The Iraqi Minorities in ISIS's Crosshairs

Communities face existential danger as the Islamic State marches on.

Displaced people from the minority Yazidi sect, fleeing the violence in the Iraqi town of Sinjar (Ari Jalal/Reuters)

“In one day, they killed more than two thousand Yazidi in Sinjar, and the whole world says, ‘Save Gaza, save Gaza.'”

The poignant lament of an Iraqi named Karim, quoted in The New Yorker, captures the helpless frustration of many minorities facing existential danger in areas controlled by ISIS, the terrorist group, while much of the world has been transfixed by the war between Israel and Hamas. While both Israelis and Palestinians have carelessly bandied about the word “genocide,” it is a real threat for the communities in ISIS’s crosshairs.

A quick recap: Before the latest conflict started in Gaza in early July, ISIS had attacked parts of northern Iraq and was threatening Baghdad. Since then it has consolidated its hold on large swathes of northern Iraq and eastern Syria. By some reckoning, it now controls an area the size of Britain. The group has, it would seem, put off the idea of a frontal attack on Baghdad, but while shoring up the defenses of the Iraqi capital, the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has been unable to reclaim much territory from ISIS. Iraq’s second-largest city, Mosul, is in effect the group’s capital.

In the past couple of weeks, ISIS has sought new territory, making a successful foray into areas where ethnic Kurds are a majority. These include the city of Sinjar, west of Mosul. Islamist groups associated with ISIS have also pushed into Lebanon.

Dividing Iraq
Iraq's ethno-religious distribution and areas controlled by insurgent or ethnic groups. (M. Izadi - Gulf/2000 Project; Columbia University; Kurdistan Regional Government; Reuters)

ISIS, a death cult led by self-appointed “Caliph” Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi, hates pretty much everyone who doesn’t agree with his particular, perverted interpretation of Islam. That includes fellow Sunni Muslims, be they Arab or Kurd. And ISIS fighters seems to take special, sadistic relish in slaughtering Shiites, whom they regard as apostates. The Shiites are the majority in Iraq as a whole, and dominate the central government in Baghdad, but are a minority in the north, where ISIS is now rampant.

Many Shiites can flee—some already have—southward, and find refuge among family and those of their own sect; many of my Shiite friends in Baghdad are currently sheltering northerners sent to them by religious organizations. Kurds, likewise, have been streaming into the Kurdish-dominated areas to the north and west of ISIS-controlled territory. Yet another minority, the Assyrians, most of whom are Christians, have also fled south, and now await succor from the West, especially from groups of well-established Iraqi Christians in the U.S., who themselves fled previous spasms of persecution.

But other minorities, just as vulnerable to the wrath of ISIS, have neither international support nor nearby refuge. And ISIS seems to have identified them for special persecution.

The Yazidis: Numbering roughly 500,000, and concentrated around Sinjar, this group is ethnically Kurdish and adheres to a faith that has some aspects of ancient Zoroastrianism. 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 Islam. When I traveled to Sinjar in 2003, my Iraqi colleagues, Sunni and Shiite alike, used the term “devil-worshipers” as a joke, even a term of endearment. ISIS, however, is taking the false claim of satanism as deadly serious. Hundreds, possibly thousands, of Yazidis have already been killed and tens of thousands have been driven into the mountains around Sinjar, where they are exposed to the elements as well as ISIS execution squads.

The Shabak: Also concentrated around Sinjar, the Shabak are about one-tenth as numerous as the Yazidis, and even more vulnerable. Their faith doesn’t lend itself to easy definitions, since it comprises several micro-sects with elements of several religions, including Islam, Christianity, and the Yazidi faith. Some Shabak identify as Shiite; that makes them double-heretics for ISIS, which has taken to kidnapping Shabaks from their villages and neighborhoods in Mosul.

Shiite Turkmen: Ethnically connected to Turks, Iraqi Turkmen are a large minority, with estimates ranging up to 3 million people. They are for the most part Muslims, with Sunnis slightly outnumbering Shiites. Historically, Turkmen have enjoyed a stronger position than most minorities; they have been represented in the higher echelons of the government and military. But the Shiites among them have run afoul of ISIS, which has destroyed their places of worship. To complicate matters, many Turkmen are wary of the territorial ambitions of the Kurds, and now find themselves caught between the two.

Leaders of all these minority groups have sent increasingly desperate pleas—to the Maliki government, to the U.S., to the UN—for help. But while some appeals have gone viral online, and the UN has engaged in its usual pro-forma hand-wringing, the SOS has gone largely unanswered as the world focused on Gaza. Now that the ceasefire there appears (fingers crossed) to be holding, there’s no excuse not to respond.