The February 14, 15 Sheikhan-Pogrom
a critical analysis by Karl G. Mund

During the last 15 years the media featured several incidents within the Yezidi community living in the Diaspora in Germany.

In most of these cases the subject had been forced marriage or honour killing, which according to the journalists in question constituted an integral part of this “arcaic religion”. These colleagues did not see a necessity to ask the leaders of this country's Yezidi congregations for enlightenment about the essential beliefs of this religion. They were seemingly not at all interested to learn that incidents like those reported of course did happen, though not because but in spite of this religion.

Last week, far away in northern Iraq two young Yezidis, relatives of a well known Yezidi cleric and politician, did what each of us in the Christian world is taught as the most important essence of a religious life: acting as a caring neighbor like the good Samaritan in the New Testament. They tried to save the life of an oppressed human being, and for this they were threatened with murder by her oppressors as well as the secular and spiritual leaders of their community. As a side effect their property and unique archive-material in their spiritual center was destroyed by arson.

What actually did happen?

According to the February 17, 2007 issue of the Kurdish newspaper “Azadiya Welat”, a young Kurdish woman fled her constantly oppressing Muslim husband, and stopped a car transporting the two young Yezidis to their workplace in the Sheikhan barracks of the Iraqi security forces. The youngsters took her in and brought her to the barracks where they supposed her safe. But there she was only interrogated and then handed over to local family members of hers.

Meanwhile a mob of tribespeople gathered in front of the barracks and at the district administration where the youngsters went. They demanded not only to get the woman but also the two Yezidi men. The tribal elders had already issued a death sentence over the woman who was immediately beheaded. Now they also demanded the heads of the two Yezidis and threatened the district administrator who ordered the two men be protected by the Iraqi constitution. But finally he saw no other choice than to flee with the two youngsters to the local office of the Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP).

There the mob was temporarily stopped by security forces, though they could not prevent them to proceed to the premises of the Yezidi secular leader, prince (Mîr) Saeed Eli Tahsin Beg. The security forces only managed to prevent the mob storming the Mir's house but not the arsoning of cars in front of it. Then they continued towards the “Lalish” cultural center nearby and burned the building down. Meanwhile several hundred Kurdish Peshmerga troops were marched from the near-by capital of Duhok province.

But before they reached Sheikhan the mob also arsoned the houses where the two young Yezidis lived. Because these had already been evacuated no other life was lost. At about the same time the tomb of a former Yezidi spiritual leader, Shehid Huseyn Bavê Sheikh was destroyed as well as three shops in the town's market square.

Mîr Saeed Eli Tahsin Beg, who had been elected to this office already in 1944 though until his 18th birthday in 1951 his grandmother actually ruled the community, took a clear stand against any attempt of revenge or retaliation. He said, “there are stupid and wicked people in any given society, maybe also Yezidis committed something evil, but we are to solve this problem by dialogue. We will trust the law, upon which decisions are to be made.” Also the Mîr stressed that provocations and enmity were not his way of dealing with such a matter.

The team of the “Kurdmania” Blog, who translated the Azadi Welat article from Kurdish to German also informed the public that the “Muzuriyian” tribe who triggered off this pogrom had quite a history of pogrom-type oppression of local Yezidis. Furthermore there was information that this tribe drove Yezidis out of their villages and subsequently settled them with tribespeople. They gave no hint if this occurred a longer time ago or coincided with relocation activities which the Saddam regime organized against Yezidis as well as against other religious minorities.

Our correspondent Roni Welat adds, that the Muzuriyian-tribe actually did not act unanimously. The Sheikhan mob is said to be composed of certain elements influenced by Islamist circles organized by “Partiya Yekgirtiya Islamiya Kurdistan” and groups with connections to the followers of al-Qaida.

Media clients in Germany may find it strange that Yezidis in this country though in their vast majority originating from Kurdish inhabited areas controlled by Turkey are so outrageously upset with these incidents in Iraq, since a single Muslim woman was killed while news media are informing the public about dozens killed by suicide-bombers on a daily basis in Iraq's capital city. Sure enough, the sheer masses of such victims left their mark on the world's public conscience gradually obtusing and finally harden the souls, immunize them against the individual suffering of their neighbors. And of course, out of political correctness all the media voice their disgust over forced marriage or honor killings together with some popular books on that matter. This goes without impact.

But this incident went a step further, this was no longer a “family matter”. In this case the hatred was directed also at those who helped the original victim by an act of active solidarity. This consists of a new quality of neglect towards humanity. This is no longer a quarrel between Muslims and Yezidis or Non-Believers, for the arsonists of Sheikhan have also discredited their own religion in disregarding central commandments by their prophet. But, of course, we also know enough such attitudes from the history of the “Christian Occident”. E.g. all those activities by just too narrow minded religious zealots in any given denomination. And Germans these days need not ostracize America in this respect, considering a challenge to Christian fundamentalist activities, there are enough of that kind just next door.

