Written by University of Zakho professor Ivan Hasan Murad
For decades, the Yezidis have been living alongside Christians and Muslims, with Kurds and Arabs living together peacefully as brothers and sisters. In spite of the religious and ritual differences between them, they would always help and respect each other. On this basis, they would exchange commercial goods with each other. In fact, in order to maintain this state of peaceful coexistence, strengthen their friendship, and avoid potential points of conflict, Yezidis even circumcised their children on the laps of their trusted Arab friends – who were then called Kirfan (brothers) – as both cultures believed that circumcising children in the laps of others helped to strengthen relationships.
Many Yezidis who were not employed by the government had to go to Rabia, a town on the Iraqi-Syrian border to the north-west of Mosul (in Nineveh province), where agricultural products are harvested on big farms in the summer in preparation for the winter season. By working on farms (which mainly produced tomatoes), they could escape the poverty they may have suffered otherwise. And, as they dealt with Arabs and lived alongside them, the relationship between the ethnic groups became stronger. Under President Mam Jalal and Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, however, the security situation gradually got worse, leaving Sunni Arabs marginalized and more likely to support groups like ISIS. During this period, the relationship between Yezidis and Arabs quickly deteriorated.
When ISIS extremists finally entered Iraq, they managed to take control of numerous areas (including the city of Mosul) with great ease after the Iraqi army withdrew, leaving an abundance of military vehicles and equipment behind them. As the group attacked other Sunni Arab places in Iraq, many Arab inhabitants joined them in their fight against Shiite, Christian, and Yezidi civilians throughout Nineveh province. In Mosul, there were many Christians, and they were given the choice to pay tribute, convert, or flee (leaving all of their property behind). Yezidis, meanwhile, were given only two options – convert or die.
Then, when ISIS attacked Shingal, the Peshmerga forces of the Kurdish Regional Government began to withdraw from Yezidi villages. Surprised by this sudden decision, civilians began to run away from their villages. Those without cars headed to Mount Shingal, while those with cars travelled to Duhok, one of the provinces of Iraqi Kurdistan. My own brothers were among the thousands who headed to Duhok and, when they reached Rabia, some Arab citizens began to attack them. Fortunately, the YPG crossed over from Syria to rescue them, forcing the attackers to run away.
Many Arabs living near the Yazidi villages located on the border between Iraq and Syria stood alongside the ISIS militants as they entered these places. And many of these were the supposed ‘Kirfan’ of the Yezidis (those who had held Yezidi children on their laps as they were circumcised). Taken in by a mob mentality, they participated in the killing of their old friends and the kidnapping of their women and young girls for mainly sexual purposes. This incident shattered in a matter of moments the trust and respect that the Yezidis had felt for them for many years.
A few days later, some of the same Sunni Arabs from nearby villages came with big trucks and looted Yezidi homes and businesses, taking all they could find. One witness said “there is not a house which these Arabs have left unopened. They have entered all the houses and stolen everything in them. They have even taken the doors and the windows of the houses, and have looted all the stores and the markets”.
This is the way Yezidis were treated by many Arab compatriots after the latter had been highly respected and trusted for so long by the former. Not only were Yezidis killed and kidnapped, but they also had their properties looted. Those who have joined ISIS have not only participated in a huge act of betrayal in Yezidi communities, but have also betrayed citizens throughout the country and region by joining terrorist organizations like ISIS.
[Editor’s note: While it is shocking to think of anyone betraying in such a way those who had previously considered them to be friends, it is also important to consider the context carefully, in which Sunni Arabs lost out heavily following the fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq, suffering both humiliation and marginalization in the years following the US invasion of 2003. At the same time, the efforts of Wahhabi missionaries from Saudi Arabia and elsewhere to convert Sunni Arabs to a harsh, dogmatic, and extreme interpretation of Islam (while Iran sought to do a similar thing with Iraqi Shias) clearly helped to undermine any hopes of fostering an environment of multi-cultural harmony in Iraq under the existing political system. While ISIS is clearly an immediate physical enemy, therefore, we must remember that the real enemy (which continues to prop up the group’s extremist reign) is a dangerous combination of desperation, quasi-religious indoctrination, and international political power games.]