The Moral Imperative to Prevent—Not Just Name—Genocide

On March 15, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a unanimous resolution declaring that ISIS' attacks against religious minorities in Iraq and Syria constitute genocide. Two days later, Secretary of State Kerry affirmed that "Daesh is responsible for genocide against groups in areas under its control, including Yezidis, Christians, and Shia Muslims." In light of these declarations, Cornerstone asks: What legal and moral obligations, if any, does the United States have in designating ISIS' attacks as genocide?

By: M. Zuhdi Jasser

As the threat of ISIS rages on, and the terror organization continues to target minorities—especially minority Yezidis, Muslims, Christians, and women—it is natural and right for the world to classify ISIS as genocidal, and treat their crimes accordingly.

There is no denying the barbarity of ISIS, the danger it poses, or the urgency of the threat. The group has beheaded dissidents, targeted civilians, raped women and children, enslaved towns, issued hit lists, and recruited children from the United States to carry out its murderous agenda. I don’t doubt for a second the conclusion that the group wishes to carry out mass murder on an even greater scale. 

It is also true that I—and many others—have been warning against the rise of just such a crisis for years. While we have been heard by some, we have also been dismissed by some and viciously maligned by others. When I warned of the threat of homegrown radicalization—specifically recruitment of young, vulnerable Muslims, including the newly converted, as but one symptom of this global unchecked Islamist scourge—at a Congressional hearing in 2011, I was vilified by the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), tarred by the media, and shunned at community events. I, not those recruiting youth to kill and be killed, was targeted as responsible for ruining Muslim lives. Other patriotic Americans and I were accused of being the "Islamophobic" threat to Muslims and Islam. Tyrannical Syrian Assadists, Saudi Wahhabis, Egyptian Muslim Brothers, Turkish AKP, the Iranian Khomeinists, or the Organization of Islamic Cooperation were not.

Now, five years later, we have seen an increase in Islamist terrorism unlike any other in recent history, and many seem to be coming to the realization that we have been involved in a cosmic war all along—our leaders have just been pretending, as though refusing to fight in it is the solution. I argue that while it certainly makes sense to look at ISIS as a genocidal force now—we should have recognized it as such all along. 

Another ugly reality, another putrid stain of death and calamity on the world’s record, is the ongoing crisis of the war in Syria. Hundreds of thousands of Syrians have been slaughtered by the terroristic, genocidal Assad regime. The regime has used mass rape, starvation, barrel bombing, carpet bombing, and all format of torture imaginable to torment the Syrian people. It has targeted Sunni Muslims, women, dissidents, and Christians as well. The regime’s crimes have been documented by civilians, regime defectors, human rights organizations, and the media. Countless images of starved, mutilated, burned bodies in endless piles and rows have found their way to American eyes and Western leaders. Our government knows that chemical weapons were used in over 40 documented attacks, and worse, the Assad regime knew that they could use them without consequences and that Obama, the UN, and the world were bluffing the whole time. Evidence that the regime does not fight ISIS but rather has been in part responsible for the rise of it is clear and undeniable.

And yet, our leaders have failed to issue a clear and actionable declaration of genocide in Syria. Samantha Power, our ambassador to the UN—who literally wrote the book on genocide—has sat idle with the rest of American leadership for over four years of a Syrian genocide against Sunni Muslims. Now, she and Secretary Kerry were ultimately backed into declaring the barbaric acts of ISIS a genocide after a Congressional declaration demanded such.

Whose lives matter? What threats do we ignore? For how long, and to what end? Do our leaders truly seek to end Islamist terror and dictatorial, murderous fascism? Are Muslim bodies and lives caught in the balance less significant to our leaders? How many more loved ones will my family lose, and how many more Christians, dissidents, and children will die?

These are the questions that trouble me spiritually and as a person who wishes to see our nation and the world finally safe from the twin evils of Islamist terrorism and secular fascism.

Yes, we should declare ISIS to be genocidal. But we must also ensure that we are recognizing the birth of genocidal forces before they carry out terror attacks, before they commit torture and mass murder, and before they begin to steal our children from us. We must marginalize and dismiss the voices of those who would have us ignore the radicalization of our youth and the clear connections between political Islam and groups like ISIS. We must address the criminality of some of our so-called allies in the Middle East and embrace the moral imperative to support dissidents and reformers, challenging those with whom we’ve engaged in ultimately fatal alliances. We must support groups like the Muslim Reform Movement, which I’ve helped to organize in an effort to stand behind universal human rights and the promotion of secular governance against supremacist Islamism among Muslims. It is this, and only this, that can begin to prevent genocide long before we are in a position to debate the naming of it.

We must also recognize and name the other genocide in Syria, responsible for the loss of over 400,000 lives, confront the Assad regime, and take full stock of the damage caused by our inaction. We remain on the wrong side of history in Syria. It is with solemnity and deep concern that I ask you to mark my words: We will come to regret this, just as some surely and rightfully regret the alliances we once formed with the group we now know as the Taliban in Afghanistan. As the adage goes, history repeats itself. Recognizing this and stopping the tide now by developing a strong response to ISIS and the regimes that help to incubate such terror groups would not just reduce and hopefully eliminate Islamist terrorism—it would also ultimately safeguard religious liberty, strengthen our national defense, and redirect our economy to one that is secure, confident, and able to stand on the global stage without dependence on malignant governments.

Changing our foreign policy is one vital part of the solution; modifying our national mindset is, I would argue, an equally important one. We must come to a national and unwavering consensus in opposition to Islamism and dictatorships, and in support of Muslim reformists, dissidents, and those who advocate for true liberty in the face of tyranny. This is, ultimately, the essence of what America is truly all about.

Dr. M. Zuhdi Jasser is the founder and president of the American Islamic Forum for Democracy, an organization dedicated to preserving American founding principles by directly countering the ideologies of political Islam. 

This piece was originally authored on April 27, 2016 for the Religious Freedom Project at Georgetown's Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs.

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