Story Stream
recent articles

Six years after the genocide conducted by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) against the small Yazidi religious community, the Middle East is even less multi-cultural, multi-faith, and multi-ethnic than it was at the time of the rise of ISIS in 2012.

Most Yazidis speak Kurdish and follow an ancient faith. Their religion, based on oral tradition, mixes some Islamic beliefs with features of the ancient Persian religion Zoroastrianism and Mithraism – the Roman mystery worship of the god Mithras.

The Yazidis survived 72 earlier attempted genocides and stayed in their traditional homeland, until the formation of ISIS. The Islamist group killed at least 5,000 Yazidi men and enslaved their women and children, forcing thousands of women and girls into sexual slavery. Half a million Yazidis became refugees.

Although 100,000 Yazidi refugees have returned to their traditional homeland, many still remain in refugee camps. According to the U.N., “nearly 3,000 kidnapped women and girls are still missing, and dozens of mass graves have yet to be exhumed.”

The latest attempt at the annihilation of the ancient Yazidi people was also the final nail in the coffin for diversity in the greater Middle East, which has witnessed a major shift in demographics over the last century and a half.

Beginning with the 1915 Armenian Genocide and the 1923 compulsory population exchange with Greece, Turkey’s Christian population declined significantly. Iran suffered a loss of pluralism both before and after its Islamic revolution in 1979, more so under the rule of the extremist mullahs.

Arab countries drove out their Jewish populations after the creation of the State of Israel in 1948 and again in waves of expulsions in 1967 and 1973. Most Iranian Jews left the country after the 1979 revolution and Turkey’s Jewish population has seen a steady decline over the last few years.

At the easternmost edge of the region, Pakistan started its life as an independent country in 1947 after the ethnic cleansing of India’s partition, which left fewer non-Muslims in Pakistan than before.

Over the years, Pakistan’s Christians, remaining Hindus, and members of the Ahmadiyya sect, who consider themselves Muslim but are deemed non-Muslim by law, have emigrated in large numbers to escape persecution and discrimination. The small Jewish community has almost completely disappeared.

The recently observed International Day Commemorating the Victims of Acts of Violence Based on Religion or Belief marked the loss of pluralism across the Muslim Middle East and the resulting pretext for acts of violence, atrocities, and genocide.

Religious persecution is, of course, not limited to the Middle East. Different peoples in various regions are being tortured, sexually violated, and killed just for espousing a faith that is different from the majority they live among. In the cases of China’s Uighurs and Myanmar’s Rohingyas, Muslims are themselves targets of religious persecution.

The goal of religious persecutors is often the same: to create religious homogeneity and “purify” a country of its minorities so that the majority’s beliefs dominate by force. The result is never good. The minority is dispossessed or forced out but the majority, too, loses the benefit of historic pluralism.

For example, Muslim-majority Iraq had been the traditional homeland of ancient Christian and Jewish populations until only a century ago, and Jews were an important part of cultural life and commerce in Baghdad.

The small Aramaic-speaking ancient Jewish community in Iraqi Kurdistan served as a reminder of the history of Jews in the Middle East. But the wave of anti-Semitism that started with the rise of extreme Arab nationalism and radical Islamism dehumanized, demonized, and marginalized these Jewish populations. Targeting of other minorities followed.  

The earlier waves of attacks on Jews and Christians served as the backdrop for the atrocities of ISIS operatives. In societies that had already engaged in acts of violence towards religious minorities, ISIS advanced a totalitarian ideology of hate.

ISIS attempted to ethnically cleanse the territory under its control of all non-Muslims. The genocide against Yazidis was part of the wider violence of ISIS but its ramifications were greater for a relatively small community. The Yazidis will bear the scars of the genocide and enslavement long after the initial military defeat of ISIS.

As part of the Trump administration’s disengagement from foreign wars, the United States also seems to have retreated from leadership on human rights issues. If President Barack Obama created the vacuum that allowed ISIS to rise in Iraq and Syria, President Donald Trump seems willing to allow Russia, Iran, and Turkey to vie for control of the Middle East.

Yazidi families attempting to return to their homeland in Sinjar face the prospect of being caught up military competition between regional powers. When it comes to oppressing or excluding non-Muslims, the Sunni Islamist leaders of Turkey and the Shiite rulers of Iran manage to coordinate their moves despite their other differences.

American withdrawal from the region only makes the situation for religious minorities harder. Yazidis, Christians, and Shia Muslims, whose communities were devastated by ISIS, are unlikely to see justice through international decrees, statements, and resolutions of the United Nations unless the United States backs them with its might.


Farahnaz Ispahani served as a member of the Pakistani parliament, authored “Purifying the Land of the Pure: A History of Pakistan’s Religious Minorities” and is a Global Fellow at the Woodrow Wilson Center.

Tugba Tanyeri-Erdemir is a research associate at the Department of Anthropology, University of Pittsburgh.

Show comments Hide Comments