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March 26, 2010

A Conditional Coexistence:Yezidi in Armenia

Ian S. McIntosh

In August 2001 the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) held a conference in Armenia on the practical implementation of the European Convention on the Protection of National Minorities. A series of recommendations was issued, including one to amend the Armenian constitution to make it correspond with the terms and conditions of the European convention and other international norms regarding the involvement of minorities in state institutions. The impact was negligible. In the Republic of Armenia’s 2002 periodic report to the U.N. Committee for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD), it declared itself mono-ethnic, ignoring the presence and contributions of three percent of the population, composed of the Molokans (Old Believers), Bosha (Gypsies), Assyrians, and the largest minority, the Yezidi. This tendency for Armenians to openly declare their country homogenous reads more as a prophecy than a wish. Representatives of national minorities fear that it may be self-fulfilling.

In Armenia, the 42,000-strong but declining Kurmanji (Kurdish)-speaking Yezidi population lives peacefully alongside the Orthodox apostolic Armenian majority.1 It is a conditional coexistence: the majority of Yezidis do not identify themselves as Kurds or with the international Kurdish movement, nor do they openly support the Kurdish freedom fighter Ocalan.2

Of a total Kurdish population of 20 million worldwide, perhaps five percent or 1 million identify as Yezidi, but only in Armenia is there a war of words over the reality of a Yezidi/Yezidi Kurd divide. At public meetings in Armenia where minority issues are discussed, Yezidi Kurds are mocked and often shouted down, as if their mere presence threatened Armenian Yezidis’ tenuous survival odds. “There is no such thing as a Yezidi Kurd,” is an oft-repeated phrase. To be called a Kurd is an insult for some, while others are divided in their willingness to associate themselves with their Kurdish brothers and sisters fighting for justice and a homeland for all Kurds.

The situation of Yezidis in Armenia is of great symbolic significance to Kurds in neighboring countries, who enjoy little freedom. As part of its official policy, the Kurdish Worker’s Party (PKK) praises Armenia for tolerating the presence of Yezidi Kurds. In Turkey, Kurdish homes and villages have been destroyed, and in Azerbaijan more than 150,000 Kurds have been forcibly assimilated. In Iraq, where the sacred Yezidi temple of Lalesh is located, the situation is currently unstable given the rise of the Taliban-inspired fundamentalist Kurdish group Ansar al Islam, and recent reports from Iran suggest that persecution is on the rise for Kurmanji speakers. Armenia, at least, enjoys peace, if not harmony.

Yezidis in Armenia, however, also suffer; they live secluded lives unprotected by the law, without access to education in their own language, and without adequate health care facilities. While not subject to overt discrimination, they live as if in a vacuum. No Yezidi representatives sit in the National Assembly and no legal framework exists for the protection of Yezidi rights. When not ignored, these nomadic stock-breeders face derision at the hands of the ignorant for their supposed “satanic” beliefs.

An important question to consider is whether Yezidi isolation is self-imposed and in accord with their culture or a product of the exclusionary policies of the Armenian government. Similarly, one might ask whether the current exodus of Yezidi to places such as Georgia, Russia, and Western Europe is a reflection of the lack of official recognition of this minority or of the crippling economic hardships being experienced in the post-Soviet period. After six months of observation and study, I would argue that the two questions are linked and that the heart of the problem for Yezidi is their over-politicized and contested identity.

Disparagingly referred to in the Middle East as the “buzzard worshippers of Mesopotamia,” the ancient and closed society of Yezidi have a long history of persecution largely due to their refusal to assimilate and the perception that they are “Satan’s apologists.” (Asatrian and Arakelova, 2002) Yezidism is a curious amalgam of Sufism and Zoroastrianism, with Nestorian Christian, Jewish, and Manichean elements. The origin myths of the Yezidi religion are shrouded in mystery, and publicly available details are often in dispute. Misinformation abounds. The World Directory of Minorities, for instance, reports that the Yezidi descendfrom Adam, not Eve, and a perusal of “Yezidi” Web sites finds the common misconception that evil pervades the Yezidi worldview. Victoria Arakelova (2001) suggests that the origin of these misrepresentations is the secrecy associated with Yezidism. As a means of distancing themselves from Islam and preserving their own holy scriptures, the Yezidi never adopted the Arabic script, nor any other script, consigning themselves to “illiteracy and obscurity.” (Arakelova 2001)

A summary of Yezidism’s major tenets is nigh impossible, with as many variations as there are scholars. Kurdish historian Mehrdad Izady’s understanding, though challenged in its finer points by other students of Yezidism, is as follows:
At the beginning of time, the universal spirit created the cosmic egg (white pearl) out of its most precious essence, then created a bird and placed the pearl on its back and dwelt there for forty thousand years. On the first day of creation the spirit created Malak Tawus—the peacock angel—and on the following days, six other angels—including Lucifer. It is the peacock angel who created the material world using the dismembered pieces of the original egg in which the universal spirit once dwelt. This spirit played no part in the act of creation. Lucifer has authority and power over worldly affairs and is in charge of all the world’s creatures, and is a counselor and friend to Yezidi.3

Both the World Directory of Minorities and Izady refer to the Yezidi as Kurds, but, as Asatrian and Arakelova note, Kurds are not a monolithic entity. The ethnonym “Kurd,” as a reference to a distinct nation made up of many diverse groups like the Zaza, is a 19th century phenomenon born of necessity in the Kurdish diaspora. The Yezidi are a distinct ethno-religious group with a unique set of castes (sheiks, elders, and laypeople) and sacred texts. As language is not necessarily the primary marker of identity, self-classification as “Kurd” for these non-Muslims is largely a matter of choice. One cannot choose, however, to be Yezidi. One must be born such.

