Genocide and the Naming of History

Genocide and the Naming of History

Naming is power. This is evident in so many cultures and religious traditions. The Vision Quest, the secret name in Mormonism, the naming ritual in Baptism, and the choice of a Conformational name in Catholicism. In the Genesis 2:20 and Exodus 3:14, we can see how important the power of naming is in the early Jewish Tradition. To know God’s true name, to know a person’s secret name is to have power over that person. Later in the Judeo-Christian tradition, the power of naming is illustrated again in Matthew 1:21 and Matthew 16:18. The power of naming is recognized outside of theology too, think of market branding in business or George Lakoff ‘s Don’t think of an Elephant!: Know Your Values and Frame the Debate (2004); the power to name, identify, or label is the power to frame the context of any situation. Indeed, the power to identify good and bad, victim and perpetrator, plays out in our legal system as well (i.e., ask Richard Jewell about being labeled a “person of interest”). Naming is power.

But who names these horrific events? Indeed, there are no international naming conventions for historical events. Is it the American Civil War, or the War of Northern Aggression? The Great War, or World War I? The power to name history is often written by the victors (Winston Churchill[1]) because to the victor, go the spoils (William L. Marcy[2]). Perhaps that is why there is no agreed-upon term for US military operations since September 11, 2001: America’s Long War, or is it the War on Terror, the War on Terrorism, the Global War on Terror? Naming an event, frames the event within a historical context and creates winners and losers.

Today, the international community recognizes six major genocides: the Armenian Genocide, the Holocaust, the Cambodian Genocide, the Bosnian Genocide, the Rwandan Genocide, and the Darfur Genocide. Of course, the world also acknowledges many other mass killings and events in history as well, including, but not limited to the Genocide of Indigenous Americans, the Circassian Genocide, the Greek and Assyrian Genocides, the Bangladesh Genocide of 1971, the Yazidi Genocide, the current Rohingya Genocide, and so many other examples of the systematic mass killing of each other. It would be impossible to list all the crimes against humanity committed across the eons. There seems to be no end to humanity’s ability to identify ethnic, racial, religious, ideological differences among our fellow humans and wage violence against the diversity of our species.

No, there is no international naming convention for the crime of genocide. Sadly, there is not even an agreement of what constitutes a genocide as opposed to crimes against humanity. Yes, Raphael Lemkin coined the term in the aftermath of the Holocaust, but does the term only apply to the Holocaust? The United Nations Convention for the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide (1948) clearly outlines the definition of genocide but does not designate an authority to recognize historical events as genocide. The Rome Statute (1998) however, grants the International Criminal Court the standing authority to charge nation-states and persons with genocide and crimes against humanity (similar to earlier ad hoc tribunals in the former Yugoslavia, Rwanda, and Cambodia). So, apparently, it is a prosecutorial privilege to name a genocide in legal briefs, and the decision of the bench to uphold such a designation.

And that’s ridiculous. History may have once been written by the victors, but it was never written by the lawyers. In fact, the democratization of information now allows almost anyone to write history, whether it is accepted as history, political spin, or fake news is another question.

The current colloquial practice of naming genocides seems inconsistent. As mentioned earlier, there are six generally recognized genocides in history: the Armenian Genocide, the Holocaust, the Cambodian Genocide, the Bosnian Genocide, the Rwandan Genocide, and the Darfur Genocide. This nomenclature seems to have four different naming conventions:

The Armenian Genocide refers to the genocide of Armenian people of the Ottoman Empire by Turkish Ottomans. While there is a rump-state of Armenia in the world today, much of the genocide occurred in eastern Anatolia. Thus, the designation of the genocide as the Armenian Genocide refers to the ethnicity of the victims, not a geographic place.

The Holocaust, also known as the Shoah, refers to the genocidal acts by Nazi Germany both before and during World War II. Shoah was used as early as 1940 and is a Hebrew term meaning “destruction” whereas the term holocaust comes from the Greek hólos, meaning “whole” and kaustós meaning “burnt offering.” Yad Vashem strongly suggests using the term Shoah to refer to the destruction of European Jewry and the term Holocaust to refer to the wider genocidal acts of Nazi Germany.[3] It seems that de facto the term Holocaust has actually become synonymous with Shoah in the colloquial lexicon. Thus, the Holocaust could refer to the Jewish Shoah or may refer to all of the victims of Nazi Germany, including, but not limited to the Roma people, Poles, homosexuals, as well as personas with different mental and physical capabilities.

