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COMMENT: Culture Counts – Conceptualizing Religion

May 4, 2022 by     No Comments    Posted under: Volume XII, Issue 1

Onuchi Ndee, American University – Washington, D.C.

COMMENT: Culture Counts – Conceptualizing Religion

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When asked about the Holocaust, individuals will almost certainly point to Auschwitz or Buchenwald, to the Final Solution and the gas chambers. Kristallnacht, or “The Night of Broken Glass” – an event in which Jewish synagogues and businesses were broken into and burned to the ground – will likely go unmentioned. This is unsurprising as the term genocide has been historically conceptualized as the physical act of killing. Over time, this limited categorization has been further solidified on the international stage as dead bodies have been the main evidence considered when discussing intervention. This definition, however, is incomplete. While important to recognize the devastation of mass extermination, the less-noticed devastation of cultural genocide is crucial to understand the full definition of genocide. The recognition of cultural destruction and persecution in the overall conceptualization of genocide not only expands the scope of the term humanity and the impact that communities have on the greater population, but also grants more effective indicators of physical genocide to come – a needed tool to strengthen prevention efforts.

Originally dubbed “Acts of Vandalism,” cultural genocide involves a systematic persecution and destruction of cultural heritage or history of a targeted population (Lemkin, 1933, p.1). The tactics and methods employed to execute this destruction can range widely from the targeting of religious buildings to tarnishing monuments or intellectual institutions to language restriction and the destruction of literature. Cultural persecution played a central role in the process of “denationalization” or the destruction of the national pattern of the oppressed: cleansing the nation of all forms of their influence and all past tethers to the persecuted population (Lemkin, 1944, p. 2). Despite the emphasis placed on cultural genocide by Raphael Lemkin, this specification has largely been removed from the narrative. While the destruction of cultural institutions was included on the Ad Hoc Draft of the Genocide Convention, the Final Adoptive text genocide had been limited to the definition of physical and biological attacks (United Nations General Assembly, 1948). With its removal being backed by powerful western nations such as the United States, with the justification that cultural genocide would create a false equivalency between book burning and murder while discouraging assimilation, cultural genocide has remained overlooked in the conceptualization of genocide (Bachman, 2022).  Cultural genocide, however, not only plays an important role in redefining the targets of genocide but also the start of genocide.

Cultural genocide gains salience within the definition of genocide by pointing to communal bonds and deeper historical imprints of identity and memory that exist outside of the physical body. In “The Devil in the Details,” von Joeden-Forgey (2010) remarks on the historical trend which indicates that in times of conflict, communal bonds are often specifically targeted (p.9). In undermining long-lasting and traditional familial hierarchies, these communities would undergo “life force atrocities” in which the base tethers of social identification would be deliberately unraveled (p.2). While von Joeden-Forgey (2010) utilized these ideas of community with the context of gender-based violence, the importance of community echoes into discussions of cultural genocide. Though often viewed as surface level, symbols such as clothing, or hair, culture reaches deeper into personal identity. Culture is a prominent determinant in one’s values, extending generations into the past. Cultural destruction deliberately works to undermine those communal bonds. Restricting language limits communal communication. Desecrating religious institutions and monuments strikes at common spirituality and role models. Burning books and destroying intellectual institutions stops learning and the education needed to pass these cultural understandings along to future generations. This is not to negate the devastation of targeted killings, but to remember that genocide devastates communities outside just the physical form. Cultural genocide acts as “an attack on memory, identity, and a sense of belonging” (Malko, 2021, p. 208). Books and museums are worth more than just the paper they are written on or the foundations they are built upon. Each page and each stone carry the identities and memories of thousands who came before and after their creation with the potential to extend even further into the future. Cultural symbols are signals that can last even after the physical body has passed. The importance of recognizing cultural genocide in our overall conceptualization of genocide is in seeing the lives as well as the lifestyles. In considering the holistic impact that humans can have on society even after passing on, we further acknowledge the devastation the genocide can have on snuffing out all remnants of a population.

From a more legal perspective, conceptualizing genocide with the inclusion of cultural genocide allows for more preventative measures as opposed to reactive solutions. Kristallnacht occurred in 1938. The mass-extermination of the Jewish population in Europe started 3 years later in 1941. Limiting genocide to a physical definition ensures that bodies must be buried before action is considered with hundreds if not thousands more joining the dead before action can be mobilized (United Nations General Assembly, 1947, p.1). Cultural genocide, alongside other indicators such as gender-based violence and economic destabilization, often precedes mass-extermination efforts. However, with these actions being left out from the conceptualization of genocide, these preliminary steps towards the more traditional understanding of genocide are glossed over. After the Holocaust and during the Nuremburg trails, there was a general consensus that a tragedy such as that was to never happen again. And yet, since the Holocaust there have been genocides in Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia, Indonesia, Syria, and Darfur. Limiting our conceptualization of genocide to deaths alone has made the Genocide Convention reactionary and insufficient in truly curbing this atrocity. While a small step, expanding this definition to categories such as cultural genocide demonstrates strides in creating preventative measures that can stop bloodshed before it occurs.

Conceptualizing genocide is not difficult. We have been repeatedly taught about devastating historical events, death tolls, kill squads, and political manipulation. However, despite this education, the understanding of genocide has been historically limited due to a hyper focus on the physical aspects. Understanding cultural genocide as the most important reframing of the traditional definition allows for us to consider the true enormity of the loss that is incurred during genocide with the loss of identity and memory, and enables more preventative actions to be taken. Ultimately, this singular factor can not only save lives but save cultures, leaving the world all the better for it.


Bachman, J. (2022). “From the Genocide Convention to R2P.” International Politics & Genocide. Lecture, SISU 370: International Politics & Genocide, January 21. Washington, D.C.: American University.

Lemkin, R. (1933). Acts constituting a general (transnational) danger considered as offences against the law of nations. Anwaltsblatt Internationales. 

Lemkin R. (1944). Chapter IX: Genocide. Axis rule in occupied Europe: Laws of occupation, analysis of government, proposals for redress. Washington, DC: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Malko, H. (2021). Heritage wars: A cultural genocide in Iraq. In J. S. Bachman (Ed.), Cultural genocide: Law, politics, and global manifestations (pp. 207-227). Routledge: Taylor and Francis Group.

United Nations General Assembly. (1947). Convention on the prevention and punishment of the crime of genocide: Secretariat draft (E/447). United Nations. Retrieved from http://www.preventgenocide.org/law/convention/drafts/.

United Nations General Assembly (1948). Convention on the prevention and punishment of the crime of genocide: Ad hoc committee draft (E/AC.25/SR.1-28). United Nations. Retrieved from http://www.preventgenocide.org/law/convention/drafts/.
von Joeden-Forgey, E. (2010). The devil in the details: “Life force atrocities” and the assault on the family in times of conflict. Genocide Studies and Prevention: An International Journal, 5(1), 1-20.

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Righting Wrongs: A Journal of Human Rights is an academic journal that provides space for undergraduate students to explore human rights issues, challenge current actions and frameworks, and engage in problem-solving aimed at tackling some of the world’s most pressing issues. This open-access journal is available online at www.webster.edu/rightingwrongs.

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