About the Religious Minorities in Northern Iraq… and a possible way forward from a Sufi colleague

I come to expect it about twice a year.

Usually around Christmas or Easter, someone will forward an article from a European or American news source to the effect that “Look! We’ve found Christians speaking Jesus’ original language in a small village in Syria! How quaint!”

When I am able to respond to the person who kindly forwarded me the article or link, I try to explain that there are many Aramaic-speaking Christians in the Middle East, and not a few in Europe and the USA. Many of them, however, are not Catholics, Protestants or Orthodox believers. They are Assyrians, who have a valid claim to be the oldest Christians in the world, predating any of the later creeds that divided Jesus’ followers into the above groups. Probably because they are non-Trinitarian, non-white and non-European, there has been an almost complete blackout of news about the Assyrians over the years.

The situation in northern Iraq in the news today has been brewing for years. Even the mainsteam news reports today focus mainly on the Chaldean Christians, who are allied with the Roman Catholic church, and ignore the Assyrians, who are the vast majority of people affected.  In my seminars and talks, I consistently refer to my listeners to the Assyrian International News Agency (www.aina.org) as the only reliable source of news on Assyrian Christians around the world. See particularly the editorial recently posted calling for both Assyrian and Yazidi safe havens in northern Iraq: http://www.aina.org/releases/20140812203608.htm

According to AINA, there are 1.5 million Assyrians in northern Iraq, living in or being displaced from the area they consider their traditional homeland, old Assyria. The next largest numbers of Assyrian Christians live in Syria (700,000), the United States (400,000), Sweden (120,000) and Lebanon (100,000).

The Mandaeans: If there has been a relative blackout of news about Aramaic-speaking Christians in the area, there has been a total blackout of reports about their Aramaic-speaking neighbors, the Mandaeans, who honor the person Christians call John the Baptist as their true prophet. I offered an excerpt of one of their sacred texts in my book Desert Wisdom.

Called the Sabeans in the Qur’an, the Mandaeans justifiably claim to be a “People of the Book” and so protected under Islam (not that any of what ISIS does has much to do with Islam). A representative of a United Nations NGO has recently proposed that what is happening to Mandaeans and Yazidis in northern Iraq is not “collateral damage” of some unspecified war, but genocide by the UN’s definition: http://towardfreedom.com/37-archives/middle-east/3629-genocide-in-iraq-a-political-history-of-the-yazidis-and-mandaeans

The Yazidis: The Yazidis have been most in the news due to the ongoing horrific situation in Sinjar province. Vilified by some Muslims and even Christians as “devil-worshippers,” the image may conjure up an image of Western Satanist cults. Far from this, the Yazidis are a peaceful, monotheistic people, who claim to be not only older than Islam, but older than any other Middle Eastern religion. Far from being a ‘satan,’ Yazidi spokespeople associate their main creator-savior-figure, the “Peacock Angel” called Malik Taus, as the original archetype from which came various world religion figures such as Melchizadek of the Bible, Al Khader (the Islamic “green man”), St George, Enki, Dionysis, Quetzlcoatl, and Murugan of the Hindus,  among others. They also have Sufi links and a high regard for Mansur Al-Hallaj, based on the latter’s non-dualistic view of Iblis, whom the Yezidis identify with the Peacock Angel.

A reliable recent report from someone who lived among the Yazidis can be found on the following BBC magazine page:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/blogs-magazine-monitor-28686607

Another site that speaks for Yazidis is: http://www.yeziditruth.org/

There Must Be Some Way Out of This: Yes, but it won’t be easy, at least according to my most reliable source about Iraq, a Sufi colleague who formerly served as both Finance Minister and Defense Minister in the Iraqi government—Dr. Ali Allawi (http://www.aliallawi.com).

Dr Allawi has written numerous books, including The Crisis of Islamic Civilization, which I highly recommend. Do not expect an easy read. Dr Allawi takes a long view of modern Islamic history and concludes that the tradition has been side-tracked, and often hijacked, from its main ethics and morality, based on tawhid or Unity with the One, in favour of Western-based political solutions, like the European idea of the “nation state.”

In terms of possible directions for Iraq and the Middle East today, he speaks about a “post-nation state” solution–decentralization based on mutual alliances between locally managed regions and cities. This “small is beautiful” approach would, however, require a return to a shared Islamic ethic of mutual respect for differences based on inner surrender to the One rather than an externalization of ‘right belief.’

I would highly recommend that you take few minutes to read an interview with him published originally in The Middle East Quarterly in Fall 2010, entitled “Iraq Got the Worst of All Worlds.” Everything he says brings wisdom and good sense to the situation in Iraq today. There are no easy solutions, he concludes, but some interventions make things worse than others: http://www.aliallawi.com/art_iraqGotTheWorst.php