Revisiting the "Ancient Hatreds" Thesis: Explaining the Islamic State's Campaign against the Yazidis


With Güneş Murat Tezcür (Professor, University of Central Florida)
Moderator: Malin Isaksson (Senior Lecturer, GPS)


In August 2014, the so-called Islamic State (IS) carried out a genocidal campaign against the Yazidis, a marginalised religious minority historically rooted in the Sinjar area of northern Iraq. Around 3,000 Yazidis lost their lives; more than 6,400 Yazidis, mostly women and children, were kidnapped. What factors are responsible for the intensity of IS's anti-Yazidi campaign? Survivor testimonies suggest that many Sunni neighbors of the Yazidis were involved in the atrocities and kidnappings.

What explains the motivation of ordinary people to participate in violence? The paper first articulates a series of hypotheses based on the literature on mass violence and evaluates them by analysing the evidence on IS attacks against the Yazidis. It emphasises the need to look beyond Islamic state's ideology and opportunistic motives to the historical stigmatisation of the Yazidis to explain the patterns of complicity and participation by the local population in the violence. By doing so, it challenges the modernist paradigm that mass level ethnic violence has its origins in socioeconomic and political transformations associated with modernity. The author conducted dozens of in-depth interviews with survivors, ordinary Yazidis, Yazidi religious and political leaders, activists, professionals and officials in Yazidi affairs in Iraqi Kurdistan in September 2017 and May 2018. Additional interviews were conducted virtually and in Germany in June 2017. These interviews were supplemented by recorded testimonies of survivors, field reports by local and international organisations, and historical documents about the Yazidis.

Güneş Murat Tezcür (PhD, University of Michigan, 2005) is the Jalal Talabani Chair of Kurdish Political Studies and Professor at the University of Central Florida. He also directs the Kurdish Political Studies Program, the only academic unit dedicated to the study of Kurdish politics in the US. He is a social scientist studying political violence and identity, and democratic struggles. His work has appeared in more than twenty journals including American Political Science Review, Comparative Politics, Journal of Peace Research, Law and Society Review, and Political Research Quarterly. He is also the author of Muslim Reformers in Iran and Turkey. His research has been supported by grants from National Science Foundation, Harry Frank Guggenheim Foundation, and the United States Institute of Peace, and the University of Notre Dame. His current projects examine the dynamics of political violence at a micro-level with a focus on the attacks against the Yazidis.