Thursday Reads: Religious Fascism Continues its MarchPosted: August 7, 2014
I’ve been spending a lot of time studying all kinds of things on the Middle East recently because I believe the human rights violations committed by extremist religious states are dire. It’s almost impossible to pick out a region of the world these days–or a continent–where religious extremists aren’t committing atrocities and removing the rights of others.
I want to start with ISIS. ISIS is a radical Sunni Jihadist group that is tearing through parts of Iraq and Syria. They are destroying historical sites, villages, homes, and competing religions in an attempt to create a homeland for radical Sunnis. They have recently attacked the Yazidis and the Kurds. Yazidis are a hybrid of various traditions of Islam–primarily of the Sufi school–and Zoroastrianism. There are hundreds of thousands of displaced citizens due to recent ISIS aggression into the region.
A humanitarian crisis that could turn into a genocide is taking place right now in the mountains of northwestern Iraq. It hasn’t made the front page, because the place and the people are obscure, and there’s a lot of other horrible news to compete with. I’ve learned about it mainly because the crisis has upended the life of someone I wrote about in the magazine several weeks ago.
Last Sunday, Karim woke up around 7:30 A.M., after coming home late the night before. He was about to have breakfast when his phone rang—a friend was calling to see how he was doing. Karim is a Yazidi, a member of an ancient religious minority in Iraq. Ethnically, he’s Kurdish. An engineer and a father of three young children, Karim spent years working for the U.S. Army in his area, then for an American medical charity. He’s been waiting for months to find out whether the U.S. government will grant him a Special Immigrant Visa because of his service, and because of the danger he currently faces.
Karim is from a small town north of the district center, Sinjar, between Mosul and the Syrian border. Sinjar is a historic Yazidi area with an Arab minority. Depending on who’s drawing the map, Sinjar belongs to either the northernmost part of Iraq or the westernmost part of Kurdistan. Since June, when extremist fighters from the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham captured Mosul, they’ve been on the outskirts of Sinjar, facing off against a small number of Kurdish peshmerga militiamen. ISIS regards Yazidis as devil worshippers, and its fighters have been executing Yazidi men who won’t convert to Islam on the spot, taking away the women as jihadi brides. So there were many reasons why a friend might worry about Karim.
“I don’t know,” Karim said. “My situation is O.K.” “No, it’s not O.K.!” his friend said. “Sinjar is under the control of ISIS.”
Karim had not yet heard this calamitous news. “I’ll call some friends and get back to you,” he said.
But the cell network was jammed, so Karim walked to his father’s house. His father told him that thousands of people from Sinjar were headed their way, fleeing north through the mountains to get out of Iraq and into Kurdistan. It suddenly became clear that Karim would have to abandon his home and escape with his family.
ISIS had launched its attack on Sinjar during the night. Peshmerga militiamen were outgunned—their assault rifles against the extremists’ captured fifty-caliber guns, rocket-propelled grenades, mortars, anti-aircraft weapons, and armored vehicles. The Kurds began to run out of ammunition, and those who could retreated north toward Kurdistan. By dawn, the extremists were pouring into town. Later, ISIS posted triumphant photos on Twitter: bullet-riddled corpses of peshmerga in the streets and dirt fields; an ISIS fighter aiming his pistol at the heads of five men lying face down on the ground; Arab locals who stayed in Sinjar jubilantly greeting the new occupiers.
Karim had time to do just one thing: burn all the documents that connected him to America—photos of him posing with Army officers, a CD from the medical charity—in case he was stopped on the road by militants or his house was searched. He watched the record of his experience during the period of the Americans in Iraq turn to ash, and felt nothing except the urge to get to safety.
The Yezidi are now a diaspora trapped on a mountainside. They practice some of the oldest religious traditions mankind invented and many of their practices and myths found their way to much younger traditions like Christianity.
They are scared of lettuce. They abhor pumpkins. They practise maybe the oldest religion in the world. And now, after at least 6,000 years, they are finally being exterminated, even as I write this.
If you haven’t noticed this epochal crime – the raping and the slaughter – you’re not alone. Of late, the world has focused on the horrors of Gaza. When we’ve had time to acknowledge the Satanic cruelties of Isis, in Iraq, we’ve looked to the barbaric treatment of women, and Christians. Yet the genocide of the Yezidi, by Isis, is as evil as anything going on right now in the Middle East; it is also uniquely destructive of a remarkable cultural survival.
