The plight of the Yezidi in northern Iraq demonstrates that ISIS' persecution of religious minorities has reached new levels of brutality. The Centre on Religion & Geopolitics considers the extreme understanding of Sharia that they use to justify their actions.
The mountainous desert around Sinjar, a town in northern Iraq west of Mosul, has become the unhappy witness to a humanitarian disaster. While half of the 40,000 people left stranded without food or water last week have escaped, around 20,000 remain. Surrounded by militants determined to kill them for their religious beliefs, they have no shelter, food or water beyond what can be dropped from the air.
A week ago, following a short battle, Kurdish security forces withdrew from Sinjar. Not officially part of Iraqi Kurdistan, it is nevertheless largely populated by the Yezidi, a religious minority regarded as ethnically Kurdish. As ISIS swept in, the Yezidi community and other minorities who had sought shelter in the town after previous advances fled before them, ending up stranded and surrounded on Mount Sinjar. Over the weekend the YPG, a Syrian Kurdish militia, took advantage of US airstrikes on ISIS to assist a breakout from the besieged mountain. But despite air-dropped aid, children and the elderly are dying of thirst.
While ISIS persecution of minorities is – while horrifying – no longer surprising, their treatment of the Yezidi seems particularly brutal. And they have done it before: in 2007, ISIS' predecessor, the Islamic State of Iraq, carried out the worst attack of the Iraq insurgency on a Yezidi village, killing nearly 800 people. But in order to understand ISIS' actions, we need to recognise their twisted logic, underpinned by their interpretation of Sharia – an interpretation wildly different from that held by most Muslims.
The Quran distinguishes between two types of non-Muslim religions: Ahl al-Kitab (People of the Book), and mushrikun (those who associate other deities with God, or polytheists). Jews, Christians and Sabeans fall into the former category. Into the latter falls everyone else including the Yezidis and in ISIS' eyes, Shia Muslims. While the end result has been much the same, the processes of the ISIS expulsion of Christians from Mosul and the attack on the Yezidi of Sinjar reveal a crucial difference: the Dhimmi pact.
Compared to the "mushrikun", "People of the Book" have a "privileged" position in extreme Islamic thought: they can make Dhimmi pacts with Muslim rulers, in which they are offered protection and freedom of belief in exchange for paying a tax (jizyah) and living subject to certain restrictions. "Mushrikun" have no such option.
In Mosul, Christians were given four choices: agree to the Dhimmi pact and pay the jizyah, leave, convert or die. With reports of the jizyah ranging from $250 - $4000 per year, together with ISIS' reputation, it is hardly surprising that most left, and many were killed. Horrific ethnic cleansing as that was, the Yezidi had a simpler and more brutal choice: flee while they could, or die.
Yezidi beliefs are unclear, stemming from the absence of a written scripture
Yezidi beliefs are unclear – no two accounts appear to describe the same thing. They are often described – not least by ISIS – as "devil worshippers", an account that clearly feeds the narrative of their enemies. According to Haidar Reda, an Iraqi academic who has studied the religion, the lack of clarity stems from the absence of a written scripture, and on many beliefs there is disagreement even within the Yezidi community. However, there are some aspects that seem more certain than others.
They believe in a supreme God called Yasdan (also known as Allah), who is served by seven angels. Chief among these angels is Malak Tawus, or Angel Peacock. According to Reda, Malak Tawus was identified in an Ottoman fatwa with Shaytan, or Satan, feeding the identification of the Yezidi with devil-worship. This is complicated by a refusal to hear ill spoken of Shaytan, who is regarded as an angel.
This ancient religion is syncretistic and has developed over time, with elements of Jewish, Christian, Muslim and Zoroastrian beliefs among others. The similarities with Islam have led many to identify the Yezidi as a Muslim sect, but this would be rejected by most within the community.
It is crucial, if they are to be defeated, that we get to grips with how ISIS follows its own perverse internal logic and justice. As far as they were concerned Christians were presented with a genuine choice, justified by Sharia. The Yezidi, and other "mushrikun" don't get even that. If they cannot escape, without ISIS' defeat they will die.
Commentary from Ed Husain:
"ISIS is not the only organisation persecuting minority religious groups in the Middle East, though currently they are perhaps the most ruthless. Their actions illustrate the need for us in the West to help our allies embed a deep understanding of the meaning of religious freedom for minorities and majorities across the Middle East. The lack of an effective counter to the arguments and attitudes of groups like ISIS can be traced to a broader lack of appreciation of the strengths that religious pluralism can bring to a society.
"There has been some pressure from the international community to respect religious freedom. Their efforts have seen notable successes: see, for example, the religious freedom clauses in the constitutions of Egypt or Tunisia after the Arab Spring, passed with the acquiescence of Islamist parties. But for it to succeed this pressure must be maintained and supported by more governments and institutions. The European Union, for example, is yet to appoint an ambassador for religious freedom in the way that our American allies have done.
"Granted, ISIS and groups like it will not change their behaviour because of an international campaign condemning them. But they might find themselves operating in an environment they find much less fertile. And thus the future production of Salafi Jihadis will be reduced. In short, the horrendous actions of ISIS are symptoms of deeper regional problems of religious understanding".
Ed Husain is a Senior Advisor at the Tony Blair Faith Foundation and Adjunct Senior Fellow for Middle Eastern Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.