Vicken Cheterian

Religion as a Sacrifice for Power

I was in Dohuk in Kurdish Regional Government in north Iraq, visiting refugee camps populated by victims of the “Islamic State” (ISIS) violence, when I read the declaration of Turkish President Erdogan made in Diyarbakir, and referring to the Kurdish guerrillas: “They are atheists, they are Zoroastrians. Nothing will come of them.”*

Later I read that the attacks of the Turkish President and other AKP leaders on Zoroastrians, atheists, Jews, and of course Armenians are common occurrence. For example in the eastern city of Kars in 2015, Erdogan addressed a crowd saying: “We have documents of them teaching Zoroastrianism in the mountains”, referring to the PKK guerrillas, “These people have no relationship whatsoever with Islam. My pious Kurdish brothers won’t get behind them.”**

To attack Zoroastrians is very curious, but symptomatic to the structure of political space in the Middle East. Zoroastrians are not part of the violent struggles within Turkey, which is currently between an Islamo-nationalist government, and Kurdish guerrillas. Zoroastrians are not even part of the generalized struggle taking place in the name of Islam – Sunni and Shia sectarianism destroying in fire and blood Iraq, Syria, Yemen and beyond, as it is an old religion surviving in scarce numbers in Iran. So why label “Zoroastrians” as the enemy figure?

The lands of the Middle East have been once centres of human civilization. It was in Iraq that the first written piece of literature survives in the form of the Epic of Gilgamesh; it was also in Iraq where one of the most ancient and extended irrigation systems was developed. These lands also produced several religions that have left their impact on our modern thinking, and what is amazing is that some of these ancient religions and civilizations have survived to modern times. Zoroastrianism is one of them, the religion that for the first time separated good from evil, believed in individual will, and compensated those who struggle on the side of the good by paradise. Zoroastrian thought has therefore left its impact on Judaism, Christianity and Islam, as well as Greek and more recent German philosophy, especially on Nietzsche. 

For one hundred years we were told that the Kemalist regime in Turkey, and Baathist regimes in Syria and Iraq were “secular” which they were not. In all three countries identity cards mention one’s religion, and as Agos revealed in 2013 Turkish state has kept records even those members of non-Muslim religion who had converted (by force) even a hundred years ago. In Syria the constitution made it clear that the president must be a Muslim. 

For the last one hundred years democratic institutions failed in the Middle East, and all the states were dominated by military dictators, tyrants and monarchs ruling in the name of the nation or of Islam. The majority of the population accepted such rule by feeling entitled and by discriminating against, repressing, and finally massacring and deporting the “others”. 

In refugee camps near Erbil, Dohuk and Sinjar I met members of Assyro-Chaldean and Yazidi communities who had escaped the genocidal violence of ISIS. The Assyro-Chaldeans are one of the most ancient civilizations, dissidents of the old civilizations that developed in Mesopotamia, one of the early peoples that converted to Christianity. They speak a form of Aramaic which was the language spoken at the time of Christ in the Middle East, and many of ancient Greek writings were later translated from Aramaic to Arabic at the height of Islamic civilization. ISIS ethnically cleansed Assyro-Chaldeans because of their religion from Mosul, and from their historic towns and villages in Ninveh Valley, before converting their churches and destroying the archaeological sites of Assyrian history, such as the ancient capital Nimrud, one of the most valued treasures of civilization.

Yet, the most horrible violence was reserved for the Yazidi community in Sinjar. On August 3, 2014 ISIS attacked the reason for no evident reason, killing men and elderly women on the spot, converting young boys, and using girls and young women as sex slaves. Does this remind you older practices? It does. Yazidis call those horrible events “farman” referring to Hamidyan era order to covert Yazidis by force to Islam, using mass killings when faced with resistance. Yazidis were also victim of violence perpetrated by the Young Turks during the First World War. In Turkey there were 18’000 Yazidis when the republic was founded. Hardly 100 live there today. Yazidi religion is an ancient and secretive Mesopotamian religion based on oral transmission, making them vulnerable to radical Islam as a religion lacking a “holly book”. 

ISIS violence does not target only Assyrians or Yazidis. It also targets Muslims, whether they are Shiites or Sunnis. Nor religious motivated violence against non-Muslims is the exclusive practice of Sunni radicals. In Baghdad as well as southern Iraq especiaqlly in the marches, the Christian and Mandaen community came under persistent violence, which depleted their numbers. The Mandaeans, also known as Sabian-Mandaeans, are a particular religion, which has creation myth close to Christianism, but its central prophet is John the Baptist. The diversity of those old religions is the living memory of humanity, that survived past ages, but is being destroyed in the dark age in which we live in: From 60-70 thousand Mandaeans of Iraq prior to the US invasion hardly 10’000 live there today.

During the 20th century, violence perpetrated in the name of Islam or Turkish or Arab nation has already destroyed many communities. The Genocide of 1915 put an effective end to Armenian communities in Turkey outside Istanbul, but also that of Greeks and Assyrians – many Assyrian refugees I talked to were dissidents of refugees from Hakkari province who had escaped Sayfo. Arab nationalism put an end to the existence of Iraqi Jews: who remembers today that Baghdad was populated was one-third Jewish in the early 20th century? And today the Assyrians, Mandaeans, Yazidis and others are threatened in their existence. 

The current religious wars by the name of the two major schools of Islam are only the logical continuation of this blind violence. While talking to Assyrian and Yazidis what was the most shocking to me was to hear stories of systematic discrimination by the state and by the society against them as individuals and as community for decades. The political, religious, and intellectual leaders in the Middle East are revolted when by cartoons published by obscure journals in Paris or Copenhagen, but do not even remark genocide in their midst.