So who are the Yezidi? Some years ago I studied them when researching a thriller. I also traveled to meet their small diaspora community, in Celle, north Germany. And what I found was astonishing.
Yezidism is much older than Islam, and much older than Christianity. It is also deeply peculiar. The Yezidi honour sacred trees. Women must not cut their hair. Marriage is forbidden in April. They avoid wearing dark blue because it is “too holy”.
They are divided strictly into castes, who cannot marry each other. The upper castes are polygamous. Anyone of the faith who marries a non-Yezidi risks ostracism, or worse. Yezidism is syncretistic: it combines elements of many faiths. Like Hindus, they believe in reincarnation. Like ancient Mithraists, they sacrifice bulls. They practise baptism, like Christians. When they pray, they face the sun – like Zoroastrians. There are also strong links with Sufism, the mystical branch of Islam.
Then there is the devil worship: arguably, the Yezidi worship what Christians or Muslims might call “Satan”, though the Yezidi call him “Melek Taus”, and he appears in the form of a peacock angel.
Why might Melek Taus be “the devil”? For a start, the Yezidi believe the peacock angel led a rebellion in heaven: clearly echoing the story of Lucifer, cast into Hell by the Christian God. Also, the very word “Melek” is cognate with “Moloch”, the name of a Biblical demon – who demanded human sacrifice.
The avian imagery of Melek Taus likewise indicates a demonic aspect. The Yezidi come from the ancient lands of Sumeria and Assyria, in modern-day Turkey, Iraq and Kurdistan. Sumerian gods were often cruel, and equipped with beaks and wings. Birdlike. Three thousand years ago the Assyrians worshipped flying demons, spirits of the desert wind. One was the scaly-winged demon in The Exorcist: Pazuzu.
The Yezidi reverence for birds – and snakes – also appears to be extremely old. Excavations at ancient Catalhoyuk, in Turkey, show that the people there revered bird-gods as long ago as 7000BC. Even older is Gobekli Tepe, a megalithic site near Sanliurfa, in Kurdish Turkey (Sanliurfa was once a stronghold of Yezidism). The extraordinary temple of Gobekli Tepe boasts carvings of winged birdmen, and images of buzzards and serpents.
Taking all this evidence into account, a fair guess is that Yezidism is a vastly ancient form of bird-worship, that could date back 6,000 years or more. If this is right, it means that Yezidism is therefore the Ur-religion, the mother ship of Middle Eastern faiths, and it is us who have incorporated Yezidi myths and beliefs into our religions, of Christianity and Islam and Judaism.
ISIS is literally exterminating all those individuals of rival religions. It is destroying their places of worship and any historical artifacts related to their existence.
The Yezidi religion is part of the Kurdish identity. Iraqi Kurdistan’s flag eschews the crescent moon so common on the flags of Islamic countries and opts for fire imagery from the Yezidi religion instead. Many years ago I interviewed the president of Duhok University in Iraq Kurdistan and he seemed to speak for the majority when he professed his affection for these people and their ancient religion. “I am a Muslim,” he told me. “But I love the Yezidis. Theirs is the original religion of the Kurds. Only through the Yezidis can I speak to God in my own language.”
Sinjar is a Kurdish town, but it’s in Nineveh province outside the Kurdish autonomous region. The armed Kurdish Peshmerga forces operating there ran out of ammunition and had little choice but to retreat in the wake of the ISIS assault. Tens of thousands of civilians fled the area and are stranded atop a remote mountain without food, water, or shelter.
Eight years ago I visited the Yezidi “Mecca” in Lalish, Iraq, inside the Kurdish autonomous region a ways south of Duhok. This is where the Yezidis believe the universe was born. Eternal flames burn forever in little shrines. Baba Sheik, their leader, showed me around and took me into their temple.
“All people in the world should be brothers,” he said. “You are welcome here for the rest of your life.”
Meanwhile, we continue to witness the effects of the latest Israeli attack on Gaza. This includes reactions that may surprise you. Universities are supposed to grant professors academic freedom to express unpopular ideas. It’s a hallmark of a free country and an open learning environment. Today, an Arab American professor has lost his job due to his open support of the Palestinian cause on Twitter. I’m going to refer you to the blog of Corey Robin.
