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ISIS: Paganism with an Islamic Face?

Wednesday, October 7th, 2015

[by Mark Safranski, a.k.a “zen“]

“And thou shalt not let any of thy seed pass through the fire to Moloch, neither shalt thou profane the name of thy God: I am the LORD.”

– Leviticus 18:21 

“They rejected the commandments of the Lord … and served Baal. They consigned their sons and daughters to the fire”

– 2 Kings 17:16–17

“And do not kill your children for fear of poverty. We provide for them and for you. Indeed, their killing is ever a great sin”

  – Qur’an 17:31

In a recent comment section conversation with Charles Cameron and RAND scholar David Ronfeldt on the character of Fascism and its resurgence, I remarked that ISIS adopting a Fascist style in its propaganda and governance may be drawing upon a ghastly and ancient lineage:

ISIS is really embracing Fascism. It’s ceremonial public executions actually supercede what the Nazis and Fascists did only symbolically with blood flags and heroic cenotaphs and so on. It is reaching back to something very dark and protean, human sacrifice, as a political symbol. I think [ Moshe] Halbertal’s book On Sacrifice, is a useful reference here on how deep this goes culturally, to the bronze age or earlier.

ISIS has for some time been making quite a perverse spectacle of its executions of prisoners, combatant and non-combatant alike, releasing videos to international fanfare and glorying in the resultant horror and global infamy. The precedent for this macabre “propaganda of the deed“was initially set by the forefather of ISIS, the Jordanian jailbird upjumped to “terrorist mastermind”, the late Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who originally led al Qaida in Iraq during the American occupation of Iraq. Prior to expiring after U.S. forces dropped a 500 lb bomb on his head, al-Zarqawi pioneered the use of  beheading videos, usually featuring himself being filmed incompetently and gruesomely sawing off an orange jumpsuit-clad captive’s head with a large knife, blood spraying everywhere.

Zarqawi’s ghoulish innovation in terrorist messaging admittedly held a certain fascination for the psychopathic segment of Sunni Islamist extremists and it attracted foreign fighters of this nature to Iraq who in turn lionized Zarqawi as “the Sheikh of Slaughterers”; but the beheading videos also generally horrified public opinion in the Muslim world and repelled even hardened jihadis, earning Zarqawi a rebuke from al Qaida number two, Ayman al-Zawahiri:

….Among the things which the feelings of the Muslim populace who love and support you will never find palatable – also- are the scenes of slaughtering the hostages. You shouldn’t be deceived by the praise of some of the zealous young men and their description of you as the shaykh of the slaughterers, etc. They do not express the general view of the admirer and the supporter of the resistance in Iraq, and of you in particular by the favor and blessing of God.

….However, despite all of this, I say to you: that we are in a battle, and that more than half of this battle is taking place in the battlefield of the media. And that we are in a media battle in a race for the hearts and minds of our Umma. And that however far our capabilities reach, they will never be equal to one thousandth of the capabilities of the kingdom of Satan that is waging war on us. And we can kill the captives by bullet. That would achieve that which is sought after without exposing ourselves to the questions and answering to doubts. We don’t need this. 

Zarqawi’s Iraqi bloodlust ended only because it was interrupted by the American military, but the leaders of ISIS have carried on. Far from accepting Zawahiri’s advice, they have doubled down, greatly upgrading the marketing of ritualistic murder from Zarqawi’s crude snuff films to slick videos with professional editing and high production values that have become central to the online “brand” of the ISIS “caliphate”. Like the hosts of a sinister game show, ISIS spokesmen have found the time to murder creatively in order to keep their audience of Islamist terrorist wannabes in the West tuned in and captivate the attention of the global media (though sometimes, things do not work  out as planned).


However effective this circus of horrors has been at daunting their enemies and attracting the allegiance of “zealous young men” to ISIS, it reveals an atavistic impulse at play that no amount of Quranic hand-waving can paper over and conceal. Jurisprudence is absent here; not even the grim and rough Islamic “justice” of the Taliban is given to prisoners of ISIS, which violates the customary protections given under Islamic law or historical Muslim judicial practices. These choreographed and sensationalized executions by ISIS are really a cryptic revival of the ancient and terrible practice of human sacrifice, that in most cultures and religions had long been replaced by symbolic ritual, but once reigned supreme during the Bronze Age, not least in ancient Iraq, which if new findings are to be believed was like Aztec Mexico, a charnel-house of slaughter.

