Although we can’t know exactly why humans started developing symbols or how they were first used, we can speculate on some things about this ancient history. About 100000 years ago symbols were used by the First Peoples. Symbols were used as body markings of tribe members or drawn on the walls of caves illustrating everyday activities, or what to us today seem like mysterious images. Tattoos became used on animals as a way of determining ownership. In this way, symbols came to represent a group of people. And then, perhaps, some symbols came to be associated with mythical power, then with a belief, and finally with a distinct cultural identity. The emergence of symbols among peoples led them to be associated with a group identity, to the point where they became representational for an entire culture or system of beliefs.
Language is another system of symbols – in this case, a system that is spoken and heard. Language evolved to organize and crystallize knowledge, articulating a culture, its morals, and history, and to transmit that knowledge to others, including future generations of the group. Language thus demarcated the boundaries of knowledge and hence the traditions, customs, and ways of life associated with the daily activities defining the group and its affiliations. This process of demarcation of culture through language, symbolism, belief etc. increased friction or conflict between groups due to factors such as a sense of superiority and power, even if the groups shared the same linguistic roots or the same land.
However, difference arouses feelings of ambiguity, and ambiguity in turn excites human curiosity, and curiosity excites the imagination, sometimes giving rise to stories that may incite fear or hatred and may even justify killing the other. As societies evolved and became more complex, differences in beliefs, politics, and ideology became potential threats to the security and “superiority” of a group identity.
These are some background factors that give rise to the concept of cultural genocide. Cultural genocide includes a wide variety of attempts to use power, coercion, destruction, violence, murder, and intimidation in order to assimilate the target group into a new culture, a new language, a new religion, and a new ideology.
While genocide aims to abolish the Other and erase his/her existence through massacre or annihilation, cultural genocide is part of that destructive impulse, but without the collective massacre. Its aim, perhaps equally pernicious, is to dismantle the infrastructure of the group and try to destroy the language and symbols that constitute its identity. It seeks to erase the group’s beliefs and artistic, linguistic, historical, and economic practices. Equally devastating, cultural genocide works to make the group question each other and sow discord and fear among its members. This is what has happened to the infrastructure of sects under the rule of the Syrian regime.
The genocidal atrocities committed by the Nazis during World War II were the primary reason for both the formulation of Lemkin’s book and the founding of the United Nations. Following Lemkin’s book, the UN Convention prescribed action against acts aimed at the physical extermination of a population group (e.g., of one group by another). Genocide in all its forms has been committed against many peoples throughout history and is still practiced today. Under law, it is a crime that is not subject to a statute of limitations. It is good and necessary that there are strong responses, such as these, to genocide.
However, it does seem that the concept of cultural genocide is a rather double-sided one, often more dependent on sympathy and the winning over of international public opinion than being a clear-cut concept. This is because dictatorial governments are the ones who commit cultural genocide against their people, and because technology today is used to build sympathy in the population and distort facts. This is clearly seen in the cases of several disputes and conflicts that have existed for a long time are re-activated from time to time, in which killing, displacement, intimidation, and suppression of religious beliefs are carried out with the aim of excluding the other. Such conflicts may be compounded by social media or by attempts to control the speed of the Internet. Equally, mainstream news outlets may frame narratives to please the international community, while the other party cannot raise its voice and instead is depicted as a terrorist. In this way, truth becomes distorted by media war. For example, a dictatorial regime broadcasts videos of conflict between civilians with weapons, and then the regime intervenes to resolve the conflict by appearing to be a defender of minorities. Note that one of the conflicting parties is from the dictatorial regime, but in civilian clothes.
In addition, it would seem that the application of the law in cases of cultural genocide depends on what is considered to be the ‘latest war on the block.’ Meanwhile, older ongoing conflicts, where ethnic, religious, and cultural liquidations are still taking place under dictatorial regimes and extremist religious organizations, are forgotten. In turn, the peoples subjected to cultural genocide may go on to persecute other peoples and attempt to eradicate their cultures in response to the brutal practices to which they were subjected, just as the dictatorial regime does by stimulating strife between sects to fight, and then the dictatorial regime tries to resolve disputes with weapons by standing on the side of one faction.
This is what has happened with the Druze community in Syria. The Druze are an Arabic-speaking esoteric ethnoreligious group from Western Asia who adhere to a religious faith that originally developed out of Isma’ilism. They do not identify as Muslims. They practice Druzism, an Abrahamic, monotheistic, syncretic, and ethnic religion based on the teachings of Hamza ibn Ali ibn Ahmad and ancient Greek philosophers like Plato, Aristotle, Pythagoras, and Zeno of Citium. Adherents of the Druze religion are called The People of Monotheism (Al-Muwaḥḥidūn).
On 25 July 2018, the so-called Islamic State (IS) launched a brutal offensive in the province of Sweida, southern Syria, involving multiple suicide bombings in the provincial capital (also called Sweida) and simultaneous raids in which militants stormed surrounding villages and slaughtered civilians. An estimated two hundred civilians lost their lives, and hundreds of others were injured. The majority of victims belonged to the Druze minority, the third-largest religious minority in Syria and considered to be heretics by IS jihadists. On the night of the massacre, IS fighters entered eight villages in eastern Sweida simultaneously at 4:30 AM. They knocked on people’s doors and slaughtered whoever opened the door. The attack was coordinated, as suicide bombings took place inside the city of Sweida on the same night.
The Druze community was subjected to genocide by ISIS with the support of the Syrian regime, which intervened after the Druze were able to respond to the attack. Unfortunately, the world did not know about this attack because the regime had cut off the internet from the area for several days straight. The Syrian regime is now imposing its control over the Druze region and many minority areas, under the pretext of protecting them from cultural genocide. The regime uses social media to promote that it is the protector of minorities.
Unfortunately, peoples who are persecuted through cultural genocide are often ignorant of their international rights, ignorant of international law, and ignorant of the fact that any crime against them gives them the right to trial in a court of law. As a result, they resort to dictatorial government thinking, which they believe will in turn protect them from future cultural genocide. They, in turn, start to inflict the same harm on others, often their previous persecutors.
How do we change this cyclical pattern of cultural genocide? The solution is through revolutions, recognizing and confronting cultural genocide, and trying to use social media to convey facts around the world and influence public opinion.
It is the right of all peoples, regardless of their civilization, culture, language, ethnicity, and cultural practices, to exercise their rituals and cultural freedoms as long as they do not contradict fundamental human laws, do not harm others, and do not incite murder, discrimination, or fanaticism. The consequences of cultural genocide create deep psychic wounds, leading to post-traumatic stress disorder, i.e., group disruption, identity distortion, and loss of a sense of self. These have long-lasting impacts on people, communities, and the world.
Every aspect of human uniqueness and religious and topographical diversity forms a part of our human heritage, and so every crime against others is a crime against humanity. The gravest crime we are now committing against our humanity is the eradication of the environment through the extermination of peoples (and the extermination of peoples through the eradication of their environment!). Tragically, this has also included eradicating peoples who at all times have believed that nature is our security and our sacred birthright.