Until two weeks ago, Steven Salaita was heading to a job at the University of Illinois as a professor of American Indian Studies. He had already resigned from his position at Virginia Tech; everything seemed sewn up. Now the chancellor of the University of Illinois has overturned Salaita’s appointment and rescinded the offer. Because of Israel.
The sources familiar with the university’s decision say that concern grew over the tone of his comments on Twitter about Israel’s policies in Gaza….
For instance, there is this tweet: “At this point, if Netanyahu appeared on TV with a necklace made from the teeth of Palestinian children, would anybody be surprised? #Gaza.” Or this one: “By eagerly conflating Jewishness and Israel, Zionists are partly responsible when people say antisemitic shit in response to Israeli terror.” Or this one: “Zionists, take responsibility: if your dream of an ethnocratic Israel is worth the murder of children, just fucking own it already.”
In recent weeks, bloggers and others have started to draw attention to Salaita’s comments on Twitter. But as recently as July 22 (before the job offer was revoked), a university spokeswoman defended Salaita’s comments on Twitter and elsewhere. A spokeswoman told The News-Gazette for an article about Salaita that “faculty have a wide range of scholarly and political views, and we recognize the freedom-of-speech rights of all of our employees.”
I’ve written about a number of these types of cases over the past few years, but few have touched me the way this one has.
It’s unbelievable to me that the University of Illinois could be quite so blind to the principles of academic freedom. This is a principle worth defending.
While Salaita has been until very recently very active on Twitter, he stopped posting several days ago, which is unusual for him. He is an active writer beyond Twitter, with op-eds (which of late have identified him as an Illinois professor) and with campaigns on behalf of the movement to organize an academic boycott of Israel. He has also published scholarly books, including Israel’s Dead Soul (Temple University Press) and Arab American Literary Fictions, Cultures, and Politics (Palgrave Macmillan).
Salaita’s writing last year, while at Virginia Tech, drew fierce attacks (including death threats). In a piece in Salon, he questioned the idea that people should be asked in various ways to “support the troops.”
“ ‘Support the troops’ is the most overused platitude in the United States, but still the most effective for anybody who seeks interpersonal or economic ingratiation,” Salaita wrote. “The platitude abounds with significance but lacks the burdens of substance and specificity. It says something apparently apolitical while patrolling for heresy to an inelastic logic. Its only concrete function is to situate users into normative spaces.”
While Virginia Tech did not fire him (as many critics urged it to do), some faculty members thought the university — in pointing out that his views didn’t reflect those of the institution — didn’t do enough to defend his academic freedom.
Some who have raised questions about Salaita at Illinois have stressed that they are focused on what they see as incivility and bigotry, not opposition to Israeli or American policies.
I do not understand why folks cannot separate the actions of a state that claims religiosity from the adherents of the various forms of that religion. I found this Youtube from Irish Politician David Patrick Bernard who is also a Gay activist. He effectively expresses the exasperation that many of us feel when looking at the actions of the right wing Israeli, Neocon, government.
Unprecedented numbers of Jewish Americans are organizing to call for an end to Israel’s devastating assault on Gaza. In a coordinated effort in dozens of cities across the US, Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP) chapters have organized street protests, demonstrations and civil disobedience actions to call for an end to the invasion, an end to the 7-year-old siege, and an end to the 47-year occupation of Palestine. Since the initiation of the most recent assault on Gaza on July 7, upwards of 1822 Palestinians including at least 377 children and 67 Israelis, 3 of them civilians, have been killed.
“Every time Israel engages in high-profile repression of civilians, we get inundated. But we have never seen anything like this. Our mailing list grew by 50,000 in 3 weeks and we can’t keep up with the demand for new chapters. This is the final straw for many Jews, who have decided that their silence implies consent,” Said Rabbi Alissa Wise, JVP Co-Director of Organizing and Chair of the JVP Rabbinical Council.
Activists in Jewish Voice for Peace chapters across the US are targeting American companies that profit from the occupation, Congressional leaders, and Jewish institutions that rally behind Israel’s violence against civilians in Gaza.
I find it profoundly disturbing that we can still witness killing and injustice in the name of iron age mythology. Fundamentalist version of all religions exist and generally are not positive operators in the world of human rights. I’m appalled to read stories like these coming from Burma where “radical Buddhist monks” call for and commit acts of violence against minority Muslims.