Originating in the Stone Age, human sacrifice in the religious sense of an offering to the gods or God, lasted a surprisingly long time. Setting aside the preColumbian cultures of the New World, the ancient Romans, for example, did not formally outlaw human sacrifice until the first century BC, though the practice had become archaic and Rome vigorously sought to stamp it out among the Gauls and Britons, among whom human sacrifice was an accepted part of Druidic religion. Nor was human sacifice entirely unknown among the ancient Greeks of the classical period while child sacrifice was probably central to Carthaginian state rites to such a degree that other peoples of the time, including the Romans, found abhorrent.

What occurred in many cases is that as civilizations evolved in social complexity, substitutionary practices for human sacrifice developed that served the same impulse, to propitiate and honor their God(s) and create powerful emotional bonds among the participants:  animal sacrifice, burial ceremoniesmysteries, religious ritual, necromancy, symbolism in theater and political matters of state religion. The Biblical tale of Abraham and Isaac is itself a scriptural admonition to the ancient Hebrews to adopt animal sacrifice as most pleasing to God, a practice the Israelites and Jews of the classical period continued until the destruction of the second temple by the Roman general Titus. From that point on, from the close of the first century AD, Jews and the early, still Judaic, Christians moved away from the practice of animal sacrifice and substituted prayer and theology of salvation, respectively. Sacrifice, especially human sacrifice, became a distinguishing mark of paganism and the subject of Christian crusades in the middle-ages, like the brutal war waged by the Teutonic Knights against the human sacrificing Old Prussians and Lithuanian barbarian tribes.

The Binding of Isaac

The end of late medieval European religious warfare and the rise of the Westphalian system after the Thirty Year’s War slowly shifted the symbolic moral center of sacrifice from God to the State, with divine right monarchy serving as a waystation for the incubation of modern nationalism. There was an epistemic shift, as Halbertal argues in On Sacrifice from a sacred and mystical “sacrificing to” the sovereign God borrowed from the examples of Jewish martyrdom by early Christians who shared in the Romans the same persecutors. This shift opened the gates of permissible sacrifices, legitimating a new secular and political “sacrificing for” the glory of the State.

It is a profound difference but occurring within the same phenomena, as illustrated by two quotes:

…And it came to pass after these things, that God did tempt Abraham, and said unto him, Abraham: and he said, Behold, here I am.

And the Lord said, Take now thy son, thine only son Isaac, whom thou lovest, and get thee into the land of Moriah; and offer him there for a burnt offering upon one of the mountains which I will tell thee of.

                                                                              – Genesis 22:2


….But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate – we can not consecrate – we can not hallow, this ground – The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have hallowed it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here; while it can never forget what they did here.

It is rather for us, the living, we here be dedicated to the great task remaining before us – that, from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they here, gave the last full measure of devotion – that we here highly resolve these dead shall not have died in vain; that the nation, shall have a new birth of freedom, and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

     – Abraham Lincoln

Gettysburg and Antietam were not Mount Moriah. Neither were the Somme or Stalingrad the same as the Tophet. From time of the Patriarch Abraham to the presidency of Abraham Lincoln, nations of men ceased to sacrifice usually helpless others but moved to sacrifice themselves in what they reckoned as the highest cause. Movement away from human sacrifice as practiced by ancient Carthaginian or animal sacrifice as practiced by most peoples of antiquity, including the Jews, to gentler substitutionary practices, Moshe Halbertal has called the “cataclysmic shift” in the history of civilization.

If so, it is a shift that ISIS has begun to reverse.

