed, I could not help but be amazed at the callousness of the way my Kurd driver and guard interacted with the Yazidis we met. In many ways, the Kurds and the KRG have a tendency to portray the region as a bastion of democracy in a country where dictatorial rule and intolerant policies rule over the minority communities. Yet how truly credible is this argument in the face of historical and continued social, cultural and religious intolerance of minority groups such as the Yazidi community? In many ways, the progress Iraq and the KRG make in how it approaches this issue from a policy and social-psychological perspective will be the litmus test for the prospects of a truly pluralistic democracy. The world, in turn, should hold them to the test.

Christian Chung is a sophomore in Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service. He is currently working in northern Iraq as the Security and Political Reporter for the English language section of Rudaw News, with a focus on Iraqi political and security developments, Arab-Kurd relations, the political challenges faced by Iraqi ethnic groups, and security throughout the country since the American withdrawal.