Introduction by Roger Annis, Oct 14, 2014
Enclosed are four readings to understand the political situation in Rojava, the Kurdish region of western Syria that is under attack by the right-wing forces of ISIS. The ISIS attack is presently centered on the city of Kobani, on the border of south-central Turkey. The hypocrisy of the air war being waged by the United States and some European countries against ISIS in Iraq stands exposed by their refusal (and that of Turkey) to provide any meaningful military assistance to the defense of Kobani.
The Canadian government is mobilizing six fighter aircraft to join the U.S. in its new war in Iraq, a war which is already extending into Syria.
The region of Rojava is governed according to a democratic and multinational and multi-ethnic constitution. You can read a translation into English of that (lengthy) constitution here: The Constitution of the Rojava Cantons. The three cantons of Rojava declared political autonomy at the beginning of 2014. Here is a background article to that story, by Sardar Saadi, a Toronto-based activist with No One Is Illegal and a PhD student in anthropology at the University of Toronto. He recently visited Rojava on behalf of the Rojava Media Project. And here is an eyewitness article by Swedish writer Carl Drott on the recent history of the city and region of Kobani.
On Oct 13, Turkey broke a ceasefire with the Kurdish PKK party and bombed PKK fighters in and around the city of Daglica in southeast Turkey. Kurds in Turkey have been militantly protesting Turkey’s refusal to assist fighters under attack by ISIS in Kobani.
Articles enclosed (texts below):
1. ISIS on the march: U.S. Middle East strategy in tatters, by Patrick Cockburn, Counterpunch, Oct 13, 2014
2. Kobani, the Kurdish issue and the Syrian revolution, a common destiny, by Joseph Daher, on Syria Freedom Forever blog, Oct. 12, 2014
3. Interview with Kurdish leader: ‘We are the only humanist shield against barbarity’, translated and published in Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal, Oct 6, 2014. See also an interview with Democratic Union Party (PYD) co-chairperson Saleh Moslem, published on Oct 14, 2014, (weblink only)
4. Peacock worship (The Yazidi people of northern Iraq), by Gerard Russell, London Review of Books, Sept 11, 2014
* * *
1. ISIS on the march: U.S. Middle East strategy in tatters
By Patrick Cockburn, Counterpunch, Oct 13, 2014
America’s plans to fight Islamic State are in ruins as the militant group’s fighters come close to capturing Kobani and have inflicted a heavy defeat on the Iraqi army west of Baghdad.
The US-led air attacks launched against Islamic State (also known as Isis) on 8 August in Iraq and 23 September in Syria have not worked. President Obama’s plan to “degrade and destroy” Islamic State has not even begun to achieve success. In both Syria and Iraq, Isis is expanding its control rather than contracting.
Isis reinforcements have been rushing towards Kobani in the past few days to ensure that they win a decisive victory over the Syrian Kurdish town’s remaining defenders. The group is willing to take heavy casualties in street fighting and from air attacks in order to add to the string of victories it has won in the four months since its forces captured Mosul, the second-largest city in Iraq, on 10 June. Part of the strength of the fundamentalist movement is a sense that there is something inevitable and divinely inspired about its victories, whether it is against superior numbers in Mosul or US airpower at Kobani.
In the face of a likely Isis victory at Kobani, senior US officials have been trying to explain away the failure to save the Syrian Kurds in the town, probably Isis’s toughest opponents in Syria. “Our focus in Syria is in degrading the capacity of [Isis] at its core to project power, to command itself, to sustain itself, to resource itself,” said US Deputy National Security Adviser Tony Blinken, in a typical piece of waffle designed to mask defeat. “The tragic reality is that in the course of doing that there are going to be places like Kobani where we may or may not be able to fight effectively.”
Unfortunately for the US, Kobani isn’t the only place air strikes are failing to stop Isis. In an offensive in Iraq launched on 2 October but little reported in the outside world, Isis has captured almost all the cities and towns it did not already hold in Anbar province, a vast area in western Iraq that makes up a quarter of the country. It has captured Hit, Kubaisa and Ramadi, the provincial capital, which it had long fought for. Other cities, towns and bases on or close to the Euphrates River west of Baghdad fell in a few days, often after little resistance by the Iraqi Army which showed itself to be as dysfunctional as in the past, even when backed by US air strikes.
Today, only the city of Haditha and two bases, Al-Assad military base near Hit, and Camp Mazrah outside Fallujah, are still in Iraqi government hands. Joel Wing, in his study –”Iraq’s Security Forces Collapse as The Islamic State Takes Control of Most of Anbar Province” – concludes: “This was a huge victory as it gives the insurgents virtual control over Anbar and poses a serious threat to western Baghdad”.
