Sunday, November 23, 2014

The Last Pagans of Iraq

SINGAPORE – With US President Barack Obama belatedly ordering air strikes and humanitarian airdrops of food and relief supplies to refugees in northern Iraq, the world is finally taking action against the Islamic State. Within a few months, the jihadist group, which until recently called itself the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, has taken control of large parts of both countries, where it has proclaimed a new “Caliphate.” But the real reason to fear the Islamic State is not its lust for power; it is the systematic, cold-blooded way in which its members are erasing the region’s social, cultural, and demographic past.

Within a few weeks, the Islamic State has virtually eliminated the entire Shia Muslim and Christian populations from the lands that it controls. The city of Mosul, home to one of the world’s oldest Christian communities, no longer has any Christians left. Priceless Assyrian artifacts have been publicly destroyed in a campaign against idolatry.

Indeed, the Islamic State has not even spared Sunni co-religionists who do not adhere to their extreme interpretation of Islam. A number of revered shrines have been demolished, including one said to be the Tomb of Jonah.

As terrible as all of this is, the worst of the persecution has been aimed at the Yezidi, an ancient religious group that lives among the Kurds. They number less than a half-million, and two-thirds of them live around Mosul in northern Iraq. The rest are scattered across neighboring countries like Syria, Armenia, and Turkey. More recent immigrant communities are to be found in Germany and the United States.

Although influenced over the centuries by Christianity and Islam, the Yezidi religion has ancient pagan roots that go back at least to the late Bronze Age. Interestingly, their beliefs have many similarities with Hinduism – for example, they believe in reincarnation, say their prayers facing the sun at sunrise and sunset, and even have a system of castes. They also worship Tawûsê-Melek, the peacock angel – a bird that is found in the Indian sub-continent but not in Yezidi lands.

While the origins of the Yezidi are uncertain, cultural and genetic evidence suggests that they may be remnants of Indian tribes that migrated west in the second millennium BC. There is considerable evidence of Indian links with the Middle East during the Bronze Age. For example, Zoroastrianism, the religion of ancient Iran – to which Yezidi religious beliefs have been linked – is closely related to early Hinduism.

Over the centuries, both Christians and Muslims dubbed the Yezidi “devil worshippers,” and subjected them to relentless persecution, which was especially extreme under the Ottoman Turks in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. A series of massacres killed hundreds of thousands and almost led to their extinction.

Under Saddam Hussein, the Yezidi were not subjected to overt religious persecution, though they remained under pressure to Arabize their culture. Matters have since taken a turn for the worse. In April 2007, gunmen dragged 23 Yezidi men from a bus and shot them dead. Four months later, a series of coordinated car-bomb attacks killed at least 300 more, including women and children.

The Yezidis now face their greatest crisis ever. The Islamic State gave the Christians of Mosul the choice to convert, pay the jizya (a special tax levied on non-Muslims under Sharia law), or leave. The Yezidi have been given no such choice and are killed on sight as “devil worshippers.”

The Yezidi heartland around Mosul is now largely under the Islamic State’s control. The small town of Sinjar, the only place in the world with a Yezidi majority, fell in the first few days of August as Kurdish fighters were forced to withdraw. Reports of large-scale massacres are trickling in. Many refugees escaped into the mountains, where they are trapped in shrinking enclaves. Hundreds are said to have died already of thirst and starvation. The most sacred Yezidi pilgrimage site at Lalish runs the risk of being demolished.

Sadly, there has been little media outrage at the predicament faced by the Yezidi. Perhaps the US airdrops and promised strategic interventions, together with a possible coordinated operation by Kurdish forces (rearmed by the US), may rescue the survivors, but it appears unlikely that they will be able to return to their homes soon.

Centuries ago, the last Zoroastrians fled persecution in Iran for India. Their descendants, the tiny Parsi community, still live there. Today, who will give refuge to the last pagans of Iraq?

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    1. CommentedM Patel

      The story of Yezidi in Iraq is similar to 1947 story of Hindus in Pakistan. At inception, Pakistan too renounced it's entire cultural and linguistic heritage in favor of Islam. New country's name is Pakistan (means Land of Islamic Pure), Capital City is Islamabad, Both,National flag and Anthem, are Islamic , It even discarded it's unislamic language of masses (i.e. Bengali, Punjabi) in favor of new national Islamic language Urdu. It's official history describe 10th century religious zealot Mohamed Ghazni, who killed or enslaved about a quarter million hindus, as leading light of civilization. All it's weapons carry name of Islamic zealots who plundered and killed Hindus.