But as with all other ethnic issues in the Caucasus, the politics of Yezidi identity are complicated. Yezidi began arriving in Armenia in the early 1800s fleeing oppression by Ottomans and forcible attempts by Sunni Kurdish tribes to convertthem to Islam. Yezidi were victims alongside Armenians in the genocide of 1915 and many fled to the Russian-held territories in eastern Armenia. Later, the Soviets exiled or murdered Yezidi priests; their sacred ceremony, in which a peacock icon is revealed, was banned from the Caucasus.

Prior to 1922, the Armenian Yezidi were considered a group separate from the Kurds, but from 1936 to 1989 the Soviets referred to them as one and the same ethno-linguistic group, separated only by religion. (Arakelova, 2001) A revival of Yezidi identity occurred with the rise of national self-consciousness in the late 1980s, and in 1989, Armenian authorities once again referred to the Yezidi as a separate population. But the origins of the dispute over identity lies not only with the Soviet agenda but also with the Azeri-Armenian war beginning in 1988, which ushered in a period of terrible loss of life and ethnic cleansing throughout much of the South Caucasus. While Muslim Kurds did not take up arms against Armenians, nearly all fled their homes in Armenia, Red Kurdistan,4 and Nagorno Karabagh, along with the Muslim Azeri community. Suspected Azeri sympathizers were enemies of the state and unwelcome in the new republic, and the Muslim Kurds were “guilty” by association.5 Yezidi Kurds also did not take part in the hostilities and remained in their isolated mountain retreats in Armenia. Because the Yezidi were considered to be Kurds during this period, special funding was available for Kurdish television programming and media reporting, and Armenia was a center for Kurdish academic studies. In the post-conflict period, however, the Yezidi renounced their Kurdish links, even changing the name oftheir language, in order to distance themselves from their Kurdish brethren.6 This decision was promoted by the first Armenian President, Ter-Petrossian, and his policy of supporting an Armenian Yezidi identity continues today under President Robert Kocharian.

The rationale of opponents of a Yezidi-Kurd identity has another dimension: If Yezidi are Kurds, then parts of Armenia might be considered part of greater Kurdistan, and Armenia becomes a potential site for PKK bases and the harboring of Kurdish “terrorists.” In other words, it is a threat to Armenian independence and territorial sovereignty. If the Yezidi are distinct from Kurds, however, their problems are merely domestic in nature. The politically correct view within the republic is to see Armenians and Yezidis as historical brothers in arms against Turks and Azeris, as well as those Kurds who helped facilitate the genocide in 1915. When the Yezidi are denied a Kurdish identity, the emerging international sense of unity within the Kurdish diaspora is diminished.

In its concluding observations at a meeting on August 14, 2002, CERD asked for Armenia to pass legislation that would bring its laws into line with that of the various international covenants that it has signed. But while the republic has ratified a number of international human rights instruments, enabling legislation has not been forthcoming. A draft law on national minorities, for instance, remains on the back burner. Allegations of prejudice toward minorities are mounting but were not considered in Armenia’s periodic report to CERD. Yezidi claim they are subject to discrimination at the hands of local authorities and say there is a lack of police response when crimes are committed against them.

Yezidi oppose the government’s plan to privatize their lands, as in Kotayk province. They fear the move will have an adverse effect on their ability to maintain their culture. But even without the privatization, their continued existence within Armenia—even after 200 years of residence in the Caucasus—remains in the hands of Armenians. The current unofficial Armenian national motto of “One country, one language, one people” is hardly a basis for the Yezidi’s long-term security or happiness. Yezidi must either attempt the impossible and integrate, abandoning their age-old traditional lifestyles, or try their luck on the immigration lines—joining their Kurdish cousins in exile in Western Europe.

Two-thirds of all Armenians were scattered in the diaspora following the 1915 genocide and Armenians now constitute a minority in many countries, including Iraq, Iran, Syria, Lebanon, and Egypt. In all these settings they maintain a low profile, and minorities in the newly independent Armenian republic are expected to do the same. Many diverse populations have gathered in this vibrant but struggling multicultural nation, bringing with them the traditions of their former homes in countries such as Ethiopia, India, and France. It behooves those in power in Armenia, in this historic period of nation-building, to promote, also, the place of its minorities as Armenians of distinct cultural heritage.
1. 17 percent live in Yezidi-only villages and 83 percent in mixed Yezidi/Armenian villages
2. The imprisoned leader of the PKK, the Kurdish Worker’s Party.
3. In Asatrian and Arakelova’s (2002) version, Malak Tawus, the principal member of a holy trinity including Shaykh ‘Adi and Sultan Yezid, combines the attributes of divinity with the characteristics of a fallen angel. Thus Yezidism is the so-called “Apology of Satan.”
4. The region of Azerbaijan located between Karabagh and Armenia, which is now an unrecognized part of Karabagh.
5. Muslim Kurds number, at most, 1,000 people in Armenia today.
6. According to Arakelova, the Yezidi refer to the Kurmanji language as Ezdiki.
Ian S. McIntosh is senior editor for Cultural Survival.
References and further reading
Arakelova, V. (2001). Healing practices among the Yezidi Sheiks of Armenia. Asian Folklore Studies 60. Pp 319-328.
Asatrian, G. & Arakelova, V. (2002). The Ethnic Minorities of Armenia. Yerevan, Armenia: Caucasian Center for Iranian Studies, Yerevan State University.
CERD (2002). Concluding Observations of the Committee for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination in regards Armenia’s reports CERD/C/372/SR.1529 and 1530.
Izady, M.R. (1992). The Kurds, A Concise Handbook.
World Directory of Minorities. (1997). London: Minority Rights Group.