The battle for Anbar, which was at the heart of the Sunni rebellion against the US occupation after 2003, is almost over and has ended with a decisive victory for Isis. It took large parts of Anbar in January and government counter-attacks failed dismally with some 5,000 casualties in the first six months of the year. About half the province’s 1.5 million population has fled and become refugees. The next Isis target may be the Sunni enclaves in western Baghdad, starting with Abu Ghraib on the outskirts but leading right to the centre of the capital.
The Iraqi government and its foreign allies are drawing comfort, there having been some advances against Isis in the centre and north of the country. But north and north-east of Baghdad the successes have not been won by the Iraqi army but by highly sectarian Shia militias which do not distinguish between Isis and the rest of the Sunni population. They speak openly of getting rid of Sunni in mixed provinces such as Diyala where they have advanced. The result is that Sunni in Iraq have no alternative but to stick with Isis or flee, if they want to survive. The same is true north-west of Mosul on the border with Syria, where Iraqi Kurdish forces, aided by US air attacks, have retaken the important border crossing of Rabia, but only one Sunni Arab remained in the town. Ethnic and sectarian cleansing has become the norm in the war in both Iraq and Syria.
The US’s failure to save Kobani, if it falls, will be a political as well as military disaster. Indeed, the circumstances surrounding the loss of the beleaguered town are even more significant than the inability so far of air strikes to stop Isis taking 40 per cent of it. At the start of the bombing in Syria, President Obama boasted of putting together a coalition of Sunni powers such as Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Jordan, United Arab Emirates and Bahrain to oppose Isis, but these all have different agendas to the US in which destroying IS is not the first priority. The Sunni Arab monarchies may not like Isis, which threatens the political status quo, but, as one Iraqi observer put it, “they like the fact that Isis creates more problems for the Shia than it does for them”.
Of the countries supposedly uniting against Isis, by the far most important is Turkey because it shares a 510-mile border with Syria across which rebels of all sorts, including Isis and Jabhat al-Nusra, have previously passed with ease. This year the Turks have tightened border security, but since its successes in the summer Isis no longer needs sanctuary, supplies and volunteers from outside to the degree it once did.
In the course of the past week it has become clear that Turkey considers the Syrian Kurd political and military organisations, the PYD and YPG, as posing a greater threat to it than the Islamic fundamentalists. Moreover, the PYD is the Syrian branch of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which has been fighting for Kurdish self-rule in Turkey since 1984.
Ever since Syrian government forces withdrew from the Syrian Kurdish enclaves or cantons on the border with Turkey in July 2012, Ankara has feared the impact of self-governing Syrian Kurds on its own 15 million-strong Kurdish population.
President Recep Tayyip Erdogan would prefer Isis to control Kobani, not the PYD. When five PYD members, who had been fighting Isis at Kobani, were picked up by the Turkish army as they crossed the border last week they were denounced as “separatist terrorists”.
Turkey is demanding a high price from the US for its co-operation in attacking Isis, such as a Turkish-controlled buffer zone inside Syria where Syrian refugees are to live and anti-Assad rebels are to be trained. Mr Erdogan would like a no-fly zone which will also be directed against the government in Damascus since Isis has no air force. If implemented the plan would mean Turkey, backed by the US, would enter the Syrian civil war on the side of the rebels, though the anti-Assad forces are dominated by Isis and Jabhat al-Nusra, the al-Qaeda affiliate.
It is worth keeping in mind that Turkey’s actions in Syria since 2011 have been a self-defeating blend of hubris and miscalculation. At the start of the uprising, it could have held the balance between the government and its opponents. Instead, it supported the militarisation of the crisis, backed the jihadis and assumed Assad would soon be defeated. This did not happen and what had been a popular uprising became dominated by sectarian warlords who flourished in conditions created by Turkey. Mr Erdogan is assuming he can disregard the rage of the Turkish Kurds at what they see as his complicity with Isis against the Syrian Kurds. This fury is already deep, with 33 dead, and is likely to get a great deal worse if Kobani falls.
Why doesn’t Ankara worry more about the collapse of the peace process with the PKK that has maintained a ceasefire since 2013? It may believe that the PKK is too heavily involved in fighting Isis in Syria that it cannot go back to war with the government in Turkey. On the other hand, if Turkey does join the civil war in Syria against Assad, a crucial ally of Iran, then Iranian leaders have said that “Turkey will pay a price”. This probably means that Iran will covertly support an armed Kurdish insurgency in Turkey. Saddam Hussein made a somewhat similar mistake to Mr Erdogan when he invaded Iran in 1980, thus leading Iran to reignite the Kurdish rebellion that Baghdad had crushed through an agreement with the Shah in 1975. Turkish military intervention in Syria might not end the war there, but it may well spread the fighting to Turkey.
