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British Journal of Middle Eastern Studies

ISSN: 1353-0194 (Print) 1469-3542 (Online) Journal homepage: https://www.tandfonline.com/loi/cbjm20

The identity controversy of religious minorities in


Iraq: the crystallization of the Yazidi identity after
2003

Majid Hassan Ali

To cite this article: Majid Hassan Ali (2019): The identity controversy of religious minorities in Iraq:
the crystallization of the Yazidi identity after 2003, British Journal of Middle Eastern Studies, DOI:
10.1080/13530194.2019.1577129

To link to this article: https://doi.org/10.1080/13530194.2019.1577129

Published online: 15 Feb 2019.

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BRITISH JOURNAL OF MIDDLE EASTERN STUDIES
https://doi.org/10.1080/13530194.2019.1577129

ARTICLE

The identity controversy of religious minorities in Iraq: the


crystallization of the Yazidi identity after 2003
Majid Hassan Ali
College of Humanities, University of Duhok, Dohuk, The Kurdistan Region of Iraq; Institute of Oriental
Studies, University of Bamberg, Bamberg, Germany

ABSTRACT
This study examines the development of the Yazidi identity in Iraq
after 2003, and the subsequent escalation of the controversial Yazidi
identity after the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) invasion of
Sinjar in 2014, an invasion that has caused great division among the
Yazidi community. Furthermore, the study identifies the political
trends that continue to influence the Yazidi’s ethnic, religious and
ethno-nationalist identity as a whole. The debate at the core of the
controversy is rooted in Kurdish and Arab political parties’ agendas.
Meanwhile, the emergence and crystallization of the Yazidi identity
can also be observed in spheres quite removed from majority politics.
Internal political developments and the Yazidi movement outside of
Iraq, have also contributed to this development. Irrespective of such
influencing factors, it seems that the development of the Yazidi
identity into a distinct ethno-religion (which is still a matter of dis-
pute) is imminent in the medium- to long-term future. The argu-
ments of this study are mostly based on social media platforms and
interviews with Yazidi politicians and activists.

Introduction
Iraq is a country that is home to many religions, sects, beliefs and ethnicities. It also has three
majorities that can be categorized on an ethno-nationalist and religious basis, namely the
Shiite Arabs, Sunni Arabs and Sunni Kurds. Iraq’s minorities differ on religious, sectarian and
ethnic grounds and each minority in Iraq has its own peculiarities. Iraqi minorities often have
some similarities, in particular commonalities with their fellow citizens, such as religion,
religious sub-divisions or sects, language and ethnicity.1 The Turkmen and Shabak mino-
rities, for example, differ on ethnic grounds. Although they are both Muslim, they can
belong to one of two different sects, namely Shiite and Sunni. Similarly, some non-Muslim
religious minorities in Iraq share some commonalities with their neighbouring communities,
such as ethnicity or language, while adhering to a separate belief system. This is true of
Christians, Jews, Sabean-Mandaeans, Yazidis, Kakayis and Baha’is. Although some of them
speak Arabic or Kurdish, they can be characterized by a set of peculiarities which are unique
to them and which forge their minority identity.

CONTACT Majid Hassan Ali majid.hassan@uod.ac College of Humanities, University of Duhok, Dohuk, The
Kurdistan Region of Iraq
1
Sherko Kirmanj, Identity and Nation in Iraq (Boulder: Lynne Rienner Publishers Inc, 2013).
© 2019 British Society for Middle Eastern Studies
2 M. H. ALI

Newly recognized religious minorities, such as the Yazidi, are located predominantly
in the Shaykhan and Sinjar regions of Northern Iraq, which are disputed areas between
the Central Government of Iraq (CGI) and the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG).
They can also be found in other districts such as Sharia, Khank-e, Derabon and Ba´adr-e
in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq (KRI).2 Here, political ethno-nationalist currents with
disparate views on minority identities along with conflicting agendas pertaining to the
minorities are significantly impacting the minorities themselves at this juncture in Iraqi
history.
After its establishment in 1921, Modern Iraq underwent monumental social and
political changes that consolidated the religious, sectarian and ethno-nationalist iden-
tities of its citizens. Despite the apparently secular nature of Iraqi institutions during the
period between 1921 and 2003, various coups, wars and general political unrest served
to cement the sectarian and ethno-religious identities and divisions within Iraqi society.
This became even more apparent after the American invasion of Iraq in 2003.
During the past 100 years, some religious minorities’ perception of their own
identities has fundamentally changed. Due to the conflict between the CGI and the
Kurdish Movement, for example, the Christian3 and Yazidi minorities, rather than
remaining neutral as they had done previously, became active on both sides of the
conflict and in turn, their respective identities underwent major transformations since
the 1960s.4 Furthermore, in the decades that followed, due to the all-pervading
nationalist ideas, identity consciousness grew among both majorities and minorities.
Identity controversy also grew, as Kurdish and Arab nationalists sought to weaken
and disband the internal cohesion within the religious minorities and impose a
national identity upon them to increase their power of influence and consolidate
their position. In essence, the respective minority identities were engineered by
political currents into the larger ethno-nationalities in a pseudo-homogenized exer-
cise. This was only successful in part.5 General religious discrimination on the part of
mainstream society, as well as disputes over ethno-identity still abound, creating
divisions within non-Muslim minorities.
In the population census in Iraq in the 1970s and 1980s, more than 90% of the
Yazidis were forced to change their ethnic identity and register as an Arab identity.
After the Second Gulf War and its repercussions, half of the Yazidis in the Kurdish
regions chose the Kurdish identity. After 2003, however, the general mood of the
Yazidis in the disputed areas turned towards an independent ethno-nationalist iden-
tity. Then, after 2014, it segued towards the ethno-religious identity and idiosyncratic
Yazidi identity.

2
It was not called the KRI in the 1960s and the concept of separate disputed territories had not yet become meaningful,
as there was no recognized Kurdish autonomous region yet. Kurdistan became an autonomous region in 1970. The
concept of the KRI is used after 1992, and disputed territories after 2003.
3
During the nineteenth century, the Assyrians (Christians) suffered at the hands of the Kurds as did the Armenians and the
Yazidi. Dirk Kinnane, The Kurds and Kurdistan (London: Institute of Race Relations, Oxford University Press, 1964), 19.
4
Martin van Bruinessen, ‘Nationalisme kurde et ethnicités intra-kurdes’, Les kurdes et les Etats Peuples Méditerranées/
Mediterranean People, no. 68–69 (1994): 17; Dana Adams Schmidt, Journey among Brave Men (Toronto: An Atlantic
Monthly Press Book, Brown and company, 1964), 79–82, 259; and Tord Wallströn, Bergen ärvåra enda vänner, Ett
reportage från Kurdistan (Norstedts: A Report from Kurdistan, 1974), 97.
5
Bejtullah D. Destani, Minorities in the Middle East- Kurdish Communities 1918–1974 (Cambridge: Archive Editions, Vol. 1,
1918–1930, 2006), 365.
BRITISH JOURNAL OF MIDDLE EASTERN STUDIES 3

The issue of Yazidi identity6 has troubled the regimes in Iraq and Kurds since the coup
of 1963.7 However, the Yazidi community remained united to a certain extent until the
period prior to the Second Gulf War in 1991. They were represented by the Yazidi
Princely Family and by Jivata Ruhani (the Yazidi Spiritual Council), which was headed by
Mir (prince) Tahseen Saeed Beg and the Yazidi supreme religious leader, Baba Sheikh.8
Due to the outcomes of the Second Gulf War, which included the imposition of a safe
haven by the United Nations Security Council in 1991, the Kurdish political parties took
over the regions above the 36th latitude, including three major governorates of the KRI:
Sulaymaniyah, Erbil and Duhok. These governorates include four Yazidi towns, namely
Sharia, Khank-e, Derabon and Ba’adr-e. The main question I am raising now in this
regard is: How did these changes affect the Yazidis, as a religious minority, and how did
they participate in the consequent political life?
Even though numerous publications have been devoted to the plight of the Yazidis
since 2003, few have addressed the complexity of the formation of the Yazidi identity in
Iraq after 2003, and its impact on how the Yazidi view the political future of their
community. Currently, there are four socio-political currents which define the Yazidi
identity in various ways. They either assign an Arab or a Kurdish origin to the Yazidi, or
they see them as an ethno-religious nationality unto themselves, or lastly, they believe
that nationalism has no bearing on the Yazidi identity whatsoever.
In the context of this controversy, and especially after the emergence of the ISIL (or
ISIS, known as Da’ish in Arabic) in August 2014, the issue of a Yazidi identity and the
complexity that goes with it, is raising many pressing questions for the present author,
such as: Do the Yazidi strive for an independent ethno-nationalist identity, or are they
choosing to align themselves with the nationality of one of the conflicting parties
(Kurdish and Arabs)? What are the motivations of the socio-political currents within
the Yazidi community that attempt to solidify the Yazidi identity? What is the role of the
Yazidi prince, the spiritual leader, organizations and community in the debate and in the
decision-making process of an identity? Can an ultimate decision on the identity ques-
tion be derived from an overall consensus, or will an identity (of some kind) be forced
upon the Yazidi community from without, rather than from within?