    2. Commentedj. von Hettlingen

      Mr. Sanjeev Sanyal, your piece highlights the plight of "the last pagans of Iraq". Their grievances also raise the question whether ancient sects and ethnic minorities still have a future, not only in Iraq, but in the age of globalisation and technology.
      In recent weeks some 50.000 Yezidis have been thrust into the limelight as they fled the ISIS militants and got trapped in the mountains without food and water. They had been denounced as infidels by Al-Qaida in Iraq, a predecessor of ISIS, which sanctioned their indiscriminate killing.
      The Yezidis are one of Iraq’s oldest minorities and their religion may be one of the oldest in the world. Their calendar dates back 6,756 years, nearly 5,000 years further than the Christian or Gregorian calendar and nearly 1,000 years further than the Jewish calendar. For a religion that does not accept converts, one has to be born into the sect in order to be Yezidi. Members strongly discourage exogamy, and they marry among themselves, as required by religion . No doubt the population has dwindled considerably over the course of time.
      The Yezidis are a rather isolated sect and used to live a quiet life in small idyllic communities scattered across northwest Iraq. They don't really welcome the international attention focused on them. Being predominantly ethnically Kurdish, they have kept alive their syncretic religion for centuries, despite many years of oppression and threatened extermination and depend on political goodwill in Baghdad for their survival. The other option for them would be to migrate to a country, where freedom of religion is protected. Yet the assimilation of Yezidi youth in the West threatens the continued existence of their faith. Another nightmare for a Yezidi is to be expelled from his community, as this means his soul can never progress.
      A historically misunderstood group, they are said to be mysterious religious adherents, often unjustly referred to as "devil worshippers". They revere both the Bible and the Koran and share many elements with Christianity and Islam, but much of their own tradition is oral. Due in part to its secrecy, outsiders often associate the complex Yezidi faith with Zoroastrianism, which says that the elements are pure and that fire represents God's light or wisdom. Ahura Mazda - Zoroastrians' God and Creator of the world revealed the truth through the Prophet, Zoroaster.
      Mr. Sanyal asks: "Today, who will give refuge to the last pagans of Iraq?" In remote areas of southeast Turkey towards the Syrian and Iraqi borders, once-abandoned villages are now being rebuilt. Many Yezidis are returning from exile now that the Turkish government lets them live out their beliefs in peace. Despite centuries of persecution the Yezidis have been remarkably resilient. That they never abandoned their faith, is a testimony to their extraordinary sense of identity and strength of character.

    3. CommentedChandrika Soyantar

      Mr Sanyal. Apart from the description of the current scenario and knowing AGAIn about Yezidi people your columns has added precious little to the discerning readers of this website Moreover, you have chosen to call Yezidi people "Pagans" a pejorative term. It was used by Christians to describe people who follow different ritual and worship nature and different gods Yours and mine religion could also be called Pagan as some of us worship shivlinga, snake (nag) and even banyan /pipul tree Frankly one expects more analytcal column in this space and accordingly I am dismayed and disappointed both with ill chosen word/s and the entire column

        CommentedChandrika Soyantar

        Mr Hettlingen
        Of course Mr Sanyal writes well He has authored book/s and regularly contributes to this website There is no debate about his writing style and his prose etc However you presume that meaning of "Pagan" and "Infidel" are not known to the readers (including me) here and you go on explaing the same at length I reiterate that both terms are used prejorativly by the major (established religions) Also my second point is what is the analysis and point of view presented by Mr Sanyal apart from the narration and description of the situation (flight) and of the Yezidi people Notwithstanding above, I respect Mr Sanyal's writing and will continue to read here and elsewhere

        CommentedValerie Voigt

        Ms. Soyantar, Mr. Li: "Pagan" is not a pejorative term--it's merely descriptive. It means any non-JudaeoChristian religion. The term comes from the Latin word for "a rural dweller." The first people to adopt Christianity lived in cities; the rural people were the last, clinging to their traditional indigenous ways.

        There are many, many of us in the world who are proudly Pagan. We typically use a capital "P" when we write the word. Some of us, such as the Kalash, the Lakota, and the Ifa practitioners, practice unbroken traditions handed down in spite of Christian attempts to force us to convert. Others, such as the Hellenists, Romuvans, and Druids, are Reconstructionist--that is, supplementing fragmented ancient tradition with historical research to recreate ancestral practices that were suppressed by Christianity. Still others, such as Wiccans, are unabashed syncretists, supplementing fragments of ancient tradition with practices learned from other Pagans and with innovation.

        Technically, any religion besides Judaism, Christianity, or Islam is Pagan. There's nothing insulting about the word. For a pejorative, try "infidel:" it's a pejorative, and intended as one.

        Thanks for an informative and well-written article.

    4. CommentedDavid Li

      Mr. Sanyal, by detailing the history of Yezidi, has made a significant contribution to readers of this group. While referencing an alien religion as inferior to one's own is understandable, Mr. Sanyal nevertheless mentions that, earlier Christians and Muslim referred to believers of the Yezidi faith as "evil worshippers," which is now used by ISIS as well. Question: are these two terms of "evil worshppers" have similar connotations, or are they different? If the latter, what are the differences? Thanks.