Patrick Cockburn is the author of The Jihadis Return: ISIS and the New Sunni Uprising.
2. Kobani, the Kurdish issue and the Syrian revolution, a common destiny
By Joseph Daher, on Syria Freedom Forever blog, Oct. 12, 2014
The city of Kobani in Syria, inhabited in its big majority by Kurdish people, has been under direct threat for several weeks by the Islamic State (IS). Since the beginning of the offensive of the IS on September 16, 2014, more than 550 people have died, including 298 militants of the IS, 236 Kurdish fighters and around twenty civilians. More than 12,000 civilians still remain in some sections of the city, while the offensive of the IS on Kobani and its surrounding villages has led to the forced displacement of about 200,000 people.
The city would actually have fallen long ago if it was not for the resistance organized by the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (YPD), which is linked to the PKK (Kurdistan Workers Party) and its military forces, units of protection of people (YPG) and also the active participation of at least three battalions of Arab fighters in the city–the revolutionary battalion of Al Raqqa, the battalion of “the northern Sun” and the battalion of “Jirablis”. On October 4, the Free Syrian Army (FSA) had also decided to send a thousand fighters to defend Kobani.
The city of Kobani has a strategic location for the IS. First, the city lies between the cities of Cerablus and Tell Abyad, which are both under the occupation of the IS, and its capture would allow a territorial continuity for the IS. Second, the city is also a gateway to Turkey.
Kobani, a key city in the Rojava autonomous regions
The city of Kobani is the third Kurdish city of Syria and was the first Kurdish city to be liberated from the Assad regime, on July 19, 2012. Kobani is also the center of one of the three cantons (with Afrin and Cizre) that established themselves in “democratic autonomous regions” from a confederation of “Kurds, Arabs, Assyrians, Chaldeans, Turkmen, Armenian and Chechen”, as stated in the Preamble of the Rojava (name of western or Syrian Kurdistan) Charter. Experiences of self-administrations in these regions are very interesting, particularly regarding the rights of women and religious and ethnic minorities. Some contradictions nevertheless exist, especially regarding the authoritarianism of the PYD forces that have not hesitated to repress activists or to close institutions towards them.
We should not forget that the PYD, like its mother organization the PKK, lacks democratic credentials in is internal functioning and in regards to other organisations considered as rivals or just as we have seen critical of it. We must remember for example the protest movements in late June 2013 in some cities of Rojava, such as Amouda and Derabissyat, against the repression and arrests by the PYD forces of Kurdish revolutionary activists (1).
The PYD is however far from being the only organization in this case in Syria, and within the Syrian opposition.
That does not stop us from providing a full support to the Kurdish national liberation movement in its struggle for self-determination in Iraq, Syria, Turkey and Iran against authoritarian regimes that oppress them and / or prevent them from achieving their self-determination. It is also why we should demand the removal of the PKK from all lists of terrorist organizations in Europe and elsewhere.
We can, indeed, criticize the leadership of the PKK or the PYD for some of their policies, but as argued before, a fundamental principle of revolutionaries is that we first need to support all forms of liberation and emancipation struggle unconditionally before we are entitled to criticize the way they are led.
The coalition and Turkey and the struggle against the Kurds
The bombings of the international coalition led by the USA and with the collaboration of the reactionary monarchies of the Gulf states have failed to stop the offensive of the IS since September 23. At that period, the IS was at 60 km of Kobani. Today, the IS has entered and occupied several districts of the city. The IS has also destroyed several houses and administrative buildings.
This military intervention shows once more that it is not designed to help the local populations in their struggle for freedom and dignity but serve the objectives of Western imperialists, with the agreement of Russian imperialism and of all the regional sub-imperialists participating directly (Saudi Arabia and Qatar) or indirectly (Turkey), or not opposing it like Iran. All these actors want to put an end to the revolutionary processes in the region and restore its stability with authoritarian regimes that serve their interests and not those of the popular masses of the region.
For its part, the Turkish government of the Justice and Development Party (known as AKP) has once again demonstrated its opposition to any project of Kurdish self-determination that would challenge its political interests.
The Turkish government has also accused the PKK of being terrorists similar to the IS. The Turkish government, through these accusations, wants to harm the Kurdish organisations operating on its territory or at its periphery, or at least co-opt some of them.
