Now more than ever, we need to know what that word means
With the Rohingya facing severe persecution in Myanmar and fleeing to Bangladesh in dire conditions, the word that is on all our minds is “genocide.” Being Bangladeshis, we are aware of the genocide that the Pakistan army carried out in 1971, but how much do we know about the Rohingya? Or other genocides? Or ethnic cleansing?
These are unpleasant terms which suddenly seem all around us but many fail to comprehend, especially the younger generation — for various reasons, but most dominantly for the peculiarities regarding the documentation of history and dissemination of knowledge.
What did you learn in your history class?
Being Bangladeshi, we know about our Liberation War and what the Pakistanis did to the Bangalis of East Pakistan, but when we talk to our Pakistani friends often we find that they do not, because, in their history books, they do not read it as genocide.
Their history books are silent about all the bloodshed and torture that the Pakistani army inflicted in this region.
This is just one of the many examples of how recorded history is manipulated to hide or mislead future generations. The world is full of it.
Arundhati Roy’s essay, “Listening to grasshoppers: Genocide, denial, and celebration” is a recommended starting point for anyone interested in the concept of genocide and its complicated history of often-denied and, sometimes, even celebrated, phenomenon in various parts of the world.
Though Roy’s focus is on India, she stretches her essay far and back to the earliest of genocides, most of them forgotten or misrepresented to the world, and discusses how such practices lead to more genocide.
Roy explains how many of the mass killings in history such as those in Congo, Rwanda, Bosnia, Indonesia, and Cambodia are genocides even though they are not always recognised as such by the perpetrators, and sometimes even by international bodies.
Roy can now add the Rohingya to her list, given the continuous denial of the Myanmar government regarding the atrocities done by them.
In her essay, there is also a section on the politicisation of documentation regarding genocide where some are regarded more worthy of finding space in history books and television screens than others. In this, of course, the Holocaust perpetrated by the Nazis tops the list, and thus we all know about this particular genocide and not much, if anything at all, about others.
Think about history books in school — the ones from our national board would contain our Liberation War and the international ones abroad would be partial towards Jewish history. Even if the books contain other genocides, in school we were far too young to understand complex terms such as “ethnicity” and “extermination.”
Now, if one goes into higher education in the fields of the humanities or social sciences, he/she has more chance to come across the neglected or lesser-known genocides, but with the increasing trend to study business and professional subjects it is no surprise that the present generation knows very little about them.
The next generation will probably know even less. Some think that the present generation is more aware of world history as well as current affairs — thanks to technology — but often this lacks conviction since we all see how less the young people use technology for gathering knowledge compared to its many distractions.
Is there a bias in pop culture?
Yes, the young generation can definitely learn from movies since they are an engaging medium of information, but then there is again that same old bias working in the film industry which is dominated by Hollywood.
From Spielberg’s Schindlers List to Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds, it is the plight of the Jews that we constantly see on the screen but hardly of others.
We are aware of the genocide that the Pakistan army carried out in 1971, but how much do we know about the Rohingya?
Books and movies can be influential in shaping our views, and even directing our sympathies. Recently, in conversation with a close friend, I learned that she was watching a Turkish series called Diriliş: Ertuğrul based on the life of Ertuğrul, the father of Osman I, who was the founder of the Ottoman Empire.
Since she mentioned Anatolia in her description of the series, I could not help asking if she knew about the Armenian genocide (not to forget that Roy’s essay starts with Anatolia and reference to the Armenian genocide). I recently watched the movie The Promise which shows how the Turk Muslims killed and persecuted the Armenian Christians in 1915.
I had been inspired to watch the movie after reading Armen T Marsoobian’s Fragements of a Lost Homeland: Remembering Armenia, a documentary novel on the struggles of an Armenian family during the genocide.
While my friend had never heard about the Armenian genocide (much like myself before coming across Maroobian’s book), she told me about the forgotten genocide of the Muslims at the hands of the Mongols in Central Asia that she read in The Mongols and the Islamic World: From Conquest to Conversion by Peter Jackson.
Same people, different times?
This made me think how, in one record of history, the Muslims appear as villains and in another as victims.
Now, my friend and I did not start arguing but I know many who would get excited naturally because, though the incidents are set in two different times, they represent the same group of people in the same region.
Then again, they are not the same Muslims, just as the Muslims which slaughter innocent people are not the same as those who suffer prejudice and persecution from the world as a result of the former’s actions. Thus, we must keep in mind that any source of knowledge can be questioned for its legitimacy in truth and accuracy.
History being a matter of epistemology than ontology makes it difficult for us to be sure about anything we know — let alone wars and genocides.
Therefore, among the hundreds of things we see and read every day, whether on Rohingya or Syrians (or any group of people), we should take caution to have a holistic knowledge and form an informed opinion.
Anika Saba is a lecturer in the Department of English and Humanities, BRAC University.