We also have to look at some political implications of last week's pogrom. The district seat of Sheikhan is situated in a close neighborhood to Duhok province, which is part of the Kurdish region. But Sheikhan belongs to Niniveh province with the capital Mosul, just like the Sinjar mountain range between Mosul and the Syrian border. There also live many Yezidis, who were especially subjected to annihilation attempts by the ousted Saddam regime. Both areas are being wanted for incorporation into the Kurdish region through next fall's referendum according to article 140 of the Iraqi constitution, – together with the oil-rich area around Kirkuk. For this reason the Kurdish Regional Government does everything to defend peaceful conditions between different groups of population in these areas.

But in respect to the Sheikhan incident one has to keep in mind that the majority of Kurds are Sunni Muslims, though fairly liberal in their religious practice. Anyway, Sunni Islamist groups are keen to make inroads into Kurdish society, also to break up the governing Shiite-Kurdish coalition in the Bagdad government by creating a new Kurdish-Arab Sunni coalition. Besides this there has also been propaganda since the ousted Baath regime to propagate an Arab identity for Yezidis as opposed to their widely accepted Kurdish identity, and play them foul against the Kurdish interests, and in the case of Sinjar and Sheikhan thus weaken the regional power structure of the Barzani Clan. Another clue in this game is to denounce Yezidis as the most faithful allies of the US occupational forces. All these aspects do not make life easier for Yezidis, especially not for those outside the area of the Kurdish region. There is no comfort in sitting between all those chairs.

Therefore objection must be voiced against those who asserted that the Kurdish authorities came too late and not strong enough to the rescue of the Yezidis in Sheikhan. Our correspondent confirms that Kurdish President Masud Barzani sent his brother Necirvan, the Kurdish Prime Minister to Sheikhan as soon as possible. But because Sheikhan is not under his jurisdiction, he had first to assure consent from the central government and also from the Niniveh governor in Mosul and to ascertain that such a move together with sending several hundred Kurdish Peshmerga troops should not be seen as an attempt to annex Sheikhan to the Kurdish region, and there is an ongoing consultation between the Mîr of the Yezidis, Bavê Sheikh, the Yezidi Spiritual leader and the Kurdish Prime Minister. It adds to the good reputation of both, Mîr Saeed Eli Tahsin Beg as well as Prime Minister Necirvan Barzani that they managed to calm down the situation within a day. If there is any blame to be cast, it is upon the regional and district authorities of Niniveh province. Meanwhile another correspondent informed about several arrests made in Sheikhan and the district administrator had been sacked.

A thorough explanation about the essence of the Yezidi faith might expand this article too much. For readers with an interest in this matter, here is a short selection of books and magazine articles in English, both classic and recent publications with special reference to titles available online.

ACKERMANN, Andreas: A double minority: notes on the emerging Yezidi diaspora, in: Kokot, Waltraud; Tölölyan, Khachig; Alfonso, Carolin (Hrsg.): Diaspora, Identity and Religion – New directions in theory and research, London und New York 2004, p. 156 – 169.

ALLISON, Christine: The Yezidi oral tradition in Iraqi Kurdistan, Richmond 2001.

ALLISON, Christine: The Evolution of the Yezidi Religion – From Spoken Word to Written Scripture, in: ISIM-Newsletter 1 (1998), p. 14. 

ALLISON, Christine: Yazidis, in: Circle of Ancient Iranian Studies at the School of Oriental & African Studies, University of London 2005. 

BRUINESSEN, Martin van: Kurdish society, ethnicity, nationalism and refugee problems, in: Kreyenbroek, Philip G.; Sperl, Stefan (Hrsg.): The Kurds – A Contemporary Overview, London, New York 1992, p. 33 – 67.

BRUINESSEN, Martin van: The Kurds and Islam, in: ders.: Mullas, Sufis and Heretics: The Role of Religion in Kurdish Society, Istanbul 2000, p. 37 – 57.

DROWER, Ethel Stefana: Peacock Angel – Being some Account of Votaries of a Secret Cult and their Sanctuaries, London 1941. 

GUEST, John S.: Survival among the Kurds: A history of the Yezidis, London u.a. 1993.

IZADY, Mehrdad: Yezidism, Mai 2004. 

KONKURD, [ohne Vornamen]: The Yezidis and Yezidism. 