In their outstanding ISIS: The State of Terror, counterterrorism scholars Jessica Stern and J.M. Berger analyze the dark obsession ISIS has demonstrated in its propaganda messaging with exquisitely orchestrated executions:

….As we have noted, ISIS’s psychological warfare is directed at its potential victims. But it is also directed at those it aims to control. It is deliberately attempting to blunt its follower’s empathy by forcing them to participate in or observe acts of brutality. Over time, this can lead to secondary psychopathy, or a desire to harm others, and contagion of violence. Beheadings are one such tool for blunting empathy.

Berger and Stern are likely correct that the methodical character of ISIS demonstrations of brutality are intended to desensitize the participants and (as they further explained) a tendency to cultivate secondary psychopathology in ISIS recruits, especially the young. A similar process occurred during the Holocaust with Nazi Einsatzgruppen and reserve unit police battalions detailed to assist the SS mobile killing squads on the Eastern front. Many serving in these units, already fanatical National Socialists, became inured to the suffering of women, children and the old who were shot and dumped still alive into mass graves, though some SS men showed signs of PTSD, depression and higher rates of severe alcoholism, desertion and suicide.

The comparison between the genocidal cruelty of the SS and ISIS, while natural, is limited by a very important distinction. However zealous their ideological fanaticism and dedicated in their murderous mission to exterminate European Jewry, the SS lacked the context of moral certainty and the psychological reinforcement effects of religious exaltation enjoyed by ISIS killers. Even the malevolent Heinrich Himmler, in his secret speech to Nazi gauleiters and SS leaders, regarded the Final Solution as a terrible burden that the SS shouldered on behalf of the Fuhrer to assure Germany’s future; a “glorious” crime that Himmler believed must be kept forever hidden from history and the German people.

Not so ISIS, which revels in its bloody terror. Worse, the repetition of garish executions as public celebrations by ISIS, with a vague but constant religious context, devoid of any shred of Islamic legality, inevitably acquire over time the theological characteristics of Halbertal’s “sacrificing to”  – what began as harsh jihadi jurisprudence and psychological warfare mutated under conditions of lazy, sociopathic brutality and totemic invocations of Islam into ritual “offering” by ISIS of its prisoners of war as human sacrifices in the manner of the ancient pagans. A perverse blasphemy, but one that draws on a powerful archetype deeply buried in the human psyche.

ISIS leaders have not only looked into the Abyss, they have descended into and become one with it.

BRIEFING: some religious aspects of the Armenian Genocide:

Saturday, April 25th, 2015

[ by Charles Cameron — my latest for LapidoMedia ]

Here’s my latest for LapidoMedia, a UK organization which supports journalists with resources on the religious background of current events:


What’s in a name?

by Charles Cameron – 24th April 2015

Pope Francis with Karekin II, Catholicos of the Armenian Apostolic Church. Photo: Gregorio Borgia/AP via Washington Post

A HUNDRED years ago, an estimated 1 million to 1.5 million Armenians, along with or followed shortly by other minorities including Kurds, were killed or otherwise deprived of their lands and homes by the Ottomans in an event that for sheer horror compares with the genocides of Hitler and Pol Pot. 

Today, 24 April 2015, marks the centenary of start of the Armenian Genocide, known in Armenian – and also in US Presidential English – as Metz Yeghern, literally The Great Evil or Crime.

We are faced, therefore, with the Shakespearean question – does genocide by any other name smell quite so foul?

Both Jewish and Muslim traditions counsel that the needless taking of one human life is equivalent to the extinguishing of a world, as reported in the Talmud and referenced in the Qur’an – how much more so, the attempt to extinguish an entire culture?

For the Armenians, the genocidal nature of the events of 1915 is not in doubt. Turkey, on the other hand, is less willing than Germany was after the WWII Shoah to admit to so horrendous a crime – and President Recep Tayyip Erdo?an thus pressured the White House not to use the English term ‘genocide’.

In deference to Turkish geopolitical pressure, President Obama opted for the equivalent Armenian term, Metz Yeghern, taking considerable heat from those who viewed his choice as a cop-out.

The politics are well known. What is less known is the role religion plays in the event. To understand the religious dimension of the genocide, and by extension of Armenian sentiment condemning President Obama’s decision, we must understand the importance of Christianity to the Armenian people, and the changing relations between Christians and Muslims in Anatolia across the centuries.

