When the Islamic State (IS) terror group started its brutal expansion through Iraq and Syria, the Yezidis, an ancient and persecuted community in the region, became one of their main targets and Kurds gained global recognition as the most effective force in the region resisting the ISIS terrorists.
Though most Kurds are known to be Muslim today, many of their ancestors were Yezidis before being forced to convert to Islam. Kurdish author Yasar Batman details the persecution that Yezidis have been exposed to in his book 'Begê, the Immortal Saint of Yezidi Kurds.'
The Yezidis are an ethno-religious community indigenous to northern Mesopotamia. Their native language is Kurdish and their ancient faith, Yezidism, has a rich oral tradition that combines aspects of ancient Mesopotamian religions including Zoroastrianism.
Batman, through interviews with people in the region, tells of the unbelievably brave and tragic life of Begê and how Yezidis have been persecuted in their native lands, focusing on the story of a Yezidi woman named Begê Samur (1894-1958) from the city of Urfa who refused conversion to Islam and held onto her Yezidi faith and identity in the face of persecution.
Begê was born in the village of Mishacerk in the city of Urfa in 1894. Her originally Yezidi tribe, the Dina Tribe, converted to Islam, but she resisted and remained a Yezidi.
Because of her devotion to her Yezidi faith, she was ostracized by her family, her relatives and the rest of the tribe. Muslim Kurds persecuted Begê. Moreover, Yezidis who recently converted to Islam also persecuted and insulted her for remaining a Yezidi.
"When there was a wedding in the village, they did not invite Begê and when they distributed food to the poor, they did not give her any," a local told Batman.
Because she was left all alone, and preserved her faith despite all of the persecution and insults, many people – particularly women – in the Islamized Yezidi community secretly admired Begê. In time, these feelings of admiration turned Begê into a legend to the point that when people wanted to convince others, they swore on Begê, by saying "I swear on Begê's head, grave or dead body."
A Kurd that Batman interviews in the books tells of how Kurds were first introduced to Islam by Muslim Arab armies, "Kurds were introduced to Islam by caliph Omar. Omar savagely put the heads of Zoroastrian Kurds on spears, one for every kilometer of the roads, to show his massacre to all of the people in the region.""During the savagery of Omar, the blood of so many Kurds was shed that to this day the term 'sorka alem' (red world) is used to describe this scene."
"Towards 637 AD, Kurdistan was invaded and local inhabitants were massacred by Islamic Arabs coming from the southeast. Upon the order of Omar, all kinds of historical, cultural and religious documents were burnt down and destroyed. After this historical and cultural massacre, the people were banned from speaking Kurdish. They tried to impose Arabic language and religion on local people and mercilessly cut off the tongues of the people of Kurdistan who spoke Kurdish."Batman states in his book that almost all of the Yezidis in their native land have been forcefully assimilated. There are today mosques and classes on the Koran in once-Yezidi villages.
Batman stresses that the Turkish state, local Sunni Muslims, and Islamized Yezidis all applied enormous pressure on Yezidis who try to maintain their beliefs and culture.
The book, published in 2014, details the varied social, religious, and economic pressures Yezidis were subjected to.
For example, "when a Yezidi brought a few sacks of wheat and a donkey to a mill, they immediately asked him where he was from. When he said 'I am from Mishacerk' [a Yezidi village], they said 'You are a Yezidi. Why don't you convert to Islam?' Then they poured his sack to the ground. Meanwhile, his donkey ran away. Then they also beat him. So the Yezidi would not only lose the wheat with which he would feed himself, but also lose his donkey."
Batman conducted many interviews and heard stories of Yezidis being threatened with death if they did not convert, Muslims refusing to do trade with Yezidis, calling them 'haram,' meaning forbidden.
Yezidis were also targeted alongside Christians during the 1915 Armenian genocide. According to Batman, there was a slogan common during the genocide, "Those who kill 7 Armenians will go to heaven". The version "Those who kill 7 Yezidis will go to heaven," was also used.
After the end of the Ottoman Empire, the Republic of Turkey, founded in 1923, also made varied efforts to Islamize the Yezidis. Batman writes that the Turkish state changed the names of Yezidi villages to give them Turkish names, registered Yezidis as "members of an unknown religion," and destroyed Yezidi temples and defaced Yezidi graves.
According to Batman, Yezidis lay their dead in graves on their backs facing the sun. But many Yezidi graves were opened, and the dead bodies were placed again according to Islamic rules – this time facing the Qibla, the direction of the Kaaba in Mecca.
A 30-year old man from Diyarbakir, Turkey, who wanted to remain anonymous, told the author, "There were few Yezidis left in the village of Mishacek that I knew. But they pretended to be Muslim because they were scared. And when they died, they were buried according to Islamic faith. Can you imagine that? Even though you are not Muslim, your burial ceremony is held in a mosque. This is so devastating, isn't it?"
Batman's book is a thought-provoking source which reminds the readers of a mostly forgotten but significant issue: Many Yezidis have been Islamized throughout centuries but not of their own free will.
Most Kurds are Sunni Muslims today. But the ancient religion of many of their ancestors was Yezidism and their history of becoming Muslim is not a very happy one. Understanding the history will help to better understand the significance of the Yezidis' current resistance to jihadists and Islamic supremacists.