Yazidis and their faith: There's more to it than just a quick paragraph

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One often hears how one person can make a world of difference. In a recent New Yorker piece,  “The Daring Plan to Save a Religious Minority from ISIS,” a writer who specializes in greater Kurdistan --  an area that overlaps into four countries -- talks about the Yazidis. (Some spell their name as “Yezidi;” either are correct).

We are not talking about just any Yazidis: Three men who took it upon themselves to try to save their countrymen in Iraq from genocide. With so many Christians fleeing Iraq, that leaves the Yazidis as the largest non-Muslim minority in the country. (This policy brief from the Middle East Institute explains their history and religion, which is based on the worship of a peacock angel, pictured with this piece).

The New Yorker article began with three Yazidis: Hadi Pir, Murad Ismael and Haider Elias, who became interpreters for the American military in Iraq. All received visas to move to themselves and their families to United States (to escape reprisal in Iraq) and were leading more or less ordinary lives until Aug. 2, 2014, when ISIS moved against Yazidis about 6,700 miles away.

At three in the morning, when they pulled into the parking lot of their apartment complex, dozens of their Yazidi neighbors were outside on the lawn, talking on their cell phones and crying.
“Isis has taken over Sinjar,” a neighbor said. “Everyone is running to the mountain.”
Isis came into Sinjar at dawn, with the intention of wiping out Yazidism in Iraq. The group’s Research and Fatwa Department had declared that, unlike Christians or Shia Muslims, Yazidis were a “pagan minority.” The Kurdish soldiers retreated without warning, after determining that their position was untenable. Yazidis ran from their homes and scrambled up the rocky slopes of Mt. Sinjar. Trucks jammed with people overturned on narrow roads. Homes north of the mountain quickly emptied; with the roads controlled by Isis, thousands of Yazidis were trapped in the southern villages.

Back in the States, the horrified Yazidis could follow the fighting via cell phone as their relatives called them whenever they could to relate the increasing horrors they were facing. About 100 former interpreters formed a crisis management team to try to bring media attention to the coming genocide.

By Aug. 7, they were in Washington, D.C., demonstrating in front of the White House, then showing up at the State Department to plead their case. Notice the details of this meeting.

An elderly Yazidi dressed in a traditional white robe cinched with a red cummerbund was so overcome that he could barely walk. They were led to a conference room, packed with State employees. Doug Padgett and Leanne Cannon, two early-career officials who had been fielding calls from the Yazidis, stood by the windows, and Thomas O. Melia, their boss at the D.R.L., sat at a table. The Yazidis told stories of families killed by isis, homes destroyed, and the unbearable conditions on the mountain. Ismael noticed that Padgett, a six-foot-five-inch former Navy officer, was crying. “I didn’t think that the U.S. will care that much about us,” Ismael told me. “To be honest, we are a small minority in the middle of nowhere.”

The traditional white robe might mean the old man is a Yazidi clergyman. We're not told. It turns out that the Yazidis knew Mt. Sinjar quite well and the U.S. State Department, operating on outdated maps, did not. The article goes on to detail an amazing arrangement the Yazidis had with the U.S. military whereby their relatives in Sinjar were calling their relatives -- who were encamped in a Maryland suburb -- with intelligence that went up to the U.S. intelligence chain that eventually made it to the bombers strafing ISIS positions.

The article is full of insider-only details that only someone with major access to the major players would know. (The writer was once an Istanbul-based journalist who has written widely about Kurdish regions before) There is great insider information on how the State Department grew to trust the Yazidi players and their on-the-ground sources.

Then again, there are also the sadder aspects; for instance how even the Americans couldn’t prevent much of the killing of Yazidi men and sex slavery for Yazidi women that resulted.

A military contact of Cannon’s watched the massacre unfold on satellite imagery. “We saw guys getting shot in the back of the head and pushed into the ditches,” he told me. “Couldn’t do a damned thing about it.” U.S. forces didn’t have airplanes at the ready, he explained, and even if they had it was too difficult to save the villagers while killing the militants. “What happens if we go whack a bunch of guys who are gonna get shot in the head, but they don’t have to get shot in the head because we killed them?” he asked. “What does Isis say? ‘Americans killing innocents.’ ”

Yet, there is one huge faith-shaped hole here. The Yazidi religion, which is the basis for this people being so horribly persecuted by ISIS, is hardly touched upon. There is this brief description at the beginning of the piece:

Yazidis have suffered centuries of religious persecution, based largely on the false idea that they revere the sun as God and worship a fallen angel. Though Yazidis pray toward the sun, and worship seven angels, they are monotheistic, and there is little to distinguish their God from the Muslim or the Christian one.

That last sentence is so blatantly false, one wonders how any literate copy editor could let it pass.

Allah is miles away from the deity the Yazidis worship and the triune God known in Christianity is a whole other planet. Plus, this Yazidi site claims this angel was not fallen, nor was it Satan, as Muslims have accused it of being. 

One never gets an idea of how the U.S.-based Yazidis practice their faith. Do they have shrines in places like Lincoln, Neb., where exists the country’s largest Yazidi community? Are there clergy involved? Were any religious leaders part of this struggle?  Hadi Pir belongs to the Yazidi clergy caste, but that's not pointed out in this piece.

I looked up another New Yorker story by another author about the sex slavery Yazidi women had to undergo and likewise found next to nothing about the religion itself. In all the pieces I’ve read about ISIS and their reign of terror in northern Iraq and Syria, one heard a lot about Islamic practices but nothing about Yazidi ones.

But that information can be found. In theconversation.com, a web site run by the University College in London, I found a story by two researchers who visited Yazidis in Kurdish refugee camps.

Regarding matters of religion, they express a chastened equanimity. After all, they say, the present suffering was prophesied.
The oldest man at the camp, Sado Elyas, put it this way: “A hundred years ago, the white-bearded elders (kuchk) foretold that the present generation would face an onslaught of persecution. They described the IS attack exactly: some Yazidis would escape to the mountain and later be rescued.”
The experience, he said, has reminded this community of the importance of their traditions: “Over time, people lost faith in the elders and viewed them as perpetually gloomy naysayers. The youth forgot them amid the distractions of new technologies. But what happened last year showed us that we need to listen again to the elders.”
His nephew, Khalid Qasim, added his own recollection of the prophecy, with a glimmer of hope: “The 100-year-old prophecy also said that circumstances for the Yazidis will deteriorate even further, but after the destruction of Yunus’s (Jonah’s) tomb in Mosul, the Yazidis’ situation will begin to improve.”

Theconversation.com also offers this explanation of the Yazidi religion, one of the better ones I’ve seen. And this piece in the Independent explains the holy Yazidi site of Lalish (pictured atop this article), near the Kurdish city of Dohuk.

So it is possible to include elements about their faith in a story, so I'm puzzled why the New Yorker writer left that out. Had she put some in there but an editor removed it? Or wasn't the tenets of the faith considered important to the story?

We at GetReligion use the term "religion ghost" to signify the missing religion element in a story. I'd call this article a half religion ghost. The faith is referred to but never explained. After all, people died at the hands of the Islamists to stay true to their faith. Those martyrs at least deserve a decent explanation of it. 

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