Methods: sample and measures


The methodology of this study uses modern research aides such as the internet, the
press and also personal interviews. Thus, content written by bloggers and cyber-dis-
sidents, sourced in virtual, online and offline discussions, constitute a substantial pro-
portion of the sources used for this study. In addition to online resources, interviews
with the Yazidi elite have also been conducted. Content analysis was employed to
analyze the interview material.
6
There are many definitions of identity and its various forms. In the case of the Yazidi minority identity, it can be
defined as the accumulation of a myriad of values, customs, feelings, spiritual beliefs, history and collective memory
over hundreds of years, culminating in a Yazidi culture, which is reflected in members of the group, both individually
and interactively. The Yazidi identity is a composite identity, comprising many elements.
7
Majid Hassan Ali, ‘Religious Minorities in Early Republican Iraq (1958–1968): Between Granting Rights and
Discrimination, A Socio-Political and Historical Study’ (PhD diss., Bamberg, 2017), 256–270.
8
Saad Salloum, Saad Salah, and Majid Hassan, Political Participation of Minorities in Iraq (Baghdad: Heartland Alliance
International & MCMD, 2015), 18.
4 M. H. ALI

In order to gain a description of the ethno-nationalism and religious identity under


study, research participants were chosen from those who was able to supply the
researcher with a first-hand narrative of the phenomenon of peculiar identity. The
accounts provided by these respondents (interviewees), constitute witness accounts of
key historic developments and they provided a discursive means by which the latter
may be unveiled, examined and understood in the coming phases of political
developments.9 Various case sampling methods were used to ascertain ranges of roles
and opinions of possible participants. Over half of these people were located in different
cities of the KRI and abroad. Features such as flexibility, situational sensitivity and open-
ended responses, characterized this interview type.10 The semi-structured interviews,
which were conducted from January to December 2017, targeted two main sample
groups of Iraqi Yazidis, namely the political and cultural elites, and organizations and
activists in social media. The political and cultural elites shaped Yazidi ethno-nationalist
identity by accelerating the fragmentation of the heretofore established Yazidi identity
and replacing it with a re-forged national-religious identity, based on ethno-religious
perceptions of peoplehood, collective customs and traditions.11
Various Yazidi pages on Facebook, whose followers totalled between 500 and 15,000,
were examined across a spectrum of socio-political currents, such as the Yazidi in
Australia ~ Ezidxan, Yezidi Brotherhood, Yezidi Kurds/Kurds and Supporters, Yezidi
Nation, Ezdien Russiyae, Yeziden bis zum Tod, Mustaqbal al-Izidyyin fi al-Iraq (Ezidi’s
Future in Iraq), Ezidi Rescue Team al-fariq al-Ezidi li-al-anqaz, Grup Sarhldan Ezdikhan.
The age range of the participants on Facebook is unclear, which made it impossible
to determine the age of participants in the sample groups; therefore, most participants
were selected randomly from each page. Data were collected electronically using
Google drive, and everyone had the right to respond to a survey once. Due to the
sensitive nature of some items, anonymity and confidentiality of the collected data and
the data sources was ensured at all times. The interviewed people were adults and
belongs to the elite groups.
The responses were collected on a single self-reporting questionnaire. The question-
naire was produced by the researcher in Arabic (as Arabic is the lingua franca of Iraqi
Yazidis for all social and political discourse in the public sphere) and in English.12 The
questionnaire was shared on Facebook pages. It sought to determine the issue of
identity and took account of Yazidi minority identity perspectives of those living in
Iraq. It also measured the Yazidis’ affiliations and leanings towards the four main political
currents and movements within Yazidi identity politics. As the aim of this study is to

9
James Lindemann Nelson, ‘Phenomenology as Feminist Methodology: Explicating Interviews’, in Doing Research on
Women’s Communication: Perspectives on Theory and Method, ed. Carole Spitzack and Kathryn Carter (Norwood, NJ:
Ablex, 1989), 221–241.
10
Michael Quinn Patton, Qualitative Evaluation and Research Methods (Newbury Park, CA: Sage, 1990), 283–4.
11
All the Yazidi politicians and activists interviewed for this study, are based in Iraq and abroad. Some of the
interviewees are not named to protect their privacy. Instead, they are referred to by letters as A, B, C, D, etc., as
informants. Using a snowballing technique, I conducted semi-structured interviews with 26 people, made up of 10
politicians (who participated in parliament and government positions in the KRI and Iraq since 1991) and 16 activists
(who are interested in the Yazidi case). The interviews used in this article have been chosen on the basis of political
diversity. I recorded all interviews with the permission of each interviewee.
12
In spite of the majority of Yazidis in Iraq is Kurmanji-speaker as a mother tongue, but the cultural language among
Iraqi Yazidi elite and intellectuals is Arabic, so that is why the questionnaire was presented in Arabic and English
which did not have any influence in the conclusions.
BRITISH JOURNAL OF MIDDLE EASTERN STUDIES 5

examine controversy of the Yazidi identity within the Yazidi community (within and
outside of Iraq), the administered questionnaire comprised five key questions which
measured participants’ responses to nine politically divergent Facebook pages on Yazidi
identity. These pages included both closed and public group items. Participants chose
one of the identities in the questionnaire, according to their personal conviction. (1)
Yazidi-Arab ethno-nationalist identity, (2) Yazidi ethno-nationalist identity, (3) Yazidi-
Kurdish ethno-nationalist identity, (4) Yazidi ethno-religious identity (Peculiar and
Peoplehood), and (5) I don’t know. In the administered questionnaire, identity was
measured through four items.13

Theoretical framework
The political concepts of ethnic, nation, nationalism, ethno-nationalist and identity,
may assume different meanings among researchers, as there is no ultimate consen-
sus as to their meaning. Furthermore, notions of nationalism and the nation are
often linked. For some, the sense of belonging to a nation is a mental status,
characterized by absolute loyalty of the individual to the nation. However, this
concept is not linked to the concept of the state because it is a psycho-cultural
concept,14 which means that a state can exist without a nation and a nation without
a state. Nevertheless, the differences and distinctions between the ethnic affiliations
of human groups and their feelings of belonging to a national identity or group,
must be considered.15 These differences and the distinctions belong to the fields of
ethnicity, anthropology and sociology. While notions of national identity, nationhood
and ethnicity, as well as their definitions and their comparisons, may not yet have
been applied to religious minorities in Iraq, they remain indispensable in under-
standing the situations of minorities. To this end, we may refer to social scientists
such as Juan Cole and Deniz Kandiyoti,16 Roger Owen17 as well as Edward Mortimer18
which is good for the understanding of those concepts. The question to be asked is,
what does this mean when applied within the Iraqi context, and how do they
particularly correlate? To answer these, we should turn to the works of Anthony
Smith19 if we want to know more about concepts and ideas on ethnicity, nation,
nationalism and ethno-nationalist identity. He defines nationalism as an ideological
movement for attaining and maintaining a population’s autonomy, unity and iden-
tity, for which some of its members deem to constitute an actual or potential

13
See Table 1 in this regard.
14
I-Ching Lee, Felicia Pratto, and Blair T. Johnson, ‘Intergroup consensus/disagreement in support of group-based
hierarchy: An examination of socio-structural and psycho-cultural factors’, Psychological Bulletin 137, no. 6, (November
2011): 1029–64.
15
See: Max Weber, Economy and Society, an outline of interpretive sociology (Berkeley: University of California press,
1978), 389, 921–926.
16
Juan R. I. Cole and Deniz Kandiyoti, ‘Nationalism and the Colonial Legacy in the Middle East and Central Asia:
Introduction’, International Journal of Middle East Studies 34, (2002), 189–203.
17
Roger Owen, The Politics of Religion: Power and Politics in the Making of the Modern Middle East (London: Routledge,
1992).
18
Edward Mortimer, ed., People, Nation and State: The Meaning of Ethnicity and Nationalism (London: I. B. Tauris, 1999).
19
Anthony D. Smith, National Identity (Reno: University of Nevada Press, 1991), 21–31; Anthony D. Smith, ‘Culture,
Community and Territory: The Politics of Ethnicity and Nationalism’, Ethnicity and International Relations 72, no. 3 (July
1996); Anthony D. Smith, Nationalism and Modernism (London: Taylor & Francis, 2003), 445–458; and Anthony D.
Smith, Nationalism: Theory, Ideology, History (Cambridge: Polity, 2010).
6 M. H. ALI

nation.20 Smith explains the various concepts related to the understating of the term
nationalism, such as nation, ethno, nation state and national identity.21 In his
clarification, Smith ends up confirming that a nation should be regarded as a ‘sacred
communion of citizens’ while nationalism is the ‘form of “political religion” with its
own scripters, liturgies, saints and rituals’.22 How one can understand the changing
nature of the nation and nationalism, is part of the process of change that seeks to
adopt new conditions and circumstances, as there is nothing about nation or
nationalism that is monolithic or static.23 In almost all nation-states, the presence
within state borders of cultural and linguistic minorities, has led to alternative
articulations of nationhood. Although not necessarily political in their origins, such
affirmations of sub-national identities have almost always led to nationalist political
mobilization, since they were confronted with states incarnating different identities
and frequently implementing policies of cultural homogenization. Such nationalist
mobilizations have certainly not always made claims for independent statehood.
Multiple concepts of identity exist, which involve catalogues of religious, linguistic,
cultural, social24 and ethno-national characteristics and idiosyncrasies. Henri Tajfel, a
social psychologist, describes social identity as ‘that part of an individual’s self-concept
which derives from his knowledge of his membership in a social group (or groups),
together with the values and emotional significance attached to that membership’.25
However, a certain emphasis on viewing individuals in terms of their religious affiliation
has become apparent in cultural analysis in recent years. Similarly, Iraqi minorities have
also come to define their identities along religious lines. As a result, the identity of the
Yazidi minority in Iraq26 shall provide the main focus in this study, whereas less attention
shall be paid to the ethnic determinants of individual groups.

