The Islamic State Group and the Tragedy of the Yazidis

The Islamic State Group and the Tragedy of the Yazidis

The recent emergence of the radical so-called Islamic State in parts of Iraq and Syria and its cruel exercise of power has created outrage around the world. Last year, a broad-based international coalition was created with the aim of eliminating this dangerous terrorist organization.

One key impulse for more robust international military involvement against the Islamic State group last fall was its ferocious attack on the Yazidis, a small and little-known ethno-religious community living in northern Iraq. Horror stories of Islamic State fighters driving this minority from their homes to the mountains where hundreds of them died of hunger and dehydration, killing Yazidi men en masse, and raping and enslaving Yazidi women and girls showed the brutal order of the group’s self-declared caliphate.

Although the Kurdish-speaking Yazidi have been subject to mistreatment for centuries, they were never under such an existential threat as they have been during this recent rise in Islamic fundamentalism. Members of this ancient monotheistic religion, with roots in Zoroastrianism, are special targets for Islamic State extremists who are trying to “purify” their captured territories. Muslim radicals view Yazidi as apostates worshiping the devil. They force them to convert to Islam; those who refuse are killed.

Although recent victories of the Iraqi armed forces, helped by the United States and other allies, over the Islamic State fighters has liberated many Yazidis, the community’s future is still dire. It is estimated that before the Islamic State attacks, there were about 600,000 Yazidi living in Kurdish villages and cities. So far, tens of thousands of them have fled the country or lost their homes, and thousands live in hard conditions in multiple refugee camps or on Mount Sinjar near the Syrian border. Without coordinated international efforts, the existence of this unique faith, which has survived for millennia, may disappear in front of our eyes.

These photos were taken in Lalish, the most sacred pilgrimage site for the Yazidis, during the Chama festival in October 2013, very soon after the initial formation of the Islamic State group. I hope these images give a sense of this endangered community’s way of life.



Peacock
The ancient Yazidi faith predates Islam and Christianity. Yazidis believe in one God, who created the world and entrusted it into the care of seven angels. Preeminent among these is the Peacock Angel, Melek Taus. Fundamentalist Muslims identify this angel with Satan.




Roof
Temple in the holy site Lalish, a small mountain valley village in northern Iraq. The tomb of Sheikh Adi ibn Musafir, the main figure of the Yazidi faith, is under these conical roofs of the 13th century temple.




Entrance
Entrance to the temple. A mystical black snake is to the right of the doorway.




Tomb Cloth
The tomb of Sheikh Adi ibn Musafir, who died in 1162. Yazidis tie knots in the colored cloths covering the tomb to represent their problems. They pray while circling the tomb.




Oils
Pilgrims bring oil to be used in the temple’s holy fire. Water and fire are important components of Yazidi rituals.




Leader
Hereditary Prince Tahseen Said, leader of the 1 million Yazidi people around the world. He called on international leaders last summer to rescue his community in northern Iraq from the Islamic State group.




Pilgrims
Even though the Yazidi spiritual Supreme Council decided to cancel the traditional Chama festival in 2013 for security reasons, hundreds of Yazidi believers from Iraqi Kurdistan and beyond still arrived in Lalish to mark the seven-day Feast of the Assembly pilgrimage.

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