The death of 500 people in the Yezidi villages in Northwestern Iraq August 4, 2007 is an overwhelming tragedy. For a nation the size of Iraq it is catastrophe on a scale two times as large as the 9/11 tragedy was to the U.S. In my untamed fantasies I wish that it could be the closing bookend on this horrific era that began with 9/11. But my realistic side tells me that, though fantasy gives me goals, more reasoned reflection will provide the steps and the hard work that is needed to put the bookend in place.
Whenever I have visited Iraq people have asked me, “Did you meet some of our Muslim devil worshipers?”. They meant, the Yezidi, a minority group with an estimated 500,000 adherents. The Yezidi believe that God created the world but that the world is now in the care of seven Holy Beings or angels, the most important of whom is Melek Taus, the Peacock Angel. In popular thinking the Peacock Angel is equated with the devil, or Shayton in the Koran and that is how the Yezidi came to be thought of as devil worshipers. Yezidi do not believe that the Peacock Angel is the source of evil in the world but rather that he allocates blessings. They believe the source of good and evil is within people. Many Yezidi practice prayers five times a day and an annual pilgrimage to the tomb of Sheikh Adi, the Muslim leader who led the Yezidi into Islamic culture in Lalish, near Mosul, the ancient city of Nineveh where Jonah once preached. With roots going back to Zoroastrianism the Yezidi culture incorporates a variety of closely held secretive beliefs, annual festivals, pilgrimages, and scriptures that have sustained their faith and culture over the centuries.
For all religious minorities and ethic groups in Iraq the modern era has been hard. Jews have left Iraq except for a handful of families. Of the million Christians, 500,000 have joined over two million Iraqis who have fled the violence in Iraq since 2003. Included in this number is over half of the medical doctors. Like all of us, these people’s first need is security.
What needs to happen so the tragedy that has fallen upon the Yezidi people becomes a wake up call for all of us around the world to do the things that will put in place a culture that does not permit smart bombs or suicide bombers? Is there enough good and courage within collective humanity to take the steps that make for a culture where the accepted mode for conflict is protracted negotiations, and other means of nonlethal but organized social pressure? This is the seed for future generations of hope.
First, we work to cleanse ourselves of the fanaticism within us. Fanaticism breeds quick-fix, one-stop solutions for all time, that don’t work. The opposite of fanaticism is an openness to refine our methodologies as we make them consistent with real needs and our deepest convictions and hopes.
Second, we stop expecting government to solve the problem of violence with police and military action. Governments often respond with military force after tragedies like 9/11 and the Yezidi village massacre because they think their populations expect them to. We are not going to get a solution from government until we have a broad based movement. Political leadership even within so called democracies, is constrained by quick analysis, election cycles, and polling numbers.
Third, we need not assume that all of our conflict transformation projects of peacemaking are a failure because we weren’t there to stop the armed trucks that killed 500 people or the airplanes that killed 3000. We might have done more good if we had been there to interact with the perpetrators before they started their planning. Listening is the first step. We earn our right for the second conversation by good listening. The next step is to follow up on what we agree to do. We build the structure step by step over years and decades because we keep our word and fulfill our spoken and inferred promises. In this long process we build a culture where the natural mode of dealing with conflict is characterized by nonlethal means instead of threats and terror.
Fourth, we can trust our best instincts. The challenge is that most of us have also inherited some form of mechanistic thinking that simplistically divides the world into good and bad. We then spend our lives feeling trapped by the evil side. Our common health however is much better served by learning to recognize the great spirit for good that God has placed within us and learn to listen to it. By doing so, life is no longer a battle for survival, or protection from scarcity but new opportunities and experiments in life giving transformation. Lodged within is the strength and instinct to choose to resolve conflict without violence. The Yezidi understand that any event even outside of ourselves provides a choice – we can see it as or an opportunity for good to arise.
Much as I would like for the Yezidi massacre to be a bookend that closes out this era of the cycle of violence, I know that I need a better metaphor. The massacre is more like a bad dream which jerks me out of my sleep and forces me to face my blinders. Why wasn’t I there to get to know the Yezidi people five or ten years ago? What is inherent in their culture and other world cultures that might have helped prevent this tragedy? What should I do to encourage the awakening of peacemaking initiatives that are circling the globe? If I act on these questions maybe I will be given another dream. In that dream I see a monument to the 500 Yezidi people who were killed August 14, 2007 – a little like the one at the Trade Towers in New York. In the dream I see millions visiting that monument right there in the same part of the earth where the prophet Jonah so reluctantly once called for transformation and I see us awakening collectively to the many alternatives to senseless violence.
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