Devil in the detail as Yazidis look to Kurds in withstanding Islamic radicals’ advance

Kurds misconstrue Yazidis’ system of belief in angels as satanic worship

Displaced children from the minority Yazidi sect fleeing violence from forces loyal to the Islamic State in the town of Sinjar head towards the Syrian border, on the outskirts of Mt Sinjar, near the Syrian border town of Elierbeh of Al-Hasakah Governorate. Photograph: Reuters/Rodi Said

Displaced children from the minority Yazidi sect fleeing violence from forces loyal to the Islamic State in the town of Sinjar head towards the Syrian border, on the outskirts of Mt Sinjar, near the Syrian border town of Elierbeh of Al-Hasakah Governorate. Photograph: Reuters/Rodi Said

Sat, Aug 16, 2014, 01:00

Whether you approach it from the west, across the dry steppe of northern Iraq, or from the east, through the bare mountains of Kurdistan, Lalish shocks you with its sudden lush beauty.

There, in the last folds of the Zagros mountains, the little- known Yazidi faith maintains the tomb of its founder Sheikh Adi and the shrines of its saints, a jumble of caves, spires and eccentric stone buildings shaded by olives and alive with the music of quick-running streams.

To enter this quiet little valley, after the sweep of the desert or the grandeur of the mountains, is like stumbling on a hidden remnant of an older dispensation, a place out of time. Or at least it was 11 years ago, when I came across Lalish myself during the US invasion.

Today, as the world knows, Iraq’s remaining Yazidis are under threat of expulsion, forced conversion and extermination by the advancing gunmen of the Islamic State (formerly known as Isis). Many of those driven last week from the Yazidi stronghold of Mt Sinjar, to the northwest, have now taken refuge amid the holy places of Lalish or in nearby Shekhen, the Yazidi “capital”, which has yet to be attacked.

Having endured for 1,000 years while states and empires rose and fell, Lalish could soon go the way of the Shia shrine of the prophet Seth in Mosul, or the buddhas of Bamiyan in Afghanistan, desecrated and dynamited in a Sunni extremist Year Zero.

The chief hope of the Yazidis, now as 11 years ago, is for military support from the nearby enclave of Kurdistan, whose Kurdish language and culture the Yazidis share. But when Islamic State gunmen attacked Mt Sinjar last week, Kurdish defenders who once withstood the conventional army of Saddam Hussein melted back into their own heartlands.

The Kurds, while generally tolerant of the Yazidis, are themselves for the most part devout Sunni Muslims, unenthusiastic about a religion that they – like many in the West – misconceive as devil worship.

As a Kurdish acquaintance said to me: “It’s well known that they pray to Satan. Apart from that they seem to be nice people.”

‘Cult of the angels’

The belief that Yazidis worship the devil stems from their faith’s roots in “the cult of the angels”, an ancient Indo-European folk religion which gave rise to the Persian faith of Zoroastrianism, which in turn passed key beliefs and traditions to Judaism, Christianity and Islam.

According to both Christianity and Islam, when God created his angels one of them rebelled against him and became the devil, source of all evil. The Yazidis see it differently.

Their Bab el Sheik or supreme religious leader, Kurto Haji Ismail, explained their core belief to me at his house at Shekhen.

“God created the seven angels and he told them that they must worship no one else but him. After that, to test the angels, God told the angels that they should pray to Adam, and all the angels obeyed the order but one.

“The Peacock Angel refused. He said to God, ‘You told us not to pray to anyone but you.’ And because of that he passed the test. God forgave him and he became the greatest of the angels.

“People say that we don’t believe in God, that we believe in evil. But it is not true to say that the Peacock Angel broke the will of God. We say that the Peacock Angel passed the test of God, and is the good angel.”

The Peacock Angel, or Melek Taus, is so sacred to Yazidis that images of peacocks are taboo. At Shekhen, an otherwise unremarkable Kurdish hilltop town, it is to be seen only on the wrought-iron gates of the Bab el Sheik’s “palace”, a large yet frugal house with a courtyard and a typical cushion-strewn diwan for receiving guests.

The Bab himself could easily be mistaken for a senior Muslim cleric, a soft-spoken man with a stiff beard, wearing a plain white turban, jacket and dishdasha crossed with a thin black sash.

It does not help the Yazidis’ public image that the symbol of their faith, the peacock, is for Christians and Muslims a symbol of pride, which was also the sin of Lucifer.

Yet their angelic paradox is an attempt to address the theological problem of the origin of evil: if God is all-good, how could he permit evil to come into existence in the form of Satan? The Yazidis believe evil does not come from an external Satan, but from within each of us, and is subject to choice.

Sadly, such theological niceties mean nothing to Islamic State. Not even the ancient Islamic laws requiring tolerance for other “peoples of the book” – Christians, Jews and those of other scripture-based religions – have prevented them in recent weeks from ethnically cleansing the Assyrian Christians of northern Iraq, who had previously survived 13 centuries of Muslim rule.

As always, worldly considerations can be seen lurking behind matters of supposed religious principle.

According to Tasseen Sayid Ali Bak, the emir or prince of the Yazidis, Saddam Hussein gave 30,000 hectares of their best land to loyalist Sunni Arabs he moved up from the south. “There were more than 60 villages that they took over,” he complained.

Following the collapse of Saddam’s rule in 2003, most of these transplanted Arabs fled to nearby Mosul, and the emir hoped his people’s territory would thenceforth come under the protection of an expanded Kurdistan. But now Mosul, only 40 miles from Shekhen, is the main stronghold of Islamic State, and the Sunni Arabs are on the march again.

In decline

The Yazidi population has long been thought to be in decline. They do not accept converts, and ban marriage to outsiders; there have been cases of so-called “honour killings” of those – mainly women – who elope with outsiders or abandon the faith. Emir Tasseen thought their global population could reach 1.4 million, with roughly half living in exile, including a large community in Germany. Other estimates are as low as 200,000.

In previous times the Yazidis, like their Kurdish brethren, would escape persecution by fleeing into the mountains where, I was told, many clans keep secret boltholes stocked with food and gear. When the danger was past, they descended again.

But in the new Middle East, built on a brutal pseudo-Darwinian clash of religious and racial identity myths, the mountains may no longer be shelter enough.

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