Countering Bigotry at its Roots Prevents Genocide Later

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s declaration today at the Holocaust Museum that the ongoing attacks against the Rohingya Muslims by the government and military of Myanmar (formerly Burma) constitute genocide is a welcome step for this country and the world. Hearing his recounting of some of the evidence for that designation was harrowing but necessary if we are to confront and to end this massive crime—and others like it around the world.
As Secretary Blinken pointed out, this genocide has been developing for many years. As far back as 1962, the Myanmar military gave clear indication of its racism and Islamophobia when, after seizing power in a coup for the first time, it immediately cancelled all Rohingya-language programming on the state broadcasting system. Since then, the Myanmar military has repeatedly restricted the rights of Rohingya citizens and incited the Myanmarese populace against them. In 1978, it used a campaign to register so-called foreigners as a device to terrorize Rohingya, driving 200,000 of them to flee to Bangladesh. In 1982, a new citizenship law effectively deprived Rohingya of citizenship. In 1991, military forces launched a campaign of rape, killing, and the destruction of communities that forced an additional 250,000 Rohingya to flee their homeland for Bangladesh. The years 2012 and 2015 saw further persecution of the Rohingya, and the period of 2016 to 2018 saw even more severe attacks, to the point that between 2012 and 2017, 825,000 Rohingya—the majority of the Rohingya population left in Myanmar—had been driven out of the country. And now, following the military coup in 2021, persecution of Rohingya has intensified once again. The Myanmar military justified these attacks by labelling the Rohingya (whom they refer to misleadingly as “Bengalis”) as a foreign element that threatened the cohesion and well-being of the nation—even though the Rohingya have been at home in Myanmar as long as most of the other ethnic groups that make up the Myanmarese population. 

All this is solidly documented by international human rights organizations, including Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, Fortify Rights, and the Holocaust Museum’s Simon-Skjodt Center for the Prevention of Genocide. It was the work of these groups, plus investigations by the State Department itself, that led the Biden Administration to declare that the Rohingya were indeed suffering a genocide.
Unfortunately, the Rohingya genocide is not unique, either in history or in the present. It shows many of the stages that scholars have found in other genocides, including the classification of people into distinct groups, symbolization (the marking of a marginalized population, such as the yellow star in the Nazi genocide of the Jews or language and religion in the case of the Rohingya), discrimination (the law depriving the Rohingya of citizenship), dehumanization (labelling Rohingya as “fleas” and claiming that they are an alien and threatening element), and finally, in place of outright extermination, campaigns of violence and terror that succeeded in driving the majority of Rohingya from what had long been their homeland.
Secretary Blinken rightly pointed to the genocide being perpetrated by the Chinese government against the Uyghurs and other Turkic-speaking and Muslim peoples as another current example of this scourge. He mentioned also the atrocities committed by all parties in current conflicts in Ethiopia and Eritrea and the danger of a genocidal flare-up in Sudan. We might add the situation in India, where several steps toward genocide against Muslim Indians, including discrimination, dehumanization, and violence have been taken or encouraged by the ruling party of the Indian government. The Rohingya genocide, like many others, shows how easy it is, once the first steps have been taken, to go over the line to outright genocide. Genocide is rooted in the “othering” of groups of people, of the failure to recognize human diversity as a call for mutual learning and mutual respect.
That is why the work of ING is so crucial today. We are heartened by the UN’s designation of March 15th as the International Day to Combat Islamophobia. What is needed, however, is grassroots work and education that dispel false perceptions about marginalized groups, including Muslims. ING has a variety of programs that effectively promote the mutual understanding and respect that can undo the hate and dehumanization that feed all forms of bigotry, discrimination, and victimization that, taken to extremes, result in genocide. ING’s Islamic Speakers Bureau presentations, including “Islamophobia and Its Impact,” help foster understanding of Muslims in the US and around the world. Our Interfaith Speakers Bureau panels bring together Buddhist, Christian, Hindu, Jewish, and Muslim speakers. And ING’s Intercultural Speakers Bureau panels discuss the history and contemporary manifestations of racism with African American, Indigenous, Latinx, Asian, Jewish, and Muslim American speakers. Your participation in and support for our programs plays a vital role in our efforts. However you choose to participate in these efforts, know that you are playing a vital role in working for a world in which genocide will be a thing of the past. You can request an ING panel or presentation for your school, college, university, community center, business, or institution here.
How to Help the Rohingya People:
1. USA for UNHCR (the UN Refugee Agency):
2. Muslim Global Relief:
3. Islamic Relief USA:
ING Team