The word evokes different, powerful references, depending upon who hears it.
For Jews, the primary thought is the Holocaust, officially recognized in the United States as the first genocide.
For Armenians, it refers to mass killings by the Ottomans in Turkey in 1915, though many countries, including the United States, have not recognized those as such.
These days the word immediately points to Africa — to Rwanda, Darfur and other recent bloodbaths that have involved ethnic cleansing.
But genocide is not a modern invention, and although the term has legal connotations — specific conditions must apply in a conflict for the U.S. government to officially use the designation — acts of genocide can be traced back to the Bible. Some scholars argue that there have been 15 or more additional occurrences that could qualify in the 20th century. And while the motives of the perpetrators, the identity of the victims and the region of the carnage have changed over time, genocides almost always share one common thread:
“Whenever genocide takes place, religion is involved — before, during or after — in one way or another,” said John K. Roth, founding director of the Center for the Study of the Holocaust, Genocide and Human Rights at Claremont McKenna College and the author of “Approaches to Auschwitz: The Holocaust and Its Legacy.”
Roth spoke last month at a conference titled “Genocide and Religion: Victims, Perpetrators, Bystanders and Resisters,” a collaboration between the Simon Wiesenthal Center and Pepperdine University School of Law, Institute on Law, Religion and Ethics.
The Feb 17-19 symposium, which was open to the public and attended by a few hundred students, scholars, rabbis and community members, aimed to broaden the discussion beyond the usual focus on a single genocide, such as the Holocaust — the subject of many books, studies, films and classes.
It also went deeper than many such conferences by examining as many as possible of the various groups involved in a genocide — the perpetrators, the victims, the bystanders and resisters — all of whom can be found in every such conflict, past and present.
“We didn’t want it to be just another conference on perpetrators’ responsibility,” said Roger Alford, an associate professor in the law school at Pepperdine, who organized the conference with professor Michael Bazyler, of Whittier Law School in Costa Mesa.
“We wanted to basically focus on the issue of how law and genocide and religion connect with one another: Is there a religious motivation, why are certain groups targeted, why is it the resisters try to resist, is there a religious component to that, what is it about bystanders and why do they not do more?” Alford said of the three days of lectures by academics, legal scholars and government officials from around the world.
There are four motivations for genocide, Roth said: To implement a belief, a theory or ideology; to eliminate threat; to spread terror among enemies; and to acquire economic wealth.
“Religion can be an agitating factor in genocides,” he said, noting that it is impossible to understand the numbers of people affected by the devastation, which has effects for generations to come, because it destroys cultures and traditions. “The effects of genocide have not stopped. On the contrary. Genocide has gone on and on. It might continue to do so.”
Religion plays a role in conflicts today, said Sandra Bunn-Livingstone, of the State Department’s Office of International Religious Freedom, Bureau of Human Rights. “The less religious freedom, the higher the religious persecution, and it sets the stage for possible genocide.”
Today, she pointed out, “there is higher religious persecution in countries with Muslims.”
Of 143 countries monitored for the highest level of persecution, 40 percent had a Muslim majority, versus 3.9 percent with a Christian majority.
On speakers’ and audience members’ minds was the role that Islam plays in world conflicts today — conflicts that have not been designated as genocide, but which involve terrorism, murder and group persecution.
Is there something inherent in Islam that is responsible for the terrorist tactics we see being perpetrated around the world today?
“We have to be very careful about demonizing religion,” Bazyler said in an interview. “We in the Jewish community have to be careful not to do that; it doesn’t serve us well.”
Instead of condemning the entire community or religion, we should “criticize individuals in the Muslim communities for not condemning enough the extremist elements, and we can reach out to what we believe are moderate Muslims.”
Others at the event lamented a climate in academia in which there’s “a fear of political incorrectness,” in the words of Israel Charney, executive director of the Institute on the Holocaust and Genocide at Hebrew University in Jerusalem. Although Charney is against those who completely vilify Islam, such as Daniel Pipes and Arianna Fallaci — “who are so inciting they inflame the process I’m against,” he said — he allowed that “the violent position has prevailed” many times in Islamic society, and he said that it’s important to tell it like it is.
Of Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s call to eliminate Israel, Charney said, “I don’t think you send that to a committee for discussion; you treat it as incitement, you treat that as a call to kill, you add that to your evaluation to what it means that they’re seeking nuclear weapons, and unless you’re a complete jerk, you start looking for what actions to take, but you don’t do nothing and say, ‘We don’t really know if he means it, we don’t know if he has influence,’ That’s been the rationalization [so] that you don’t have to respond to stop him.”
Others at the conference were less certain.
“How Islam is to be interpreted,” Roth said, is still up for discussion. “If you go back to the Hebrew Bible or other traditions, you can see there’s a struggle taking place” between the injunction against murder and the allowances for it.