Ours is the oldest religion in the world,” said the Mandaean high priest to me in 2006, when we met during my diplomatic posting to Baghdad. He did indeed turn out to be the religious leader of an ancient people whose traditions go back to third-century Babylonia; he was also, for me, the man who opened a door to an Aladdin’s Cave of forgotten faiths.
Since then, I have witnessed on a mountaintop in the West Bank a sacrifice of lambs, done by Samaritan priests in precise observance of the Book of Exodus. I discussed Greek philosophy with Druze elders, who regard themselves as a branch of Islam but believe in reincarnation. I searched for the Zoroastrians of Iran, whose founder Zarathustra was among the first to teach (perhaps three millennia ago) that our fate after death might result from the good or evil that we do in our lifetimes. I encountered the Church of the East, which sent the first Christian missionaries to China in the seventh century and once, from its base in Iraq, covered a larger span of the earth than the Pope in Rome or the Patriarch in Constantinople.
When I went back to see the Yazidis in northern Iraq in August, it was like an immersion in a sea of misery.
These religions have survived fourteen centuries of Islamic rule, and their survival shows not only their own tenacity but also the potential for tolerance within Islam. Now, though, they are vanishing faster than ever before.
The brutal terrorist group called the “Islamic State,” which the U.S. and its allies are now fighting in Iraq, burst onto the front pages in August with a massacre of a little-known people called the Yazidis. The Yazidis are an extraordinary people, who have preserved traditions dating back to the time of ancient Assyria and mixed them with ideas that emerged from the most radical and imaginative of Muslim thinkers. They have faced, by their own tradition, 72 persecutions. That number does not include the Islamic State’s campaign of rape and murder or, in 2007, the world’s second worst terrorist attack, which killed nearly eight hundred Yazidis at Qahtaniyah near Mosul.
When I went back to see the Yazidis in northern Iraq in August, it was like an immersion in a sea of misery. Stranded in tents and dependent on charity, Yazidi refugees saw no future for themselves in Iraq and asked only for asylum in the West. They want to join the 70% of Iraq’s Christians who have already left. As for the Mandaeans, almost all have now sought refuge in Europe, Canada and Australia.
Nor is it only war-ravaged Iraq from which the minorities are fleeing. I could hardly find Zoroastrians in the great cities of Iran, such as Shiraz and Esfahan; instead, I found their fire-temple in north London. I discovered that tens of thousands of Coptic Christians, who keep the language of ancient Egypt alive in their liturgies, now live in the suburbs of Detroit along with more than 100,000 Iraqi Christians.
What amazed me, though, about these religions was that they had survived into the modern era at all. Imagine discovering some island off the coast of Ireland where the Druids still held sway: meeting the Mandaean high priest in Baghdad was similarly a throwback to the distant past. How can a religion conceived in the era of paganism still exist today, after 1400 years of Islam? The answers teach lessons about Islam — and about ourselves.
First, they show the importance of religion. A warped form of religion is what motivated the Islamic State to slaughter the Yazidis. It is also however what helped the Yazidis to survive over the centuries and keep their traditions and their identity. Religion can be a great source of division, but that is intimately linked to its power to gather people and unify them.
Second, when minorities leave, countries are diminished. Islam was the religion of a great world empire, so prestigious that “Islamic State” wants to steal its name: the Caliphate. Islamic State’s brutal and narrow-minded imitation is quite different from the original. The first Caliphs had Christians among their closest counselors; later Caliphs used Jewish astronomers and pagan mathematicians to turn Baghdad into a center of world learning.
When Islam was at its strongest, it was also at its most open-minded. The West’s diversity and its prosperity have similarly gone hand in hand. It is a poor outlook for the Middle East if loses its ancient minorities.