Two weeks ago, I’d never even heard of the Yazidi people. This week, they’re top of the news, driven from their homes in Iraq by the murderous Islamic State militia – raped, thrown into mass graves, even crucified and buried alive. Some who escaped have been starving to death on a mountain top under a blazing 120-degree sun, with United States planes dropping emergency food and water packages.
What’s this all about? And how does it relate to our usual topic of nonhuman animals?
Basically, it’s the latest example of what happens when we humans cast other humans as “animals” – inferior, subhuman, demonic – and try to distinguish ourselves as superior, exceptional, spiritual and, most important, NOT ANIMALS.
(For how this happens, see the post “I Am Not an Animal“, about how we humans have a level of self-consciousness that burdens us with the inescapable awareness of our own mortality. The chronic anxiety this causes leads us to deny that we are animals at all; to distance ourselves from the other animals since they remind us of our mortal, physical nature; and then to accuse other humans of being the ones who are “animals”.) Our level of self-consciousness is also a curse in that it burdens us with the inescapable awareness of our own mortality.
What’s happening to the Yazidi people may be horrifying, but it’s hardly new. Ethnic cleansing has been going on for thousands of years. European Americans did it to Native Americans; Serbs did it to Croats; Nazis did it to Jews and Roma (Gypsies); ancient Hebrews did it to Palestinians; and modern-day Israelis are doing it all over again.
And we’re all doing it to our fellow nonhuman animals in what’s become a massive Sixth Great Extinction – the inevitable consequence of our vain attempt to assert our superiority over nature.
According to the Islamic State (ISIL) group that’s now rampaging through the Middle East, the Yazidi people are Satan-worshipping subhumans who are not fit to be left alive. In fact, the Yazidis have a remarkable culture that retains much of the same early mythology as Judaism, Christianity and Islam, along with other traditions like Zoroastrianism and Jewish Kabbalah.
Yazidi people say their culture is one of the oldest in the world and that their ancestors worshipped at Gobekli Tepe, an archeological site in Eastern Turkey that dates back 12,000 years – more than twice as far back from today as Stonehenge and the earliest of the Egyptian pyramids. It’s considered the world’s earliest known temple.
One of the fascinations of Gobekli Tepe is that you can see how mortality anxiety was beginning to take hold in early human culture. Pillars that are 20 feet tall depict humans with abstract heads, while statues and carvings show animals in a subservient and subordinate relationship to the pillars.
And skulls have been found that had apparently been buried and unearthed for use in rituals, suggesting a time when we humans were beginning to create religions and belief systems that would offer reassurance that we’re not simply animals like all the other species, but can look forward to some kind of afterlife.
To a large extent, that’s still what religions are about: the reassurance that we’re not mere “animals”, but “spiritual” beings with souls that can survive death and migrate to another realm or reincarnate or live on in some other way. Always seeking the reassurance that we’re not mere “animals” but “spiritual” beings with souls that can survive death.
Of course, the trouble with any belief system whose purpose is to deny our true nature is that it is inevitably a rather fragile construct that need to be shored up with special claims and promises. And for it to retain its power, the claims of other religions have to be labeled as wrong – and their followers as evil or subhuman.
And so to the endless wars and crusades and pogroms and holocausts and ethnic cleansing and genocides – between Sunnis and Shiites, Serbs and Croats, Catholics and Protestants, capitalists and communists, Muslims and Hindus, Nazis and Jews, Jews and Palestinians, and now the Islamic State versus all the other religions and cultures of the Middle East.
A classic example of the “I am not an animal” mentality can be seen in this video of a young Israeli soldier harassing Palestinian people at a checkpoint and joking about them being “animals”:
“Animals, animals,” he laughs. “Like the Discovery Channel! All of Ramallah is a jungle. There are monkeys, dogs, gorillas. The problem is that the animals are locked in. They can’t come out. We’re humans; they’re animals. They aren’t human; we are. That’s the difference.”
(The great irony, of course, is that this young Israeli is quite likely the grandson of people who were themselves labeled as “animals” by the Nazis.) Our pogroms and ethnic cleansings now have a new wrinkle: climate change and drought.
While this kind of behavior has been going on for thousands of years, it has a new wrinkle: climate change and drought. The chest-thumping bluster of the Islamic State militias, as they rampage through the villages of people like the Yazidi, is taking place in a land that’s dying beneath their feet, consumed by a drought that’s already sparked a civil war in Syria and is driving much of the Israeli land-grab of the West Bank.
We humans are no longer dealing simply with our own personal mortality anxiety; we’re staring into the face of a mass extinction that will most likely include our own species. And it’s the direct result of our endless insistence on our own “exceptional” superiority to our fellow animals.
While the suffering of the displaced human populations like the Yazidi is intense, it’s quite mild, in fact, compared to what we humans inflict, every day, on all the other living creatures of Earth in our effort to maintain the dangerous fiction that “I AM NOT AN ANIMAL.”