The problems of genocide: Permanent security and the language of transgression is of great importance in the richness of its content, the strength of its main thesis, its extensive documentation, and its critical approach to Holocaust scholarship and memory. One does not often encounter this combination of attributes in Western writings on genocide or genocidal phenomena. The book is also relevant to the Syrian and Arab contexts, where political language must be renewed to accommodate the recent and current experiences of violence. A critical engagement with the genocide literature would help.
The basic thesis of Moses’ book is that the demand for permanent security, rather than racial hatred, underlies genocides, including the Holocaust. However, the latter, he shows, functions as genocide’s archetype (or ideal type), thereby forcing those claiming that genocide is taking place to analogize with the Holocaust as a massive hate crime against innocent civilians, as I elaborate below. This model has gained legal and symbolic force since the United Nations (UN) adopted the Genocide Convention in 1948, in which it defined genocide as an act of destruction of a group based on “national, ethnic, religious or racial” identities. In practice, this means that to qualify as genocide, a human group has to be targeted on national, ethnic, religious, or racial grounds, rather than for anything that some of its members did or for political actions attributed to it as whole. To the extent that the concept of genocide includes an implicit theory that conceals politics in general, the political formation of identities themselves, and the political character of the conflicts that have resulted in genocides, it posits identities as given and unchanging throughout history. Because genocide is a hate crime, according to Raphael Lemkin, the Polish-Jewish lawyer who coined the concept of genocide during World War II while in exile in the US, and because the generic concept is enshrined in international law, every act of systematic targeting of a group must be hate-motivated to fit the definition of genocide and deserve an international intervention to stop it. What is more, to prove genocide, it is insufficient to identify the victims with a prior distinctive group identity; rather, it is necessary to show that they are completely innocent, meaning they did not take up arms or resist oppression: in other words, that they were led to their death like sheep—like in the common image of the Holocaust. If this is not the case, then we are dealing with civil war, a “rebellion suppression”, counterinsurgency, or terrorism as in recent conflicts, regardless of the number of their victims. Because such conflicts are seemingly symmetrical rather than asymmetrical, they are considered “complex” and thus as unworthy of the humanitarian attention and legal scrutiny accorded to cases of genocide. The situations in Palestine and Syria are both labeled as complex.
This discrimination reflects a hierarchy of crimes that Moses thematizes as the problem of genocide: it places the crime of genocide in the top rank as the “crime of crimes”—
this is Lemkin’s own expression—deserving of international punishment, while trivializing others. Thus, because the Yazidi genocide at the hands of ISIS can be analogized with Holocaust, it receives extensive attention. By contrast, the violence in Syria at the hands of the Assad regime, as a civil war, cannot be analogized in the same manner, so it is not considered as genocide and at the same level of humanitarian emergency, although far more Muslim civilians than Yazidi civilians have been killed.
Thus, to gain international attention, activists need to prove that what is happening in their countries is a genocide, which means relating it to the genocide of Jews during World War II. This is a relatively new practice. Moses explains how until about 1941 Jews in compared their experiences with the fate of the Armenians during the First World War. Since the Holocaust gained its monumental status after the war, the opposite is now happening: Armenian scholars and activists interpret the Armenian genocide as a Holocaust, thereby downplaying Armenian agency during the genocide. For its part, the Turkish government wildly exaggerates Armenian agency in order to argue that Armenians “provoked” their massacre and deportation in civil war-like conditions during the war. By depoliticizing political violence, the genocide frame thus forces protagonists into untenable binary positions.
Moses, a historian, deals with the political formation of the Holocaust by delving into the history of Germany between the two world wars. The nation’s legitimate imperial aspirations were thwarted externally by the Western powers, which removed its colonies at the Treaty of Versailles in 1919, and internally by a perceived colonizer (“the Jews”). For many Germans, Jews were conceived as colonizers, and non-Jewish Germans as a colonized indigenous people. In response, rightwing forces nourished a redemptive fantasy: the achievement of permanent security through a new empire and colonies within Europe, coupled with expulsion, and later the extermination of “enemy peoples”. Persuasively, the author shows that “The Holocaust was less the ineluctable consequence of scientific racism or even a millennium of antisemitism than of frustrated and paranoid imperial elites lashing out at a perceived enemy that it thought was intent on destroying – however, outlandish that belief” (329). This political image of the Holocaust, especially the link between it and imperialism, and the thought of antisemitism as a racist tendency—as Moses mentioned in an article published in May 2021 (Moses, 2021)—is not the norm in the genocidal literature, but rather its opposite. Dirk Moses is a heretical voice in this field.
