THE BLOG
02/17/2016 12:22 pm ET Updated Feb 17, 2017

Who Are the Yazidi "Devil Worshipers" and Why Is ISIS Trying to Slaughter and Enslave This Ancient Minority? Part One.

On February 3, the New York Times quoted the desperate plea of a Yazidi, a member of an ethnic-religious group facing communal extermination at the hands of ISIS jihadi terrorists. In simple, but moving terms he summed up the plight of his people, whose ancestral lands in northern Iraq was conquered by the ISIS "Caliphate" in the summer of 2014, "Please help us. They are killing us and kidnapping our women and children."

In case you missed the story of the ISIS fanatics' conquest of the Yazidis' ancient homeland in August 2014, a recap is essential for understanding the plight of this endangered community that has faced centuries of what can only be described as a genocidal assault. This assault has historically been carried out by surrounding Arab and Turkish Muslims who have falsely accused the Yazidis of being "devil worshipers." It is a tragic tale of the followers of a peaceful religion--with origins that are lost in the mists of time in Mesopotamia--whose very existence is now threatened by a combination of fanaticism on the part of ISIS, and indifference on the part of Western powers.

"Devil Worshipers" or Believers in the Peacock Angel?

To understand the secretive religion of the Yazidis, my colleague Professor Adam Sulkowski, who had previously joined me in exploring the mountain realm of the ancient Kalash pagans on the Afghan-Pakistani border, decided to journey with me to the holiest place in the world for Yazidis, the stone temple complex at Lailish. Lailish is nestled in a narrow valley in the hills of the autonomous realm of Iraqi Kurdistan, a few miles from the frontlines with ISIS. Our guide for the trip was a gregarious Yazidi named Thamer Alyas who was eager to give us an insider's tour of this sacred spot that has for centuries been closed to outsiders.

As we drove through the mist-covered hills of Iraqi Kurdistan with Thamer, he explained that his people worshipped one Creator-God, just like the surrounding Muslim Kurds and Arabs as well as Christian groups (These ancient Christians, largely known as Assyrians, have also been targeted for annihilation by Al Qaeda in Iraq and ISIS and their community has dwindled since the 2003 U.S. invasion from 1.5 million to about 200,000 today). The Yazidis' God is known as Khude and is all forgiving and merciful. God-Khude created himself and seven archangels led by Melek Tawus, the Peacock Angel. Melek Tawus was sent to earth to create life from the primordial chaos and act as an intercessor between man and God. The first human had been created without a soul, so Melek Tawus blew the breath of life into him. He then turned Adam towards the Sun, symbol of the Supreme Creator, which Yazidis, like ancient Mesopotamians, still worship.

There are many other archaic aspects of the faith that indicate it may be among the world's oldest and their calendar dates back 6,756 years, nearly 5,000 years further than the Christian or Gregorian calendar and nearly 1,000 years further than the Jewish calendar.

So far we felt this story seemed innocuous enough. There is nothing in this ancient myth of creation that warrants centuries of repression by Ottoman Turkish authorities and now slaughter by ISIS.

But it is the sad fate of the Yazidis that the story of Melek Tawus has eerie parallels with the story of Shaytan, the fallen jinn (genie) of Islam who is known in English as Satan. According to Yazidi tradition, Melek Tawus was told by God-Khuede not to bow to other beings. Then God tested Malak Tawus by creating man out of dust and ordering Melek Tawus to bow to Adam. Melek Tawus replied "How can I submit to another being! I am from your illumination while Adam is made of dust." After forgiving him for rebelling, God made him the ruler of earth after he cried for 7,000 years to extinguish hell with his tears.

Unfortunately, in the Islamic tradition, Shaytan or Iblis was a jinn who similarly refused God's order to bow down to Adam. For this sin of pride, God-Allah cursed him and expelled him from heaven to earth. Starting in the fifteenth centuries, surrounding Turkish and Arab Muslims came to equate Melek Tawus, the primary being worshipped by Yazidis, with Shaytan the Tempter. Thus began centuries of slaughter and persecution that saw the Yazidis flee to the mountains of northern Iraq.

There, this people, who are ethnically Kurdish and speak the Kurdish dialect of Kurmanji, have long been protected by fellow Kurds who have a tradition of moderation and hospitality towards repressed minorities. Kurds believe that they were all once believers in the ancient Yazidi faith and see this minority as the living memory and conscience of their people. In essence, they feel that Yazidis are repositories of their pre-Islamic traditions. There is some truth to this as many of the Yazidis' customs, such as their belief in angels, sacred trees, and the purity of earth, air, fire and water, come from ancient Mesopotamian and Iranian-Zoroastrian belief systems.

But the Yazidis' sanctuary among the Kurds was to be threatened by the rise of fanatical Sunni Arab jihadist groups which rose up to resist the overthrow of their sectarian group by the Americans in 2003's Operation Enduring Freedom. These groups would declare a jihad on the Yazidis as "devil worshipers" and launch an assault on this ancient community that the U.N. would describe as "genocide."

To be Continued. Part Two. ISIS Declares Total Jihad on the ISIS "Devil Worshipers."