The Peacock Angel and the Pythagorean Theorem

A thousand years ago, Yazidis and tiny pagan sects flourished under the caliphate. But the days of the tolerant Islamic state are over.

The so-called Islamic State has marched into northwestern Iraq, an area rich in religious diversity, leaving a wake of bodies behind. It has driven the Christians who live there out of their homes. It has destroyed the crosses on their churches and demanded that they pay a tax or face the penalty of death. It has in the meantime offered the Yazidis, a people who practice an ancient and mysterious religion, a simpler choice: Convert to Islam or die.

Hundreds of Yazidis have already died of thirst or exposure, on occasion allegedly throwing their children off Mount Sinjar or shooting them in order to spare them a crueler fate. Basim Karim, one of a tiny number of American Yazidis who have settled in Lincoln, Nebraska, and who is from Sinjar, told me what had happened to his family: They woke up one day to find the Kurdish peshmerga, who once protected their village, gone and the Islamic State in their place. "They saw dogs dragging around human body parts in the towns before they fled," Karim told me on Friday by phone from Washington, where he was desperately trying to lobby for international assistance, "and there were surely at least a thousand corpses. It is a genocide, happening today in 2014." He added that many women were raped, something which has been alleged by several other witnesses. Indeed, the Islamic State seems to have a repugnant combination of religious intolerance and sexual rapacity.

What will the world lose if terrorists massacre the Yazidis and drive out Iraq's Christians? Two things: complex, ancient religions whose ideas still have much to offer us; and a historic tradition of Islamic tolerance. 

The Yazidis are accused of worshipping the devil. In reality, they have maintained pre-Christian beliefs and practices from Nineveh and Babylon. To understand them best, think of the worshippers of Mithras who held secret prayer services and initiation rituals in subterranean chapels in second-century Rome. Like the Yazidis, the Mithras-worshippers adopted characteristics of ancient Near Eastern religions: the cult of the sun, a strict ethical code, and secret holy texts. The Yazidi scriptures, like those of the Mithraists, were never written down. Their prayers may never be witnessed by outsiders, but they pray in Kurmanji (a Kurdish language) for others first, before praying for themselves -- and they use the mantra, adopted perhaps from the Zoroastrians of Iran, of "good thought, good word, and good deed."

The Yazidis survived for centuries in Sinjar because it was hardscrabble and remote, and they were tough fighters. They tended to make common cause with local Christians -- who were themselves refugees from mistreatment; the two communities for a long time lived side by side. Other heterodox sects joined them there, and the communities would often tolerantly take part in each other's ceremonies. Over the years, the Yazidis adapted their religion, accepting the teachings of Sufi Muslim preachers and creating a unique and esoteric belief system framed around the figure of the Peacock Angel, Malak Tawus. This figure is often identified with Lucifer, the fallen angel -- except that the Yazidis, in keeping with a radically generous ideology that was once prevalent in the Middle East, believe that nothing is too evil to be redeemed; even Lucifer has repented, extinguishing Hell with his tears, and has been restored to favor.

The Yazidis also keep alive traditions that go back thousands of years -- such as praying in the direction of the sun, believing in reincarnation, and practicing baptism in the waters of the sacred spring that runs beneath their principal temple at Lalish, north of Erbil. Malak Tawus's peacock symbol resembles the cockerel that symbolized the god Nergal for ancient Babylonians.

As compared with its brutal would-be imitators today, the real Islamic state -- the Umayyad caliphate, which ruled the region from Damascus from AD 661, and the Abbasid caliphate, which ruled it from Baghdad from AD 750 -- was kinder. In theory, the modern-day Islamic State has the same rules as the ancient caliphate, whose approach resembled that of its Christian predecessor, the Byzantine Empire: promulgate the imperial faith, penalize the followers of other religions and forbid them from promoting their faith through external signs, and forbid polytheism -- "paganism," as it was called -- altogether. In practice, however, the early Muslims were often more tolerant than their Christian predecessors.

One prominent pagan, for example, complained bitterly about the Byzantine hostility to paganism. Pagans built the world's great cities, he argued; without their achievements, the world would be destitute and ignorant. This pagan, Thabit ibn Qurra, was a member of a group called the Harranians, whose beliefs somewhat resemble those of the modern-day Yazidis. Here is the irony: He was given safe haven by the Abbasid caliphate in the ninth century and lived out his life in Baghdad. While there, he was able to develop Pythagoras's theorem of triangles to the form in which we know it today. Without such scholars, Baghdad would never have been a great imperial capital -- built as it was with the help of a Hindu astronomer, a Zoroastrian, Jews, and Christians.