Dividing the community: the division of the Yazidi community after 1991
The 1991 developments and the imposition of a safe haven by the United Nations
Security Council, divided the Yazidi community between the CGI and the KRI. Yazidis
located within the territories of the CGI were unable to organize themselves politically
because of the despotic nature of the Iraqi system under the Arab Ba’th Socialist Party.
This situation continued until the overthrow of the Ba’th regime in Baghdad in 2003. In
the KRI, there were some cultural, social and political developments that affected the
Yazidis, the most important of which was an agreement reached between the first elite

20
Ibid., 9.
21
Smith, ‘Nationalism and Modernism’, 445–458.
22
Smith, ‘Nationalism: Theory, Ideology, History’, 157.
23
Smith, ‘Nationalism: Theory, Ideology, History’, 157; Smith, ‘Nationalism and Modernism’; and Smith, ‘National Identity’.
24
It is worth mentioning that the Social Identity Theory can be applied to Iraqi religious communities. It is one of the
modern theories which aims at considering the psycho-sociological relations among the social groups and the nature
of coexistence which is based on the fears of a particular minority in attempts to diminish its cultural identity by the
domineering majority. To understand this theory in this respect, see: Henri Tajfel, Human Groups and Social Categories:
Studies in Social Psychology (London: Cambridge University Press, 1981).
25
Henri Tajfel, ed., Differentiation between social groups: Studies in the social psychology of intergroup relations (London:
Academic Press, 1978), 63.
26
About the development of Yazidi identity in Iraq before 2003 see: Majid Hassan Ali, ‘Aspirations for ethno-nationalist
identities among religious minorities in Iraq: The case of Yazidi identity in the period of Kurdish and Arab nationalism,
1963–2003’, Nationalities Papers: The Journal of Nationalism and Ethnicity. Cambridge University Press (Accepted for
publication on April 28, 2018, forthcoming in 2019).
BRITISH JOURNAL OF MIDDLE EASTERN STUDIES 7

of the first generation27 of Yazidi intellectuals to establish a centre that introduces the
Yazidi culture, history and heritage. This agreement saw the establishment of the Lalish
Cultural and Social Center in 1993.28 However, the Yazidis refrained from establishing a
political party at that time. Although the option of establishing a Yazidi party was
discussed within the Yazidi elite, this was strongly discouraged by the nationalist
Kurdish political parties, especially the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), the Patriotic
Union of Kurdistan (PUK) and the Kurdistan Peoples’ Democratic Party (PGDK), of which
a significant number of the Yazidi political elite were members.
In their political and ideological programmes, those Kurdish parties considered the
Yazidis to be Kurds. Accordingly, from their point of view, there was no need to establish
a political party particular to the Yazidi people, based on religious differences, as they
share the same ethnic origins as the Muslim Kurds.29 It was also in the interests of the
Kurdish political agenda to assimilate the Yazidi population politically, rather than to
support and encourage their autonomy. As a result, the Yazidis continued to be
represented by the Kurdish parties in the political process.
Against this backdrop, the fate of the Yazidis remained entwined with that of the
Kurdish nationalist parties in the regions that belong to the Duhok governorate.
Whereas political affiliation within the Yazidi community as a whole was divided across
the political spectrum, the Yazidi elites chose to withdraw from politics, focusing instead
on cultural issues. When the civil war between the main KDP and PUK broke out in the
1990s,30 the Yazidis avoided getting involved in the conflict. In addition, many of those
who were party members resigned, and a number of them sought refuge in Europe.
Others distanced themselves from public life completely. After the American invasion in
2003, some of them returned to Iraq and/or to the KRI and assumed posts in supporting
the two main parties KDP and PUK. This led to the establishment of several Yazidi
political parties and movements.

Yazidi political currents and movements


After the Third Gulf War and the American invasion of Iraq in 2003, the Yazidis, like other
Iraqi communities, faced new choices and new conflicts. Due to the new circumstances,
the Yazidis became involved in a conflict concerning their identity. Thus, various currents
(streams) emerged, each claiming to represent the Yazidi community. This controversy
of identity and representation divided the Yazidi community and its representatives.
The first current is the Yazidi-Arab ethno-nationalist identity. The roots of this current
date back to the movement of the Yazidi Umayyad, which was established in Baghdad in
1964 by a Yazidi prince with the name Bayezid Ismail Umayyad.31 He claims in his
27
On the Yazidi Elite Generations, see: Majid Hassan Ali, ‘The loss of confidence between the Yazidi community and the
Yazidi elites’, Zahrat Nissan 85 (2011), 10–13.
28
The centre became a pro-KDP party after the 1994 Kurdish civil war until today.
29
It goes without saying that such a trend is not acceptable for many Yazidis in that there are many Kurdish Islamic
parties that had been established on the basis of religious ideology. Many Yazidis, therefore, wonder why they were
deprived of this choice since it is permitted to others. Interviews with a number of Yazidi activists in Germany and
Iraq. Informants: A; B; C; D; E, in discussion with author, March 2017–December 2017.
30
Michael M. Gunter, ‘The KDP-PUK Conflict in Northern Iraq’, Middle East Journal 50, no. 2 (1996), Middle East Institute,
Spring 224–241.
31
He is the son of Ismail Chol Beg, a Yazidi prince in Sinjar in the 1920s. for more about this movement see: Ali,
‘Religious Minorities’, 256–261.
8 M. H. ALI

movement to revive the ‘Arab-ness of the Yazidi Umayyad Sect and origin’ which called
for the Yazidis to return to the Arab ethno-nationalist identity.32 This current, which has
been led by Anwar Muawiyya Umayyad, rejects the imposition of the Kurdish ethno-
nationalist identity over the Yazidis.33 The power and influence of this current dimin-
ished over time, especially after 2003 as a result of the emergence of other Yazidi
currents.
Another identity is the Yazidi ethno-nationalist identity. This current takes ethno-
racial and religious characteristics to define the ethno-national identity of Yazidis. It
demands recognition of the Yazidis as an independent ethno-nationality, which means
that the Yazidis constitute a special nation or an independent ethnicity.
The post-2003 political developments in Iraq (after the U.S. occupation) prompted
some Yazidis to form an independent Yazidi political movement called the Yazidi
Movement for Reform and Progress (ISLAH).34 Headquartered in Sinjar, it declares the
Yazidi to be an independent ethno-nationality. The movement won the Yazidi quota
seat for the Iraqi Parliament in 2005, 2010 and 2014.35 The ISLAH was headed by Ameen
Farhan Jejo (Chicho) and Hamad Matto,36 who subsequently broke away from it and
established the Yazidi Progression Party (YPP) on 6 April 2008, also located in Sinjar.
It is noteworthy that Chicho, the president of the movement, tried to follow in the
footsteps of past Middle Eastern nationalists by writing books that contain political and
ideological theorization. These include The Yazidi Nationalism: its Roots, Constituents and
Sufferings,37 Yazidi-Arabic Dictionary38 and The Origins of the Yazidi Language.39 Through
these books, the writer tried to flesh out the notion of the Yazidi nationality in a way
similar to the crafted evolution of the Kurdish, Arab, Turkish and other nationalities in
the Middle East.
In these texts, Chicho attempts to prove that the Yazidi are an independent
ethno-nationalist group whose roots go back to ancient Iraq. Despite the scarcity
of scientific documentation in the book from a historical and methodological side, it
remains an attempt on the part of the writer and the political current to bring
attention to a belief that had not been covered by others. The second book,
however, functions as a dictionary in that it depends upon an alphabet that had
been published in some studies and research, which was considered the sacred
alphabet of the Yazidi religious texts. In the third book, he claims to link the Yazidi
language with ancient Iraqi languages by returning to Semitic languages. These
claims were not based on scientific evidence, but they represent an attempt to
visualize the Yazidis as an independent nationality. In addition, these texts claim a
permanent place for Yazidis in the Iraqi parliament by officially listing the Yazidi as a

