In cooperation between the “Êzîdîsche Jugend in Deutschland e.V.” (Yazidi Youth in Germany) and the “Stelle für Jesidische Angelegenheiten e.V.” (Office for Yazidi Affairs), we have written an article on Yazidi identity in a context critical of racism and published in the “Informations- und Dokumentationszentrum für Antirassismusarbeit e.V.” (Information and Documentation Center for Antiracism Work). The primary publication of the article with the spelling “Ezidi:innen” is part of a reader for multipliers in youth and educational work and can be purchased here.

by Gian Aldonani and Sarkis Agojan

When the Islamic State committed genocide against the Yazidis in Shingal, North Iraq, in August 2014, not much was known about this community and its faith. With the genocide, Yazidis became more visible in the media and gained a sad notoriety, moving them to the center of social and religious discussions. For a long time, the Yazidis in the diaspora were confronted with the question “Who are the Yazidis?”. Even though this question became more frequent with the genocide, little is still known firsthand about them and their faith. It is not uncommon that prejudice, discrimination and resentment shape the image of Yazidis. Historically, these anti-Yazidi hostilities have led to a decimation of the population in their areas of origin, threatening their very existence, and in some cases to their complete expulsion. But Yazidis were and are not only discriminated against, persecuted and expelled in their ancestral settlement areas. Even in the diaspora, which was believed to be safe, as here in Germany, the Yazidis are not spared discrimination and anti-Yazidi racism. Their tradition and culture are labeled as foreign and a barrier to integration. Yazidis therefore often fall into a situation of justifying their culture and traditions. There is too much discussion about the Yazidis and too little with them. There is little or no expression of Yazidi perspectives. The Yazidis are often reduced to forced marriage or endogamy by the majority society, but also by other migrant communities in Germany, and are attacked with insulting terms like “inbred sect”. In this paper, we therefore address the Yazidi perspective on the issue of endogamy. To begin, we will address who the Yazidis are and what Yazidism is. After that, the Yazidi endogamy commandments will be explained from a theological point of view. This is followed by a historical classification, since the endogamy commandment and its current questioning must also be seen in a historical context. The effects of the endogamy commandment on the lives of Yazidis in the diaspora and the question of whether the commandment is an obstacle to integration are also discussed. Finally, the topic is considered and explained in an anti-racist context, since the topic is not infrequently connected with racist experiences.

Endogamy means “marriage within” and describes the requirement that people should marry and reproduce only within their own social, ethnic, or religious group in order to preserve that group.

The Yazidis and Yazidism

The Yazidis see themselves as members of an ancient, independent and unique religious doctrine, which emerged through its own development processes and led to the ethnogenesis of the Yazidi community. Therefore, the Yazidis see themselves not only as a religious community, but also as a distinct ethnic group. Most Yazidis classify their ethnic and religious identity as ethnoconfessional: Religious and ethnic affiliations are inextricably intertwined. Yazidism is a monotheistic religious doctrine in which evil is not embodied by a separate figure. Besides God himself, Yazidism therefore knows no adversaries of him, whereas in many religions there is a being who embodies and spreads evil. The existence of such a figure in Yazidism would be diametrically opposed to the omnipotence of the demiurge, which is why there is no name for the personification of evil in the Yazidi vocabulary. Because of similar rituals, a similar culture, and a certain geographical proximity, the Yazidis have often been mistakenly attributed to Zoroastrianism. Literature on the Yazidis often wrote down false classifications and assumptions and alienated their beliefs and identity because non-Yazidis shaped the literature on Yazidis and Yazidism. These misattributions and alienations are pervasive. Yazidism and its religious content are based on an orally transmitted sacred doctrine that was not accessible to outsiders. Repeatedly, they were persecuted and massacred in their settlement areas. Particularly at the time of Islamization in today’s Arabic-speaking world and the Ottoman Empire, Yazidis were subjected to many campaigns of extermination because they could not claim the “dhimmi-status” (protected people), which would have given them legal connivance as citizens of the state. Because of the resulting protective mechanisms and the given attributions from neighboring Muslim dignitaries, Yazidism, as well as other persecuted religious groups such as Alevism and Kakaism, were stigmatized as “secret religions” and “Islamic sects” in later developments and in the specialist literature, without a well-founded discussion of Yazidi teachings. In addition to God, the Yazidis believe in a distinct angelogy that governs and directs world events in the service of God. The leader of the angelogy is Tawisi Melek, often mistakenly associated in literature with a fallen angel. Yazidism does not claim to be unique. For the Yazidis, every religion is part of the divine truth, which is why Yazidism knows no proselytizing. The historical settlement areas of the Yazidis include the areas known as the northern part of Mesopotamia, i.e. parts of today’s Iraq, Iran, Syria and Turkey. Meanwhile, there are no Yazidis living in Iran. The Yazidi community in Turkey was almost entirely displaced in the 1980s and 1990s. The same can be observed in Syria in recent years. The first geographically relevant diaspora community of Yazidis was formed in the early 19th century in the Caucasus region, particularly in present-day Russia, Georgia and Armenia. This diaspora was created by genocides under the Ottomans, the Young Turks and the Kurds. The last partially contiguous historical settlement area of Yazidis – now also subject to religious, political and demographic displacement – is in North Iraq in the regions of Shingal, Sheikhan, Bahzan-Baashiq and some larger village complexes around the major city of Dohuk (e.g. Khanke and Sharya). The number of Yazidis worldwide is estimated at about one million, with about half of all Yazidis residing in the diaspora, far from their traditional settlement areas. With approximately 200,000 to 250,000 Yazidis, Germany is the largest diaspora.

