A little religion goes a long way

kingpeacock_3We've remarked before how the media usually tell religious news stories when those stories interact with the true passion of the media: politics. This story, from the New York Times, is no exception. The whole hook is how a small religious sect is working the political system for survival. The Saddam Hussein years were hard for many groups who perished or suffered under his notorious oppression. But the post-Saddam Hussein years have been difficult in particular for non-Muslim groups. It's an important story that hasn't been covered as much as should be. So I was glad to see this story about the Yazidi, (who are definitely faring better post-Saddam):

DOHUK, Iraq -- Prince Tahseen Saeed Ali, whose business card identifies him as "the Prince of the Yazidis in Iraq and the World and President of the Yazidi High Religious Council," is a confident man.

It may be an odd posture, given that his people have suffered centuries of oppression and prejudice, tarred by the false claim that they are devil worshipers and caught in a battle zone between often antagonistic powers, the Muslim Arabs and the Muslim Kurds.

But a group so small and so widely misunderstood does not survive for centuries, much of the time at the mercy of far larger forces, without learning how to play politics. And few in Iraq have played that game as well as the Yazidis, whose ability to exploit Iraq's byzantine electoral rules yielded them nearly a quarter of the seats in the government of Nineveh, one of the country's largest provinces.

What's so disappointing about the story is how little we learn about the beliefs and practices of the Yazidi. So they're not devil worshipers. Why are they "tarred by the false claim"? We never find out.

Now, if people believed that Yazidi worship involved appeasing Satan, perhaps it's because of stories like this one that appeared in The New York Times 15 years ago and dealt almost exclusively with the group's obscure religious views.

The Yazidis believe that Satan, whose name they are forbidden to pronounce, is actively malevolent, while God is passively benevolent. To ward off evil, as well as use the powers of the Prince of Darkness to their own advantage, they propitiate Satan's representative, known as the Peacock Angel, in their religious rites.

But to sum up various sources since that time, it could be said that Yazidis believe that the world, created by God, is in the care of seven holy beings. The Peacock Angel (Melek Tawus) is chief among them. The angel's other name is Shaytan/Shaitan and this is the same name the Koran gives for Satan. Also, Melek Tawus rose to favor with God in a manner almost identical to jinn Iblis in Islam. The only difference is that Muslims believe that Iblis' refusal to submit to Adam caused him to fall from grace and later become Satan while Yazidis revere Melek Tawus.

So whether or not Yazidis believe they must propitiate Satan's representative or whether or not they believe that Shaitan is good . . . some clarification is in order.

Anyway, the Yazidis have some fascinating beliefs about moral responsibility and evil. They also believe that Yazidis are descendants of Adam and a houri. Other races are begotten of Adam and Eve.

The religion has strict laws regarding purity, including a system of caste, food laws, preferences for Yazidi communities and a shunning of various taboos. There is no conversion. They also believe that the seven holy beings are periodically reincarnated in, depending on who you believe, animal or human form. They have five daily prayers, mark Wednesdays as holy and rest on Saturdays. They have various festivals and an annual seven-day pilgrimage to north of Mosul, Iraq.

Of particular relevance to the story, one of the purity laws Yazidis submit to is to limit contact with non-Yazidis. They have avoided military service in Iraq to avoid contact with non-Yazidis. It might have been worthwhile to include at least that particular religious belief into a story about greater political assimilation in Iraq:

Yazidis, by most estimates, far outnumber Muslim Kurds in Nineveh, making the Kurds dependent on their support to bolster their claims to the region. And the Yazidis have largely given it; almost all of them who won in the election were members of Kurdish political parties. In exchange for that support, the newly victorious Yazidis are demanding a greater degree of Yazidi power in Kurdistan.

"Frankly," said the prince, who wears the long, bushy beard often seen on older Yazidis, "now we feel the Kurds are more responsive to us."

But the partnership pivots on something deeper and more complex: the murky, misunderstood Yazidi identity.

Yazidis are a zealously insular group, adherents of an ancient, monotheistic faith involving a 12th-century mystic and a peacock angel. After that, nearly everything about them is subject to debate.

Kurds, most of whom are Sunni Muslim, say Yazidis are ethnic Kurds who simply follow a different religion. Many Yazidis, too, say they are Kurds, and it is not uncommon to hear the Yazidis describe themselves as the original Kurds.

In my view, it helps to know a bit about Yazidi belief before reading passages such as that. But the story just provides the bare minimum. The views against mixing with non-Yazidi -- as well as the view that Yazidis are a superior race born only of Adam while other races come from both Adam and Eve -- help put the comments above and below in a much more informative light:

Though he is fiercely anti-Kurd, Sheik Saeed [Mendo Hammu, a member of a Yazidi political party that opposes allying with the Kurds] said he was in contact with several of the Yazidi winners on the Kurdish list. They have indicated that they will work for Yazidi interests, he said, and he will support them if they do.

"We are not Kurd, we are Yazidi," he said. "We are fed up with fear."

It's an interesting political story and I'm glad to see The Times give additional coverage to the Yazidi. Just a bit more on the religion angle would have gone a long way.

Bonus question: the prince described as having a long, bushy beard is pictured in the article. Would you say that's a long beard? I think it's fine to call it bushy but considering that you can see his entire collar, it seems the "long" adjective might be a stretch. Perhaps I'm so focused on this since it was just a month ago that The Times described this man as having a "bushy mustache."

Please respect our Commenting Policy