There is no denying that persecution of Christians, other minority faiths, and nonbelievers in the Middle East is reaching fever pitch. Attacks from ISIS and the ongoing brutality of the Syrian Civil War have rendered literally half the population refugees, fleeing for their lives under abysmal conditions. Images of the crisis are horrific and haunting, to say the very least.
But reality is out of sync with the mainstream narrative.
Contrary to what politicians like Donald Trump may want you to believe, the bulk of the violence taking place overseas is not about Christian persecution; it’s about the government, rebels, ISIS, and Kurdish factions inflicting maximum damage to each other’s strongholds. Despite what Christian publication headlines might imply, the religious targeting that is taking place is not exclusive to Christians; the attacks have been against all kinds of people who are not Muslim.
These realities don’t seem to matter in the U.S. House of Representatives, where a new bipartisan resolution seems intent on keeping the focus on Christian victims alone:
Expressing the sense of Congress that those who commit or support atrocities against Christians and other ethnic and religious minorities, including Yezidis, Turkmen, Sabea-Mandeans, Kaka‘e, and Kurds, and who target them specifically for ethnic or religious reasons, are committing, and are hereby declared to be committing, “war crimes”, “crimes against humanity”, and “genocide”.
The idea here is that Congress doesn’t want to mince words. Forget the euphemisms. This is genocide.
But there are huge problems with this. For starters, let’s talk about what genocide actually is. As the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum website reminds us:
The term “genocide” did not exist before 1944. It is a very specific term, referring to violent crimes committed against groups with the intent to destroy the existence of the group. Human rights, as laid out in the US Bill of Rights or the 1948 United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, concern the rights of individuals.
In 1944, a Polish-Jewish lawyer named Raphael Lemkin (1900-1959) sought to describe Nazi policies of systematic murder, including the destruction of the European Jews. He formed the word “genocide” by combining geno-, from the Greek word for race or tribe, with –cide, derived from the Latin word for killing. In proposing this new term, Lemkin had in mind “a coordinated plan of different actions aiming at the destruction of essential foundations of the life of national groups, with the aim of annihilating the groups themselves.” The next year, the International Military Tribunal held at Nuremberg, Germany,charged top Nazis with “crimes against humanity.” The word “genocide” was included in the indictment, but as a descriptive, not legal, term.
Understanding this, it becomes clear that the situation in Syria, while clearly tragic and terrifying, does not rise to the actual meaning of the term. The violence being perpetuated by the groups referenced in the resolution is not about seeking extermination; it’s about inflicting as much damage and causing as many casualties as possible in order to shift the balance of power in terms of regional rule. To put this on par with the Nazi’s attempted extermination of people falling outside the “master race” parameters they embraced is an affront to the suffering of those who were actually the targets of genocide in Germany and elsewhere, and only serves to further cloud international discourse on very real genocides happening throughout the world today.
The impact of this term’s misuse extends beyond offense, though. This is a term with a very specific meaning, and failure to preserve that meaning has consequences in terms of international relations and cultural response. On a political level, there have already been extensive issues with the application of the term “genocide”; it’s highly politicized and likely to cause division because of its roots. This is uniquely problematic in a situation where international aid is warranted. On a social level, dilution of the term genocide creates a type of numbness to the concept, which makes it difficult to get people to care enough to act. If every other thing is a genocide, then it’s just a reality that we can’t do much about instead of a crisis that deserves intervention.
Even if we could look past the misuse of the term, to frame the violence taking place in the Middle East right now as targeting Christians first and foremost is simply untrue. It’s not just — or even primarily — Christians who are targeted when the violence takes place in the context of religious belief; it’s also Buddhists and Sikhs and Agnostics and atheists and others. The resolution sees those individuals as merely “other” ethnic and religious minorities, but the focus is clearly on Christians.
Make no mistake: these resolutions are very carefully constructed. Every word selection is weighed. So why do this? Why phrase this so specifically? Because the U.S. government seems to only care about genocide when they feel like it’s Judeo-Christian practitioners under attack. They have a long history of failing to recognize atrocities that do qualify as genocide — from the attempted extermination of the Rohingya in Burma to the ceaseless attacks on the Falun Gong in China (including deplorable organ harvesting from prisoners) and beyond. Unless the population in question is tied to Judeo-Christian beliefs, the term “genocide” likely won’t be used to describe their suffering.
I’m not saying we shouldn’t be paying attention to the horrors unfolding overseas. By all means, let us open our arms to refugees. Let us find a way to assist those caught in the crosshairs of a grotesque power struggle. But leave inflammatory rhetoric too often reserved for a select few out of the conversation and focus on something productive.
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