Endogamy Rules of the Yazidis

In Yazidism the commandment and prohibition system is referred to as “Hed û Sed”. This refers to Yazidi “rules and laws” that are both of a moral and political nature. This includes the social structure, marriage rules, as well as moral and ethical values. The survival of the followers of the faith in the original settlement areas under medieval, i.e. feudal and religiously absolutist conditions of the respective political rulers and in a hostile environment demanded a sophisticated organization and strong rule, which was secured by religious care and representation. The importance of marriage rules for the Yazidis is particularly related to the conditions of their group formation process in these environments. What follows, therefore, is a sketch of Yazidi ethnogenesis, that is, of their development into a cohesive community. At the center of intra-Yazidi debates on the endogamy commandments is Sheikh Adi, a mystic who lived at the beginning of the last millennium and founded the mystic order of the Adawiyya. In the belief of the Yazidi, this mystic is the incarnation of God. As part of mysticism, a religious law is rejected for political rule. Thus, there was a rejection of Islamic Sharia law, which was differentiated in the 12th century. In mysticism, closeness to God cannot be achieved by observing laws, but only through one’s own actions. The tradition of Sheikh Adi’s order continued to develop under his successors and followers and became a religious movement whose development processes, linked to external pressure from Muslim neighbors to convert, resulted in an ethnogenesis of the order’s followers. In the following centuries, from the 12th to the 14th century, an emancipatory transformation development of the order structure and the religious doctrine took place. In this dynamic of development, the religious community formed an ethnicity character. In this unique symbiosis of veneration of saints, further developed mythology and the fusion of this with the followers of the order and their culture to form a heterogeneous grouping, the basis of a unique understanding of ethnicity was formed, which the Yazidis carry within themselves to this day. During this period, religious philosophers canonized the sacred doctrine and established the “Hed û Sed” structure. This further development of the religious tradition led to a structural break with other mystic traditions. In the face of growing religious and political tensions between Yazidis and Muslim rulers and the recurrent outbreaks of violent conflict in the region, the Yazidi elite initiated a complex socio-religious system. This social structuring-with special endogamous rules as its foundation-served the systematic preservation of religion, community organization and culture. It also aimed at strengthening the community’s defensibility and served to protect it from conflict with Islamic rulers who pursued interfaith family formation and religious change far away from Islam. The Adawiyya order tradition took its own path: it successively established a model of life that included a ban on marriage and a strictly interwoven system of bonds. At the center of these measures was the expansion of the so-called hereditary groups – which many Yazidi and non-Yazidi scholars mistakenly refer to as “castes”- in order to enable the continuation of the Yazidi religion and the transmission of beliefs independently of a public organization. In the 13th century, the followers of the order, who were often also religious philosophers, embedded these hereditary groups in the teachings of Yazidism. In this way, a form of social structure was consolidated that had already developed in parts before. The hereditary groups divide the Yazidis into three main groups, whose existence is to be secured by strict endogamy and to which a member belongs from his birth until his death. The Sheikh group consists of three lineages, which are not allowed to marry each other. The Pir group consists of two endogamous groups; members of the Pir groups are permitted to marry among themselves, with few exceptions. The third and largest group is the one of the Mirids; they are allowed to marry only among themselves. The Sheikhs and the Pirs are responsible for the religious and spiritual care of the Mirids, for instructing them in religious teachings, and for performing social functions. However, the responsibility of the individual hereditary groups extends exclusively to religious matters and explicitly not to secular-hierarchical functions. Therefore, the hereditary groups in Yazidism must not be associated with the caste system in Hinduism, which is why the terms caste and caste system do not fit and the terms hereditary group and hereditary group system were established instead. The relationship between hereditary groups corresponds to a spiritual-religious sibling relationship. A marriage between two people from different hereditary groups is therefore regarded by believers as religious incest; the respective other hereditary groups are the siblings in a spiritual sense. Therefore, Yazidis who are still rooted with their souls in Yazidism with are very emotional in this regard. Since a member can only be born into the respective hereditary group and a change between the hereditary groups is impossible, there has been a clear division of tasks among the different families for centuries. This strict separation is also intended to prevent infighting between the groups and to promote effective and coordinated coexistence among all Yazidis. Because of the endogamy commandments, which are deeply rooted in the religious system and established by birth, the Yazidis were able to organize themselves socially for centuries despite numerous campaigns of annihilation and therefore survive. John Spencer-Churchill Guest, who provided the research literature with groundbreaking insights into the Yazidis, wrote, for example: “It is incredible that this small community in Lalish survived the Abbasids, the Mongols, the Black Death, and the appearance of Timur (Timur Leng)” (Guest 1993, 27). The interwoven and mutually finely tuned social system established an internal cohesion that enabled Yazidis to survive in a hostile environment without a public organization and enabled religious life. These rules in particular helped the Yazidis to become more resistant to the massive islamification efforts.