The Cambodian Genocide refers to the genocide of the Cambodian people by the political and military organization known as the Khmer Rouge. The designation of the genocide as the Cambodian Genocide, therefore, refers to the geographic place and not the ethnicity or ideology of the victims.

The Bosnian Genocide refers primarily to the genocide of Bosniak Muslim people of the former Yugoslavia by Croatian Catholic and Serbian Orthodox peoples of the dissolved Yugoslav Federation. The Bosnian Genocide occurred within the context of the Croatian War of Independence, the Bosnian War, and even the later Kosovo War. As a result, there were many atrocities committed within and without the boundaries of Bosnia regardless of ethnic and religious identity. Indeed, designating of genocide based upon ethnic and religious demographics seems to be an oversimplification that ignores mixed marriages and ethnic miscegenation. Thus, the designation of the genocide as the Bosnian Genocide refers primarily to the ethnicity of the victims, but also a geographic place.

The Rwandan Genocide refers to the genocide of Tutsi, moderate Hutu by Hutu government and Interahamwe. Like the genocide in Germany, and indeed every genocide more than likely, there were other minority groups affected by the genocidaire movements and governments. Rwanda has several smaller ethnic tribes, particularly the Twa, and it is impossible not to recognize Hutu hegemony negatively affected these other tribes as well. The designation of the genocide as the Rwandan Genocide, therefore, refers to a geographic place and not the ethnicity of the victims.

The Darfur Genocide refers to the genocide of sub-Saharan Muslim Fur, Masalit and Zaghawa tribes by Sudanese Arab Muslims. In addition, the Darfur Genocide coincided with the Sudanese Civil War between northern Sudanese Arab Muslims and South Sudanese sub-Saharan Christian tribes. Thus, the designation of the genocide as the Darfur Genocide refers to a geographic place and not the Fur people (Darfur, the abode of the Fur). Calling the atrocities, the Fur Genocide would denigrate the suffering of the Masalit and Zaghawa people.

Let us summarize the current colloquial names of the six generally recognized genocides in history. The Armenian Genocide takes its name from the ethnic victims of the genocide; the Holocaust is an etymologically created term (like Lemkin’s term ‘genocide’ itself) that is more conceptual and is used to refer to both the Shoah as well as the wider community of Nazi victims; Finally, the nomenclature of the Cambodian, Bosnian, Rwandan, and Darfur Genocides refers to regional and national geographic location. Three different naming conventions. Perhaps, in a field of research that studies systematic violence, systematic naming conventions should be employed as well.

Naming a genocide after a specific ethnic, racial, or religious group potentially exacerbates the demographic divisions that initially lay the foundation for the genocide. To do so is also an unfair oversimplification that ignores mixed marriages and ethnic miscegenation. Ethnically-based naming conventions also seem to support a binary interpretation of genocide. Yes, in the Bosnian Genocide, Bosniaks were systematically murdered by both Croats and Serbs, but there were also Croatians systematically killed by Serbians as well. There is enough blood in the Balkans to cover the hands of every religion and ethnicity. Victimhood should not be a competition. As mentioned earlier, the agricultural Fur, Masalit and Zaghawa people are equally being targeted by the Janjaweed and Arab herding tribes. To identify a genocide by a singular ethnicity is to do the work of the genocidaires.

Though the vast number of victims in the Holocaust were Jewish, others died as well. Though the vast number of victims in the Cambodian Genocide were non-Communist Khmer, others died as well. Though the vast number of victims in the Bosnian Genocide were Bosniaks, others died as well. Though the vast number of victims in the Rwandan Genocide were Tutsi, others died as well. Though the vast number of victims in the Darfur Genocide were Fur, others died as well. Even the Armenian Genocide occurred concurrently with the Greek and Assyrian Genocides. Again, victimhood should not be a competition and to identify a genocide by a singular ethnicity is to do the work of the genocidaires.

Let me suggest that the six major genocides are the Ottoman Genocide, the German Genocide, the Cambodian Genocide, the Bosnian Genocide, the Rwandan Genocide, and the Darfur Genocide. Naming conventions are luxury of historical framing and an expression of power. Indeed, nomenclature is the power to identify good and bad, victim and perpetrator. Naming is power. Let us identify the evil in the world by recognizing its location in time and place, and not pit victims against victims for a place at the naming conventions of history.

[1] https://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/books/3626376/History-as-written-by-the-victor.html

[2] https://writingexplained.org/idiom-dictionary/to-the-victor-go-the-spoils

[3] http://www.yadvashem.org/yv/en/holocaust/resource_center/the_holocaust.asp

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