32
Ibid.
33
Ibrahim Khalil, Anwar Mu’awiyya yaqul: naftakhr bi tarikhuna umawwi al-Arabi [Anwar Mouawiya says we are proud
of our Arab Umayyad history]’, YouTube, 24 October 2014, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Cxw-jvzIIiU (accessed
December 22, 2017).
34
ISLAH means reformation in Arabic, it became the popular term of Yazidi Movement for Reform and Progress.
35
Salloum, Salah, and Hassan, Political Participation, 17–22.
36
Hamad Matto disappeared after ISIL’s occupation of Sinjar and since August 3, 2014, until the writing of this article
nothing has been known about his fate.
37
Ameen Farhan Jejo, al-Qawmiyyah al-Ezidiyyah, Jidhuruha, Muqawwmatiha, Mu’anatiha [the Yazidi Nationalism: its
roots, Constituents and Sufferings] (Baghdad: 2010).
38
Ameen Farhan Jejo, Qamus Arabi-Ezidi [A Yazidi- Arabic Dictionary] (Baghdad: 2013).
39
Ameen Farhan Jejo, Jidhoor al-lugha al-Ezidiyyah [the Roots of the Yazidi Language] (Baghdad: 2014).
BRITISH JOURNAL OF MIDDLE EASTERN STUDIES 9

nationality in the official documents of Iraq.40 This request was refused by those
Yazidi parliamentarians who adhered to the belief that the Yazidi are of Kurdish
nationality.41
The ISLAH support and influence is concentrated in the Sinjar region and not in other
Yazidi populated areas.42 It is evident that the reason of refusal was due to the opposing
ideological trend among the Kurdish parties and the movement of ISLAH regarding the
identity of the Yazidis. This, naturally, opposes the ideological underpinnings of the
Kurdish ethno-nationalist parties, especially the KDP, who consider the Yazidi to be
ethnically Kurdish. This theoretical difference caused a competition over power in the
Yazidi-populated areas.
Another current is the Yazidi-Kurdish ethno-nationalist identity. Those who propagate
this way of thinking, believe that the Yazidis are ethnically Kurds. Also, this current stems
from the shared language and history with other Kurds in Kurdistan, which predates the
advent of the Judeo-Christian-Islamic religions in the region. This current considers the
Yazidis to be Kurds, because their religious hymns and texts are in Kurdish.43 This current
is supported by the main Kurdish parties: KDP, PUK, and the Kurdistan Workers Party
(PKK).44
The advocates of this current established various political organizations such as the
Yazidi Democratic Gathering (YDG), founded in Germany in 2003. This organization
announced in its political statement that it stresses achieving the recognition of the
Yazidi religion’s rights in the constitutions of Iraq and the KRI. In addition to a list of
goals for the Yazidi community, the authors argue that ‘all the regions of the Yazidis are
part of Kurdistan’, along with announcing other goals. Through the statement of its
establishment, it manifests that it is an organization made up of Yazidis in countries of
emigration.45 It however seems that it does not have a large base in Iraq and Kurdistan,
and its activities diminished since 2010. What is of vital importance in the context of this
paper is that it represented a different ideological current. It, in other words, did not
adopt a religious or nationalist ideology, contrary to ISLAH who did indeed adopt a
nationalist ideology in its agenda.
In 2004, the Yazidi Free Democratic Movement (TEVDA) was established. Its prepara-
tory committee was founded in the Al-Sukar Room in Mosul on 2 January 200446 and it
held its first conference on 18–20 March 2004. This group took Iraq as a main centre for
its activities. In addition, it announced that it is not a class movement and does not

40
Twenty Yazidi organizations and associations in solidarity with the Yazidi representative quota in Iraqi Parliament, Haji
Gundor to fix the ‘Yazidi nationalism’ in Iraqi official documents, Ezidi Journal, December 8, 2016, www.ezidijournal.
com/?m=201612&paged=9 (accessed December 12, 2016).
41
Vian Dakhil, (MP in Iraqi parliament 2010–2018), in discussion with author, March 12, 2017.
42
WikiLeaks, ‘LONE YEZIDI PARLIAMENTARIAN CRITICIZES KURDISH TREATMENT OF MINORITIES’, 7 March 2006, https://
wikileaks.org/plusd/cables/06BAGHDAD736_a.html (accessed July 4, 2017).
43
Ido Haji Ismail (Former Member of Kurdistan Parliament of PUK fraction 1992–1994, political advisor for the PUK
leader about Yazidi Affairs 2006–2014) in discussion with author, April 22, 2017; Adil Nasir (Ministry of Agriculture in
the KRG—Administration of Sulaymaniyah, Third Cab—1997–2001), in discussion with author, June 8, 2017; Shamo
Shekho (MP in Kurdistan Parliament since 2014 and head of Lalish Culture and Social Center), in discussion with
author, April 17, 2017; and Khairi Aliyas Ali Bozani, (General Director of the Yazidi Endowments in the Ministry of
Awqaf (Endowment) and Religious Affairs-KRG. (KDP) since 2005), in discussion with author, April 15, 2017.
44
This idea is related to the notion that Yazidis were Zoroastrian, this is an idea being pushed by the PKK and other
Kurdish political entities.
45
YDG, The political statement of the founding commission of the Yazidi Democratic Gathering (Hanover: May, 2003).
46
TEVDA, The founding statement of the Preparatory Committee, the Free Yazidi Democratic Movement, (01/02/2004).
10 M. H. ALI

incline towards a particular class. Instead, it aims at representing all members of the
Yazidi community, saying it ‘opposes intolerance and the limited clannish traitions’. This
organization emphasized the importance of a fully aware community, but that Yazidi
independent policy (essential for a fully aware community) did not yet exist.47 This
organization, however, remained active in Sinjar. Its role grew after ISIL occupied Sinjar
in 2014 in that it emerged as a base for establishing the Protection Units of Shangal-
Yekîneyên Berxwedana Şingal (YBŞ).48
Similarly, and due to the withdrawal of the Kurdish Military Forces (Peshmerga) from
Sinjar on 3 August 2014, the Yazidi resistance fighters in Sinjar established Special Forces
named the Forces of Protecting Ezidkhan-Hêza Parastina Ezidxan (HPE) that are headed
by Haider Shasho, a member of the central committee in the PUK. Although these forces
raised their own flag, they, at the same time, asked to be part of the Peshmerga system,
which means that it enjoys the support of the Kurdish parties. The HPE officially
established a political party called the Ezidi Democratic Party (EDP) in 2017, and it
inaugurated a centre in Sulaymaniyah.49
It is notable that the EDP and the HPE have relations with the PUK. In addition,
the Lalish Cultural and Social Center enjoys the support of the KDP. The move-
ment of TEVDA displayed its connection with the PKK, while the ISLAH had great
relations with Arab nationalist parties. Also, many of those who believe in the
Yazidi Kurdish identity are activists and members in the Kurdish parties, especially
in the KDP,50 where they present a multifaceted image of the allies of the Yazidi
parties and institutions of the Yazidi community with the other political parties
and currents. All of these organizations failed to gather the Yazidi under one
political umbrella.
The fourth current is the emergence of the Yazidi ethno-religious identity
(Peculiarity, Peoplehood and Ezidiyyati—Yazidiness). This current is the most inter-
esting thus far, for it is based on the ethno-religious aspect of the Yazidi identity.51 It
is still an unorganized current; however, there are signs of an increase in supporters
after the invasion of Sinjar. It is also the most influential stream in this regard, at
present. It includes intellectuals, academics and organizations of civil community
which can be defined in this study by the current of ethno-religious identity. This
current goes beyond national ideologies and thoughts, and it demands the liberation
of the Yazidis from identity conflicts, since the Yazidi have their own independent
identity.

