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US airstrikes in Iraq: Who are the Yazidis?

by Take Two®

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The Yazidis are a small religious sect of about a half million living in Northern Iraq. Many of the Yazidis have been driven from their homes and remain trapped on a mountaintop. SAFIN HAMED/AFP/Getty Images

One reason President Obama has sanctioned air strikes in Iraq is to help the Yazidis, a small religious sect of about a half million living in northern Iraq.

Many of the Yazidis have been driven from their homes and remain trapped on a mountaintop. As a result, the president has also given the green light on humanitarian air drops.

"They're without food, they're without water, people are starving, and children are dying of thirst," he said. "Meanwhile, ISIL forces below have called for the systematic destruction of the entire Yazidi people, which would constitute genocide."

Ken Pollack, senior fellow of Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution, joined Take Two on Friday to tell us who the Yazidis are. 


On the origins of the Yazidi religion:

"It grows out of one of the most ancient religions of the Middle East, Zoroastrianism, which was the religion that was practiced by the Persian empire, which of course dominated most of the Middle East for much of ancient history. Over the course of time, the Yazidis have picked up a whole variety of other aspects of other religions. There are elements of Christianity mixed in there, there are little pieces of Islam mixed in there, a bunch of other pieces as well, but it kind of starts off with this basis in Zoroastrianism."

On why not many people know about them:

"Their religion has been misinterpreted over the years. As we've seen in the news recently, Sunni Muslim fundamentalist groups like ISIS see the Yazidis as heretics, as devil worshippers, which the Yazidis and I think most people who know anything about the Yazidi religion would tell you, does represent a very serious mischaracterization of their religion. For the reason, the Yazidis have felt persecuted over the years, and as a result they've tried to keep to themselves."

On the misrepresentation of their religion:

"A core element of it, is the idea that God created seven angels, and the most important of those angels has a role that Muslims, some Muslims at least, misinterpret as being identical to the myth of Satan in both the Christian bible and more importantly in the Koran. There are very important elements of the Yazidi version of what happens with this angel, Melek Taus, that is very representative, very similar to the Islamic story of the fall of Satan. In fact, they even use the same word, it's just that the Yazidis see this angel as being a very powerful and positive force, a force of good, a very constructive force, whereas the Muslims cast him as being evil."

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