Ten days ago, while attending the opening ceremony of a conference in Vienna commemorating the 25thanniversary of the Vienna Declaration of Human Rights, I was struck by the simple words and sad demeanor of Nadia Murad, a Yazidi survivor of ISIS captivity featuring sexual slavery and institutionalized rape. [For an illuminating commentary on the Yazidi ordeal see Cathy Otten, “Slaves of Isis: the long walk of the Yazidi women,” The Guardian,25 July 2017]
Nadia Murad’s words contained a single message: “Sympathy is not enough. Sympathy does not create change. We need action.” Her manner as a speaker was exceptionally calm, her intonation almost without inflection. Her words were enveloped in an aura of resignation and despair, but her talk avoided the shocking details of her experience, the details where horror resides. I grasped her words as they were being spoken as the gentlest of indictments. Her meaning came across. Empathy although welcome, does not save lives. Sympathy does not stop crimes against humanity. Action might. Action could be relevant. Action was not forthcoming when needed by the Yazidi communities in northern Iraq.
Her words were a muted cry for help, but after the fact. It is true that understanding must precede action, but most of us are content to brood over the human condition that let’s such brutality pass almost unnoticed. Despite the War on Terror the Yazidis were compelled to depend on their own meager resistance capabilities to survive to tell their latest story of abuse, and survival.
The Yazidis are an old syncretist religion that draws inspiration from Christianity via baptism, Islam via circumcision, and Zoroastrianism via fire. The religion is not theological. Its main practices consist of visiting sacred places and telling stories of their endurance and affliction. The ethnicity of Yazidis is primarily Kurdish, and they accept neither converts nor dilution of Yazidi identity (if a Yazidi marries outside the religion, it is assumed she or h has converted). The Yazidis were often persecuted by the Ottoman Empire as an infidel sect, somewhat similar to the perception of Bahi’as by Iran after 1979. The Yazidis number less than one million, many fleeing to Europe and elsewhere after the ISIS takeover of their region. The long history of the Yazidi people is one of struggle, persecution, and persistence of which this latest phase is perhaps the most excruciating.
Listening to the soft-spoken Arabic words of Nadia Murat I could not refrain from thinking of Palestinian suffering. Sympathy for Palestinians is widespread these days in response to the Jerusalem embassy move by the United States and IDF massacre of unarmed Palestinian demonstrators at the Gaza fence, yet still far less intense than Palestinian prolonged suffering and subjugation deserves. Action on their behalf remains anemic, and is subject to social, and even legal, pushback, even punishment. Israel shirks responsibility. Israeli leaders offer allegations and inducements intended to distract onlookers, and heaps denunciation on those who do choose to act, however mildly.
Nadia Murad’s words were best heard as a non-accusatory lament, although inevitably also a commentary on the human condition: So long as evil is bold and good is pacified by its benign intentions, genocides will continue to happen. The Genocide Convention is there waiting to be implemented in more than a dozen places, but who among the movers and shakers of this world cares enough to lift a finger?
I believe that is what Nadia Murad’s brave witnessing was trying to teach us during her brief remarks in Vienna.