Vicken Cheterian, in Open Wounds: Armenians, Turks, and a Century (Hurst, 2015), writes: ‘Religion and language are the two markers of Armenian identity. For many centuries, the identity of the Armenians was closely intertwined with membership of the Armenian Apostolic church, one of the religious communities of the Ottoman Empire.’


To read the rest — inclouding some philosophical thoughts on suffering I am glad to see included — go to the LapidoMedia site: BRIEFING: Armenian Genocide: what’s in a name?

It’s not quite Easter yet (for the Orthodox)

Saturday, April 11th, 2015

[ by Charles Cameron — so I trust you’ll forgive me posting a couple of stunning movie crucifixion images ]

My first image comes rom the forthcoming Ernst Haas book, On Set, and features his sbehind-the-scenes shot of the crucifixion in The Greatest Stiry Ever Told:

On Set crucifixion Haas

The second image turned up while I was researching the Armednian Genocide for a forthcoming article. It’s taken from a 1919 documentary, Auction of Souls, and it brings crucifixion into the twentieth century:

Crucifixion 2 Armenian Genocide


For crucifixion in antiquity, see A Tomb in Jerusalem Reveals the History of Crucifixion and Roman Crucifixion Methods:

Examination of Yehohanan’s bones showed one of the many Roman crucifixion methods. Both of his feet had been nailed together to the cross with a wooden plaque while his legs were bent to one side. His arm bones revealed scratches where the nails had passed between. Both legs were badly fractured, most likely from a crushing blow meant to end his suffering and bring about a faster death. Yehohanan was probably a political dissident against Roman oppression. In death his bones have helped fill in gaps in the history of crucifixion.

Crucifixion in the Qur’an is one of several severe “hudud” punishments {Q 5.32-34):

Therefore We prescribed for the Children of Israel that whoso slays a soul not to retaliate for a soul slain, nor for corruption done in the land, shall be as if he had slain mankind altogether; and whoso gives life to a soul, shall be as if he ha given life to mankind altogether. Our Messengers have already come to them with the clear signs; then many of them thereafter commit excesses in the earth. This is the recompense of those who fight against God and His Messenger, and hasten about the earth, to do corruption there: they shall be slaughtered, or crucified, or their hands and feet shall alternately be struck off; or they shall be banished from the land. That is a degradation for them in this world; and in the world to come awaits them a mighty chastisement, except for such as repent, before you have power over them. So know you that God is All-forgiving, All-compassionate.

The Qur’an also states that Jesus was not crucified (q 4.157):

And for their [the Jews] saying, ‘We slew the Messiah, Jesus son of Mary, the Messenger of God’ — yet they did not slay him, neither crucified him, only a likeness of that was shown to them.

It should be noted that this suggestion is similar to that in the (Gnostic) Acts of John, #97:

I, then, when I saw him suffer, did not even abide by his suffering, but fled unto the Mount of Olives, weeping at that which had befallen. And when he was crucified on the Friday, at the sixth hour of the day, darkness came upon all the earth. And my Lord standing in the midst of the cave and enlightening it, said: John, unto the multitude below in Jerusalem I am being crucified and pierced with lances and reeds, and gall and vinegar is given me to drink. But unto thee I speak, and what I speak hear thou. I put it into thy mind to come up into this mountain, that thou mightest hear those things which it behoveth a disciple to learn from his teacher and a man from his God.

For crucifixions today, we must turn to the Islamic State. A Fox News report noted that while “IS crucifixion” photos have been circulating, what is meant by crucifixion here may not be what we assume it means:

The series of photographs show different men bound to crosses in what appears to be a public square area, though it could not be independently confirmed that the subjects were dead or, if they were, by what means the executions had been carried out. The pictures do not show any apparent signs of the men nailed to a cross, nor are there any obvious, visible signs of fatal wounds.

crucifixion Fox


Plenty of room for thought herein.

Tomorrow: Christos aneste!

