In Nineveh Province, in northern Iraq, an extinction event unfolds. The delicate latticework of religious communities that have co-existed for centuries has been smashed by the bludgeon of the Islamic State, which unexpectedly took Mosul in June, and in August opened battle again, seizing Mount Sinjar and the strategic Mosul Dam and threatening the Kurdish capital of Erbil. Christians fled their ancestral homes, and Yazidis were driven from Mount Sinjar near the Syrian border.
The world has seen images of refugees starving in the wilderness and heard accounts of children butchered, young women sold into slavery, and final phone calls from men ordered by the Islamic State to convert or die.
Meanwhile, the Kurdish cities of Dohuk, Erbil, and Sulaymaniyah struggle to provide food, water, and medicines for 200,000 refugees, who huddle in tents, in unfinished building projects, in local people’s homes, and even on the streets.
Many Christians, harried by war across the Middle East, see emigration as the only answer. France has declared willingness to assist, and senior clergy in the United Kingdom have demanded that Britain follow suit.
The Yazidis agree. Even those from the Kurdish region have moved from their villages in the border area of Sheikhan into the major towns. Those who can have already left for Turkey, or further afield.
Yet the Sinjaris were a minority among Iraq’s Yazidis, were under Kurdish protection, and were never direct beneficiaries of the Kurdish “economic miracle” of the past decade.
Most Yazidi communities have been part of the Kurdish area since 2003, and some, in Dohuk, since 1991. Yazidis have played an active role in Kurdish life and politics, and have moved steadily from rural communities to city neighborhoods.
Among them are doctors, teachers, lawyers, and business people who have become steadily more prosperous since the 1990s. They are aware that the international community is sending aid and military help to Kurdistan, which is seen as an island of stability in the region, and one that the West cannot afford to lose. But even they are speaking of emigration.
History can help us understand their fears. Yazidi memories are long. Any Yazidi will tell you that they have suffered 72 religious persecutions over the centuries – and some will be able to itemize them. Some will also add, quietly, that most of these were at the hands of Kurdish Muslim tribes, even while acknowledging that other Kurdish tribes were their allies.
They may recall the ambush of Yezidi Prince Ali Beg by the “Blind Prince” of Rawanduz in 1832, or the campaign of the Ottoman official Omar Wahbi Pasha, who set the crops alight in Sheikhan while Yezidi women and children were still working in the fields.
During former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein’s last years, the Yazidis picked their way carefully through the political minefield, with key figures supporting both the Ba’athist government and the Kurds. Most identify as Kurds, but are understandably reluctant to place all their faith in any outside force.
The Yazidis’ confidence in the Kurdish security forces has been severely damaged by their inability to stem the Islamic State’s advance. Yazidis also express anxiety about the good faith of the West’s support for the region. History has taught the Kurds hard lessons about the inconstancy of international allies in the face of power politics.
The current international focus is on humanitarian aid and securitization of the Kurdish area – the only area in Iraq that has had any success in fostering a diverse community. Yezidis, Christians, Shabaks, and Mandaeans are all included under its Kurdistani banner.
A sensitive point for the United States, the United Kingdom, and Europe is the Democratic Union Party (PYD), a Kurdish force in control of part of Syria, which stepped in to help Yezidis in Sinjar. It is an effective fighting force, but its parent party, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), fought the Turkish state for decades, and many nations have classified it as a terrorist group. It is already training young Yezidis for battle.
If Kurdistan is successfully reinforced, it is hard to imagine how trust will be regained with former neighbors who aided the Islamic State or stole property. Sinjaris may be afraid to return home, even though Dohuk feels strange to them.
But the other road may be even harder. If Kurdistan is not secured and Yazidis migrate en masse, they will not only be severed from their holy places, but will also encounter all the challenges that the Yazidis of Turkey and Armenia now face in their new homes in Europe and Russia: the need to integrate into a different culture; the need to communicate old rural traditions in a way that has some meaning for urban children raised in Europe; and most threatening of all, the issue of whether to permit “marrying out,” which has fragmented many traditional communities worldwide.
Less numerous and prosperous than the Christians, the Yazidis have fewer resources to call on to help them weather the shock of a future in exile, and it is this that may prove to be the true cause of the extinction of Yazidism.