When it comes to dolling out religious persecution, the Islamic State in Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) — the ruthless band of religious extremists currently blazing a horrific trail of violence through Iraq — has been relatively indiscriminate. But while the situation is dire for many of the country’s religious groups, one band of faithful is at the center of ISIS’s wrath for an unusual reason: ISIS thinks they worship the devil.
Since ISIS began capturing Iraqi cities earlier this year, they have killed or displaced thousands of Christians and even their fellow Muslims, and have sparked international condemnation for destroying religious shrines sacred to both traditions. So terrible is their treatment of other religions that when President Barack Obama announced on Thursday that the United States would begin taking military action against ISIS, he justified authorizing air drops of humanitarian aid and airstrikes on military targets by saying that ISIS had been “especially barbaric towards religious minorities.”
But the impetus for United States involvement largely revolves around one specific religious group that ISIS could wipe out — namely, an ancient but relatively small sect known as the Yazidis, sometimes written “Yezidis.”
“Unlike Christians, [Yazidis are] not even given the option of paying a tax to live under [ISIS’] protection,” Hayder al-Khoei, an associate fellow at Chatham House’s Middle East and North Africa Program, told TIME.com. “[ISIS] believes they are ‘devil worshippers’ who must either be slaughtered or convert to Islam.”
After ISIS began taking cities in Northern Iraq this week, some 40,000 people — most of whom are Yazidi — fled to the desolate peaks of Mount Sinjar, lest they be killed or forced to convert to ISIS’s peculiarly brutal form of Islam. But as ISIS forces surround the mountain, the group of mostly women and children have become stranded, threatened with certain doom if they try to flee, or a slow death by starvation or dehydration if they stay put. On Friday, reports emerged that ISIS had already kidnapped a group of young Yazidi women to be married off to ISIS fighters or sold.
The Yazidis are all too familiar with being persecuted for their supposed “devil worship.” Hundreds of Yazidis were killed in 2007 when a targeted string of bombings tore through their region near Mosul. And during the 18th and 19th centuries, the Ottoman Empire carried out 72 massacres against their people. Yazidi religious and political leaders are increasingly concerned that the worsening situation with ISIS might become the 73rd.
But despite this history of violence, Yazidis have long disputed the claim of devil worship as a misconception. To be sure, Yazidism is an ancient religion, and shares many rituals, practices, and theological beliefs with Christianity, Islam, and Zoroastrianism. But these commonalities can be misleading, especially given that the Yazidi tradition is actually older than both Christianity and Islam. Yazidis, for instance, are monotheistic and believe that God created the world, but also that our planet is under the care of seven Angels. Chief among these angels is Melek Taus, or the “Peacock Angel,” a powerful figure in Yazidism who, like the Christian/Muslim Lucifer, refused to bow to the first man — Adam — and was banished to a fiery punishment by God.
Unlike the Satan figure in most versions of Christianity and Islam (excluding some brands of Sufism), Melek Taus is thought to have refused to bow not out of pride, but out of love for God alone. More importantly, many Yazidi believe that the angel genuinely atoned for his wrongdoings, restoring favor with God by dousing the flames that imprisoned him with repentant tears. Thus, while the story of Melek Taus has hints of the Lucifer tale, the Yazidic religious framework doesn’t actually contain a Satan in a traditional sense — that is, one from whom all evil emanates — and many consider it a sin to even utter the word “Satan.” Instead, the Yazidi believe that good and evil are present in all people, and that every member of humanity must, like Melek Taus, work to choose righteousness over wickedness. This theological position puts a heavy responsibility on the actions of individuals, as Yazidis reportedly don’t even have a traditional concept of heaven or hell.
It is perhaps tragically ironic, then, that ISIS would oppress the Yazidis for “devil worship.” After all, it is ISIS, not the Yazidis, who has sparked widespread condemnation from both Muslims and Christians for burning and pillaging its way through Iraq. If anything, ISIS has actually epitomized humanity’s ability to choose the “wickedness” option, saddling Yazidis, Christians, Muslims, and anyone else who gets in their way with a special kind of hell.