Syria is Not Rwanda

Monday, April 29th, 2013

Anne-Marie Slaughter had a short but bombastic WaPo op-ed on Syria and chemical weapons use that requires comment:

Obama should remember Rwanda as he weighs action in Syria 

….The Clinton administration did not want to acknowledge that genocide was taking place in Rwanda because the United States would have been legally bound by the Genocide Convention of 1948 to intervene to stop the killing. The reason the Obama administration does not want to recognize that chemical weapons are being used in Syria is because Obama warned the Syrian regime clearly and sharply in August against using such weapons. “There would be enormous consequences if we start seeing movement on the chemical-weapons front or the use of chemical weapons,” he said. “That would change my calculations significantly.”

….But the White House must recognize that the game has already changed. U.S. credibility is on the line. For all the temptation to hide behind the decision to invade Iraq based on faulty intelligence about weapons of mass destruction, Obama must realize the tremendous damage he will do to the United States and to his legacy if he fails to act. He should understand the deep and lasting damage done when the gap between words and deeds becomes too great to ignore, when those who wield power are exposed as not saying what they mean or meaning what they say.

This is remarkably poorly reasoned advice from Dr. Slaughter that hopefully, President Obama will continue to ignore.
The President, on the basis of advice very much in the spirit of this op-ed, drew a public “red-line” about chemical weapons use for Bashar Assad, or some variation of that, on six occasions, personally and through intermediaries. On the narrow point, Slaughter is correct that this action was ill-considered, in that the President wisely does not seem to have much of an appetite for jumping into the Syrian conflict. Bluffing needlessly is not a good practice in foreign policy simply to pacify domestic critics, but it is something presidents do from time to time. Maybe the POTUS arguably needs better foreign policy advisers, but doubling down by following through with some kind (Slaughter fails to specify) military intervention in Syria is not supported in this op-ed by anything beyond mere rhetoric.
First, as bad as the Syrian civil war is in terms of casualties it does not remotely approximate the Rwandan Genocide in scale, moral clarity, military dynamics or characteristics of the major actors. This is a terrible analogy designed primarily to appeal to emotion in the uninformed. Syria is engaged in civil war, not genocide.
Secondly, the “credibility” argument has been lifted by Slaughter from it’s Cold War historical context where the United States capacity to provide a nuclear umbrella and effective deterrent for allied states was tied to the perception of our political will to assume the appropriate risks, which in turn would help avoid escalation of any given conflict to WWIII. This psychological-political variable of “credibility” soon migrated from the realm of direct US-Soviet nuclear confrontation in Europe to all manner of minor disputes (ex. –Quemoy and Matsu, civil unrest in the Dominican Republic) and proxy wars. It was often misapplied in these circumstances and “credibility” assumed a much greater exigency in the minds of American statesmen than it it did in our Soviet adversaries or even our allies, to the point where American statecraft at the highest level was paralyzed by groupthink in dealing with the war in Vietnam. By 1968, even the French thought we were mad.
Absent the superpower rivalry that kept the world near the brink of global thermonuclear war, “credibility” as understood by Johnson, Rusk, Nixon and Kissinger loses much of it’s impetus. If “credibility” is the only reason for significant US intervention in Syria it is being offered because there are no good, hardheaded, reasons based on interest that can pass a laugh test.
The historical examples President Obama should heed in contemplating American intervention in Syria is not Rwanda, but Lebanon and Iraq.

Discovering a New Circle of Hell

Monday, March 4th, 2013

There is an understandable buzz when a historical event as well known and deeply investigated as  the Holocaust has suddenly been found to have been underestimated by an order of magnitude.

From The New York Times:

The Holocaust Just Got More Shocking 

….As early as 1933, at the start of Hitler’s reign, the Third Reich established about 110 camps specifically designed to imprison some 10,000 political opponents and others, the researchers found. As Germany invaded and began occupying European neighbors, the use of camps and ghettos was expanded to confine and sometimes kill not only Jews but also homosexuals, Gypsies, Poles, Russians and many other ethnic groups in Eastern Europe. The camps and ghettos varied enormously in their mission, organization and size, depending on the Nazis’ needs, the researchers have found.

