Oil and water, not religion, are fuelling Isis campaign to wipe out minorities
Who could have dreamt that the plight of the secretive Yazidis, stranded without food and water up Mt Sinjar, would suddenly command worldwide attention, let alone lead to US air strikes against the self-styled caliphate of the insurgent group Isis? But the epic, near Biblical scenes of this resilient group of people fleeing up a bare mountain have caught the public imagination.
Look more closely at a map and it becomes clear that this entire region is filled with religious minorities, the remnants of the intermingling of many faiths. For here in the once Fertile Crescent was the birthplace of religion, even the birthplace of civilization itself. Three of the world’s great monotheistic religions were born here – Judaism, Christianity and Islam. It is a deeply spiritual part of the world.
The origins of many of the religions practiced here remain shrouded in obscurity. Yazidi ancestry is Assyrian-Semitic but over the centuries they are thought to have moved north from Basra and become Kurdicised.
Successive persecutions at the hands of local rulers have stemmed from two misunderstandings: that their name referred to the detested early caliph Yazid bin Mu’awiya (when it derives instead from the Persian for angel ized), and that they worshipped the devil (a confusion of the name shaytan, Arabic for devil, with the Peacock Angel whom Yazidis see as God’s alter ego on earth).
Physically they resemble Kurds and most speak Kermanji Kurdish, though the Yazidis from Mt Sinjar also speak Arabic. They live separately from neighbouring tribes and do not intermarry, mainly settled in remote villages but are sometimes nomadic with herds of sheep. They have never been politically important – till now, when they have come under the glare of the international spotlight.
They have only ever sought to practice their religion in peace, away from prying eyes. At the core of their faith is a deep belief in transmigration, that each life gives the chance to move gradually forward towards a better future. Hell and the existence of evil are denied as absolutes. They see all evil as man-made. Their current persecutors, Isis, are evil personified, threatening them with death or conversion, but no Yazidi can convert religion – it is tantamount to forfeiting the soul. As with the Druze and Alawi minorities found across Lebanon and Syria, it is not possible to convert to their religion, only to be born into it.
The images of bleak deserts that flash across our screens today also serve to obscure the region’s two secret treasures: water and oil. The mighty Tigris and Euphrates rivers both of which have their headwaters in eastern Turkey, run through Syria and Iraq before exiting into the Gulf near Basra. The very word ‘Mesopotamia’ means ‘the Land between the Two Rivers’.
Whoever controls these waters controls the lifeblood of the region, and IS’s seizure in recent days of the fragile Mosul Dam has the potential to change the course of history – another epic flood of biblical proportions. Downstream, were it to burst, either accidentally from lack of maintenance or deliberately as an act of maniacal vengeance, Iraq’s first and second cities, Baghdad and Mosul, would disappear underwater. The oil wells of northeast Syria, northern Iraq and Iraqi Kurdistan all lie within the grasp of IS, and it is systematically taking control of them to fund its operations.
Beside the religious there are further ethnic minorities, such as the Turkmen who divide more or less equally between Sunni and Shi’a Islam with their own language and customs, and the Shabak, mainly Shi’a but with elements of Yazidism. They too have their own language. The numbers of all these minorities have plummeted over the last decade, none more so than the Christians, down to about 400,000 in Iraq alone from 1.5 million before 2003. There are between 70,000 and 500,000 Yazidis worldwide.
It is one of the great ironies of history that all these minorities lived out their beliefs in relative peace under the Ba’athist regimes of Saddam Hussain in Iraq and the Assads in Syria. But the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, the revolutions of the ‘Arab Spring’ and now the rise of Isis have combined to turn this part of the world upside down. Into the power vacuum left by the floundering Syrian Revolution and the chaos of the Maliki-led Iraqi government stepped Isis, making its headquarters at Raqqa on the Euphrates in Syria.
As the patchwork of Iraq and Syria disintegrate under the onslaught of Isis, it is north to Iraqi Kurdistan that the overwhelming majority of persecuted minorities are fleeing. Perceived as a haven of relative stability, the Kurdistan Regional Government is seeking to gain independence from Iraq, though its Peshmerga fighters, low on cash and weaponry, will be tested to the full in the coming weeks and months. Its Education Ministry has introduced the enlightened policy that its schools must teach all world religions equally. Most Kurds are Sunni Muslim but Islam is accorded no special status. A person’s faith is seen as a private matter. For Isis such a policy is of course anathema.
Many refugee minorities would flee to Turkey, if the borders were opened, as the Turkish government now also allows its Syriac Christians and its Yazidis to live unmolested.
The biggest irony is that all the religious groups struggling to co-exist in this region believe in the same God, however they choose to address him or whatever symbol they choose to represent him – be it a peacock, a cross, the sun or simply an abstract geometric pattern. Proof if ever it were needed, that this conflict is less about religion, than about water, oil and power.
Diana Darke is author of My House in Damascus: An Inside View of the Syrian Revolution. She has specialised in the Middle East for more than 30 years.
Related posts on the Yazidis:
http://www.independent.co.uk/voices/letters/letters-now-we-can-all-share-the-boris-fantasy-9658001.html (scroll to second letter from Professor Christine Allison, Ancient community faces a grim fate)