Yazidis & Christians

I am not an expert on the Yazidis of (or formerly of) Mosul and environs. I am not an expert on the Assyrian Christians there either; or on Christians anywhere at all. Jews also defeat my understanding, notwithstanding my efforts in Comparative Religion. My incomprehension extends to other religions, nationalities, and tribes. They are all a fog to me. And there are days when I do not understand myself, either.

My (hopefully sincere) Christian beliefs, for instance. They do not come off well in a cost-benefit analysis. From the angle of a professional economist, who assumes the human atom pursues “economic self-interest,” going Catholic was the dumbest thing I ever did.

But looking at Iraq, it seems being Yazidi might be dumber. Or Assyrian Christian for that matter: everyone’s trying to kill you. Why not go along to get along with the persecutors?

I mention them because they are, at our distance, “strange.” They fascinated me when traveling in Iraq, now long ago, after the Ba’athist coup, but before Saddam Hussein. The latter offered them some default protection because he had other people to slaughter, and wanted to keep the monopoly on slaughtering people.

The Yazidis lived up on the hills, on the dry rock that rises through the alluvial Mesopotamian plain. They came into the city to buy and sell, and were normally tolerated. And this even though every other sect in Iraq referred to them casually as “devil worshippers,” and had been doing so for centuries.

Otherwise, they kept to themselves. Their shrines, from what I could make out, were architecturally unimpressive: though I only saw pictures, taken surreptitiously.

Like other monotheists, they believe in something called “God.” But then it gets interesting, as well as confusing, as these people were illiterate from time out of mind, and their revelation has been orally transmitted since. . .no one knows when.

There are seven holy angels, from what I can make out. Melek Taus, the “Peacock Angel,” was assigned by God to watch over his Creation from the beginning. He is not reliable; though I think identifying him with Satan might go too far. The idea of giving obeisance to a cosmic agent known to be crooked and unpredictable strikes me as odd. Sometimes this Peacock Angel is very bad indeed; sometimes, however, he weeps and asks God for forgiveness. But for sure, he retains great worldly Power.

I think (and am no expert, remember) that the Yazidi attitude towards spiritual beings is, “the art of the deal.” Perhaps this view is shared by most pagan religions: “Let us not take sides between good and evil, it might cost us.” Instead, negotiate with whatever comes forward.

Yazidi temple at Lalesh, several hundred miles northwest of Baghdad
Yazidi temple at Lalesh, several hundred miles northwest of Baghdad

Those I saw (in Mosul) seemed timid and kindly, and rather fetching in their white robes, but again, what could I know? “Live and let live” seemed to be working for them, at the time. I was told that they took insults well; which made them, from a more aggressive Sunni Muslim view, hardly worth insulting. (The Assyrians were used to ignoring insults, too.)

What intrigued me was the possibility that this attitude came less from circumstances, than from religious belief: that the world is full of devils and that compromise with them is what God reasonably expects. Play neutral. Never make a stand. This in turn requires strict “endogamy” for survival – not only marrying, but living, exclusively within the tribe. Avoid any unnecessary mixing.

Alas for them, the Daesh came along. Hundreds of thousands have been slaughtered or exiled. One can only make deals, it seems, with “moderate” devils. Your true, fanatic, and empowered devil-in-human-flesh isn’t the bargaining type.

Perhaps I mentioned that I don’t claim expertise. The Yazidis are as much a mystery to me as the great majority of Evangelicals, blue-collar mainstream Protestants, and Catholics, white-collar ones, and others who live in our North American, post-modern society.

It is not that they don’t “believe” in the presence of evil in this world; or that, Lord forfend, they don’t believe in God. Many attend church, as Melania Trump says she does with her husband: apparently a nice Presbyterian church wherein, as in most Catholic and other churches today, one is taught to feel good about oneself. (I have this by rumor.)

Verily, I have it from Charles Murray and others, that the rich in America are more likely to attend church than the poor, or “underclasses.” They are nice, bourgeois places where one may socialize with others among one’s tribal peers.

Not only rich people, of course. There are churches for white people, and churches for black people, and for every shade of brown; churches for rich, and poor, and every conceivable demographic. And after the “service,” there are coffee klatches where “everyone” is welcome. It is all very nice.

I’ve been trying to make sense of statistics – polls, especially entrance polls, by modern scientific methods – that break down how people vote by age, “gender,” income, “education,” religious affiliation, and so forth. “Charismatic” politicians – Obama and Trump come immediately to mind – seem to cut across all classes.

Particularly, it fascinates me that this last, “religion” category, has ceased to be much use in predicting how they will vote. As a Christian, indeed a zealous Catholic convert, I find it hard to imagine how even a “moderate” one could possibly vote for someone who would be anathematized twenty times over if one applied some minimal catechetical standard.

It is not that Christianity is dying, per se. There may be millions fewer attending church on Sunday than once there were; but still, millions are attending. Why is it so hard, if not impossible, to spot any clumping of them in the polls?

My theory is that their views are “evolving,” and the belief structure with it, to something more like the Yazidi theological view. Let us compromise with the devil, perhaps they are thinking, and he, in his kindness, will leave us alone.

David Warren is a former editor of the Idler magazine and columnist in Canadian newspapers. He has extensive experience in the Near and Far East. His blog, Essays in Idleness, is now to be found at: davidwarrenonline.com.