Here is the essential difference between the old Islamic state and the self-styled new one: The old one tolerated what would have been considered heretical beliefs, and in doing so built a great culture imbued with knowledge and learning. The new one is determined to stamp out all differences of opinion in a nihilistic orgy of destruction.

The other victims of the Islamic State's brutality are equally historic. The Christians of northern Iraq are the last remnant of what was once one of the world's greatest Christian communities, the Church of the East, which in its heyday sent the first missionaries to reach China and established monasteries as far east as Beijing. They evolved a form of Christianity that was different from that of their western co-religionists, trying to separate out the divine and human natures of Jesus so that the godhead could be uncompromised by the lowliness of humanity, and avoiding the use of icons (which may, ironically enough, have had an influence on early Islam). When Tamerlane razed Baghdad to the ground in 1401, giving orders that no building should survive unless it were either a mosque or a hospital, the adherents of the Church of the East fled north to the plain of Nineveh and settled in the villages which are now being overrun by Tamerlane's modern-day equivalents.

These are the communities which now are being crushed by the Islamic State, whose fighters advertise their contempt for human life by posing with pictures of steaming pots full of human heads. Christians and Yazidis are not the only victims. Muslims are, too.

There is a broader issue at stake here. Will the future of the Muslim world be more like Sinjar was historically -- ancient religions surviving through compromise with each other and with their Muslim neighbors -- or like Sinjar under the Islamic State's brutal rule? As the Islamic State wins battle after battle, even putting the sword to the famous Kurdish peshmerga, they gain in prestige and are better placed to terrify their enemies, win allies, and cement their rule.

The reaction of the West -- which dropped humanitarian aid for the besieged Yazidis on Mount Sinjar, and began limited airstrikes on Friday, August 8 -- has done nothing to effectively stop the Islamic State's advance or give serious help to the Kurdish peshmerga. This is deeply depressing.

The United States, in particular, is surrendering to the view that the Middle East is doomed to be a place of sectarianism and violent intolerance. That is not what most Muslims want. But if intolerant terrorists are allowed to take and hold strongholds of diversity like Sinjar, then it's what they'll get.

What then is the answer? Basim Karim is desperately worried about his elderly father, and his brothers and sisters, who are stranded like hundreds of thousands of other refugees on Iraq's border with Turkey. They have not been allowed to cross the border, but do not consider themselves safe in Iraq while the Islamic State is still on the rampage. Stranded where they are, in the desert, they have no water or medical supplies or even tents to sleep in. "We are a peaceful people," he told me. "We just want basic human needs." A refugee camp under U.N. auspices on Turkish territory could keep them alive during this hot, bloody summer.

Basim did not say it, but the defeat of the Islamic State will also require force. Washington's airstrikes may hold back the terrorists' advance on Erbil, but it seems likely that some kind of assistance will also be needed for the Kurdish peshmerga, who have proven less capable than anticipated against this new and ruthless enemy. Despite their setbacks, and the problematic context of ongoing Kurdish disputes with the Iraqi government in Baghdad, the peshmerga are the only viable forces on the ground that could turn back the terrorist tide. The United States has experienced only setbacks when it has sought to involve itself in Middle Eastern wars; but it has largely succeeded when it has instead chosen to give its backing to forces already on the ground. In this case, it has a ready-made and known ally with which it can work. If it fails to do so, the United States risks letting the Islamic State grow to a point where no regional power will feel able to confront it. 

The Middle East has sometimes before been seduced by movements which had the glamour of success. Nasserist nationalism in the 1950s grew bold from its successes against British colonialism; al Qaeda gained immensely from its association with the defeat of the Soviet Union in Afghanistan. Imagine if today the Islamic State were to add a perception of invincibility in the face of American bombs to its reputation for vicious brutality. Governments around the region might be forced to do deals with it, nervously buying the jihadists off rather than risking its vengeance. And its cruel acolytes would spread around the world.

The besieged Yazidis and Christians of Iraq feel now that this is their last stand. The world must make sure that, rather, it is the beginning of the end for the Islamic State.

SAFIN HAMED/AFP/Getty images


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Iran claims to be Palestine’s biggest proponent. So why has Tehran been silent on Gaza?

Nothing in the Middle East seems normal right now. Israel locks the United States out of cease-fire talks with Egypt over Gaza. U.S.-Saudi relations look increasingly like a marriage that both sides regret getting into in the first place. Egypt's state media publicly cheers Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as he bombs Gaza. Saudi Arabia pretends to be unaware of the ongoing fighting between Israel and Hamas. Protests against Israel's bombing campaign are larger in Europe than in the Arab Middle East.

