Each year, the international community celebrates Holocaust Memorial Day in memory of the six million Jews ruthlessly massacred under the Nazi regime during World War II. The UK has celebrated Holocaust Memorial Day on January 27 each year since 2001. While the horrors of the Holocaust remain unparalleled, the day also honours victims and sufferers of genocides subsequent to the Holocaust, including those in Rwanda, Darfur and Srebrenica. While the significance of memorialising the victims of these genocides is without question, it is equally vital to ask how, if at all, these heinous crimes against humanity could have been prevented.
An important question that scholars have asked within the discourses surrounding the prevention of genocide is that of the role language has played as a catalyst to genocide. The historical evidence appears to support the case that language may act as a precursor for the commission of genocide. Prior to the holocaust, for example, Adolph Hitler routinely used the phrase ‘filthy Jews’ to refer to the Jewish people. Similarly, condemnatory terms like ‘inyenzi’ (a slang epithet meaning cockroaches) used to describe the Tutsis in Rwanda before the 1994 genocide appears to be causally linked the genocide itself. The import of language in shaping the sensibilities around this abhorrent crime is without question and is also evinced by the fact that denying the Holocaust has been made illegal in 16 European countries, including Germany.
Friedrich Nietzsche, recognising the power of language, once wrote: ‘Governments that seek absolute power over the groups they control use language as a principal support…’ In democratic societies, those in power maintain a duty of care towards the public, which amongst other things, includes using language fairly and prodigiously, choosing words that unite and bridge communities rather than incite hatred and division. In the same vein, the use of vile language by far-right nationalist movements across Europe is deeply concerning. Political rhetoric like that of Martin Strid, member of the Swedish far-right party forced to resign last month after referring to Muslims as not being ‘fully human’, is the antithesis of the principles of human dignity and civic virtue whereupon secular ideals have been constructed. We must be cautioned against the growing tide of hateful rhetoric lest semantics spur genocide of vulnerable groups within society. Within this context, the Qur’an provides a fitting reminder, in Chapter 4, verse 149, ‘Allah likes not the uttering of unseemly speech in public, except on the part of one who is being wronged.’