47
TEVDA, The final statement of the Free Yazidi Democratic Movement (18–20/3/2004).
48
They are military forces that took over many towns whose centre is the town of Khansour in Sinjar. There were many
calls against their existence in Sinjar by the KDP and Turkey. They were accused of being fighters who follow the PKK.
It is worth mentioning that the greater majority of the fighters were Yazidi from Sinjar.
49
Rûdaw, ‘Yezidi commander resigns from PUK, founds new party’, Rudaw.net, 17 April 2017, http://www.rudaw.net/
english/kurdistan/170420175 (accessed July 11, 2017).
50
Jamil Khidr Abdal (Minister of Cabinet Affairs in the KRG—Administration of Sulaymaniyyah 2004–2007, leader in
Sinjar branch of PUK), in discussion with author, April 25, 2017; Shekho, discussion; Dakhil, discussion; Bozani,
discussion), and in the PUK, (Nasir, discussion; Ismail, discussion).
51
It could be observed that the Yazidi independent identity movement is actually the dominant one among the Yazidis
from Armenia and Georgia (and by extension among Yazidis in the diaspora). This is also based on religious
arguments, on which see further: Tork Dalalyan, ‘Construction of Kurdish and Yezidi identities among the Kurmanj-
speaking population of the Republic of Armenia’, in Changing Identities: Armenia. Azerbaijan, Georgia, ed. Sophia
Khutsishvili and John Horan (Tbilisi: Heinrich Böll Stiftung South Caucasus, 2011), 177–201.
BRITISH JOURNAL OF MIDDLE EASTERN STUDIES 11

Reforging the new Yazidi identity


The occupation of Sinjar and the rest of the Yazidi regions in Nineveh Plain in August
2014 by ISIL, as a consequence of the failure of the Peshmerga forces in protecting
Yazidis, had a great impact on the Yazidi public opinion. As a result, the KRG’s
Peshmerga lost credibility among the Yazidis. According to eyewitnesses,52 for unknown
reasons the Kurdish security system did not provide weapons to Yazidis to defend
themselves. Consequently, the question of identity has become a prominent issue for
the Yazidis after the invasion of ISIL. This raises the implicit question: Did the withdrawal
of Kurdish Peshmerga forces from Sinjar and the rest of the Yazidi region, affect the
attitude of the Yazidis towards an independent identity?
The absence of an independent investigation and convincing justification for the
withdrawal by Peshmerga, was a blow to the Yazidi community (from the princely family
and the Yazidi Spiritual Council, to the average person) that left this pressing question
unanswered: ‘Why did the Kurdish Peshmerga forces leave us without fighting or giving
us weapons to defend ourselves?’53 There were other queries as well about why the
Yazidis were mainly targeted rather than others, and why they did not find defenders.
The invasion called to mind the past Firmans (genocides)54 committed against the
Yazidis due to their non-Islamic religious identity. Many Yazidis believe that the differ-
ence in religious beliefs is one of the most important reasons for the withdrawal of
Peshmerga55 though there are still political issues that are unknown even at present.
Politically, the ISLAH and most of the Kurdish political parties consider the KDP to be
responsible for the collapse or withdrawal of the Kurdish security system from the Yazidi
regions,56 while at the same time, the KDP claims that the Yazidi regions were managed
in cooperation with the other Kurdish political parties, especially the PUK, and as such,
the KDP alone is not to blame.57 The ISIL onslaught and the Kurdish Peshmerga with-
drawal from the Yazidi region, without supplying any protection to them, had a
devastating impact on the entire Yazidi religious minority of Iraq. This ultimately led
to a re-evaluation of their already highly contested religious, ethnic and nationalist
identity.

Crystallization of the Yazidi identity after 2014


The Yazidi opposition groups who formed on Mount Sinjar after the ISIL onslaught,
raised a peculiar flag with three colours: red and white with a yellow sun in the
52
F, informant, in discussion with author, October 24, 2017; G, informant, in discussion with author, October 24, 2017; D,
in discussion with author, May 16, 2017.
53
AYN AL IRAQ NEWS, ‘Statement of General-Director of Yazidis Affairs in Endowments of the Christian, Yazidian and
Sabean- andaean religions, Divan-Baghdad’, 4 August 2014, http://www.aynaliraqnews.com/index.php?aa=
news&id22=17168 (accessed September 19, 2017); Khairi Alo Hko, (Activist), in discussion with author 4 April 2017.
54
The Arab and Islamic campaigns and invasions against Yazidis through historical stages, known in the literature and
heritage of the Yazidis by the term Firmans, which literally means genocide, campaigns according to the values and
concepts of the modern world, i.e. extermination attempts in English, especially the ones they were exposed to by
the Ottomans, Persian states, and Kurdish Muslim princes.
55
Saydo Ali Rasho, ‘Muqtarahātinā hawla al-hawiyyah al-ʾIzīdiyyah [Our Suggestion about Yazidi Identity]’ December 17,
_ _
2016, http://www.ezidijournal.com/?p=856 (accessed January 16, 2017); Khairi Hassan Khulayf Shingali, (Intellectual, and
political activists), in discussion with author, March 10, 2017; and Barakat al-Issa, (Journalist), in discussion with author, April
2, 2017.
56
Haji Kandur Smu, (MP Iraqi Parliament 2014–2018), in discussion with author, May 26, 2017; Shingali, discussion.
57
Shekho, discussion; and Bozani, discussion.
12 M. H. ALI

middle.58 They also introduced a national anthem59 that symbolized an independent


Yazidi identity. In most demonstrations that have been organized by Yazidi societies
abroad, the same opposition flag that was raised in Mount Sinjar, has been waved.
Supporters of this current believe that the flag became the symbol of an independent
Yazidi identity, not just a military or political group. It has been raised by many social,
intellectual and religious Yazidi60 institutions in European countries and in Armenia,
Russia and Georgia to denote the independence of the Yazidi identity.
Dozens of intellectual institutions and houses in western countries have been estab-
lished by Yazidis since the 1990s and most of them have connections or are supported
by the Kurdish parties and assume the Yazidi Kurdish ethno-nationalist identity. Only a
few of them are independent. After 2014, however, various new international civil
organizations and institutions outside Iraq were established. They embraced the Yazidi
case along with the Yazidi’s idiosyncratic identity. Among these organizations are Eziden
Weltweit EWW (Initiative for Yazidis around the world),61 Yazda62 and Ezidische Gemeinde
Dortmund (Association of the Yazidi Community in Dortmund).63
The media, especially satellite TV channels, websites and social media platforms
such as Facebook, are considered to be some of the prominent tools that play a role
in crystallizing and expanding the controversy of the Yazidi identity. Yazidis have had
their own satellite television channel broadcasting from Germany since 2015, e.g.
Lalish TV,64 which supports the Yazidi ethno-religious identity. There is also been a
Yazidi satellite television channel broadcasting from Germany since 2010, Çira TV,65
which aligned with the PKK. In addition, there are dozens of websites and hundreds
of social websites concerning the question of the Yazidi identity. These include not
only official web pages of Yazidi political and civil organizations, but also various
blogs, forums, YouTube and Facebook accounts and pages.66 Social media connects
the Yazidi community from various parts of the world and allows Yazidis to share
their opinions and identity.
New media constitutes an influential factor in the continuity and dynamism of the
identity controversy. Young Yazidi men and Yazidi intellectuals, argue over the unique

58
Xabercom: Independet Iraqi Newspaper, ‘Statement on the occasion of the Day of Ezidkhan National Flag’, September 4, 2015,
http://xebercom.com/2015/09/‫ﺍﻹ‬-‫ﺃﻳﻬﺎ‬-‫ﺇﻳﺰﻳﺪﺧﺎﻥ‬-‫ﻋﻠﻢ‬-‫ﻳﻮﻡ‬-‫ﺑﻤﻨﺎﺳﺒﺔ‬-‫( ﺑﻴﺎﻥ‬accessed March 3, 2017).
59
ÊzîdîPress, ‘Êzîdxan—Ezidi Anthem, YouTube, January 22, 2017, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZniTg73Xwgs
(accessed April 6, 2017).
60
Said Saydo, (Activist), in discussion with author, March 22, 2017; and Dimitri Pirbari (Pir-Dima,), (Intellectual), in
discussion with author, March 18, 2017.
61
Which was established on 7 February 2015. Its main centre is in Germany. Eziden Weltweit, 2015, http://ezidis.org/
(accessed March 14, 2017).
62
It is a global Yazidi organization of great activity and influence on a global scale. Its main centre is in the United
States and it has various branches in Europe, Australia and Iraq. It embraced the Yazidi case in the international
congregations since the invasion of ISIL Yazda, 2014. Yazda a global Yazidi organization. https://www.yazda.org/
about-us/ (accessed November 5, 2017).
63
Established in Dortmund on 19 July 2015, Ezidische Gemeinde Dortmund e. V.—Dortmund, 2015. Ezidische Gemeinde
Dortmund e. V.—Dortmund, https://www.moneyhouse.de/Ezidische-Gemeinde-Dortmund-e-V-Dortmund (accessed
March 4, 2017); and Association of the Yazidi Community in Dortmund, 2015. Open an Association of the Yazidi
Community in Dortmund, http://www.bahzani.net/services/forum/showthread.php?112839 (accessed March 17,
2017).
64
Lalish TV, Satellite Eutelsat Hot Bird 13B, Frequency 11604 H, SR FEC 27500 5/6]; Also available at: http://karwan.tv/
lalish-tv.html (accessed October 14, 2017).
65
Çira TV, 2010. Satellite Eutelsat 7 West B; Eutelsat Hot Bird 13D, Frequency 11354 V; 12520 V, SR FEC 27500 5/6; 27500
3/4; Also available at: http://karwan.tv/cira-tv.html (accessed October 14, 2017).
66
E.g. Yezidi National-‫القومية الايزيدية‬, https://www.facebook.com/freee.Yezidis/ (accessed September 14, 2017); and
Alqawmiyya aleizidiya ‫ﺍﻟﻘﻮﻣﻴﺔ ﺍﻻﻳﺰﻳﺪﻳﺔ‬, https://www.facebook.com/yezedy/ (accessed September 14, 2017).
BRITISH JOURNAL OF MIDDLE EASTERN STUDIES 13

roots and nationality of the Yazidi.67 This controversy goes hand in hand with the
writing and publication of a series of essays by Yazidi writers in personal records and
websites.68 It is noteworthy that this controversy resulted in some Sunni Kurdish writers
opposing the views of the ethno-religious current. Some of them wrote essays in which
they argued that the Yazidis are not an independent people. Rather, they are part of the
Kurdish people.69 It is important to note that the controversy among the Yazidis has
other consequences; intra-Yazidi conflicts are widespread on the web and in cyberspace
where members of rival groups are viewed as traitors and propagandists.
Yazidis organized a number of demonstrations in western countries independently
from the Kurds for the first time in 2007, when the house of the prince and the Yazidi
cultural centres in Sheikhan were burned by Kurdish Muslims.70 After that, a series of
other demonstrations have been organized, especially when the kidnapping of Yazidi
girls took place in the Kurdistan Region.71 In addition, individual attacks and the burning
of Christian and Yazidi stores, occurred in the cities of Zakho and Duhok in 2011.72 That
was followed by a series of incidents, such as explosions and killings73 that caused the
deaths of many Yazidis. The last major violent outburst against Yazidis, was the genocide
in 2014. All of these events pushed Yazidi societies abroad to stage demonstrations to
demand their rights. What drew attention is that the majority of these demonstrations
that took place were purely Yazidi, without the participation of Muslim Kurds or others.

