Sunday, May 17, 2009

The Kooky Monotheistic Religions of Northern Iraq

When Americans think of the Middle East, they generally think "muslims". As in Islam, with its mosques and Mecca and oppression of women.

Look closely, however, and you will see more. Much more.

A Sunni Mosque in Central Kirkuk

There are Jews in Iraq. And Christians. And Yezidis, Yursan, and Zoroastrians. Granted they are in the minority, but they all boast a culture as rich and varied as the muslims.

Don't forget that ancient Mesopotamia, aka the Fertile Crescent, is where civilization began. It is where father Abraham was born, and where Imam Ali made his last stand. It is the birthplace of monotheism, in all its wacky incarnations. That is why I would like to take you, gentle reader, on a tour of what I like to call...

The Kooky Monotheistic Religions of Northern Iraq


Yes there are still Jews who live in Iraq. Like, seven of them. And I'm not sure they realize they are Jewish. Baghdad, Iraq's capital, used to be known as a multi-cultural melting pot of sectarian tolerance. It boasted a 2600-year old Jewish community ("By the Rivers Of Babylon", anyone?) that had contributed for years to every aspect of Iraqi culture.

The inside of the Baghdad Synagogue

But then the 20th century, with its oil, anti-zionism, and Saddam happened, and most of the Jews fled for their lives. Estimates put the total Jewish community at a dozen or so, most too old and infirm to move out, despite offers of free travel to Israel.


Heck YEAH there are Christians in Iraq. Two kinds: "Chaldeans" and "Assyrians". They both speak a modern form of Aramaic, the language of Jesus, as well as Arabic. They have communities in northern Iraq but also Baghdad. Like the Jews, most of them have fled the country over the past 20 years in the face of rising Islamic Fundamentalism.

Ever-jubilant Lehib "The Flame" Merogi,
Iraqi ex-patriate, Chaldean Christian,
and current interpreter for my PSYOP team
in Kirkuk City

I'll never forget what one of the Iraqi role-players told me during my army training right before my first deployment to Iraq in 2005. A Chaldean Christian, he pulled me aside after our exercises and told me in accented English "Good luck out there and thank you for trying to help my homeland. And most of all, remember: Never trust an Arab."

Alrighty then.


Also known as "Ahl-ee Haq" or "Kayaki", followers of this religion are all Kurds. It's basically a Kurdish sub-religion. Most Kurds are Sunni Muslim, you see, but some didn't take to Islam so well, and retained their earlier religion. My first exposure to the Ahl-e Haq, or "Kayaki" guys, was in Mandali in 2005. My interpreter at the time was a local nicknamed "Bill", a half-Kurd half-Arabic Shi'a. We were watching Iraqi policemen do a shift change, and up walked a man with a huge nose and the most glorious, full, walrus-looking mustache I had ever seen. I mean this lip-caterpillar was hanging down to his chin practically. I'm pretty sure he had to tie the ends to his ears in order to eat. I asked Bill what the deal was with Mr. Mustache Nose, and Bill explained "Oh, you see he is a Kayaki guy. They have a religion much older than Islam. Everyone loves the Kayaki guys."

The Majestic Kayaki Moustache

So what do they believe, exactly? They acknowledge one God, along with angels, avatars, and reincarnation. Wikipedia it if you'd like to know more. For whatever reason, they don't seem to get persecuted specifically for their religion - maybe because the Arabic hatred for Kurds in general overshadows it.


All right I admit it: the sole reason for this particular blog entry is to enlighten you, gentle reader, about Taus Melek, the Peacock Angel of the Kurdish Yezidi tribes.

Taus Melek, blue Peacock Angel and
Lord of the Earth to the Kurdish Yezidis

That's a frickin' cool depiction, isn't it? The Yezidi are all Kurds as well, and they live near Mosul in Northern Iraq. They acknowledge the one God, along with seven archangels, the most prominent of which is Taus Melek, the Peacock Angel. Yazidi believe that God first created Taus Melek from his own illumination and that six other archangels were created later. God ordered Taus Melek not to bow to other beings. Then God created the other archangels and ordered them to bring him dust from the Earth and build the body of Adam. Then God gave life to Adam from his own breath and instructed all archangels to bow to Adam. The archangels obeyed except for Taus Melek. In answer to God, Taus Melek replied, "How can I submit to another being! I am from your illumination while Adam is made of dust." Then God praised him and made him the leader of all angels and his deputy on the Earth.

This is why Arab muslims believe that the Yezidi are devil worshipers: they believe Taus Melek is a shaitan and a face of the devil. Arabs would kill all the Yezidis if they could.


Let's face it: if Islam were a grade-school child, his report card would say "Does not play well with others".

Israel after the Religion of Peace gets The Bomb

Every armed conflict in the world right now has Muslims on one or both sides of the battlefield (drug wars don't count). Never thought about it like that before, have you? The Koran exhorts Muslims to fight disbelievers. Other religions are tolerated only if their adherents agree to live as second-class citizens and pay a special "I'm Not A Muslim" tax. No kidding, it says so in the Koran.

Sadly, the current American mindset says "Islam is peaceful, it's the extremists who have twisted it around".

But that is just not the case. Islam itself is violent at its core, calling for war and separation. Muslims who don't follow Jihad simply don't have the balls or the will to do what the Koran asks. They prefer to live in peace, despite what their religion tells them, and let's all praise Allah for that small mercy.

Another major bummer is Islam's lack of centralized authority. At least in Catholicism, you have a pope who can announce "Let's stop this whole 'Inquisition' thing", and the whole Inquisition thing would stop. No such luck in Islam. Any petty tyrant in a turban can announce himself an Imam and start issuing fatwas against this or that political issue. I once thought that Islam needed a wholesale reformation, but that implies there is something pure and holy there to begin with, which has just grown out of control. I no longer believe that is the case with Islam. The Tree of Islam is a dark, blasted thing, that should be torn up by the roots and thrown in the fire. Islam went wrong at its earliest turn. It got the One God thing right, and that's about it. No denying the Koran contains wisdom, but even the holiest Muslims will tell you the Koran needs to be read in Arabic to be fully appreciated. This means that context trumps content for this particular holy book, which is not a good sign.

To summarize!

Jews: all the ones who can, have left Iraq already
Christians: getting hounded and assassinated as I write this. Five Chaldeans gunned down in Kirkuk in the last two weeks.
Yarsan: glorious mustaches
Yezidis: compelling blue Peacock Angel
Muslims: to be watched very, very closely

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