The main objective of the Turkish government is actually to prevent the establishment of a Kurdish autonomous zone along its border with Syria. This is why the government in Ankara has made the creation of a buffer zone in Syria one of its main demands to the coalition and the international community, and not as the Erdogan government claimed to protect the areas held by the Free Syrian Army, which are now fighting alongside Kurdish forces against the IS.
In the same context, the Turkish government has also prevented and continues to prevent fighters from the PYD to cross the border to join the city of Kobani to help the their Kurdish comrades in their fight against the IS. The Turkish authorities imposed a curfew for the first time since 1992 in six provinces the country populated mostly by Kurds after large demonstrations by members of the Kurdish community against the government’s policy of not wanting to help the city of Kobani and of refusing the crossing of Kurdish fighters to Syria.
After four days of rioting, the Interior Minister Efkan Ala presented a very heavy first official report which reported 31 dead and 360 injured, over a thousand arrests and impressive damage, mainly in the southeast Kurdish majority in the country. The victims, injured and arrested were in their far majority Kurds.
The leader of the PYD, Salih Muslim, urged Turkey to let the crossing of fighters and weapons for Kobani, while adamantly opposing he intervention of the Turkish army in the city, which according to him would be similar to an “occupation “.
On its side, the imprisoned leader of the PKK Abdullah Öcalan also warned that the fall of Kobani would mean the end of all peace efforts that have been going on for the past two years between Turkey and the PKK.
As a reminder there are still more than 8,000 Kurdish political prisoners in Turkish jails accused of terrorism.
Kobani and the Syrian revolution
The fall of the city of Kobani and its occupation by the IS would represent a double defeat: for the self-determination of the Kurdish People and for the Syrian Revolution. Although let be clear not the end of both processes.
The autonomous self-administration of Rojava is a direct and positive result of the Syrian revolution and would never have been allowed or able to exist without the popular and massive movement from below of the Syrian People (Arabs, Kurds and Assyrian together) against the criminal and authoritarian Assad regime. These same popular forces also united against the Islamic reactionary forces that attacked in the past and continue to attack nowadays the Rojava regions. Today the FSA and the Kurdish forces are fighting side by side against the IS in Kobani, while we have also seen demonstrations of support in other liberated areas of Syria in solidarity with Kobani.
The revolution from below of the popular masses of Syria, Arab and Kurds, is the only solution against sectarianism, racism and national chauvinism.
The self-determination of the Kurdish people has been strengthened by the Syrian revolution and this has to continue. It is a dialectical relationship and both are linked.
A defeat of the Syrian revolutionary process and of its objectives would mark most probably the end of the Rojava autonomous regions’ experience and of the hopes of the Kurdish people to decide their own future in the face of the opposition of multiple actors : Western and Russian imperialisms, Arab and Turkish nationalist chauvinisms and Islamic reactionary forces. On the other side the Syrian revolutionary process would not be complete without the possibility of the Kurdish people to decide freely of their own future: separation or participation and struggling with the democrats and progressives for a Democratic, Social and Secular Syria with its national rights guaranteed.
This is why we have to oppose all the attempts to undermine both the Kurdish self-determination and the Syrian revolutionary process because their destinies are linked, whether from the Assad regime, the Islamic reactionary forces, the various imperialisms (USA and Russia) and sub Imperialisms (Iran, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar).
All the counter revolutionary forms must be opposed because they want to divide the popular classes through sectarianism and racisms.
- Viva the Syrian Revolution
- Viva the self-determination of the Kurdish People
- Viva the brotherhood of the people in struggle for Liberation and Emancipation
- People in struggle are one!
About Syria Freedom Forever:This blog is dedicated to the struggle of the Syrian people in their uprising to overthrow the Assad authoritarian regime and to build a Democratic, Secular, Socialist, Anti imperialist and Pro Resistance Syria!
3. Kurdish leader: ‘We are the only humanist shield against barbarity’
Translated and published in Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal, Oct 6, 2014. (See also an interview with Democratic Union Party (PYD) co-chairperson Saleh Moslem, published on Oct 14, 2014.)
Gharib Hassou is the representative in Iraqi Kurdistan of the Syria-based Democratic Union Party (Partiya Yekitîya Demokrat, PYD), the main force of Kurdish resistance in Syria. He is interviewed by Stéphane Aubouard in Erbil for the French left-wing newspaper l’Humanité. Translated by Isabelle Métral. (Note: DAESH is also know as “Islamic State” (IS) or ISIS).