The biggest site identified is the infamous Warsaw Ghetto, which held about 500,000 people at its height. But as few as a dozen prisoners worked at one of the smallest camps, the München-Schwabing site in Germany. Small groups of prisoners were sent there from the Dachau concentration camp under armed guard. They were reportedly whipped and ordered to do manual labor at the home of a fervent Nazi patron known as “Sister Pia,” cleaning her house, tending her garden and even building children’s toys for her.

When the research began in 2000, Dr. Megargee said he expected to find perhaps 7,000 Nazi camps and ghettos, based on postwar estimates. But the numbers kept climbing — first to 11,500, then 20,000, then 30,000, and now 42,500.

The numbers astound: 30,000 slave labor camps; 1,150 Jewish ghettos; 980 concentration camps; 1,000 prisoner-of-war camps; 500 brothels filled with sex slaves; and thousands of other camps used for euthanizing the elderly and infirm, performing forced abortions, “Germanizing” prisoners or transporting victims to killing centers.

In Berlin alone, researchers have documented some 3,000 camps and so-called Jew houses, while Hamburg held 1,300 sites.

….The lead editors on the project, Geoffrey Megargee and Martin Dean, estimate that 15 million to 20 million people died or were imprisoned in the sites that they have identified as part of a multivolume encyclopedia

Read the rest here.

Perhaps some of you will recall the controversy in the late 1990’s surrounding the release of Hitler’s Willing Executioners by Daniel Goldhagen where Goldhagen argued that Nazi genocide was only possible with the widespread complicity and often enthusiastic participation of “ordinary Germans” who were not themselves Gestapo agents or Nazi fanatics.  One of the primary charges against Goldhagen by academic historians was his generalizing indictment of a generation of Germans for Nazi policy that was, for all intents and purposes, officially a state secret.  After all, the closest thing to a “public” discussion in the Third Reich of the Final Solution was a terrifying speech by SS-Reichsfuhrer Heinrich Himmler at the Posen Conference to an assembly of Gauleiters  and Reichsleiters who constituted the aristocracy of the Nazi Party.

The sheer geographic density and social ubiquity of the Nazi machinery of repression and genocide documented by researchers severely undermines the critics of Goldhagen. While it is well documented that most Germans, unless they were political opponent or social misfits, did not personally feel the heavy hand of the Gestapo in the way Soviet citizens experienced the NKVD, Germans during the war years irrefutably lived cheek by jowl with the miserably wretched slaves of the Reich.

Some of the shock produced by this investigation is due to an artificial “parsing of genocide” by historians into distinct categories of death-dealing instead of looking at Nazi democide as a whole cloth or continuum.

In the immediate aftermath of the war, there was little interest beyond the Nuremberg  Tribunal in delving into the depths of Nazi crimes. Reconstruction of Europe and “getting on with life” or the exigencies of the Cold War and the ominous threat of the Soviets took far greater precedence. Even among Holocaust survivors themselves, there was initially an effort to “move on” from the unimaginable, or to make a anguished pretense of so doing, as expressed in the critically acclaimed Rod Steiger film, The Pawnbroker. When historians began more serious examinations of Nazi crimes in the 1960’s and 1970’s, there was a tendency to separate the Holocaust from related or similar atrocities due in part to the overriding ideological emphasis the most extreme Nazis placed upon the total and absolute elimination of all Jews – every last one – at all costs,. Even over and above winning the war.

However, that genocidal crusade by the SS against the Jews also facilitated the deaths of millions of others – including the Gypsies (marked for nearly complete extermination), the “useless eaters“, some 700,000 Serbs to please the Ustase puppet regime, political opponents who disappeared into the Night and Fog, and a vast democide of Slavic peoples to feed the Third Reich’s inexhaustible need for slave labor. Albert Speer wrote that Himmler coldly planned a further massive reduction of the Russian and Ukranian populations west of the Urals to build a post-war Nazi racial empire in vanquished Russia.

The scale of murder by totalitarian governments in the 20th century approaches the mythic, a phenomena for which the Holocaust has become a totem.

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