Members of Burma’s Buddhist majority, including some of its much-respected monks, are increasingly persecuting the country’s long-suffering Muslim minority and adopting an ideology that encourages religious violence. It seems a far way from the Buddhism typically associated with stoic monks and the Lama – who has condemned the violence – and more akin to the sectarian extremism prevalent in troubled corners of the Middle East. The violence has already left nearly 250 Burmese Muslim civilians dead, forced 150,000 from their homes and is getting worse.
“You can be full of kindness and love, but you cannot sleep next to a mad dog,” Ashin Wirathu, a spiritual leader of the movement and very popular figure in Burma, said of the country’s Muslims, whom he called “the enemy.” He told the New York Times, “I am proud to be called a radical Buddhist.”
Wirathu calls himself “the Burmese bin Laden” and was recently labeled on the cover of Time magazine as “the face of Burmese terror.” A prominent Burmese human rights activist, after a lifetime of fighting government oppression, now warns that Wirathu’s movement is promoting an ideology akin to neo-Nazism.
You would not expect to see that last description applied to a Buddhist monk but there it is. Religion cannot hide behind its supposed sacredness and hide from all criticism while acting in a manner that would please a fascist. Yet, there it is. Over and over and over. The Muslim minority in Burma are subjected to all kinds of atrocities at the hands of the Buddhist majority.
Any ideology that asserts its supremacy using politics, violence, and suppression must be held accountable in the court of public opinion. You cannot commit war crimes and atrocities with your hands while crying we’re being oppressed as religion with your mouth. Which of these children belongs to which religion and which deserves to die because of it?
I want to close with a quote from a member of Israel’s Knesset who called for genocide of Palestinian children and their mothers. Ayelet Shaked belongs to the extreme right wing party Jewish Home. It is followed by a response from an Israeli writer. This is written by William McGowen on MondoWeiss
Wrote Shaked on Facebook (italics, mine):
The Palestinian people has declared war on us, and we must respond with war. Not an operation, not a slow-moving one, not low-intensity, not controlled escalation, no destruction of terror infrastructure, no targeted killings. Enough with the oblique references. This is a war. Words have meanings. This is a war. It is not a war against terror, and not a war against extremists, and not even a war against the Palestinian Authority. These too are forms of avoiding reality. This is a war between two people. Who is the enemy? The Palestinian people. Why? Ask them, they started.
I don’t know why it’s so hard for us to define reality with the simple words that language puts at our disposal. Why do we have to make up a new name for the war every other week, just to avoid calling it by its name. What’s so horrifying about understanding that the entire Palestinian people is the enemy? Every war is between two peoples, and in every war the people who started the war, that whole people, is the enemy. A declaration of war is not a war crime. Responding with war certainly is not. Nor is the use of the word “war”, nor a clear definition who the enemy is. Au contraire: the morality of war (yes, there is such a thing) is founded on the assumption that there are wars in this world, and that war is not the normal state of things, and that in wars the enemy is usually an entire people, including its elderly and its women, its cities and its villages, its property and its infrastructure.
Behind every terrorist stand dozens of men and women, without whom he could not engage in terrorism. They are all enemy combatants, and their blood shall be on all their heads. Now this also includes the mothers of the martyrs, who send them to hell with flowers and kisses. They should follow their sons, nothing would be more just. They should go, as should the physical homes in which they raised the snakes. Otherwise, more little snakes will be raised there.”
Responding in the Independent (UK,) Israeli writer Mira Bar Hillel said Shaked’s remarks had brought her to the brink of burning her Israeli passport. Bar Hillel:
I can no longer stand by, while Israeli politicians like Ayelet Shaked condone the deaths of innocent Palestinian women and children.
She is young. She is pretty. She is a university graduate and a computer engineer. She is also an Israeli Parliamentarian – and the reason why I am on the brink of burning my Israeli passport. Because behind that wide-eyed innocent face lurks the Angel of Death.
Shaked’s “snake” metaphor is interesting. She must not have gotten the memo circulated by Pro Israel Language Police in the US banning words like “snakes.” And let’s not even mention the Nazi “vermin” metaphor. I also found it interesting that she would reference the “morality of war” while spewing the kind of venom that shows she has no idea what that morality involves. In fact, the kind of venom which is that morality’s utter nullification.
Above is a shot of Ayelet Shaked with her Jewish Home Party leader Naftali Bennett, who is close to Dan Senor, Mitt Romney’s foreign policy adviser and frequent talking head on American television. Those like Senor arguing “shared values” as the underpinning of the US-Israeli “special relationship” might take note. If I recall correctly, Rwandan political figures who made calls analogous to Shaked’s in the run up to, and during, the genocide there in the 1990′s, are barred from entering the US.