The controversial of identity


The issue of the Yazidi identity was associated with controversy in the Yazidi milieu,
concerning the definition of the Yazidi ethnic identity. As a result, I am presenting some
different opinions and stands that were taken as samples of that ongoing controversy,
starting with the Yazidi leadership and secular-religious stand.
Mir Tahseen’s opinions and declarations, as the highest Yazidi religious authority
concerning identity, were controversial in the Arab, Kurdish and Yazidi milieu.
Although he changed his stands and opinions regarding the Yazidi ethno-nationality
after political development of 2003 in Iraq, he stated that the Yazidi were ethnically
67
Ezidi Journal, 2017. Yazidi activists argue and disagree on Yazidi identity, January 7 2017, http://www.ezidijournal.
com/?p=1737 (accessed January 25, 2017).
68
For instance: Hosheng Broka, ‘Al-Qadhaiyya al-Ezidiyya wa wa talawwath al-qawwmiyya [Yazidi issue and the
contaminate of nationalism]’, December 6, 2016 http://www.ezidijournal.com/?p=854 (accessed December 12, 2016).
69
Aqrawi, Mir, ‘Mīr ʿAqrāwī replays to Sawt Kurdistan website’. 12 March 2017, http://sotkurdistan.org/index.php/
articels/politic/item/3073-2017-03-12-08-01-56 (accessed March 14 2017); Inayat Diko, ‘na’an… laysa kul al-kurd
Ezidiyyun… lakin hatman kul al-Ezidiyyun Kurdan [Yes … not all Kurds are Yazidis … but inevitably all Yazidis are
Kurds], 27 December 2016, https://goo.gl/mEjn29 (accessed January 12, 2018).
70
Ezidi2003, ‘Hishūd Kurdiyya wa-hīya tuhājm al-marākiz al-thaqāfiyya al-ʾIzīdiyya [Kurdish crowds attacking the Yazidi
cultural centers]’, August 9 2009, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u-mIElopAW8 (accessed November 18, 2017).
71
For example, a Yazidi girl, Simon, was kidnapped in 2013. She was only 11 years old. She was kidnapped by a thirty-
year old married Kurdish Sunni man. There were no true legal proceedings against him, which angered the Yazidis
who staged demonstrations in European countries, demanding the release of the kidnapped girl. See: Majid Hassan
Ali, ‘Yazidi Elite between theory and practice: a critical and descriptive study’, Lalish Journal 38 (2013), 185–198.
72
DRC Danish Refugee Council, ‘The Kurdistan Region of Iraq (KRI) Access, Possibility of Protection, Security and
Humanitarian Situation, April, 2016, 173–174, http://www.refworld.org/docid/570cba254.html (accessed March 22,
2017); and WikiLeaks, ‘[MESA] = ?windows-1252?q?IRAQ/CT_-_Fire_on_the_Streets_of_Zakho_? = = ?windows-1252?
q? = 96_Unrest_in_Duhok_Governorate? = .’, December 2011, https://wikileaks.org/gifiles/docs/13/1316066_-mesa-
windows-1252-q-iraq-ct_-_fire_on_the_streets_of_zakho_.html (accessed November 8, 2016).
73
WikiLeaks, ‘YEZIDI PROTEST AT EMBASSY’, April 27, 2007, https://wikileaks.org/plusd/cables/07YEREVAN528_a.html
(accessed November 12, 2016).
14 M. H. ALI

Kurds that demanded rights to protect their own peculiarities. In addition, the prince
expressed his fears that the Yazidi could disappear if pressures from the Kurdish
authorities to gentrify Yazidi areas, should persist. However, Kurdish nationality was
never denied. Indeed, Yazidis insisted on rights relating to their status as a religious
minority in Kurdistan.
For instance, the Sheikhan province in the disputed area, used to be a Yazidi majority
area, but after the invasion of 2003, it has been targeted with a process of demographic
change74 that involved settling Muslim Sunni-Kurds in the area in order to strengthen
the claim that it should be included within the KRI according to article 140 of the Iraqi
constitution. This programme is similar to the Arabization schemes of which the Baʿth
subjected the Kurds, and Yazidis call it ‘Kurdification’. Sheikhan, a historic Yazidi home-
land, is now a Muslim majority area.75
In an interview with U.S. officials, dating back to 2008, Mir Tahseen asserted that ‘KDP
officials in disputed areas such as Sheikhan are forcibly transferring property from Yazidi
to Muslim Kurdish ownership’.76 According to Mir Tahseen, this occurs despite the
Yazidis’ legal ownership of the land, as detailed in official documents.
Mir Tahseen believes that the KDP intends to raise the proportion of Kurds in these
disputed areas high enough to win KRG control in any future referenda. However, in
doing so, he contends that they are wiping the Yazidi community off the map. This, in
conjunction with other pressures, such as weak employment and low crop prices, forces
Yazidis to emigrate to Europe, and elsewhere.77
Mir Tahseen went to Germany as a refugee in 2010, for unpublicized reasons. After
the ISIL invasion, he asserted that Yazidi is a ‘religion and nationality’.78 In his latest
declaration, Mir Tahseen stated that the Yazidis are people who can determine their fate
and identity in a prospective referendum according to article 140 of the Iraqi
constitution.79
As for the stand of the higher religious authority, Baba Sheikh, no official statement
has been published defining the Yazidi identity. He has stated the necessity of not
involving Yazidis in the political problems of Iraq. He stated that when there are
problems among parties, the minority gets affected; the political parties use them as a
subject in the conflicts among themselves. Thus, by keeping the Yazidi and its affairs
away from these conflicts, problems diminish. The political parties, on the other hand,
are the ones responsible for the Yazidi problems and that of other minorities.80 In our
pursuit of Baba Sheikh’s stand, he, in general does not interfere with political matters,
nor does he assume any political stances out of respect for his position as religious

74
Matthew Barber, ‘The KRG’s Relationship with the Yazidi Minority and the Future of the Yazidis in Shingal’, January 31,
2017, http://www.nrttv.com/En/birura-details.aspx?Jimare=4855 (accessed February 17, 2017).
75
Ibid.
76
WikiLeaks, ‘KRG DIVIDED: SPECIAL ADVISOR KRAJESKI DISCUSSES CORRUPTION, MEDIA FREEDOM, AND MINORITY
ISSUES WITH KURDISH AND YEZIDI LEADERS, PART I’, December 1, 2008, https://wikileaks.org/plusd/cables/
08BAGHDAD3776_a.html (accessed November 14, 2016).
77
Ibid.
78
Al-Arabia, ‘The conversation of Tahseen Beg the prince of the Yazidi’, 17 October 2014, http://ara.tv/49az2 (accessed
December 12, 2017).
79
Brendan O’Leary and David Bateman, Article 140: Iraq’s Constitution, Kirkuk and the Disputed Territories, the Conference
at Rayburn House, (Washington, DC: 9 May 2008), http://icgs.ue.edu.krd/Articles/OLeary_Paper.pdf (accessed
November 12, 2017).
80
Khirto Haji Babasheikh, (Yazidi Spiritual leader), in discussion with author, April 19, 2017).
BRITISH JOURNAL OF MIDDLE EASTERN STUDIES 15