The surprises don't stop there. Iran's relative silence on the Gaza war has been deafening: Spanish actors Penelope Cruz and Javier Bardem have been more forceful in their criticism of Israel's Gaza attacks than many Iranian officials.

Iran is usually known for jumping on every possible opportunity to blast Israel for its treatment of Palestinians. The Iranian game plan in the past few decades has been to boost its bid for regional leadership by portraying the Arab states as impotent "servants of American interests" in the Middle East, while portraying Tehran as the true champion of the Palestinian cause -- and therefore the leader of the Islamic world.

Fighting between Hamas and Israel in Gaza is usually a political cash cow for Iran's leaders. But by their own standards, Iranian leaders have remained curiously quiet on the ongoing, month-long fight. Why? Shifting dynamics across the Middle East and a new president in Tehran have changed Iran's political calculus on Palestine.

Iran has a widespread reputation as Hamas's main patron, providing the group with rockets and weapons over the past decade. But the relationship between the Palestinian Islamists and the government in Tehran has never been friction free. The Hamas leadership has long complained that Tehran talked a good game, but in practice did little to help the Palestinian Islamist group. Ideologically, there has always been a gulf between the Muslim Brotherhood-inspired Sunni group and the Shiite thinkers of Qom. But full-on tensions between these disparate Islamists only broke out with the Syrian Civil War, when Hamas sided early on with the Syrian opposition and Tehran backed President Bashar al-Assad. Tehran viewed Hamas Leader Khaled Meshaal's break with the Syrian dictator in 2012 as a betrayal after years of providing the group with both financial support and a base in Damascus.

Earlier this year, Hamas and Tehran officially reconciled. "Relations between Iran and Hamas have returned to be as they were before and we have no problem with Hamas," the speaker of Iran's parliament, Ali Larijani, told a Lebanese television channel. But mistrust remained amid the conciliatory rhetoric, as Iranian officials have told me. Leaders of the Islamic Republic do not have a reputation of forgetting quickly or forgiving genuinely.

It's not just international politics that affect the Hamas-Iran relationship. The election of Hassan Rouhani last year and the success thus far of ongoing U.S.-Iran diplomacy have visibly tempered Tehran's public posture on Israel. Iran has gone from questioning the Holocaust under the former president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, to tweeting Rosh Hashana blessings under Rouhani.

The foreign policy team around Rouhani has long favored diplomacy with Washington, and fully understands that toning down Iran's rhetoric against Israel is necessary to make progress with the United States. Beyond Iran's changing posture since Rouhani took office a year ago -- particularly since diplomacy began anew over its nuclear program -- decade-old Iranian negotiation proposals demonstrate both their understanding of Israel's importance to U.S. foreign policy-making, and their willingness to soften their stance.

For instance, in 2003, Tehran sent a proposal for improved relations with the United States to American officials via the Swiss ambassador to Iran. At the time, Rouhani was Iran's national security adviser. His current foreign minister, Javad Zarif, was a co-author of the proposal. As part of a grand bargain with Washington, Tehran signaled its readiness to restrain Hezbollah, Hamas, and Islamic Jihad. (The Bush administration never responded to the Iranian offer).

But perhaps most importantly, Tehran seems not to mind seeing yet another offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood take a beating. Some in Tehran thought that after the Arab uprisings of 2011, the U.S. had concluded that the Middle East's future was in the hands of moderate Sunni Islamist national movements -- Hamas's intellectual brethren. For a moment, it seemed that Islamist parties were ready to sweep elections throughout the region. Washington wanted to be on the right side of history.

But to Iran, the United States was tilting towards the wrong Islamic movement. Once in power, the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt showed stronger allegiance to its ideological partners in Syria -- fighting Tehran's ally Assad -- and spent more time flirting with Saudi Arabia than with Iran. Moreover, Tehran's suspicion of Washington's favorable view of the Muslim Brotherhood also fit with another idea it believes America has flirted with: that Turkey's Islamist democracy, led by the Muslim Brotherhood's political ally Recep Tayyip Erdogan, presents the best model for the region.

For some in Tehran, the current Gaza war --and Arab states' reactions to it -- show Washington was wrong to side with the Muslim Brotherhood and its allies. These Sunni Islamist groups lack the popular support to win the political fight for the region's future. And most importantly, Tehran believes that these Sunni movements cannot compete with Iran's ability to stabilize and lead the region. Nor do they have the popular backing to balance Iran's regional or ideological influence.

Whether Tehran's perceptions of American calculations are correct or not is, for now, irrelevant. The Iranian government has once again demonstrated -- this time through silence rather than venomous rhetoric -- that to the Islamic Republic, the Palestinian cause is a means, not an end.