Why is the conquest of Kobane so important for DAESH?
Gharib Hassou: Because the town’s position is strategic. If DAESH succeed in seizing it, it would divide the two other Syrian Kurdish districts of Afrin and Jesire, which would weaken our resistance while enlarging its own borders. But beyond that strategic dimension, there is a symbolic aspect too, for it was in Kobane that we started the revolution in 2012. So DAESH wants to demoralise the Syrian Kurds by getting hold of that important symbol. In the last year they have tried to take hold of it 10 times and each time with our forces alone we succeeded in fighting them back. The problem is that their firepower is now much more important since they have taken tanks and heavy weaponry from the Iraqi army. And add to this the secret forces of some states that actively support the jihadists in their conquest.
Do you mean Turkey?
Actively, yes and I do mean Turkey. Joe Biden (the US diplomacy boss) has just confirmed this from a financial point of view. Not only did Ankara support DAESH militarily, but Turkey’s financial contribution is paramount. There are direct agreements between Turkey and DAESH, which functions like a mafia with the money it receives. That money comes notably from the oilfields that jihadists control all along the border. They sell the oil to Turkey (rumour puts the price at US$40 a barrel instead of the current price of $100). Turkey is calling the shots in the region these days, but nevertheless says it might join the [international] coalition [against IS] …
But Turkey’s parliament has just voted for intervention, if not a military intervention, at least for humanitarian assistance to the town of Kobane…
I don’t believe a word of it. The Turks have fought the Kurds for thousands of years, so they know who their enemy is. And it is not DAESH. The truth is that Turkey does not want a democratic state to be set up in our region, it wants an Islamist state. [Turkey’s prime minister] Erdogan is an Islamist. So the West should be aware that this war concerns them as much as it does us, Syrian Kurds, and the YPG, and the PKK (Kurdistan Workers Party) who are the only ones to fight on the battlefield.
We are the only brotherly, humanist, shield against barbarity. We are the only people in the region to be organised democratically. With us it is the people that rule. In each of the three states, there is a male and a female governor. All the communities have a legal right to exist. We did not conquer Kobane by cutting off heads and after raping women!
So I call on the civilised world to come to our help. If Kobane falls, the symbol of a people’s fraternity will fall. And today we are the only bastion against the creation of the Islamist State. Our fall might result in a domino effect. For the whole of Syria, Turkey and even the confines of Europe, Romania, Bulgaria might fall. And yet the whole world is merely watching us being massacred without stirring as much as a finger.
Still, the US is dropping bombs near Kobane …
It is, but we are beginning to doubt the objective of these strikes. I just cannot understand how it is that the most powerful army in the world that can target a single man hiding in the desert is now unable to hit a single IS tank. Kurdish fighters were even killed last week when a US strike missed its target. These attacks were aimed at pushing DAESH back but they had the opposite effect. There was besides not the slightest contact between Kurdish fighters and the US staff. But our Iraqi Kurdish brothers have been trying to help us, notably by attacking the jihadists around Sinjar where the Yezidi* have taken refuge, which enabled to release the DAESH vice around Kobane somewhat, as DAESH was forced to send supply forces into Iraq.
But unfortunately all this is not enough. Instead of carrying out air strikes that are very costly, we would rather they sent us heavy weaponry. That is the only thing we need to push DAESH back.
Unfortunately there are agreements between Turkey and Western states that do not really want things to change in the Middle East. We are paying a heavy price for the Lausanne agreements signed by the big powers in 1923 in order to divide up our country.
4. Peacock worship (The Yazidi people of northern Iraq)
By Gerard Russell, London Review of Books, Sept 11, 2014 (subscriber only)
At the village of Khanqe, in Iraqi Kurdistan, tens of thousands of Yazidi refugees were living in rows of UN-issued tents. They had been driven out of their homes in Sinjar, sixty miles to the south-west, by an Isis attack on 3 August. It’s not the first time the Yazidis have been persecuted; it’s surprising that the sect has managed to survive at all. In the 12th century Europe’s Cathars were suppressed for their deviation from Christianity within decades of their emergence; the Yazidis, whose religion took its present form at around the same time, and which drew on still older elements of Middle Eastern ‘paganism’, still exist. How have they managed to last so long?
