What do Jews have in common with Uyghurs in China, Yazidis in Iraq, and Rohingya in Myanmar? All are past or current victims of religicide. Religicide is a new term for an old phenomenon: the systematic attempt to wipe out an entire religion — not just by killing its adherents, but by destroying its natural habitats, sacred spaces, and entire cultural heritage. All religicides begin with hate speech, misinformation, and scapegoating.
The Holocaust is a clear example of this phenomenon. The antisemitic image of the hook-nosed, horned, conspiratorial “international Jew” who controlled banks and the media gave the Germans someone to hate. Branded as traitors, Jews were demonized daily in sophisticated multimedia propaganda campaigns. The Führer became the stand-in for the Messiah, intent on eliminating the satanic forces (read: Jews) undermining the Fatherland. It was a short step from reducing people to contemptible caricatures to enacting physical violence.
In modern times, hate speech and stereotypes have been hugely amplified by social media. Joel Finkelstein, director of the misinformation tracker Network Contagion, explains, “Wars going on in the world are also waged online and social media has become the weapon to expand it from a local conflict to a clash of civilizations.”
Religicides against Uyghurs, Tibetan Buddhists, and Rohingya all began with hate speech, disinformation, and/or scapegoating. For example, China’s religicide of Tibetan Buddhists is advanced by digital propaganda.The Communist Party maintains that the Dalai Lama and his allies are organizing a violent separatist movement in Tibet. In 2009, the University of Toronto’s Citizen Lab revealed that the Chinese government infected accounts of the Free Tibet movement — 1,295 hosts in 103 countries — with Chinese malware, which kept any dissent or truth from being communicated to the world. Beyond media manipulation, Beijing uses intimidation to spread digital misinformation about Tibetan Buddhists, as well as Uyghur Muslims. In 2018, more than forty journalists were jailed for attempting to report on Beijing’s persecution of religious minorities across China.
The Rohingya, another Muslim minority, are victims of religicide in Myanmar. Starting in 2011, there was a significant increase in anti-Rohingya propaganda, including racial slurs that cast the dark-skinned Rohingya as subhuman. In 2017, Myanmar’s military began “clearing” the Rohingya from their homes in Rakhine. Thousands of Rohingya died in these attacks, and more than 750,000 fled into neighboring Bangladesh.
Myanmar’s government and its Buddhist nationalists maintain that the Rohingya are not native-born and push a message of a “Muslim threat,” both in the form of birthrates and imminent attacks.[3, 4, 5, 6] Buddhist nationalists and military personnel use Facebook to spread anti-Rohingya messages and stoke tensions.
Antisemitism is a quintessential example of chronic scapegoating, and it’s been used to incite violence throughout history.
Antisemitism is a quintessential example of chronic scapegoating, and it’s been used to incite violence throughout history. Like these other forms of prejudice, antisemitism has risen in recent years. The Kantor Center at Tel Aviv University found that antisemitic violence increased by nearly 20 percent worldwide just between 2018 and 2019. According to Anti-Defamation League surveys, more than one billion people harbor antisemitic sentiments, with 75 percent of those being in the Middle East and 24 percent being in Europe. The latest ADL poll, released in mid-January, reports the highest level of antisemitism in decades, with 85 percent of Americans believing at least one anti-Jewish trope and 20 percent believing six or more tropes.
If one can induce even 5 to 10 percent of a community to believe a blatant falsehood, the media can quickly magnify that narrative. Consider what is going on in Musk’s Twittersphere. In January of this year, Coalition for a Safer Web sent a letter to major Twitter investors, condemning the antisemitic extremist groups that are again welcome on that platform — Goyim Defense League, National Justice Party, and neo-Nazi Andrew Anglin of Daily Stormer, to name a few.
So how can we stop hate speech before it leads to potential violence? Unfortunately, international and US laws do not prohibit hate speech. They do forbid “incitement” that deliberately triggers violence and discrimination — such that the criminal justice system can deal with the consequences of hate speech and react only after it turns into a hate crime or mass atrocity. The gaps in law mean that religious leaders and other cultural influencers have a special responsibility for calling out hate speech, cutting off religicides at their source.
Read more on Religicide: Confronting the Roots of Anti-Religious Violence by Georgette Bennett and Jerry White.
 Hsu, Iris, “How many journalists are jailed in China? Censorship means we don’t know.” Committee to Protect Journalists, March 2019.
 Wade, Francis, Myanmar’s Enemy Within: Buddhist Violence and the Making of a Muslim ‘Other.’ Zed Books, 2017.
 Lee, Ronan, Myanmar’s Rohingya Genocide: Identity, History and Hate Speech. I.B. Tauris, 2021, p. 40 – 45.
 United Nations Human Rights Council, “Report of the detailed findings of the Independent International Fact-Finding Mission on Myanmar.” September 2018.
 Lee, Ronan, Myanmar’s Rohingya Genocide: Identity, History and Hate Speech. I.B. Tauris, 2021, p. 193.
 Anti-Defamation League, “The ADL Global 100: An Index of Antisemitism.” 2021.
 Anti-Defamation League, “Antisemitic Attitudes in America: Topline Findings.” 2023.
Dr. Georgette Bennett is an award-winning sociologist, widely published author, popular lecturer, and former broadcast journalist for NBC News. In 1992, she founded the Tanenbaum Center for Interreligious Understanding, the go-to organization for combatting religious prejudice. In 2013, Bennett founded the Multifaith Alliance for Syrian Refugees, which has worked to raise awareness and mobilize more than $175 million of humanitarian aid, benefitting more than 2.2 million Syrian war victims. She is a co-founder of Global Covenant Partners and served on the U.S. State Department’s Religion and Foreign Policy Working Group tasked with developing recommendations to engage religious actors in conflict mitigation. Bennett is a former faculty member of the City University of New York and adjunct at New York University. She has published four books and more than eighty articles. Bennett was awarded a 2019 AARP Purpose Prize, and in 2021 was selected as one of Forbes’ 50 over 50 Women of Impact.
Jerry White is an activist entrepreneur known for leading high-impact campaigns, three of which led to international treaties: the Mine Ban Treaty; the U.N. Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities; and the Cluster Munitions Ban. White shares in the 1997 Nobel Peace Prize awarded to the International Campaign to Ban Landmines. As co-founder of Landmine Survivors Network, he worked with Diana, Princess of Wales, to help thousands of war victims find peer support and job training. White served as U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State to launch the Bureau of Conflict and Stabilization Operations, introducing advanced decision analytics to predict the outcomes of complex negotiations. He studied religion at Brown and theology at Cambridge University, with honorary degrees from the Mount Sinai School of Medicine, University of Massachusetts Boston, and Glasgow Caledonia University. White is a Professor of Practice at the University of Virginia.