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.[1]

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.[2] 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.[7] 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.[8]

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.

[1] Hsu, Iris, How many jour­nal­ists are jailed in Chi­na? Cen­sor­ship means we don’t know.” Com­mit­tee to Pro­tect Jour­nal­ists, March 2019

[2] Wade, Fran­cis, Myan­mar’s Ene­my With­in: Bud­dhist Vio­lence and the Mak­ing of a Mus­lim Oth­er.’ Zed Books, 2017.

[3] Lee, Ronan, Myan­mar’s Rohingya Geno­cide: Iden­ti­ty, His­to­ry and Hate Speech. I.B. Tau­ris, 2021, p. 40 – 45.

[4] Unit­ed Nations Human Rights Coun­cil, Report of the detailed find­ings of the Inde­pen­dent Inter­na­tion­al Fact-Find­ing Mis­sion on Myan­mar.” Sep­tem­ber 2018.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Lee, Ronan, Myan­mar’s Rohingya Geno­cide: Iden­ti­ty, His­to­ry and Hate Speech. I.B. Tau­ris, 2021, p. 193.

[7] Anti-Defama­tion League, The ADL Glob­al 100: An Index of Anti­semitism.” 2021.

[8] 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.