One of the refugees’ religious leaders is Sheikh Hamad Eido Hamu – ‘Pasha’, he added, making sure I noted it down. The Ottoman title of pasha was given to his grandfather in 1917, when the empire recognised him as the leader of the people of Sinjar. Sheikh Hamad’s followers, twenty of whom were gathered around him, were mostly wearing tatty T-shirts and trousers: presumably the clothes they’d had on when they fled from Sinjar ten days earlier. They had lost more than their possessions. Sinjar is one of their holy sites; the mountain at the centre of the region is dotted with Yazidi shrines, with their sharp conical spires. It was the mountain that saved them: once the Yazidis got there, and climbed far enough away from the roads, Isis couldn’t easily reach them, and they could more easily be protected by their own armed men, and by friendly PKK gunmen from Syria; from the mountain they were able to cross into Syria and then re-enter Iraq at a safer point further north. But the mountain is more than twenty miles from the Yazidis’ main settlements, and they were being pursued by Isis in armoured cars.
Sheikh Hamad fled with the others, but by the time I met him he had recovered some of his dignity. He was dressed in a white turban and white robe, under a cream-coloured woollen jacket tied with a Levi’s belt. The white robe was once a symbol of poverty, and is worn by members of an ascetic group called the faqirs to which the sheikh belonged by hereditary right. The faqirs observe rules which other Yazidis need not follow: abstinence from pork, for instance (a rule they share with Muslims), and from lettuce (a rule whose origin is different, and much older). Their status as faqirs, and their knowledge of the innermost secrets of the Yazidis’ faith, gives them the power to foretell the future. What the sheikh foresaw was bleak: ‘We revere seven angels who carry out in this world the will of the noble lord. And his will now is to destroy us. If God does not have mercy, we are finished. And if we are not helped, then God will send destruction on the world. Disasters will follow, not just for us, but for you as well.’ He dabbed at his eyes with a tissue. The children who were watching began to cry as well.
Their obscurity has been the Yazidis’ best defence against persecution over the centuries, but it means that we are in the dark about much of their past and even some aspects of their current beliefs. Because their faith involves mystery – in contrast to evangelical religions like Christianity and Islam, it aims to keep some of its teachings secret even from its own followers – the Yazidis are often in the dark themselves. They sometimes invent stories to explain their own curious customs. Why shouldn’t faqirs eat lettuce? It’s because lettuce gives you stomach gas, one Yazidi told me; no, it’s because the word for lettuce sounds like a taboo word, a second said. It’s because our persecutors the Turks forced us to eat lettuce, claimed a third. (Such confusion is not limited to the Yazidis: I had similar difficulty trying to establish from the Druze of Lebanon why their elders are not supposed to eat molokhiya, a dish of jute leaves common in Lebanon and Egypt.)
Even the origin of the term ‘Yazidi’ is disputed. They deny that the name has any connection with Yazid, an early Muslim Arab caliph (some scholars have assumed that the first Yazidis must have been his supporters). They themselves don’t use the term: they prefer to call themselves Ezidis, which as Sheikh Hamad explained to me is derived from Ezda, a Persian word for God. Certainly the Yazidis have been influenced by Islam. Sheikh is an Arabic word, though they also use pir, a Persian word of pre-Islamic origin with a similar meaning. When denouncing the ‘unbelievers’ of Isis, Sheikh Hamad used the Islamic term kuffar. At the Yazidis’ holiest site, the temple of Lalish in Kurdistan, is a sacred spring in which Yazidis are immersed in a baptism-like ceremony of spiritual cleansing. The spring is called Zemzem – the same name as the spring at Mecca that’s sacred to Islam. The adoption of Muslim terminology was partly a means of protection, a practice known among heterodox Muslims as taqiya. But it also seems to show the influence of Muslim missionaries, who imparted some Islamic concepts to the Yazidis even though they never converted them. One such missionary may have been the person Yazidis revere as the founder of their religion, Sheikh Adi ibn Musafir. Records suggest that he was an 11th-century Sufi preacher, though Yazidis reject the idea that he was a Muslim: they think of him as an earthly manifestation of one of the seven angels who govern the world.
Alongside such Muslim influences, the Yazidis and neighbouring groups like the Alawites have preserved elements of the Middle East’s pre-Islamic religions. In the year 363, the Roman emperor Julian lost a significant battle at the city of Samarra in what is now northern Iraq. In his time, Iraq was a borderland contested between the Roman and Persian Empires. Julian had been tempted by the apparent weakness of Persian defences into overreach and had ended up without adequate supplies. Provoked into battle by the Persians, he was fatally wounded. Rome ended up having to surrender its Iraqi possessions – including the city of Sinjar, then the location of a Roman fortress. Julian’s defeat had a special significance, however: he had been leading a resurgence of paganism in the late Roman Empire; his Christian enemies called him Julian the Apostate. On his way to fight the Persians he had offered sacrifice at temples to the old gods, including the temple to the moon god Sin at the city of Harran in modern-day Turkey. His death – and the circumstances of it, which made it seem like a judgment from God – removed the last obstacle to the Christianisation of the Roman Empire. A Christian writer later claimed that, as he lay dying, Julian dipped his hand into his own wound and filled it with blood, ‘flung it into the air and cried: “Thou hast won, O Galilean.”’ Yet the existence of the Yazidis shows that the victory of the new evangelical faiths, first Christianity, then Islam, was not complete. The Yazidis, and other religious groups in the hills and mountains that separate Turkey from the Arab world, preserve rituals and beliefs that Julian would recognise.
