A small religious group called the Yazidis are trapped on a hill in northwestern Iraq; 500 have been killed, reports say, some buried alive; some of those buried alive were women and children.
The Islamic State killed them; killing is their forte. They do it quickly, nonchalantly, and with great self-regard.
The Yazidis are called "devil-worshippers" by the Islamic state, and here's why they're called that:
In the Yazidi creation myths, the one true god created seven lesser gods to rule the Earth. And God created Adam and Eve. Then God commanded all the lesser gods to bow down to Adam.
One of the magical beings doesn't bow down to Adam. The main god casts him out. This being is called Melek Taus. He is the Yazidi's primary god.
In the Islamic creation myth, a similar thing happens. The one true god creates lesser gods -- magical beings divided into angels and jinn. And God creates Adam and Eve, and he orders all his lesser gods to bow down to Adam.
One of the magical beings doesn't bow down to Adam. The main god casts him out. This being is a called Shaitan. He is the Muslim's primary devil.
The same act leads to two different conclusions. One sees a refusal to bow down to man as a noble act. The other sees it as the worst thing a supernatural being could do.
Why is Melek Taus worshipped by the Yazidi while Shaitan is reviled by the Muslims?
A writer for the Independent asked that question of a Yazidi leader in Germany. Here's the exchange:
Who is Melek Taus? Halil [a Yazidi spokesman], looks slightly uncomfortable: "We believe he is a proud angel, who rebelled and was thrown into Hell by God. He stayed there 40,000 years, until his tears quenched the fires of the underworld. Now he is reconciled to God."
But is he good or evil? "He is both. Like fire. Flames can cook but they can also burn. The world is good and bad."
The world is both good and bad. You can't get much clearer, simpler wisdom than that. A little Internet reading shows that the Yazidi are both good and bad; they see themselves as superior to all other races; they divide their society into castes that cannot marry each other; they pray toward the sun; they worship trees; women can't cut their hair; they kill women for trying to convert to Islam.
So they're not perfect. Their religious beliefs are as crazy -- possibly crazier -- than most others'. Yet, to destroy their religion, as the Islamic State wants to, would be to lose a valuable perspective. It's possible to believe that the sun, not Mecca, deserves prayers; that there is no hell below us.
The most one religion dominates -- one ideology, one story -- the more difficult it is to see the flaws in that religion or story. This is why, wherever you travel, the locals will defend the most absurd aspects of their own religion or ideology with incredible fervor. I often got the feeling, traveling in Iraq or Indonesia, that the locals had pretty much literally never heard any other stories besides their own.
This is the power of travel and, to a lesser extent, the power of the Internet. Other stories -- practically every story -- are now available in every town, as long as you can find an Internet connection. How many generations will have to pass before people read different stories from different places and begin to question the most ludicrous aspects of their own stories? How long before they change their ways? How long before people stop killing each other for the sake of stories? Especially ones that are so obviously made up?
This is the power of stories. You tell them enough, loudly enough, they don't even have to be particularly compelling, and people will blow themselves up for them, or else give their lives in some positive way, through service or sacrifice, to these stories.
I believe that many or most of the people who made up these stories were doing it without malice. Story tellers know what it's like to feel possessed by the muse; on a good day, it feels like you're in touch with some other world that's dictating the story to you; can you blame those "prophets" of earlier times for believing that those were the words of god?
Religion seems so arbitrary, though. Things strictly forbidden in one religion are strictly commanded by another. In Abrahamic religions you can't eat pork, but beef is fine. In Hinduism, it's the reverse. Hinduism celebrates its many gods; in Islam, saying that there's more than one god is the absolutely worst thing you can do. One religion says worship Friday, one Saturday, one Sunday. None of them seem as humane or beautiful as, say, a Toni Morrison novel or a Disney cartoon, or as natural as the revulsion you feel in your gut as you watch a video online of the Islamic State ordering Shi'as to lie down in the dirt to put bullets in their brains. And why did those shi'as get offed? Because the Islamic State's stories differ ever so slightly from the Shi'as': one thinks Ali was a Caliph, the other does not.
And what of the Yazidis, whose beliefs are diametrically opposed to the Islamic State's? You have to think that their days are numbered. And their stories will fade into dust.