KREYENBROEK, Philip G.: Yezidism – its background, observances and textual tradi-tion. (Texts and Studies in Religion, Vol. 62). The Edwin Mellen Press. Lewiston (New York) 1995, XVII + 349 S. ISBN 0-7734-9004-3

KREYENBROEK, Philip G.: Religious Minorities in the Middle East and Transformation of Rituals in the Context of Migration, in: Langer, Robert; Motika, Raoul; Ursinus, Michael (Hrsg.): Migration und Ritualtransfer – Religiöse Praxis der Aleviten, Jesiden und Nusairier zwischen Vorderem Orient und Westeuropa, Frankfurt am Main 2005, Heidelberger Studien zur Geschichte und Kultur des modernen Vorderen Orients Nr. 33, p. 35 – 50.

LAYARD, Austen Henry: A Popular Account of Discoveries at Nineveh, New York 1854.

RASHO, Ali Seedo: The Yezidism. 

RASHOW, Khalil Jindy: The Yezidis today, in: Cultural persistence and globalisation (2001), p. 45 – 52.

SMITH, Margaret: The Yazidis, in: The Aryan Path 17 (Mai 1946), p. 166 – 170. 

SPÄT, Eszter: Shahid bin Jarr, Forefather of the Yezidis and the Gnostic Seed of Seth, in: Iran and the Caucasus, vol. 6 (2002), No. 1 – 2, p. 27 – 56.

SPÄT, Eszter: Changes in the Oral Tradition of the Yezidis of Iraqi Kurdistan, in: The Journal of the Kurdish Studies 5 (2003-2004), p. 73 – 83.

YON, Michael: Lost in Translation, 06. Juni 2005. 

Additional commentary, March 3, 2007

There have been heated discussions among Yezidis living in the German diaspora during the last two weeks, together with several rallies, which not always demonstrated unity, and there were a good number of public declarations, nearly all of which were written in the Kumanji language, and thus did not reach the general German public at all. The information spread were mainly based on phone calls to and from southern Kurdistan, often presenting primarily subjective assessments of the incidents. With growing distance of the informers to the site of the incidents, some of these information just reflected certain rumors. As the author of this article himself is not capable of understanding Kurmanji, he is dependent on his ability to analyse his sorces according to their inner logic to get a reasonable realistic picture of what actually happened.

He now admits with sorrow, that he did not check in due time that way back on February 19 “Voice of America” had a well researched feature-article which a day later was already re-published in the excellent weblog “From Holland to Kurdistan” run by Dutch journalist Vladimir van Wilgenburg. This information found in time should have helped the author to better counter the widespread rumor-mongering in Germany. At this point, the author also wants to hint to the fact, that the Kurdish tribe connected to these incidents is always the same, though the transcription of its name may differ according to different sources of information.

Meanwhile more news is coming in. As of March 3, 2007, there seems to be proof for the information that some 80 persons have been questioned so far, 19 persons have been arrested, among them the two young Yezidis who are still believed by many non-Yezidis to have triggered off the incidents by their behaviour. I have to report that in this sober manner in accordance with Mir Saeed Eli Tahsin Beg's original statement that the incidents have to be judged according to the law and common justice including a proper investigation into possible misdeeds committed by Yezidis. This attitude by the Mir in my eyes is a proof of his superior sovereignty which led the elders of the tribe in question to pay him a somewhat sensational visit in order to show their respect. On top of this they have conceded towards the Mir their support for the government in judging the culprits.

This again is a proof to the information by our correspondent Roni Welat that the mob responsible for the Sheikhan pogrom-actions did not represent the tribe as such. Therefore there is no reason to use the incidents in Sheikhan for anti-Muslim propaganda. And I keep to my assertion, that those mobsters did indeed act against basic principles of their faith, and therefore they have no right whatsoever to portrait themselves as fighters for Islamic values. This their supreme elders seem to conclude as well, though quite understandably they would never concede to this in public.

The principal administrator of Sheikhan district has been fired together with the head of the districts security force. The fact that now a Muslim heads the district administration instead of a Yezidi may have even a positive evaluation. Surely, the new administrator will be under some observation, which also should be a guarantee that the February 14th offenders will not be given a chance to present themselves as victims. This too may become important concerning the upcoming referendum, not just in respect to the Sheikhan area. Therefore it may turn out to be highly contra productive at this moment to send protest letters to the Kurdish Regional Government. Instead I may recommend to support Mir Saeed Eli Tahsin Beg with any possible effort. The unified public support for him from the great number of Yezidis living in the German diaspora will definitely enhance his bargaining position not just in his talks with the KRG in Erbil but also in respect to the Iraqi central government in Baghdad, but at most probably for his ability to act towards the Niniveh provincial government in Mosul.

I take freedom for a closing personal remark: With all the protests of these last two weeks, I fear that the empathy for the fate of that murdered young woman somewhat slipped from the agenda. As in these days a number of Yezidi congregations and associations are celebrating International Women's Day, I hope that the memory of the murdered honor of this Muslim woman will be dually remembered. This should also be helpful for the two Yezidis that tried to help her from her adversaries.