Securing a future for religious minorities in the Middle East



By Ben Cohen/

You have to wonder if the barbarians fighting under the flag of the Islamic State still believe that 72 virgins will be waiting for them in paradise once they become "martyrs."

Iraqi Yazidi refugees in Newroz camp receive help from International Rescue Committee after fleeing their homes in 2014. Credit: Wikimedia Commons. 

I say this not because the leaders and foot soldiers of ISIS have suddenly woken up to the possibility that this belief is based, according to several scholars, on a mistranslation of the relevant verse of the Qu'ran; that would be expecting too much of them. I say this because they have already had a taste of that paradise here on earth, as a result of their campaign of genocide against the Yazidi religious minority in Iraq and Syria. One aspect of this horrific slaughter has been the kidnapping of thousands of Yazidi women and girls to serve as sexual slaves to these savages.

A recent report from the U.N. Human Rights Council – a body that spends most of its time condemning Israel for alleged human rights violations – sheds some light on both the scale and the nature of the genocide, which was ignored by the international community for far too long. The campaign against the Yazidis was launched by ISIS over two years ago, in Aug. 2014, when its forces began an assault upon the Yazidi villages in Sinjar, a district in the northern Iraqi province of Nineveh. At least 5,000 Yazidis have been killed during the genocide, while 3,200 women and children remain in ISIS captivity. About 70,000, estimated to make up 15 percent of the overall Yazidi population, are reported to have fled Iraq.

The stories related by the U.N. report will be depressingly familiar to anyone who has studied genocide over the last century. Men and boys are either executed or forcibly converted, while women and girls exist solely for the use and pleasure of ISIS terrorists. The manner of the persecution is gruesome. "After we were captured, ISIS forced us to watch them beheading some of our Yazidi men," said one 16-year-old girl. "They made the men kneel in a line in the street, with their hands tied behind their backs. The ISIS fighters took knives and cut their throats."

Iraqi Yazidi children receiving stuffed animals from an international aid group. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Despite this reign of terror, the Yazidis have not been destroyed as a distinctive group. Before the ISIS attacks began, around 700,000 Yazidis are said to have lived in Iraq, the largest single concentration of the religion's followers. Kurdish in terms of their ethnicity, the Yazidi faith is described by scholars as syncretic, which means it combines elements of other religions, including Judaism, Zoroastrianism, Christianity and Islam. Based on that, it's worth noting that ISIS isn't the only Islamist group that regards the Yazidis as infidels. The theology of more mainstream Islamist groups, like the Muslim Brotherhood, assigns them a similar status.

Presently, the main focus for the Yazidis is the rescue of their women and girls from the clutches of ISIS. Often this is done through ransom payments, involving middlemen who collect huge sums from their families – one recently reunited family paid a total of $34,000 for their two daughters – which are then paid to ISIS. After their release, both girls said they didn't expect that they would see each other again, describing their captors as "dirty and abusive," who subjected them to regular beatings. 

What this illustrates is the need for greater physical security for the Yazidis, as well as for other religious minorities in the region, if and when ISIS is defeated. Without that concrete measure, continued religious and ethnic conflict in the Middle East will target vulnerable minorities first and foremost.

A Yazidi resistance fighter holding his people's flag. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

For that reason, the decision of the Iraqi parliament on Oct. 4 to reject Yazidi and Assyrian Christian appeals for separate provinces should spark concern. "The Iraqi people reject any decision that partitions the Nineveh province. The people of the city determine the destiny of their city in the post-Islamic State (IS) stage," said Ahmed al-Jabra, a Sunni member of parliament, justifying the vote. Conveniently, for the Sunni Arab population, the vote also means that Yazidis and other minorities, who have been dispossessed from the region, will be reluctant to come back. Viyan Dakhil, a Yazidi member of the Iraqi parliament, has already said that Yazidis will be wary of returning to the Nineveh province without significant changes in its administration.

It was Dakhil who first alerted the world to the slaughter of the Yazidis in 2014, when her emotional plea to the world to save her people went viral on the internet. In a speech earlier this year at the U.N. in Geneva, arranged by the dedicated staff of the U.N. Watch nongovernmental organization, Dakhil declared, "The international community has to support us, to call upon the U.N. Security Council to recognize what is happening to us as genocide, and to refer our case to the International Criminal Court." And there are signs that process is in motion, with both the U.S. and British governments formally acknowledging that the Yazidis have experienced a genocide in the legal sense of the term.

What is worrying is that measures to protect the Yazidis from future brutalities have been set back by the Iraqi parliament decision. As Jews from Middle Eastern countries know only too well, being a minority in the midst of profound instability in Arab and Muslim societies is not a fate anyone would want. The only way to protect yourself is by exercising some significant degree of self-determination, including the right of self-defense, secured by international guarantee. After all, we Jews were only able to say "Never again" once we secured the means to prevent further persecution, in the form of the state of Israel. The other religious minorities of the Middle East deserve no less.

Ben Cohen


Ben Cohen, senior editor of & The Tower Magazine, writes a weekly column for on Jewish affairs and Middle Eastern politics. His writings have been published in Commentary, the New York Post, Haaretz, The Wall Street Journal, and many other publications. He is the author of “Some of My Best Friends: A Journey Through Twenty-First Century Antisemitism” (Edition Critic, 2014).


Posted on October 7, 2016 and filed under Opinion, News.