The Yazidis’ special cult is of the sun. ‘We are theists,’ Sheikh Hamad told me. ‘We do not worship any person or prophet but only nature – what God has created. We worship this sun, the lord of all. Without the light of the sun, where would we be?’ It’s towards the sun that Yazidis turn when they say their prayers, and their annual bull sacrifice is conducted at the shrine of a figure they call Sheikh Shams – a name not too far from that of the ancient Assyro-Babylonian sun god Shamash, who had a temple near that of Sin at Harran. Another sun cult, that of Mithras, established in Rome in the first and second centuries ad by soldiers returning from the Middle East, appears to be a cultural cousin of the Yazidis. Like the Yazidis, worshippers of Mithras were secretive about their beliefs and rituals. But their tendency to worship in underground chapels, their practice of a sacred handshake and their depiction of the god Mithras in the act of sacrificing a bull all underscore their connection with the Yazidis, who also have underground holy sites, sacred handshakes and an annual bull sacrifice.
Abu Rayhan al-Biruni, a remarkably open-minded 11th-century Muslim scholar, tells us that in his time the still existing pagan community at Harran believed in reincarnation and a descent of the divine essence into human form. The Yazidis and neighbouring groups like the Alawites have inherited these beliefs, and regard certain individuals – the Greek philosophers, Jesus and the Apostles, Muhammad and some of his companions – as having been, to some extent, reflections of God on earth.
The chief angel of the seven that rule the world is Malak Taoos, the ‘peacock angel’.The Yazidis identify him with Azazael, also known as Iblis (calling him Satan is taboo). The cult of Malak Taoos gets them accused of devil worship, but in practice all it means is that they revere a bronze image of a peacock; some Yazidis also display peacock feathers in their homes. The origins of this custom may be ancient. There was a pre-Christian Mesopotamian and Iranian tradition of propitiating malign gods. Plutarch tells us of dark sacrifices offered by Iranians in the first century to Angra Mainyu, the Zoroastrian equivalent of Satan. (Such sacrifices were usually creatures of the night, such as bats or wolves.) A Christian writer at the end of the seventh century claimed that people near his birthplace on what is now the Turkey-Iraq border worshipped Beelzebub, and a tradition of placating malign gods certainly persisted among Iraqi planet worshippers into the ninth century. One 19th-century English visitor to the Yazidis, George Percy Badger, came to believe that this was the purpose of the veneration of Malak Taoos, an angel ‘so bad that he requires to be constantly propitiated’.
Whatever the origins of the cult of Malak Taoos, no Yazidi today sees the peacock angel as evil. They explain that Malak Taoos was once the chief of all the angels; he rebelled against God and was cast down into hell. In Yazidi belief, Malak Taoos repented and was forgiven, and now, once again, governs the world on behalf of the ineffable, unknowable deity. Hell, and the devil, no longer exist in Yazidi theology. This belief in the possibility of redemption for all creation, even Iblis, is something the Yazidis share with some medieval Christian and Muslim thinkers.
Geography encouraged the syncretism of the Yazidis’ religion: the mountains of the Levant and northern Iraq abut some of the world’s oldest civilisations and trade routes; they were an ideal place for picking up ideas, mixing them together and holding at bay those who would impose orthodoxy. No wonder that in an almost contiguous area from the Mediterranean to the Zagros mountains there are a whole series of heterodox communities: Druze, Alawites, Shabak, Yazidis, Kakais, and in modern times Bahai. One reason for their survival was Islam itself, which was prepared, up to a point, to tolerate other faiths – certainly Judaism and Christianity, but also others that were monotheistic and had holy scriptures. In the beginning, when Muslims were a minority in the lands they ruled, the caliphs did relatively little to press their subjects to convert. The caliphs also developed a great appetite for Greek science, especially astrology. The Harranians revered Pythagoras as a prophet, and had a great collection of scientific literature; their religious interest in the stars made them good astrologers, and won them protection from the caliphs. One ninth-century Harranian, Thabit ibn Qurra, who expanded Pythagoras’ theorem of triangles while under the protection of the Abbasid caliph in Baghdad, made a powerful defence of his faith against those who denounced it as paganism. ‘Who was it who settled the inhabited world and propagated cities, if not the outstanding men and kings of paganism?’ he asked. ‘Without the gifts of paganism, the earth would have been empty and impoverished, enveloped in a great cloud of destitution.’ Since the Harranians were ultimately monotheistic their beliefs weren’t anathema to early Muslims. Some Muslim philosophers, too, developed a theology in which the planets were intermediaries between God and the world.
