Existentializing Difference

The Existentialization of Difference: Why Have The Yazidi People Survived?

You have asked me: "Why and how have the Yazidi people survived so long?
Why are they just now being threatened?"

Yazidi Women in Iraq
Yazidi Women in Iraq Photo by Kali Rubaii

What important questions. I have had the privilege of working with displaced Yazidi who have suffered unprecedented violence, and lost many family members in the last few months, so I think it is very important to inquire about their past survival in Iraq, which may help unlock possibilities for conceiving of their future. Your question also poses the opportunity to indulge overdue suspicion, and to challenge to the hysteria in Western media about Yazidi, as well as their conflation with Christian minorities, also disproportionally covered in the relatively anti-Muslim media.[1] We can begin to suspect that someone is touching our “minority soft-spot.”[2]

We can intuit the answer to “why now?”: because it is beneficial to so many suspect parties[3] it seems unlikely they did not have a hand in the timing. I don’t have the information to verify this intuition, but I share it. My answer takes seriously your first question, because we have to really understand where our soft spot for minorities that are “like us” comes from. So I will take both questions as one, and answer them here.

First, there is a practical answer given by many Iraqis: "We might have always hated each other without knowing it. We had a common oppressor that kept all this from coming out.” I do not believe this explanation. The behavior and thinking of most Iraqis I talk to indicates a more complicated History of Diversity in the Middle East. In what historical moment did difference become an existential dilemma?

I think this is a piece EVERYONE should read about diversity and minorities in the ME:

I also suggest Displacement and Dispossession in the Modern Middle East, a book about minorities by Dawn Chatty.

My sum up, after one has read the first short piece, would be this: The idea of "minorities" requires us to think in terms of a nation-state version of "majorities." This framing of difference is new to how people used to think for a long time. It used to be, "Oh you're different from me,' not "Oh you're different from me and there are less of you than there are of me..." or "Oh you're different from me and since there are more of me it must mean something, or we must manage this somehow." [4]

In addition, the idea of extermination as a frame for dealing with others or "problems" is something that was universalized with the nuclear age. Genocidal thinking is not new, but the question, "How could a minority possibly survive in a hostile environment?" is a thought that someone living after the nuclear age could conjure. Underlying this innocent and political pragmatic question is an unexamined logic in which all minorities are bound to become either eradicated or integrated into majorities, that minorities could not exist or survive without protection from their eventual (and natural) extermination: the link between difference and existentialism has somehow been naturalized.

The question articulates American sensibilities about difference.

In the Mid East people would say, the Yazidi "survive" because the Yazidi exist. They have children, teach them things, have churches and traditions, and they have been around forever. Why wouldn't they survive? The idea that someone might want to eradicate these people and this life-way is an idea that might not cross people’s minds in the pedestrian experience of difference. Remember, the Mid East is not full of children’s literature about the Holocaust and children do not grow up naturalizing the link between difference and eradication in the same way that American children do.[5]

Kali Rubaii with Yazidi children in Iraq
Kali Rubaii with Yazidi children in Iraq Photo by Jay Visbal

A question in the same vein about Yazidi survival might be, “How did such different people exist without merging into one?” The answer again starts with the question: only in a "melting pot" society would we view proximity as a gravitational pull. Just because different people live near each other doesn't mean they will intermarry, either. In other words, people can be different and still respect each other. In our society, that's a hard one to understand, because underlying all our "diversity" policies is this: we must see similarities in order to generate "sameness equality" and mutual respect. We must see ourselves in the other, so to speak. But equality can also be based on difference. The rest of the world is not as interested in "reconciling differences" (in other words, homogenizing differences or accounting for difference as if it were the problem).

While we're hearing a lot about extermination practices in the Middle East in the news, the fact is that the Middle East hosts immense and longstanding diversity: we could learn a few lessons on the very matter-of-fact way people deal with difference. People do not place as much normative value on difference. Being different doesn't mean anything. It doesn't make you special to be a minority, or right to be a majority: being different doesn't make you anything more or less than simply that: different. "You have your religion, and I have mine" is a common statement. Nobody, and I mean no one, likes people who go around killing children and raping women in the name of any particular group. And no one likes to see the homogenization of Iraq in the name of "majorities." If the Iraqi people mourn anything, it's the loss of their diverse neighborhoods.