The Endogamy Commandment of the Yazidis – an Inhibitor of Integration?

In order to answer this question adequately, one must take a closer look at Yazidi history. The fact that Yazidis have lived for centuries in seclusion and, for the most part, in exclusively Yazidi communities is due in large part to their history of persecution. For a society that has never faced such intense and pervasive persecution to this day, it is difficult to understand why persecuted and marginalized communities such as Yazidis, Jews, and many other religious and ethnic communities adhere to the endogamy requirement. Moreover, endogamous spaces are found throughout the world and among many populations – though not always for the same reasons. For marginalized and persecuted minorities, the endogamy imperative is an important survival strategy. The endogamy system enabled the survival of the Yazidi people, which is why the system is widely accepted and continues to be popular among the Yazidi community. In the diaspora, Yazidis are naturally subject to transformation processes that cannot be circumvented in the long run and require open discussion. The first Yazidis came to Germany as guest workers, but emigration was limited to a few families. The first larger group of Yazidis came to Germany in the early 1980s as a result of Turkish and Kurdish repressive measures. These were mainly Yazidis from southeastern Turkey. The integration of this group was initially difficult because the community, which had long been persecuted on religious and political grounds, was not recognized. The rejection of Yazidi asylum applications even led to a judicial scandal relevant to German asylum policy because the applications were rejected without expert analysis. Later investigations showed that the situation of the applicants had hardly been considered and that the applications had been rejected without justification. If one looks at the development in the Yazidi community in this country, one can certainly claim that most Yazidis have integrated themselves in an exemplary manner. The number of young Yazidis in higher education is rising steadily; in comparison with the total population of Yazidis, this number is even disproportionately high. Due to their history of persecution, Yazidis have learned to behave inconspicuously in unfamiliar spaces. However, if these spaces provide a certain security in which they are not exposed to oppression, they quickly adapt positively to this environment. Once they arrive here in Germany, conflicts with “liberal values” can arise, especially among the older generation. This generation locates its canon of values in its ancestral homeland, which it had to give up mostly involuntarily. The rapid adoption of a modern and liberal lifestyle is associated with the loss of one’s own culture and intensifies longings for the homeland; the homeland becomes an idealized place of longing. They fear that successive assimilation will ultimately lead to the extinction of the community. In the younger generation, on the other hand, a rapidly emerging transcultural identity can be observed. These multiple identities inevitably lead to generational conflicts, which occur in every emigrated community. In the integration debate, the Yazidis are often denied the will to integrate because of their endogamous marriage regulations. However, the endogamous institutions of the Sheikhs, Pirs and Mirids cannot simply be abolished, as explained in detail above. The accusation of a lack of willingness to integrate is unfounded, because as soon as Yazidis feel secure, they adapt easily to their new environment and have no fear of interacting with other social groups. This is particularly evident in their self-organization: They consciously create access points to society as a whole. Nevertheless, the preservation of the pillars of their faith is of high priority, and elementary in this are the endogamy commandments. The preservation of the endogamy commandments does not exclude successful integration, as we can observe analogously with other social groups. Successful integration does not mean that social groups have to dissolve substantial aspects of their identity – especially not if they are highly vulnerable groups. Of course, marriage and the choice of partnership are individual decisions. While arranged marriages used to be a common tradition, this has changed today, both in the Yazidi diaspora and in the original homelands – which is not to say that such cases do not still exist. However, these often depend on the families and regions of origin. In the past, it was not even common and welcomed for Yazidis to marry Yazidis from other regions. However, especially due to the urban living conditions in Europe, a transformation occurred here as well. Despite the lack of structural support in Germany, many committed Yazidi associations have done a remarkable job of integration and education. The centuries-long persecution of the Yazidis has actively prevented a self-determined life. In the diaspora, it is therefore very important for Yazidis to take advantage of opportunities and possibilities in order to be part of the majority society. It should also be taken into account that Yazidis are not a homogeneous group, as is often expected of an endogamous group. Depending on where Yazidis have settled, they have been socialized differently. Their adaptation processes have taken on different forms and dynamics. In terms of time, there have been several displacement and refugee movements to Germany. Yazidis began fleeing to Germany in the 1970s. The most significant refugee movements in terms of numbers took place from 2000, 2007 and again from 2014. The reasons for these waves were the Iraq war and ongoing persecution, which resulted in two genocides. In diaspora communities, alienation from one’s own cultural identity occurs, especially among the younger generation. However, the state of shock caused by the Yazidi genocide in Shingal led to a regeneration of their cultural energy. There was an unexpected and remarkable recollection and a stronger connection to the Yazidi religious teachings and identity – especially among the younger generation.

