AMUDA, Syria — "Some years ago I tried to open a bus company and call it Roj, which in Kurdish means sun," said Adnan Ammo, a 50-year-old farmer from Merkeb. "I was summoned by political security for a suspected connection with Roj TV [one of the satellite channels affiliated to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK)]. Even after I explained to them that I am Yazidi and we venerate the sun, they forced me to change the name. I proposed Judi, the name of my son, but that was rejected too, as it's a Kurdish name. In the end we had to shut down the activity."
The followers of the Yazidi religion have been historically discriminated against on both ethnic and religious grounds, being part of a Kurdish pre-Islamic sect. The Yazidi faith is currently exposed to the risk of extinction, as expatriates tend to neglect its traditions and a growing number of Yazidis are leaving Syria to escape radical Islamists. On the other hand, most Kurdish parties seem to bank on the revitalization of the Yazidi identity in order to back historical land claims and belittle the Islamization of Kurds, as part of an opposition to Islamist brigades.
There are no reliable population figures on Syrian Yazidis, as estimates range between 10,000 and 50,000. They live in the areas of Kurd Dagh (Afrin), Ras al-Ain (Serekaniye), Amuda and Qahtaniyya, and trace their history back to at least 3,000 BC, even before Zoroastrianism. There are Yazidi communities in Iraq, Turkey, Armenia and Georgia.
The most widespread Muslim prejudice against Yazidis is the claim that they worship Satan, a misunderstanding originating from their refusal to describe the devil as a fallen angel, which is different from Muslims and Christians.
"We believe that all angels were created by divine light and they were all honored by God: There are evil spirits, but they're not angels," Sheikh Bedi Mamo, a high-ranking religious figure from the northeastern village of Qezlacuk and the Yazidi representative within the Kurdish National Council general secretariat, told Al-Monitor. Being considered heretics, Yazidis have been persecuted by Ottoman authorities and Kurdish Muslim emirs, with some of the worst massacres occurring between 1915 and 1918.
After the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, Yazidis stopped being persecuted on religious grounds. Nevertheless, following the 1963 Baathist coup in Syria, they had to endure anti-Kurdish policies, besides being denied recognition as a pre-Islamic faith. "The teaching of our religion is banned from schools, whereas Islamic studies is a compulsory subject. We are considered Muslims by the personal status law and have to marry according to Islamic law. The edification of Yazidi temples is also forbidden," Bedi Mamo told Al-Monitor, as he walked past a summer resort belonging to Yazidis, where the wedding hall resembles the banned sites of worship.
Nevertheless, others disagree on the extent of the regime's repression. "Everything worked with money and personal acquaintances, even when we asked permission to celebrate Yazidi holidays, on the condition that we didn't raise the flag of any Kurdish party. The Baath protected minorities, whereas before, the most religious Muslim Kurds used to throw stones at us," Salim Abdi Mirza, a 65-year-old peasant from Qezlacuk, told Al-Monitor.
Some see this as the typical carrot and stick approach of the government with minorities, which resulted in the depoliticization of an already marginalized community like the Yazidis. "Yazidis remained in their villages, because the urban people didn't understand their traditions. There was no Yazidi cause, even their festivities were celebrated secretly in the countryside. From the perspective of Damascus, it was like 'we protect you poor Yazidis, just preserve your existence,'" Jaber Jando, a 29-year-old Yazidi journalist who hosts a newly launched radio program on the Yazidi culture, told Al-Monitor.
A historically rooted fear of the ruler, regardless of his policies, seems to prevail over this sect of outcasts. "We don't want to criticize either the government or the opposition yet, since we don't know who will prevail," said an elegantly dressed portly man in his fifties, attending a wedding in Qezlacuk.
Such pragmatism doesn't mean some Yazidis haven’t adopted a clear stance on the Syrian uprising. "We supported the revolution since the early beginning, but then its path has been diverted by foreign agendas supporting Salafist groups to evacuate this region from all its religious and ethnic minorities," Bedi Mamo told Al-Monitor.
In August, the Yazidi villages of al-Asadia and Cava near Ras al-Ain, and several others in the area of Afrin, were attacked by al-Qaeda affiliates Jabhat al-Nusra and Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS). This surge of violence has prompted a new wave of migration among all social classes.
"We risk extinction. The expatriates forget our traditions and religion. My relatives speak German at home and their sons learned only few words of Kurmanji," Ammo, the farmer, told Al-Monitor.
The Yazidi religious leaders hold strict views on the ways to counter this exodus. "I'm noticing some positive developments among expatriates, thanks to the establishment of Yazidi institutions and Yazidi marriages aimed at preserving the pureness of our Aryan race and the secrets of this religion," Bedi Mamo told Al-Monitor, thus referring to the allegedly Aryan roots of the Yazidi Kurds.
Since the withdrawal of Syrian government forces from most of the Kurdish regions in the fall of 2012, the rights of Yazidis have actually gained more visibility through the opening of the Yazidi Roj cultural association and the allocation of five seats to this particular sect within the Kurdish National Council.
A crucial role in removing prejudices toward Yazidis among Muslims has been played by the Kurdish parties over the last decades, in particular by the PKK, whose Syrian branch, the Democratic Union Party (PYD), is now the de facto ruler over these Syrian regions.
"In 1998, I went with [an official] of the PKK's Yazidi House in Germany to meet Abdullah Ocalan in the suburbs of Damascus. When the serok [leader] learned from us about the good conditions of Yazidis in Germany, he got upset and stressed how Yazidis should have been convinced to remain in Syria," said 'Ammo.
A deeper strategic vision might lie behind the PYD's interest in protecting Yazidi communities. "For the PYD, protecting Yazidis means supporting land claims historically preceding the Kurdish ones. The Islamic brigades have distorted the image of Islam so that stressing the Yazidi identity backs the PYD's presence here," Jando told Al-Monitor. "The Muslim Kurds preserve Yazidi habits, but they're not aware of them. For example, they don't take showers on Wednesday, according to the precepts of our Wednesday holiday."
In the context of a war against Islamists deeming Kurds infidels, it would not be surprising to witness a resurgence of the Yazidi identity.
Andrea Glioti is a freelance journalist who covered the first five months of the Syrian uprising from inside the country. His work has been published by the Associated Press, IRIN News, openDemocracy, The Daily Star (Lebanon), New Internationalist and numerous Italian and German newspapers.