authority. In contrast, a number of the spiritual council members, which is located in the
KRI, along with the majority of the Kurdish parties, issued statements in which they
declared the Yazidis ethnically Kurds.81 In return, various Yazidi groups and cultural
centres abroad, especially those who believe that the Yazidi are an ethno-religious
group with peculiarity, issued many statements that supported the prince’s declarations.
The controversy about Yazidi identity was not only restricted to the prince and the
spiritual council; rather, it included the elite and the social milieu. In 2016, the represen-
tative of the Yazidi Quota in the Iraqi parliament, Haji Kandur Smu, suggested a law to
declare Yazidism a religion with a national identity in Iraqi official documents. In addition,
he presented an official order to the Iraqi Ministry of the Interior and the head of the
Human Rights office of the United Nations delegation in Baghdad, to intervene either by
listing to the ‘Yazidi ethno-nationality’ in the Iraqi national card document or leaving the
ethno-nationality column empty. In other words, the column does not mention the
nationality and the choice is left to the citizen to list the nationality which he/she belongs
to or delete the nationality column from the form.82 Accordingly, the Ministry of the
Interior deleted the nationality column from the ID card until enacting a law that
organized the nationalities for Iraqi communities pursuant to the Iraqi constitution of
2005.83 However, Vian Dakhil, a Yazidi parliamentarian on the Kurdistan Alliance List,
within the Iraqi Parliament, rejected Smu’s suggestion, arguing that Yazidis are Kurd.84
Her declarations caused furious reactions in the Yazidi milieu, especially by the movement
of ISLAH and supporters of the Yazidi ethno-religious identity.
In many Facebook pages, some activists who believe in the Yazidi Kurdish identity,
stated that the Yazidi are Kurds, one of them stated that the Yazidi Kurds’ identity will
not be specified by people or political movements or organizations of the civil commu-
nity. Rather, their identity is known, and it is a pure Kurdish identity with their peculia-
rities as an ancient religion.85 Another added: We lived on this blessed land and offered
thousands of martyrs for the Kurdish cause and Kurdistan. He asserted that they will
never accept bargaining over their religious and national peculiarities as Kurds.86
It is worth mentioning that most of those who embrace this idea are members or
activists in the Kurdish parties. There are, in return, counter-reactions among the Yazidi
activists from the nationalist and other currents. For example, one of them entitled his
Facebook page ‘A reply to those who are pro- of the term of the Yazidi Kurds notion’,

81
Hussein Hassan Narmo (Former MP of Iraqi Parliament of PUK fraction 2005–2009), in discussion with author, July, 25
2017; Ismail, discussion; Mahma Khalil, (Former MP in Iraqi Parliament of KDP fraction), in discussion with author,
December 24, 2017.
82
Haji Kandur Smu, ‘Iraqi National Card, Letter, Council of Representative M.P Haji Kandur to/ Ministry of Interior-
Minister’s Office, Republic of Iraq’, (Baghdad: 17/10/2016); Haji Kandur Smu, ‘Iraqi National Card, Letter, Council of
Representative M.P Haji Kandur, To/ Mr. Francesco Motta. Director. United Nations Assistance Mission for Iraq
(UNAMI), Human Rights Office, Republic of Iraq (Baghdad: 24/9/2016).
83
Ministry of Interior, Minister’s Office, Republic of Iraq, to/ General Secretariat of the House of Representatives, Iraqi
National Card (Baghdad: Document D.M 5463 23/2/2017), ‘confidential’.
84
Vian Dakhil, ‘Vīyān Dakhīl tadʿū ʾilā ʾijrāʾ ʾistiftāʾ hawla qawmīyat al-ʾIzīdiyyīn wa-bi-ʾIshrāf al-ʾUmam al-Mutaʾidah’
_
[Vīyān Dakhīl calls for a referendum on the Yazidis Nationality under the supervision of the United Nations],
December 5, 2016, http://www.lalishduhok.com/ezidi/post/129699 (accessed December 9, 2016).
85
Hajar Mudeer Dawud, ‘Al-mutājara bi-l-intimāʾ al-qawmī li-al-ʾIzīdīyyīn…laʾba rakhīṣa wa-makshūfa [the ethno-
national affiliation of Yazidis as a business … is a cheap game]’, December 6, 2016, https://www.facebook.com/
hejar.dawud.92/posts/945967305547332 (accessed November 16, 2017).
86
Daoud Shengali, ‘Kurdish Yazidis ..‫ﻣﻘﺼﻮﺩﺓ ﻭﺭﺍﺡ ﺍﮔﻮﻟﻬﺎ ﺑﺎﻟﻌﺎﻣﻴﺔ ﺑﻠﻜﻲ ﺗﺼﻠﻜﻢ ﺍﺣﺴﻦ‬, December 6, 2016, https://www.facebook.
com/photo.php?fbid=1533865493295862&set=a.274806065868484.91168.100000172793398&type=3&theater
(accessed January 8, 2017).
16 M. H. ALI

saying that every person is free in his/her intellectual, political, sectarian and religious
belonging. He is expressing his anger to those who try to impose something on the
Yazidi, and they do not want it. He added that:
Since people are free, they have to grant freedom to others to choose their identity and
belonging, [He is asking] the heralds of the ‘Yazidi Kurds’ notion not to impose their
thoughts over others by force.87

Another one stated that all communities in Iraq confirm their ethno-nationalist or
religious or sectarian identities; therefore, he wonders why the Yazidis do not confirm
their independent identity.88
In this respect, some Yazidi writers presented some proposals and explanations,
where one of them indicated that a defined Yazidi identity must be based on a Yazidi
heritage, which is different from the heritage of Muslim Kurds.89 Another author stated
that the concept of identity is more comprehensive than the concept of nationalism. He
connected it with religion in which, in the case of the Yazidis, he felt is a concept that
means integral polarity, which is not inconsistent. Its basic factors are ethnic and faith,
and it is like the Yazidi integral faith in good and evil which go hand in hand.90
Among the significant replies in this respect, I present the stand of the Yazda
Organization, which constitutes an important part in the fourth current, and enjoys
huge support by the young and the educated. They issued statements in which they
used many important terms. In addition to the term of ethno-religious identity, they
used the term ‘Yazidi Peoplehood’91 similar to the notion of a Jewish peoplehood, as
shown by the following selections from their statements:
Yazidis are an ethno-religious group with exclusive culture, social and religious values, and
history. So, Yazidis must be accepted as an ethno-religious group with particular culture and
that for this identify they have greatly suffered.92

Yazda defined identity as the common destiny of a group of people,


The Yazidi situation can best be compared to the Jewish case and Jewish identity which is
based on the Jewish Peoplehood … Yazidis must be accepted in Iraq and Kurdistan under
this ‘Yazidi Peoplehood’ identity and no other identity should be forced on them.93

Yazda requests that Yazidis be treated as an ethnical-religious distinctive group of


people and that all their rights should be protected in KRI and Iraq on this basis.
87
Ahmed Khudida Burjus, ‘Yā-lil ʾajab lā yafraqūn hata bayna al-kitāba wa-l-ʾqtibās mina-l-maṣādr! …, bal faqat
_
yahajamūn Yazd [Oddly, they do not even differentiate between writing and quoting from sources! … but only
attacking Yazda]’, December 6, 2016, https://www.facebook.com/ahmedkhaudida.alshingaly/posts/
1480204185340479 (accessed January 8, 2017).
88
Khairi Alo Hko, ‘Rad ʿalā al-Bāhith al-qadīr Dr. Khalīl Jindī: al-hawiyyah al-ʾEzīdiyyah māthā taʿnī? [Response to the
_
researcher Dr. Khalil Jundi: What Is Yazidi Identity?]’, December 15, 2916, https://goo.gl/zhP8iQ (accessed January 18,
2017).
89
Rasho, ‘Muqtarahātinā hawla al-hawiyyah al-ʾIzīdiyyah’.
_
90
Wisam Jawhar, ‘Kalam fi_ al-qawmiyyah [Talk about nationalism “identity”]’, December 3, 2016, https://www.facebook.
com/wisam.aljawhar/photos/a.552197488230757.1073741828.532596500190856/1105373992913101/?type=3&thea
ter (accessed December 8, 2016).
91
Peoplehood is defined as a state of constituting a people or the awareness of the underlying unity that makes the
individual a part of a people or state of constituting a people, see: Merriam-webster.com, ‘Definition of peoplehood’,
https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/peoplehood (accessed June 3, 2017).
92
Yazda, ‘Yazda Statement on the Identity of Yazidis’, December 5, 2016, https://www.facebook.com/yazda.organiza
tion/posts/567137470162870:0 (accessed January 12, 2016).
93
Ibid.
BRITISH JOURNAL OF MIDDLE EASTERN STUDIES 17

