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Holy war and the threat of genocide

While all eyes are on Gaza, ISIS is brazenly committing atrocities in Iraq

A group of men is placed in several trucks. They are driven through the streets and out of town into an open area surrounded by trees. They are beaten around the head with rifle butts, made to run in a group towards an open mass grave. A mere handful of armed guards make them lie in the grave like sardines. Then they are shot one by one in broad daylight.

The horrific spectacle, highly reminiscent of the Nazi Einsatzgruppen Aktions in the Soviet Union in 1941, was, in fact, the mass murder of some 30 men that took place in Iraq just this week.

While the numbers in Gaza creep horrifically higher by a hundred or so a day in the full glare of the media, ISIS makes short work of its executions, whose numbers are not yet known. So belligerent is the “Islamic State,” that they proudly released the video with music accompanying the execution. The victims, whose lives are seen being ended on the video, were dressed in civilian clothes and are believed to have been Iraqi Army deserters, although they were clearly not being shot for any military purpose (no matter how criminal that would have been). Their lives were ended for being Shia Muslims. The 1948 United Nations Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of Genocide states clearly that the killing of a religious group, in whole or in part, is an act of genocide.

When ISIS warns Christians “there is nothing to give them but the sword,” we need to take their threat seriously. Over 35,000 Christians have fled Mosul to escape their murderous intent.  When would-be victims leave, it is generally a clear sign of real threat. People do not leave their home, heritage and livelihood without considerable fear. Such is the level of the intolerance of religious freedom held by ISIS that all religious groups in the territories they currently have control of are under imminent threat. And the threat does not stop there. When ISIS supporters recently marched through the Netherlands chanting “death to Jews,” be clear, they really mean it.

We have made the mistake many times before of conflating conflict and genocide.  Every effort was going into defeating the Nazis, but the Holocaust was not diagnosed despite ample evidence that genocide was being committed. Had the ideology of genocide been detected earlier, more could have been done sooner to save lives. When the Tutsi were being butchered in the genocide in Rwanda, it was billed as “civil war” and “tribal conflict” and the word “genocide” studiously avoided. We must not make the same mistake with ISIS. Power struggles and violent conflict often happen at the same time as genocide, but they are not the same thing. The only way to tell the difference is to look at the ideology at play and diagnose the intent. We now have sufficient insight into ISIS to know that their ideology is the pursuit of exclusive utopian power with a willingness to use lethal means against all groups it deems unworthy to live in its new world order.

Make no mistake: This is genocide in the making, and would-be victims feel its imminence and are the most powerless to act. Shia Muslims are a majority in Iraq. If civilian and military forces are unable to protect them — and there is no sign that they can — there could be a bloodbath of unthinkable proportions.

The Reverend Canon Andrew White, also known as “The Vicar of Baghdad,” is at St. George’s Church, is the only Anglican vicar in Iraq. He writes,

“Every day we think the crisis here cannot get worse. And every day it does. So many of our people (have left) or are planning to leave. … People are terrified of what is happening around us.”

Andrew is a fearless individual, optimistic in the face of overwhelming sectarian breakdown, hopeful that peace is possible in the least likely of situations, and has been a tireless warrior for negotiation for over a decade in Iraq. When the Vicar of Baghdad has reached the point of despair, there is likely no hope at all.

Be warned, our eyes are averted over Gaza right now, and so in broad daylight and with no compunction, ISIS is digging itself in deeper everyday with bloody intent. Once it become immovable, there is no telling where it will end.

Jews, Christians and Muslims need to make a united call to a silent world, all too exasperated with the failures in the Middle East. If fighting Al Qaida was worth 10 years of struggle, we now need resources and resolve to this face a more dangerous monster altogether.

ISIS has already begun to demonstrate its genocidal capability right in front of our eyes to deafening silence all over again.


About the Author
Stephen D Smith is Executive Director of the USC Shoah Foundation in Los Angeles, whose Visual History Archive holds 52,000 testimonies of eyewitnesses to the Holocaust and other genocides. He founded the UK Holocaust Centre, The Aegis Trust for the prevention of crimes against humanity and genocide. He was Project Director of the Kigali Genocide Centre, Rwanda. Smith, who trained as a Christian theologian, is an author, educator and researcher interested in memory of the Holocaust, and the causes and consequences of human conflict. Views expressed in this blog are his own and do not necessarily represent the views of USC Shoah Foundation.