The Yazidis in the context of anti-racism

Anti-Yazidi racism in Germany is becoming more and more visible and has become socially acceptable. Many Yazidis, whether old or young, are increasingly experiencing anti-Yazidi racism. Not infrequently, this resentment comes from within the german-German and Muslim majority societies. Yazidis often feel compelled to justify their religious worldview, which includes the commandment of endogamy. If one identifies oneself as a Yazidi in German schoolyards or in social networks, one is confronted in most cases with insulting attributions such as inbreeding, forced marriage, honor killing and devil worshippers. This has even taken on such proportions that Yazidi students have adopted a different identity for their own protection in order to avoid being bullied. When asked about the commandment of endogamy, Yazidis often feel a latent racism. Many Yazidis consider it difficult to find places to talk about their experiences and to be heard. Often Yazidis find themselves in a situation of powerlessness, because they do not have the right content, strategies and concepts to counteract these racist experiences. In many networks critical of racism and their work, issues such as anti-Yazidi and anti-Alevi racism continue to remain invisible. This stubborn passivity prevents these issues and experiences from being given space. This is also because dominant parts of the networks critical of racism are reserved towards Yazidis and Alevis. These circumstances make it difficult for the aforementioned groups to access important opportunities and resources for critical work on racism in order to level out these grievances. As explained at the outset, Yazidism, including its religious content, is based on an orally transmitted sacred doctrine. Very few Yazidis have completed an academic study of religious content. Many Yazidis had little access to qualified religious instruction. Unlike other religious groups, organized institutions that conducted research on Yazidism in an academic setting did not exist. Due to the changed realities of life, the traditional form of theological and historical knowledge transfer is no longer effective. There is a need for a modern and institutionalized form of imparting knowledge, which does justice to the realities of life here – currently these are being created. Today’s generation of parents in Germany has also failed to pass on the traditions to their children – through no fault of their own, of course, because in their settlement areas they had little or no opportunity to deal with religious content. To some extent, some Yazidi communities at some point no longer had any geographical access to other settlement areas, which has left strong traces in their self-image. Here in Germany, the younger generation is thus largely left to its own devices intellectually and theologically. The racist experiences that many young Yazidis are increasingly having have led to a generation of young Yazidis, reorganizing and realigning themselves. More and more young Yazidis are becoming involved in Yazidi networks to find and develop proper responses and strategies. Yazidis are responding to increasing experiences of racism with emancipatory self-empowerment. However, the lack of necessary spaces critical of racism slows down this empowerment process. This is where networks critical of racism should intervene and support these processes.

The authors

Gian Aldonani is an Yazidi activist and studies economics and political science. She was born in Iraq and lives in Cologne. Among other voluntary work, she is involved in the project KIRIV  (“Interreligious, Intercultural, Multifaceted Cooperation2), a qualification and integration project for young people with and without migration background and with and without refugee experience in the federal state of North Rhine-Westphalia.

Sarkis Agojan emigrated to Germany in 2003 and studied political science in Hanover and Yazidi Theology in Georgia. He is also involved in the Klinma  cooperation project, a project that takes up the theme of “Managing Adaptation to Climate Change in an intercultural way”. Furthermore, he is the press officer of the Central Council of the Yazidis in Germany and is involved in the “Office of Yazidic Affairs”.

IDA e. V.

The Information and Documentation Center for Anti-Racism Work e. V. (IDA) was founded in 1990 on the initiative of democratic youth associations in the Federal Republic of Germany. It functions as a service center that informs, documents, advises and qualifies in the subject areas of racism (criticism), right-wing extremism, anti-Semitism, racism-critical or intercultural opening, diversity, discrimination criticism and migration society.