Prince Tahseen Said Beg died after a long illness in Germany on Monday. He had spent much of his life in exile, advocating for the Yazidis during some of their darkest years. Challenges await a successor.
The "Islamic State" (IS) group's attack in 2014 was the Yazidis' darkest moment in their ancestral land. IS murdered, sexually assaulted and enslaved thousands of people. At that point, Tahseen Said Ali Beg had been the mir, or prince, of the Yazidis for seven decades. Living in exile in Germany, he appealed to nations for military assistance in the fight against IS.
"No event had challenged him as much as the beginning of the Islamic State's genocide of Yazidis in the Sinjar region," the Yazidis' central council in Germany wrote in a press release announcing Said's death on Monday in Hanover after a long illness at the age of 85. He had dedicated his final years to helping Yazidis who had fled return to their homeland. He had pursued that goal "with great energy till the end — but success eluded him," according to the council, which advocates for Germany's 150,000 Yazidis.
"He was a wise leader and a firm believer in peace," Nadia Murad, a survivor of the IS assault who last year became the first Iraqi and first Yazidi to win the Nobel Peace Prize, wrote on Twitter on Monday. "He will be greatly missed. May his soul rest in peace today and always."
Said was born in 1933 in northern Iraq and became the mir when his father died in 1944.
'The last prince'?
The Yazidi faith combines elements of various related regional religions — most prominently Islam, Judaism and Christianity. Yazidis have no supernatural devil, no concept of an otherworldly Hell; they do believe, however, in reincarnation and rebirth. The faith is carried on via oral traditions, there is no single book to govern the religion: no Bible, no Torah, no Koran.
IS had justified its assault on the Yazidis by claiming that they lacked religion. Indeed, since the very beginning of the their faith in antiquity, Yazidis have been vulnerable to exclusion and even extermination at the whims of the various groups that have sought to govern them.
"By 1970, Tahseen Beg had taken the side of the Kurdish peshmerga against Saddam Hussein," said Jan Ilhan Kizilhan, a psychologist and member of the Yazidi diaspora in Germany. "He had to flee to Iran, became the target of an attack, and then went on to England," he added.
Following IS's genocide in 2014, Said began to feel helpless. His illness made it further impossible for him to lead his people in their darkest hour. "He is possibly the last prince of the Yazidis," Kizilhan said. "His descendants will have a difficult time gathering and uniting Yazidis in the wake of the IS genocide." For now, the community, especially in Germany, is united in its grief, Kizilhan said. An era has come to an end. Said will be buried in his homeland, but a memorial will be held in Hanover on Wednesday.
Baba Sheikh Khurto Hajji Ismail, who oversees the Yazidis' religious hierarchy, will lead prayers at Said's funeral later this week near the city Duhok in Iraqi Kurdistan. Kizilhan plans to join the tens of thousands of mourners expected to travel to northern Iraq.
According to media reports, Said had named his son, Hazem, as his successor. Kizilhan said a council would now liaise with the family to name a new prince in the coming days.
Some Yazidis live according strict dictates and keep a class and gender hierarchy that proscribes marriages between castes or with non-Yazidis — which can contribute to their social isolation and leave them unprepared for the difficulties of a globalizing world, Kizilhan said. A new prince "must reform the rules and structures," he added. "That is a big challenge."