YAZIDI FREEDOM OF THOUGHT HONORED
By René Wadlow
The Yearly Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought awarded by the European Parliament was given on October 27, 2016 to Nadia Mourad Bassi Taka and Lamiya Aji Bachar, both Iraqi Yazidis. Both had been taken captive by Islamic State (IS) forces in August 2014 and then sold into sexual slavery and forced marriage. Both were recently able to escape from bondage and went to Germany as refugees. Both have become spokespersons for the Yazidis, especially those Yazidi women who are still being held in sexual slavery. The United Nations (UN) has appointed Nadia Taka as Goodwill Ambassador for the Dignity of Survivors of Human Trafficking.
There were probably some 500,000 Yazidis, a Kurdish-speaking religious community living in northern Iraq, many in the Mosul area. Iraqi demographic statistics are not very reliable, and Yazidi leaders may give larger estimates by counting Kurds who had been Yazidis but who had converted to Islam. There were also some 200,000 Yazidis among the Kurds of Turkey but now nearly all have migrated to Western Europe, primarily Germany, to Australia, Canada, and the USA. There are also some Yazidis among Kurds living in Syria, Iran and Armenia. The Yazidi do not convert people, and so the religion continues only through birth into the community.
The structure of the Yazidi world view is Zoroastrian, a faith born in Persia proclaiming that two great cosmic forces, that of light and good, and that of darkness and evil are in constant battle. Man is called upon to help light overcome evil.
However, the strict dualistic thinking of Zoroastrianism was modified by another Persian prophet, Mani of Ctesiphon in the third century CE who had to deal with a situation very close to that of ours today. Mani tried to create a synthesis of religious teachings that were increasingly coming into contact through travel and trade: Buddhism and Hinduism from India, Jewish and Christian thought, Hellenistic Gnostic philosophy from Egypt and Greece as well as many smaller, traditional and “animist” beliefs. Mani kept the Zoroastrian dualism as the most easily understood intellectual framework, though giving it a somewhat more Taoist (yin/yang) flexibility, Mani having traveled to China, he developed the idea of the progression of the soul by individual effort through reincarnation – a main feature of Indian thought combined with the ethical insights of Gnostic and Christian thought. Unfortunately, only the dualistic Zoroastrian framework is still attached to Mani’s name – Manichaeism. This is somewhat ironic as it was the Zoroastrian Magi who had him put to death as a dangerous rival.
Within the Mani-Zoroastrian framework, the Yazidis added the presence of angels who are to help man in his constant battle for light and good, in particular Melek Tawis, the peacock angel. Although there are angels in Islam, angels that one does not know could well be demons, and so the Yazidis are regularly accused of being “demon worshipers” (1).
If one is to take seriously the statements of the IS leadership, genocide – the destruction in whole or in part of a group – is a stated aim concerning the Yazidis. The killing of the Yazidis is a policy and not “collateral damage” from fighting. The 1948 Convention for the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide allows any State party to the Convention to “call upon the competent organs of the United Nations to take such action under the Charter of the United Nations as they consider appropriate for the prevention and suppression of acts of genocide.” Thus far, no State has done so by making a formal proposal to deal with the Convention.
The Yazidis have always been looked down upon by both their Muslim and Christian neighbors as “pagans”. The government of Saddam Hussein was opposed to them not so much for their religious beliefs but rather because some Yazidi played important roles in the Kurdish community, seen as largely opposed to the government. The Yazidis also had some old ownership claims on land on which oil reserves are found in northern Iraq which makes them suspect in the eyes of the current leadership of the Kurdish Autonomous Region of Iraq. The government of the Kurdish Region has accepted the Yazidi refugees but has done little to help their socio-economic development perhaps fearing competition with the Kurdish families now in control of the government. In all fairness, the government and the civil society of the Kurdish Region are stretched well beyond their means to deal with the refugees and displaced.
The current fighting in both Iraq and Syria overshadows concerns for the freedom of thought as the ability to live is in question. However, the Sakharov Prize may serve as a reminder that the quality of life is also measured by the ability to think and to hold on to one’s convictions.
(1) A Yazidi website has been set up by Iraqis living in Lincoln, Nebraska, USA. The website is uneven but of interest as a self-presentation: yeziditruth.org.
Prof. René Wadlow is President of the Association of World Citizens.