Religion and Genocide, Dr. Ellen Kennedy

Article published in Sociograph, the Sociologists of Minnesota Newsletter, Vol. 29, No. 3, Summer 2011.


By Ellen J. Kennedy, Ph.D., Executive Director

World Without Genocide at William Mitchell College of Law 

The Nazis exterminated 6 million Jews because of religion; Orthodox Serbs, Catholic Croats, and Bosnian Muslims slaughtered each other because of religion:  the Sudanese Muslim government killed more than 2 million South Sudanese Christians because of religion.

Many people believe these statements and see religion as the ultimate cause of genocide.  Yet if we dig a little deeper, the causes become more complicated – and more difficult to solve or prevent.

If the Nazis wanted the Third Reich to become a Christian state, conversion or even expulsion of Jews would have been a possibility, instead of annihilation.  And why were even those who converted to Christianity killed? 

Under Tito’s tight control in Yugoslavia from 1953 – 1980, the Serbs, Bosnians, and Croats lived and worked together, intermarried, and didn’t know or care who identified with which religious group.  Indeed, religion was not even part of the national rhetoric or practice under the forty years of Communist control.

The decades-long civil war in South Sudan between Muslims and Christians came to a tentative peace in 2005, bringing some stability to the South even while that region remained controlled by the Muslim north.  Yet in the past several months, the conflict has re-ignited with a frightening brutality. Why, after six years of albeit fragile calm, has this happened?

In virtually every case of genocide, a ruling elite is in a precarious position with a fragile economy and a volatile political situation.  The leaders are desperate to maintain control under conditions that could quickly devolve into chaos.

There are some legitimate solutions to this scenario.  The most democratic response is to strengthen civil society, enhancing economic stability and incorporating diverse political groups into the state’s governing polity.  However, to implement these changes the elite must cede some power and control to other entities.

Instead, many elites choose to solidify their position by attempting to increase control through grabbing others’ economic resources and rallying key political factions against minorities, who can easily be marginalized and identified by religion.

These examples (the Holocaust, former Yugoslavia, and Sudan), conflicts spanning nearly a half-century, fit this explanation, as do similar situations in Cambodia, Burma, and many other places.

Interwar Germany was devastated by World War I. The economy was in shambles, the government shaky.  The Third Reich gained control during this unstable period.  The ability to rally ordinary Germans against Jews provided an opportunity to enhance political solidarity while simultaneously gaining economic assets.

The Jews were portrayed, contradictorily, as both Bolsheviks, and hence a terrible threat to Nazism, and evil capitalists controlling the world’s financial markets.  By targeting and marginalizing Jews, the Nazis were able to seize Jews’ financial assets and unite Germans against a perceived threat to Germany’s body politic.  Religion was used to foment hate and create economic and political gain for the Nazis.

In former Yugoslavia, dictator Tito died in 1980. With his death, the tight control disintegrated.  The nation’s economy imploded, with unemployment and inflation soaring and various groups and individuals jockeying for political control.

The situation – and the outcome – was similar to that of Germany.  Instigated by Serb military leader Slobodan Milosevic, Serbs attacked both Bosnians and Croats. In the ensuing civil war, each group attacked one another to gain land and political and economic control.  The devastation polarized Muslims, Catholics, and Orthodox in Europe’s worst brutality since the Holocaust – the siege of Sarajevo, with 10,500 people dead, including more than a thousand children; the massacre of more than 8,000 Bosnian Muslim men and boys at Srebrenica; and a death toll in Bosnia of more than 200,000 men, women, and children.

The Sudanese conflict is another example of extermination based on religion but reaching far deeper. The southern Sudanese Christians are sitting on Sudan’s largest resource:  oil.  The war between the north and south, ostensibly based on religion and ethnicity, is, at its foundation, a catastrophe playing out over control of the oil.

Religion, our guide to ethics and justice, can divide and ‘other’ a group to gain power and control through genocide.