Yazidi Human Rights Project

The Yazidi community is an example of the historic religious and cultural diversity of Southwest Asia (“the Middle East”) that is too often unrecognized.  The Yazidis are deeply rooted in the region along with other minority religious traditions, including the Mandaeans, Assyrian Christians, Samaritans, Jews, and Druze. The Yazidi community was centered in northern Iraq and extended into northern Syria and Southeastern Turkey.   

This project is a response to the genocide perpetrated against the Yazidi people by the Islamic State (IS), which deemed their faith as “satanic,” and by doing so, justified their extermination.  In August 2014, IS attacked the Yazidi community in Sinjar in Northern Iraq.  Some 50,000 Yazidis fled in haste to the adjacent Sinjar Mountains, which were wholly devoid of essential supplies, apart from those dropped by American and allied aircraft.  Kurdish ground forces drove IS troops from the region and protected the displaced Yazidis, but in the interim IS massacred thousands of Yazidi men, women, and children (who were dumped into mass graves) and also abducted thousands more, killing the men and forcing women and girls into sexual slavery.   Some 3,500 have since been freed, mostly ransomed by the Yazidi community, but the status of another 3000 remains uncertain.  

While its roots are much older, the first reference to the Yazidi presence is recorded by Abd al-Karim al-Sam’ani, a twelfth-century Muslim historian.  The Yazidi religion is monotheistic, but it differs from that of the Muslim majority.   Yazidis, for example, do not prohibit alcohol and pray in the direction of the tomb of the venerated Sheikh Adi ibn Musafir (d. 1162) in Lalish, instead of Mecca.  Yet, Yazidi monotheism manifests itself in trinitarian theology, like Christianity, contrasting starkly with the strict tawhid (“oneness”) of Islamic theology.  One trinitarian aspect is a manifestation of the divine known as the Peacock Angel, depictions of which serve as the symbol of the Yazidi faith.   While the Peacock Angel is divine in the Yazidi tradition, it is such religious iconography and theology that furnish theological antagonists with “evidence” used to condemn Yazidis as “devil worshippers.”    

Over the centuries, the Yazidi people have endured — and survived— dozens of attempts to eradicate their identity, the most recent one occurring in 2014.    In response to this trauma, the Yazidi community has traditionally been guarded against connections with the outside and sought to ensure preservation of its traditions, beliefs, and identity.  

A group of dedicated students will examine media coverage and the way media has shaped narratives on religious minorities in Iraq and the region. Students will be part of an internship with Yazda, a Yazidi community-based organization in the United States.  Through this process, students will learn the value of combining academic research and social action, as they participate in supporting the important work of Yazda which helps Yazidi community members, documents human rights violations and acts of genocide, and seeks justice for the victims. We will facilitate public events, showcasing Yazidi history and culture, and focusing on human rights issues related to the genocide, the forced diaspora of the Yazidi community, and their ongoing struggle for justice.  In addition, Yazidi speakers will present in relevant classes.  We will create a website to make publicly accessible the findings of project information and use this as a vehicle to highlight the history and culture of the Yazidis and other religious minorities in the region. This will highlight Yazidi history and culture and set this in the context of other religious minorities in the region, particularly Assyrian Christians, Mandaeans, and Jews, promoting recognition of the historic diversity of cultures and religious practices in Southwest Asia. We will set this history in the context of minority religious traditions globally and situate this in the history of religious intolerance and genocide over the last century.  

To learn how to be a part, contact Prof. Herbst.