The depoliticized conception of the Holocaust is central to thinking about genocides with the rise of the image of the innocent victim at the expense of the image of the armed resistance that was iconic in non-Western countries in the era of decolonization until three or four decades ago. The “hero” today is not one who fights and risks his or her life, but one who is killed without fighting. This is connected, in my estimation, to the liberalization of political discourse from the militarily stronger centers, and perhaps also to the convergence of weapons and inherited identities, in a way that we find embodied in Islamism in our region, without being limited to it. It seems impossible to identify one who makes his difference and his weapon together in an increasingly intertwined world.
Moses distinguishes between two forms of what he calls permanent security: illiberal and liberal. The first justifies security demands in the name of ethnicity—or nationalism—including, in particular, Nazi Germany. This also applies, in my opinion, to Israel, whose definition of itself as a Jewish state is accompanied by a very low threshold for its security needs, to the point of considering any power advantage that the Palestinians (or Arabs) gain around it a security and existential danger, which, of course, reduces the value of Palestinian lives. The second is the liberal variety, which refers to humanity as whole and the “conscience of mankind” as a reference. Since the days of Bartolomé de las Casas, who condemned the excesses of Spanish colonialism in the New World in the fifteenth century (but not the principle of empire), as well as the liberal language adopted in the contemporary West, the language of transgression aided liberal permanent security in securing its imperial possessions. The language culminated in the “human rights revolution” that took place after the Second World War through the Nuremberg prosecution of the Nazis, and then the issuance of the Universal Declaration on Human Rights and the UN Convention on the Genocide in 1948.
What unites the two modes of permanent security in the practice of preemption—liquidating entities before they become threats—and expansionism: making the world safe for democracy and commerce according to liberal permanent security, and state expansionism for illiberal permanent security. Liberal permanent security drove the crime of bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in Japan with two atomic bombs, and the American bombing atrocities of the Korean War in the early fifties of the last century and soon after in Vietnam—in the name of humanity, human conscience, and (Western) civilization. The security obsession of the Stalinist regime in the Soviet Union was behind the displacement of peoples and starvation of Ukrainians in the early thirties, which caused the death of about three million Ukrainian peasants in what would later be known as the Holodomor. Here, the illiberal modality was at work even if it does not refer to the ethnos, but rather to the besieged fortress of socialism, threatened by capitalist and imperialist intrigues.
It is unclear how permanent security can be criminalized, as Moses advocates. He explains that the concept was expressed by the SS officer Otto Ohlendorf during the Nuremberg trials to explain that Soviet Jews, including children, should be exterminated. Since permanent security annihilates future threats, according to Ohlendorf’s chilling logic, children will grow up one day and may avenge their murdered parents, so they must be killed so that they do not one day pose a security threat. I say it is unclear how permanent security can be considered a crime, given that it appears to be the instinct of the sovereign state: its basic instinct. This means that the criminalization of permanent security requires a radical transformation in the international system that transcends the principle of sovereignty and sovereign states. However, Dirk Moses’ book presents the issue powerfully, and provides an important analytical tool that can be relied on in political criticism as well as in political struggle.
In this time of the war on terror, which perfectly demonstrates the logic of permanent security, the criticism of this logic is extremely important. Those fighting “terror” hardly conceal their lack of interest in law and justice or political issues, with their total and exclusive interest in security. Syria is an excellent laboratory to verify this proposition. There are ISIS detainees in al-Hol camp (Rights and Security International, 2021), including European citizens, for whom no court has been established, and they have not been submitted to the courts in their countries. Terrorism is not thought of as a political issue, a form of political violence possibly arising from discriminatory situations in the Middle East (and the world), or from crushing alternatives by violence and shutting down political systems on behalf of small elites, but rather as a solely security problem, whose origins can be found in the religious beliefs of terrorists.
