Long Before ISIL: The Chronic Plight of the Yazidis Under Islamic Domination

World attention has riveted on as many as 40,000 Yazidis (Yezidis), half of whom may be children, trapped on Mount Sinjar, northwestern Iraq, without water or food, after being targeted by the latest jihad rampages of the “Islamic State” (ISIL) butchers. The Yazidis are an indigenous, ancient, pre-Islamic non-Muslim religious minority whose syncretic beliefs derive, in part, from Zoroastrianism.

Reports indicate that as per President Obama’s address last (Thursday, 8/7/14) evening, today (Friday 8/8/14), the U.S. has begun both humanitarian air-drops to those refugees stranded on Mount Sinjar, and bombing runs against ISIL positions outside Erbil, Kurdistan.

Sadly, ISIL’s current bloody attacks on the Yazidis reflect a continuum of religiously-inspired, chronic Islamic oppression of this minority group, interspersed with paroxysms of violence no less brutal than what is now taking place.

Sir Austen Henry Layard (1817-1894) was a British polymath—archaeologist, author, politician, and diplomat—perhaps best known for his the excavations in northern Mesopotamia, contemporary Iraq.

Layard recorded the following, based upon first hand observations, and historical assessments, about the chronic plight of the Yazidis (Yezidis) under Islamic domination in his 1849, Nineveh and Its Remains. His focus, appropriately, given the time frame, was upon the depredations against the Yazidis during the allegedly “tolerant” Ottoman Muslim era: massacre, pillage, and deportation and enslavement of their male and female children, for “service” in the vast Ottoman slave institutions, including harem slavery.

They [the Yazidis] have the choice between conversion and the sword, and its is unlawful even to take tribute [jizya, per Koran 9:29, the deliberately debasing poll-tax, and related regulations imposed upon non-Muslim Christians, Jews, and Zoroastrians subjugated by jihad] from them. The Yezidis, not being looked upon as “Masters of a Book,” [i.e., scriptures, “acknowledged,” at least in part, by Islam] have been exposed for centuries to the persecution of the Mohammedans. The harems of the south of Turkey have been recruited from them. Yearly expeditions have been made by the governors of provinces into their districts; and whilst the men and women were slaughtered without mercy, the children of both sexes were carried off, and exposed for sale in the principal towns. These annual hunts were one of the sources of revenue…and its was the custom of the Pashas of Baghdad and Mosul, to let loose the irregular troops upon the ill-fated Yezidis, as an easy method of satisfying their demands for arrears of pay.

This system was still practiced to a certain extent within a very few months of my visit; and gave rise to atrocities scarcely equaled in the better known slave trade.

Layard described a series of specific Muslim depredations against the Yazidis that took place in 1832, near Mosul and Sinjar:

[Mosul] It was in spring; the river had overflowed its banks, and the bridge of boats had been removed. A few succeeded in crossing the stream; but a vast crowd of men, women, and children were left upon the great mound of Kouyunjik. The (Kurdish Muslim) Bey of Rowandiz followed them. An indiscriminate slaughter ensued…

[Sinjar] The inhabitants of the Sinjar were soon subdued after subdued by Mehemet Rashid Pasha, and a second time by Hafiz Pasha. On both occasions there was a massacre, and the population was reduced by three-fourths. The Yezidis took refuge in caves, where they were either suffocated by fires lighted at the mouth, or by the discharges of cannon.

Six decades later, during 1892, Oswald Hutton Parry’s eyewitness travelogue, Six Months in a Syrian Monastery: Being the record of a visit to the head quarters of the Syrian church in Mesopotamia, with some account of the Yazidis or devil worshippers of Mosul and El Jilwah, their sacred book, published in 1895, included an assessment of renewed jihadism against the Yazidis perpetrated under the aegis of Ottoman Lieutenant-General Umar Wahbi Pasha, and his minions, in a chapter entitled (with some irony), “The ‘Conversion’ of the Yazidis.” Those who refused to convert, were tortured, and cast into prison, where some died, and others professed Islam under this coercion. Muslim soldiers were sent to Yazidi villages and the inhabitants were “ordered to accept Islam, or be slain.” Indeed, some 400-500 Yazidi men were slain, the “pretty women and girls” taken captive, and “married” to the killers of their husbands. Surviving Yazidi children were gathered, and forcibly converted to Islam. Parry recorded this eyewitness account:

[W]orst of all was what happened to those who refused to change their faith. The men were cruelly tortured, and killed, the women taken away, outraged, or killed. One [Yazidi] Sheikh was cut into many pieces and thrown over a rock; another ground like corn between two millstones. The women were at the mercy of the soldiers. Some fled, and to escape dishonor cast themselves from a high rock and were slain…[A] number of young girls were hidden near the olive groves, in some long grass; savagely fire [was] set all around, and with screams too fearful to hear, they were all burned to death. A young girl soon to be a mother, was pursued to the Syrian church, where the priest gave her refuge. The soldiers found her, and having committed unspeakable things, killed her near the sanctuary. The Kurds of the mountains, encouraged by these things, came down, and added much cruelty and outrage to what was already done.

Parry also noted how these Ottoman Muslim atrocities were,

perpetrated not only in the name of the government and by a high official claiming direct authority from the [Ottoman] Sultan, but also in direct contravention of the firman [edict] of 1847 granting (allegedly!) the free exercise of their religion to the Yazidis.

He concluded:

The results, too, are far reaching. At least 400 people were killed; hundreds of acres left unsown; a whole province drained of its resources, and crippled for years; and all that happens is an inspector is sent, and the author of all this brutality imprisoned.

C.J. Edmonds 1967, A Pilgrimage to Lalish, includes this rather understated comment about the Yazidis’ ongoing “predicament” vis-à-vis Islam, and Muslims:

They [the Yazidis] tended to be regarded, rather, as apostates and were thus always exposed to the danger that persons in authority, high or low, with a streak of fanaticism in their make-up might think it not only only legitimate but even meritorious to maltreat them.

Sparing “detail,” Edmonds adds, importantly, that in “operations legitimated by fatwas from the ulama and supported as often as not, by the neighboring Arab and Kurdish tribes,” the Yazidis were subjected to “savage persecution” during the Ottoman era,

at the hands of the Turks throughout the eighteenth and the first half of the nineteenth centuries, marked as they were by a score of punitive expeditions mounted by the Walis [governors] of Diyarbakir, Mosul, or Baghdad…One of the bloodiest was the holy war waged against them in 1832 by the Kurdish Muhammad Pasha ‘Boss-eye’ of Rawandiz, the concluding drama of which is described in Layard’s Nineveh and its Remains

Despite Layard’s own subsequent diplomatic efforts, and the inchoate Ottoman “reforms,” especially after the Crimean War, which transiently alleviated the Yazidis’ lot, Edmonds observed,

improvement did not last very long, and the calamity that now [circa 1967]looms largest in the communal [Yazidi] memory is the ‘Year of the General’, 1892, when Umar Wahbi Pasha descended on their villages with fire and sword, giving them the choice between adoption of adoption of Islam or death…

Ultimately, the Yazidis withstood the 1892 Ottoman jihad of Umar Wahbi Pasha, repelling his forces at Sinjar.

Let us pray that today, with U.S. support (humanitarian/military), and the critical on the ground assistance of their former Kurdish predators, turned rescuers, the Yazidis can once again survive a jihadist onslaught on Sinjar.


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