Nevertheless, I see the impact of ethno-nationalism here. In order to "save" people from the "risks of difference" I am hearing one of the saddest things I've ever heard: "Maybe we do need separate states to keep people apart." It is a new sentiment rooted in a desire to save and protect different groups of people, but nevertheless reflects majority-minority frames of handling diversity through homogenization. While people mourn a unified and diverse Iraq, they'd rather see the Yazidi completely removed and relocated than see them exterminated by forces of homogeneity like ISIS or Al Qaeda. And people would rather see a separate Sunni Anbar state than to see the central Maliki government kill everyone off in the name of Shiism. The logic becomes: in order to save diversity, we must accept its eradication.

Thus, segregation becomes the answer to racism, separation becomes the answer to conflict, prisons becomes the answer to poverty... etc. [6]

It is within this re-frame of diversity and difference that we might reconsider the question: "How have the Yazidi survived this long and not been eradicated before?" to ask instead, "What is the ideology that both frames this question as logical in the American mind AND imposes its frame on a formerly diverse Iraq at the same time?"

If we can identify this ideology, this structural force, we can attach the right policy/motive/infrastructure.

Until we interrogate this yet-defined thing, we will continue, with great hope, to host "dialogues" about tolerance.

We will continue, with great frustration, to talk to Congress instead of those responsible implementing this "thing" we have yet to define and interrogate.
We will continue, with great confusion, to wonder why it is that a minority is suddenly existentially threatened after thousands of years, suspecting all along that their possible eradication from Iraq must have something to do with the West, but never being sure how to prove it.

To conclude, genocidal thinking is not new, and it certainly existed long before technology like bombs made it easy to implement. However, the naturalized link between difference and the question of existence represents a relatively new paradigm that accounts for our keen interest in minorities’ survival AND for the rising approach of eradication as a solution to diversity (as a “problem”). The Yazidi could survive this long, and are threatened now, precisely because of this paradigm shift.

1 The caricature of Muslims as naturally violent, minority­hating people is a well documented phenomenon that has justified violence and discrimination against Arab and Muslim people, sometimes in the name of feminism (“White men saving brown women from brown men,” as Spivak quips) and sometimes as a thinly veiled war on Islam (conflated with Terrorism) as described by George Bush and Barack Obama alike as a “Global War on Terror.”

2 Why do we care more about individual deaths from a minority group than individual deaths from a majority group? It seems that we are naturalizing a link between difference and existentialism in a peculiar and deadly way.

3 Many Iraqis suspect the US backs ISIS because it has generate a willingness in Iraqi civil society to accept a re-occupation of Iraq by the US.

4 This does not mean that there was never discrimination or ill treatment of small groups, and in fact the Ottoman Empire feared minorities and scattered them into geographically disparate areas. Similarly, Saddam attempted to eradicate those minority groups that challenged his power, like the Kurds-- he did not target minorities because they existed, but rather because they threatened his control. But we are talking at an everyday social dynamic to understand how the Yazidi survived so long without extermination, so I will leave this to Dawn Chatty for further explanation.

5 Eradication is a concept our (mostly white upper-middle class) children learn from the first day they see their parent killing weeds in their suburban home, or the satisfaction of seeing a perfectly homogenous grass field on their playground. They read about Anne Frank hiding for her life and learn that it’s rude to say, “You’re black!” to a guy at the supermarket, as if such an exclamation might not in fact be the biggest compliment in the world. They learn, in other words, how to manage the ‘problem’ of diversity, AND how to manage the concept of eradication at the same time, at a very young age. What they do not learn about in great detail, however, is the sheer diversity (and the later eradication) of native people’s from North America, nor do they learn about the living “remainders” of these people or about forms of segregation in contemporary “post slavery, post segregation” race relations. Essentially, children grow up learning about diversity as a solved problem without learning about diversity as an unsolved solution, which leaves us completely helpless to think about the Yazidi as adults. (Iraqi children, by contract, grew up speaking several dialects, living in neighborhoods with a visible array of church, mosque and temple roofs, and playing soccer in eclectic galaxies of trash, goats, war rubble, and passing cars.)

6 This is one conceptualization of the "peace paradigm"-- that once everyone in a single place is the same or dead, while others are separated from them by a highway, a wall, a national border… then we can see from a distance what looks like restful sleep, but is in fact the dead body of Iraq, or The Holy Land, or Rwanda, or the reservation and ranchero pocked geography of apartheid California.

Kali_1About Kali Rubaii:Kali has spent time living in Syria, Jordan, Iraq, Palestine and Rwanda. She works for Friends of Sabeel, North America (fosna.org) and The Islah Reparations Project (reparations.org). She is a Phd candidate in Social Anthropology with a BA in International Relations.