Depriving the Yazidis from this right and ability to self-identify and disrespect for their
distinctive peoplehood, will be another factor to expedite Yazidi exit from their
homeland.94
In the context of the politicization of this statement, it is worth noting that the terms
used have multiple meanings, especially when comparing the Yazidi’s case with the
Jew’s. It is an accurate comparison to some extent. Although the Jews are distributed
among many nationalities, they have the Jewish Peoplehood identity, which is based on
the history of religion and oppression. The Yazidi’s case is like that of the Jews in that
they may be divided among several nationalities from aspect such as race and language,
but, like the Jews, they are oppressed because of religion. The Yazidi case, consequently,
is a Yazidi Peoplehood identity, which presents an independent dimension about the
formation of identity, away from thoughts and ideologies to which national parties and
social currents have put into consideration.
Yazidis, and other non-proselytizing minorities, just like the Jews, are similar due to
their seclusion, weakness and opposition by the prevalent nationalities and religions.
They may overlap in their national and religious structures, where the religious trend
prevails over the national one, as shown in the case of the Jews and that of Muslims in
India, prior to independence.
Similarly, there were calls that originated with the fourth current that demand the
Yazidi not to adopt Yazidi nationalism, which would terminate their status as a faith-
based minority. As with other national projects in the Middle East, these currents have
seen an increase in interference and division that affects the politics, as well as social
and religious aspects of these currents and parties.
Whatever the truth is, these statements reveal a real division within the Yazidi
community as to whether they are ethnically Kurdish, Yazidi or Arab and there is no
consensus on whether they are to be considered ethno-national or ethno-religious. The
other signs, however, show that the idiosyncratic Yazidi identity has become more
crystallized, even for those who were supporters of the Kurdish nationalist identity,
especially the members of the PUK party. That issue was pointed out by some prominent
Yazidi members in the ranks of this party through personal interviews. Despite their
assurance that the Yazidis belong to the Kurdish ethno-nationalist identity, they, when
answering the researcher’s questions, guaranteed that the outcome of the genocide and
the increased danger of Islamization in Kurdistan and the discrimination against the
Yazidis, call for an independent Yazidi leadership and a safe zone for the Yazidis,95 which
presents an explanation for the absence of the importance of the national identity issue
for the members on behalf of current peculiarities.
Many of my interviewees who are members and have posts in the KDP party, on the
other hand, stuck to their past positions and emphasized that the Yazidi belong to the
Kurdish national identity and the necessity of being within the Kurdistan Region,
believing that all the constituents and features of the national identity in terms of
language, geographical location, heritage, culture, history and fate belong to the
Kurdish nationality. They also believe that there are political motives behind the identity

94
Ahmed Khudida Burjus, ‘Yazidis are Ethno-Religious group, NOT Kurds’, December 5, 2016, https://www.academia.
edu/32193183/Yazidis_are_Ethno-Religious_group_NOT_Kurds (accessed July 24, 2017).
95
Ismail, discussion; Shingali, discussion.
18 M. H. ALI

issue that seek to strip the Yazidi of their Kurdish ethno-nationalism in an effort to incite
the Yazidi towards independence and, thus, isolate them from the KDP.96 It is also worth
mentioning that many Yazidis abandoned both the Kurdish ethno-nationalist identity
and the KDP. They began searching for an alternative identity which is the Ezidiyati
(Yazidiness) identity, which means an idiosyncratic, religious, cultural, social and histor-
ical identity with a religious-ethno feature.97

A relative sample on crystallization of identity


Thus, to consolidate the claim of the crystallization of the ethno-religious identity trend,
the author displayed, for 2 weeks, 9–23 April 2017, a questionnaire on some Yazidi
Facebook pages, especially the different groups of the aforementioned four currents.
The vote was limited to one response, and the results were in favour of the Yazidi ethno-
religious identity current, followed by the Yazidi-Kurdish ethno-nationalist identity, then
the Yazidi ethno-nationalist identity current and Arab ethno-nationalist identity.
Although the outcome of this questionnaire is a relative, not absolute issue, it expresses
the general inclinations of the Yazidi attitude at this stage, as shown in Table 1.98
According to the results of the questionnaire and interviews, the majority of respondents
are supporters of the fourth current of an idiosyncratic Yazidi ethno-religious identity; they
believe that the issue of Yazidi identity must not be ignored after the Firman of 2014,
because the Yazidis are oppressed because of their religious belonging, which is different
from Muslims and from ethno-nationalist conflicts, created by the other political currents.
Supporters of the fourth current believe that the Yazidis have been targeted in their last
Firman by ISIL, not because they are a Yazidi ethno-nationalism, Kurdish ethno-nationalism
or Arab ethno-nationalism, but because of their religion and faith since they were consid-
ered non-believers in their Islamic surroundings in Sinjar.99
Interactions between Yazidis on the subject of identity is showing the transformation of
their tendencies towards the Yazidi identity, and towards a critique of other thoughts about
Yazidi identity, including the current of Yazidi nationalism. Also, a number of the supporters of
the fourth current100 state that the nationalism slogans and emblems which are raised by the

Table 1. The result of the questionnaire on the Yazidi identity.


Currents Respondents In % Total respondents (9–23 April)
Yazidi ethno-religious identity 617 58
Kurdish ethno-nationalist identity 232 21,8
Yazidi ethno-nationalist identity 168 15,8
Arab ethno-nationalist identity 15 1,4
I do not know 30 2,9 1,063

96
Bozani, discussion; Shekho, discussion; Dakhil, discussion.
97
Al-Issa, discussion.
98
See the Appendix at the end of the article for diagram about the result of the questionnaire on the Yazidi Identity, as well
as see online, https://docs.google.com/forms/d/e/1FAIpQLSfQVtBQoCBpE9h4N9deqXCQsloCqrYYowNc9cssiOzXjJkHhA/
viewanalytics, (accessed July 22, 2017).
99
Saydo, discussion; Ali Saydo Rasho, (Activist), in discussion with author, March 22, 2017.
100
See, for instance, Hosheng Broka, ‘Nahwa manfasto Ezid [towards the Yazidi Manifesto]’, December 7, 2016, https://
www.facebook.com/114450968642603/photos/a.118012668286433.30631.114450968642603/1212957985458557/?
type=3&permPage=1 (accessed January 25, 2017).
BRITISH JOURNAL OF MIDDLE EASTERN STUDIES 19

Yazidi nationality current are potentially dangerous for Yazidis because it may lead to a clash
with groups of other nationalities, especially Kurdish nationalism. Since the followers of this
current base their beliefs on the nationalist thought like the other nationalists, such as the
nationalism of the Kurds, Turks, Persians in the Middle East, there is a necessary drive to
abolish and eliminate the other from their ideologies. This will not bring a solution to the
Yazidi issue because it will drive them into conflict with neighbouring nationalist political
currents which have great power in the region. Similarly, most of those who were interviewed
or who corresponded with the author regarding the Yazidi future as an identity, stated that
they are in real danger after ISIL made its presence in Iraq. There are risks of a conflict that may
arise between the armed groups which take over Sinjar, especially the KDP and the PKK, and
the possibilities of a social conflict between the Yazidis on the one hand and the Kurds and
Sunni Arabs on the other. So, the author believes that the solution for these possible conflicts
is the establishment of effective legal and civic institutions, and the granting of legal and
constitutional rights. These developments are improbable, however, because of the extreme
dysfunction in the community and the state’s institutions, a more likely solution is the
establishment of a safe zone under international protection for the religious minorities in
the Nineveh Plain and Sinjar.

Conclusion
The study found that political developments in Iraq are a strong predictor of ethno-
nationalist identity changes among religious minorities. The resolution of the Yazidi
identity issue is dependent upon economic, social and political developments. It is
apparent that the ethno-nationalism conflict between the Arab and Kurdish majo-
rities contributed to the crystallization of the religious minorities’ identities in north-
ern Iraq (both in the KRI and the disputed areas). This conflict saw the Yazidis
transform from a religious minority, whose ethnicity or nationality was relatively
fluid, to one whose peculiar identity (which is defined not only by religion but also
by ethnicity and national origin) became rigid. This development has caused great
controversy within the Yazidi community since 2003.
As such, this research argues that the ethno-nationalist and religious identity of Yazidi
is in the process of transforming into an idiosyncratic identity, but at the same time it is
open to the internal political developments in the homeland and the Yazidi movements
outside of country.
Despite the multiplicity of theories and hypotheses about the origin of the Yazidi
and their ethnic and national belongings, and the increasing rumours and allega-
tions about their potential as sub-ethnicity or ethno-religion, which are hard to
prove and require more investigation and in-depth research, the important truth is
that the majority of them consider themselves different and distinct from the other
nations surrounding them religiously, culturally and historically. Thus, they can be
called a community with idiosyncratic peculiarities, similar to other communities
which share their social milieu with mutual language and traditions. However, they,
like any other group that was created by objective historical circumstances, retain
their own internal identity.
In addition, the expansion of the ongoing controversy about the Yazidi nationality is a
result of the social and political convulsion that affected the Yazidi community due to
20 M. H. ALI

the accumulation of a series of attacks directed towards them, especially the pursuance
for religious reasons and the failure of the political parties and security system to protect
them.

Acknowledgements
The author would like to acknowledge the helpful and constructive comments of Allison Taylor
Stuewe, Janelle Carlson and Sherko Kirmanj referees who revised an earlier draft of this paper.

Disclosure statement
No potential conflict of interest was reported by the author.

Funding
This research received no specific grant from public, commercial or non-profit agency.

ORCID
Majid Hassan Ali http://orcid.org/0000-0001-8061-1431
BRITISH JOURNAL OF MIDDLE EASTERN STUDIES 21

Appendix

Figure A1. Diagram about the result of the questionnaire on the Yazidi identity.