All of these children come from the countries I’ve mentioned in today’s post. I don’t see any snakes. Could Shaked point out the Jewish child(ren )of Israel? Which one or ones are Palestinian?
Lastly, there is this article by Giles Fraser of The Guardian interviewing Israelis including a journalist Gideon Levy who writes for Haaretz who must have body guards because his cries for peace put his life in danger. It also includes a discussion with Amos Oz and a group of young Israelis.
Amos Oz, Israel’s great literary conscience, explains to me that the peace movement was dealt a harsh blow eight years ago when Ariel Sharon pulled the army and the settlers out of Gaza only for the situation to get worse. “Since then there have been 10,000 rockets fired from the Gaza strip.” Middle-of-the-road Israelis have lost faith in the idea that you could swap land for peace. For him, the current military operation is “excessive but justified” and he is scornful of the high-minded European reaction. “That’s the problem with Europeans. They launch a petition and then go and sleep and feel good about themselves,” something he explains with reference to European history. I feel he is having a go at me. And I know he is laid up in bed with a bad knee. So I don’t rise to the bait.
He continues: “The history of warfare in the 20th century has made Europeans see things in black and white, like a Hollywood movie, with good guys and bad guys. But it’s more complicated than that.” Yes, he condemns the Netanyahu government and the catalogue of inaction and missed opportunities. Yes, the operation in Gaza has been disproportionate. “From one perspective it looks like a David and Goliath story, with Israel being the ruthless Goliath and the Palestinians being the poor little David. But if you see the conflict as between Israel and the whole of the rest of the Arab world, who then is David and who is Goliath?”
I attempt to shift Oz off this well-trodden ground by talking about Israeli poetry, trying to come at things sideways. I tell him I have always loved that Yehuda Amichai poem “From the place where we are right, flowers will not grow in the spring.” He agrees. It’s a wonderful poem. “All married couples should have that poem above their bed,” he says. And then he says something that feels to me like a real shift in his position. Previously he has described the Israeli/Palestinian conflict as a Sophoclean tragedy over land in which both sides have a claim to right on their side; as a battle, as he put it of “right versus right”. But now, he says, this is a battle of “wrong versus wrong”. No one is in the right any more. It is a very statesmanlike form of opposition. But it is hardly emphatic.
“Amos Oz is not yet in a position to admit entire Israeli guilt,” Levy explains. “He is a real man of peace but he grew up in a different generation, the generation before me. He grew up in this weak state, struggling to survive, created out of nothing. This is his background.”
This sort of self-critical vigilance is rare but understandable given the sort of reporting that goes on in themainstream media in Israel. Most newspapers and TV channels are simply cheerleaders for the government line, offering a constant diet of fear and fallen heroes, with little evidence of any of the atrocities going on in Gaza. The problem is, ordinary Israelis have little idea what has been going on. I know so much more about what is happening in Gaza when I’m sitting in London than I do in Tel Aviv. Under this level of information manipulation, how can ordinary Israelis be expected to be critical?
Later I gather for a drink at a friend’s flat in Tel Aviv with a group of late 20s/early 30s, broadly leftwing activists, NGO types that I was expecting would share my exasperation. And I make a mistake, assuming too much common ground. I ask whether their fear of rockets is properly calibrated to reality, given that people are so much more likely to die in a car accident in Israel than at the hands of Hamas. And there is an awkward reaction. The question was insensitive. They have loved ones in uniform in Gaza. And I really do understand that. But suddenly I feel like an outsider. I haven’t appreciated that this threat is existential, they say. “People leave their liberalism at the green line [the 1967 border],” Levy had warned me earlier. “The young people are the worst. More ignorant. More brainwashed. They have never met a Palestinian in their lives”.
That is emphatically not true of this group. But even here, the mood for social justice does not seem to connect poverty in Israel with the vast financial cost of occupation, let alone allowing empathy with the Palestinian predicament. If I’m not with them I’m against them. I am made to feel a little like an apologist for Hamas. A thought dawns in my head: perhaps I too ought to shut up and keep the evening sweet. Of all the things seen on my trip, this was the most depressing conversation of them all.
What’s on your reading and blogging list today ?