Hundreds of Iraqi Yezidis, members of an ancient religious sect heavily influenced by Persian Zoroastrianism, were murdered last week in the most deadly terrorist attack in the world since September 11, 2001. Fuel tankers packed with explosives were ignited in a refugee camp near the town of Kahtaniya, just outside the Kurdish autonomous region. Officials say the death toll has surpassed 500. The American military says this is the handiwork of al Qaeda. They’re probably right: this has their fingerprints all over it.
American commander General David Petraeus recently warned that terrorists and insurgents may use the media as a weapon and stage massive, headline-grabbing attacks as a way of showing the surge is a failure. If this massacre was indeed a part of that strategy, it has failed. Journalists aren’t playing along. They dutifully reported the attack and moved on, treating even this massive terror attack as just the latest in the steady drip, drip, drip of atrocities that erupt in Iraq as a matter of course.
Yet the terrorist attack that killed far fewer people at a tourist resort in Bali dominated headlines all over the world for weeks in October 2002. More recently, the bombings in London on July 7, 2005, which killed only one tenth as many, also created far more powerful shock waves. The world, it seems, is all but immune to al Qaeda’s shock and awe in Iraq. It has been a long time since mass murder in Mesopotamia has been news. Few still cry for Iraq. Hardly anyone has heard of Yezidis, the victims.
I know the Yezidis, however, and I can’t say I’m immune. I visited their capital, their “Mecca,” in Lalish, near Mosul, in 2005 and again in 2006. They are among the kindest, gentlest people I have ever met. I went to see them because the president of Dohuk University told me to go. “I am a Muslim,” he said, “but I love the Yezidis. Theirs is the original religion of the Kurds. Only through the Yezidis can I speak to God in my own language.” Some conservative Muslims libel the Yezidis as disciples of Satan, but they have a respected place in Kurdish culture. Kurdistan’s flag is unique among those of Muslims in that it includes a religious symbol, the Yezidi symbol—the sun, instead of a crescent.
The Yezidis have never declared war on anyone. They are the closest thing Iraq has to Quakers. Perhaps al Qaeda massacred the Yezidi refugees because they were a soft target, and because terrorists need body counts to be credible. Perhaps the Yezidis were killed because they are “infidels.” But does it even matter? Al Qaeda has no alleged grievances against the Yezidis, who have no political power and no militia, and who do not participate in sectarian Muslim rivalry. Even Saddam Hussein left them alone.
Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, who himself is an ethnic Kurd, said the attack on the Yezidis’ refugee camp was genocidal. This is an overstatement. I can’t blame him, though, for reaching a bit. We need a new word for the instantaneous massacre of 500 innocents. The conventional and overused label of “terrorism” somehow doesn’t quite say it.