The Small Sects Under Fire

Moises Saman/Magnum Photos
Yazidi men from Sinjar, northern Iraq, at a makeshift camp on the outskirts of the Kurdish-controlled town of Derek, Syria, after fleeing Islamic State militants, August 2014

In August, President Obama announced a series of air strikes against the advancing forces of the Islamic State (IS), the self-declared “caliphate” in northern Iraq. The aim was not only to support embattled Kurdish forces in the region, but also to protect thousands of beleaguered members of the mysterious religious minority known as the Yazidis. Americans soon learned that the Islamists were targeting the Yazidis for their reputation as “devil worshipers.” News organizations scrambled to find experts who could provide clarification—among them Gerard Russell, a former British diplomat and a fluent speaker of Arabic and Dari, who had widely traveled in Iraq and adjacent regions, and was about to publish Heirs to Forgotten Kingdoms.*

The Yazidis, as he explained, do indeed have some rather startling beliefs: among other things their religion forbids them to eat lettuce or to wear the color blue. But they do not venerate demons. They are monotheists who believe in a supreme god, but without sharing the Abrahamic religions’ understanding of heaven and hell. The source of the prejudice against the Yazidis comes from their high regard for a divine servant, Melek Taus or the “Peacock Angel,” who once demonstrated his fealty to God by refusing to bow down to Adam. In the Yazidi tradition, the supreme deity pardoned him for this act of well-intentioned insubordination. Unfortunately, as Russell notes, the Yazidis also identify this most potent of angels with Azazael or Iblis, “which in the Muslim tradition (and the Jewish and Christian ones, for that matter) are names for the greatest of angels, who rebelled against God and was cast down into hell—in short, the devil.” This is why, over the centuries, many outsiders have unjustly accused the Yazidis of being “devil worshipers.” Of such nuances is religious hatred born.

And these days there’s a lot of that hatred to go around. We find ourselves living, once again, in an age of sectarian conflict. This comes as something of a surprise. Not long ago the process of secularization was regarded as virtually unstoppable in broad parts of the world. Even in the Middle East, where Islam has been central for so long, modernization appeared to be triumphing over “superstition” as recently as the 1970s; secular political philosophies such as Marxism, Baathism, and capitalism claimed to have the weight of history on their side. How could belief in God possibly compete?

Yet yearning for the divine has proven remarkably resilient. The religious revival of the late twentieth century has touched almost every region of the world. There are now some 1.2 billion Roman Catholics. Evangelical Christianity, particularly Pentecostalism, has been spreading with extraordinary speed in Latin America and Africa. Russian Orthodoxy (thanks in part…

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