Most surviving heterodoxies or minority religions have been those that could retreat to remote mountainous places. Borders are handy too: one can escape persecution in one country by fleeing to another. But over the last couple of centuries, and especially since the invention of the motor car, the havens where the Yazidis and other communities held out against the forces of modernity and orthodoxy have come under greater threat. In the 19th century the Ottoman Empire sent punitive expeditions against the Yazidis, aimed at forcibly converting them to Islam. In 1892 they captured the holy site of Lalish after failing to take Sinjar, and turned it into an Islamic madrasa. Often the Ottomans’ tactics were remarkably similar to those of Isis. The British archaeologist Austen Henry Layard, who travelled among the Yazidis in the 1840s, reported that ‘yearly expeditions have been made by the governors of provinces into their districts; and while the men and women were slaughtered without mercy, the children of both sexes were carried off, and exposed for sale in the principal towns.’ On one occasion, in Sinjar in 1832, ‘there was a massacre, and the population was reduced by three-fourths. The Yazidis took refuge in caves, where they were either suffocated by fires lighted at the mouth, or by the discharges of cannon.’ Isis has mortars and armoured Humvees.
Ottoman pressure eventually led to the dispersal of the Yazidis. When the empire carried out its genocidal massacres of the Armenians in 1915-16, as punishment for their supposed collaboration with Russia, the Yazidis and Assyrian Christians were also targeted. Some fled south to Sinjar; others joined the exiles in Armenia. As a result, the Yazidis today are scattered. Until last month Sinjar had the largest share of their population. There were a smaller number of Yazidi villages in areas under Kurdish control east of the Mosul dam; it’s in these villages that the Sinjaris have now taken refuge. Other Yazidi communities exist in Syria, Turkey, Armenia and Georgia; a related community, the Kakais, live in Iran.
While they have clung to their theology, the Yazidis have had to adapt politically in each of these places in order to survive. In Iraq under Saddam Hussein they were encouraged to be Arab. In Kurdistan, it helps them to be seen as the ‘original Kurds’, who have preserved elements of the Kurds’ pre-Islamic religion. (This isn’t improbable: the Yazidis speak a dialect of Kurdish, a Persian language quite different from Arabic.) In Armenia, where memories of the Kurdish role in the events of 1915-16 are still strong, the Yazidis define themselves as a non-Kurdish ethnicity. In Sinjar, thanks to their numbers, they have pressed for independence. After the First World War, the Assyrian Christians proposed that they would form a nation-state, along with the Yazidis, including both Sinjar and Mosul. It didn’t happen: the area was rich in oil, and so the British government took possession of it, claiming that this would protect the region’s minorities.
Today the central government in Baghdad wants Sinjar to form part of Mosul province, while the regional government in Kurdistan wants to govern it from its capital in Erbil. Until Isis’s attacks it was secured jointly by the Iraqi army, which fled in June, and the Kurdish peshmerga, which abandoned it on 3 August. The situation is complicated by the fact that Saddam took steps to cement his authority in the region by moving Arab Muslims into Sinjar, while resettling many Yazidis in large housing developments between Sinjar and Mosul. Arab villagers, according to the Yazidis I met last month, joined in the attacks against them when Isis arrived.
Sheikh Hamad arrived in Khanqe after a forced march during which the frail and infirm had to be left to their fate. All the Yazidis I spoke to at the refugee camp wanted one thing: asylum. The Yazidis aren’t usually keen to emigrate, unlike the Christians of Iraq, two-thirds of whom have left the country during the past 11 years. When they move abroad they’re far from the holy site of Lalish and find it hard to enforce their community’s strict marriage rules, which forbid Yazidis from marrying outside their own caste and tribe, let alone marrying non-Yazidis. But the events of August have changed things. ‘They have taken our women and our honour, we have no future here,’ one Yazidi man told me in Arabic. Another spoke in English: ‘We all want to die. No future for Yazidis.’