A Very Brief History of the Yazidi and What They're Up Against in Iraq

There's a long history behind the Yazidi community, and there are more than enough explainers out on the Internet ready to go. Here are five key points to take away

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As the Islamic State militant group continues to seize more parts of Iraq, they also continue to drive out the members of the Yazidi community. An ethnic minority concentrated in northern part of the country, the Yazidis were little known in tehe West before this week, but they have been among the hardest hit by ISIL violent offensive, as they have been driven away from their homes with little resources.

In response, the Obama administration has authorized airstrikes in Iraq, in an effort to not just repel the Islamic State militants, but to address the humanitarian crisis involving the Yazidis.

"In recent days, Yazidi women, men, and children from the area of Sinjar have fled for their lives," President Obama said. "And thousands—perhaps tens of thousands—are now hiding high up on [a] mountain, with little but the clothes on their backs."

The immediate question everyone's raised, of course, has been "Who are the Yazidis, and why are they being persecuted?" There's a long history behind the Yazidi community, and there are more than enough explainers out on the Internet ready to go. Here at The Wire, we've parsed out the four key points to take away:

The Yazidi community by the numbers

Number of Yazidis estimated to be living in Iraq: 400,000 to 500,000
Number of Yazidis worldwide: 700,000
Number of refugees driven to Mount Sinjar (most are Yazidis): 40,000
Number of Yazidis who fled the country as ISIL began its rise: 70,000

Misunderstanding turned into name-calling turned into persecution

Here's what Yazidi means: "Worshippers of god." The root of the name comes from the Persian "ized," which means "angel" or "deity."

Here's what extremists think Yazidi means: "Worshippers of the devil" but we'll get to that. Some think the name comes from Yazid ibn Muawiya, an unpopular second caliph of the Umayyad dynasty harkening back to the 7th Century. The ones who believe the devil definition have been misinformed: The Yazidi believe in a supreme being named Yasdan, whose seven great spirits include the Peacock Angel named Malak Taus. In turn, Malak Taus, who is supposed to be God's alter ego, has an alternate name of Shaytan, which in Arabic means "devil." Because the Yazidi believe in continual rebirth, Malak Taus exists in, but that doesn't define their faith.

Over at Quartz, managing editor Bobby Ghosh (a former Time magazine Baghdad bureau chief) put it this way:

Many Iraqi Muslims refer to Yazidis as “devil-worshipers,” because one of the faith’s foundational narratives of a fallen angel is similar to that of shaitan (or Satan) in IslamWhen I traveled to Sinjar in 2003, my Iraqi colleagues, Sunni and Shi’ite alike, used the term “devil-worshipers” as a joke, even a term of endearmentISIL, however, is taking the false claim of satanism as deadly serious.

The U.S. invasion in 2003 helped the Yazidis... and then didn't

When the U.S. invaded Iraq in 2003 to oust Saddam Hussein's regime, it first benefited minorities like the Yazidi community. They moved out of villages, resettled, and largely avoided the fighting at the start of the war.

Then, al-Qaeda began to take control of the country, and in turn targeted the Yazidi. In 2007, coordinated bomb blasts in a Yazidi village killed about 800 people in the single worst terror attack following the Americans arrival. Since then, the Yazidi have tried to remain alone in their mountainous homeland, but they easily became a target for the Islamic State.

The Islamic State's siege has only gotten more aggressive over time, capturing the Yazidi heartland of Sinjar early on, as well as many of their shrines.

An alliance with the Kurds

Traditionally, the Yazidi community have hidden from threats by withdrawing into the mountains, but because of the Islamic State, they've fled farther than before, with few resources for survival. Because of this, they're slowly starving to death, turning the conflict into the potential genocide of a religious minority.

But Obama's airstrikes won't rescue them completely. The Kurdish peshmerga military forces have been shouldering the brunt of the responsibility, and the U.S. can largely provide aerial cover as opposed to having boots on the ground. Plus, the Kurdish want the Yazidis as part of their community—historically, "attempts were made to bring the Sinjar mountains back into the Kurdish provinces," according to Sebastian Maisel, a professor at Grand Valley State University.

In the meantime, the U.S.-led military and humanitarian intervention has begun in Iraq and is working to quell the Islamic State's efforts. But as White House spokesman Josh Earnest repeated today, it will be up the Iraqis to solve the long-term problem crushing the ISIL revolt.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.