This perception of terrorism allows the generalization of the (liberal) language of transgression to become a global language, involving Putin in Russia and his client Bashar al-Assad in Syria, Modi in India, the communist regime in China, and the ascendant fortress of the militant reaction in the Gulf: the United Arab Emirates, as well as, of course, the United States and Israel and, by extension, Europe. James Woolsey, the CIA chief at the time of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, spoke of a fourth world war against terrorism that could last generations. The first generation raised during the Global War on Terror has passed, and there does not seem to be a lull in the confrontation that, on the contrary, has expanded to encompass China, India, Turkey, and other illiberal states. Killing terrorists, excluding them from the laws of war that require the distinction between civilians and combatants, the proper treatment of prisoners, and the prohibition of torture, seems to join these parties. Terrorism is the exception that states decide for themselves in a global emergency that finds the most suitable environment for its perpetuation. In any case, the alleged terrorists are not prisoners of war in the first place, but are illegal fighters, just as Hitler considered the Russian forces not to be covered by the laws of war as stated in The Problems of Genocide, and just as the colonial powers generally dealt with their resisters in the colonies. Under the misdeeds of the war on terror, genocides unseen in the Holocaust-centric genocidal perception are taking place. Syria is also an example, and the concept of the Holocaust-Genocide—so to speak—cannot see that.
In Dirk Moses’s book, the reader explores the legal and political treatments of the Holocaust-centered diagnosis of the genocide, although the author showed that Lemkin’s conception of the genocide is based on his Zionism and its perception of the world as constituted by nations and groups with fixed ethnic identity. In the Middle East, the Holocaust-centric genocidal paradigm of violence is consistent with ethno-nationalism in Israel, as well as notions like the protection of minorities, and generally to political thinking centered on fixed, pre-given identities. In our region, this is the thinking of Islamists and sectarians in general, and is implicated in what I call the “genocratic turn” (al-Haj Saleh, 2019), which is the permanent preparation for the genocidal. Here, I mean in a world witnessing an identity transformation, the problems appear falsely to be problems of hatred and animosity between groups that have no political and social roots. Furthermore, identities appear to be the sources of politics, including the Syrian war and genocide. The solution that suggests itself, then, is ever smaller “independent” polities of “pure” identitarian communities, which requires placing themselves under the protection great powers.
On the contrary, thinking about exterminations in the light of the concept of permanent security, that is, paranoid policies that securitize myriad perceived human groups as potential threats, would allow a rational and progressive approach to these crimes. Israel and Assad’s rule aspire for armed eternity, which means nothing less than centralization of the state around security for an ethnic nationalism that bases its security madness on “hereditary victimhood” (I borrow the expression from Zygmunt Baumann in his 1989 Modernity and the Holocaust), or of a criminal family and its cronies. Two major wars would not have occurred on the Syrian mainland within two generations (1979-1982, and 2011-), and Israel would not have been in a permanent war with and around Palestine, had it not been for the abnormal demand of their states for permanent security.
Recognizing the problems with the concept of genocide has prompted various researchers to develop complementary or contradictory concepts, among which is “politicide,” i.e., political genocide, first introduced by Ted Gurr and Barbara Harff (1988) to cover the mass murder for political reasons, as happened to at least half a million Indonesian communists in 1956 and 1966. Then the concept of “democide”, the killing of the people by the state, was coined by Rudolf Rummel (1995), with genocide being a special case of democide. Both concepts are more critical and “progressive” than the genocidal and sectarian concept centered on ethnic identity, although the latter has been more famous due to its adoption by the UN, and then because the abundant literature on the Holocaust continues to reproduce and circulate it. It is hoped that this situation will be changed by being challenged by the likes of Moses and a growing number of researchers. Perhaps it is important that we, in Syria and the Arab world, engage in this important discussion, so that we use the genocide literature to illuminate our situation, and we rely on our situation in critiquing the genocide literature.
The Problems of the Genocide deserves to be translated into Arabic to make up for the great lack of translation of the genocide literature on the one hand, and to provide a critical input that is widely known to this literature and has few analogues.
- al-Haj Saleh, Y (2019). Terror, genocide, and the “genocratic” turn. aljumhuriya.net, September 19, https://www.aljumhuriya.net/en/content/terror-genocide-and-%E2%80%9Cgenocratic%E2%80%9D-turn
- Bauman, Z. (1989). Modernity and the Holocaust. Cornell University Press.
- Gurr, T. R., & Harff, B. (1988). Toward empirical theory of genocides and politicides: identification and measurement of cases since 1945. International Studies Quarterly, 32(3), 359–371.
- Moses, A. D. (2021). The German catechism. Geschichte der Gegenwart, May 23, https://geschichtedergegenwart.ch/the-german-catechism/
Rights and Security International (2021). Europe’s Guantanamo: The indefinite detention of European women and children in North East Syria. February 17, https://www.rightsandsecurity.org/assets/downloads/Europes-guantanamo-THE_REPORT.pdf
- Rummel, R. J. (1995). Democracy, power, genocide, and mass murder. Journal of Conflict Resolution., 39(1), 3–26.