The killings of unarmed Palestinians by Israeli snipers this past fortnight marks a new chapter in the degradation of human life in Gaza and the Occupied Territories. It also makes one think about the continuing scandal of the Rohingya genocide in Myanmar, followed by their shameful treatment in India, Bangladesh, Indonesia and Thailand, among other Asian countries. Then there is Kashmir, which the Indian military continues to occupy with complete indifference to the lives of the men, women and children who live there. In each case, the targeted communities are Muslim though they are products of very different contextual histories. The global dynamics of genocide are not, in spite of appearances, primarily about Muslimness. The obsession with projecting Muslims as a coordinated global category is a collaborative project of highly specific Western and Muslim political theologies. It should not be viewed as a self-evident, universal fact.
Today’s genocidal projects move me to reflect on the fate of ethnic, racial and other biominorities in our world. By biominorities I mean those whose difference (ethnic, religious, racial) from their national majorities is seen as a form of bodily threat to the national ethnos. There is something odd about the relationship of such biominorities to the typology of today’s genocidal projects. One type, which the Israeli killings in Gaza exemplify, is what we may call carceral genocide, genocide by confinement, concentration and starvation. The historical prototype of this is to be found in the Nazi concentration camps. The other might be called diasporic genocide, genocide by dispersion, extrusion and uprooting, where biominorities are forced out of any form of stability and forced to move until they die. Palestinians under Israeli occupation represent the first type, Rohingyas represent the second.
What accounts for this bipolar condition of biominorities in this early decade of the 21st century? Put another way: why does the Israeli state not simply push Palestinians out of their land using its overwhelming military might, forcing them to join their brethren in other parts of the Middle East or North Africa, or die on the way? Conversely, why did Myanmar not simply create a carceral Rohingya state where this biominority could be confined, policed, starved and “concentrated” to death? These counterfactual questions force one to look more closely at the menu of genocidal strategies in play today.
In Myanmar’s case, the key factor, as many commentators have pointed out, is that Rohingyas occupy rich agricultural lands on the Western coast, which are now ripe for building ports and infrastructure across the Bay of Bengal. Rohingyas are deeply embedded in their land, which they have developed over centuries. Incarcerating them is no solution for the Myanmar military. They need to go, and the murder, rape and armed aggression directed at them is intended to push them out. The ethnocidal Buddhist monkhood which provides the ideological fuel for this extrusion is the willing partner of the militarised state. The Buddhist majority of Myanmar is in fact awash in an ocean of minorities, many of which are well-armed, belligerent and based in inaccessible ecological zones. But Rohingyas are not experienced in armed resistance and they are geographically concentrated in land which the state needs for its global projects. Thus, they are ripe for murderous expulsion. While their Muslim identity is a source of ideological fuel for the Buddhist majority, their relative weakness and location in vital global stretches along the Mynamar coast are more relevant.
Why does Israel not follow a similar policy of expulsion, extrusion and displacement in the case of the Palestinian population in the Occupied Territories, including Gaza? Why adopt the option of incarceration and killing with impunity? The fundamental reason is near at hand. Palestinians under Israeli rule will not leave willingly because they are the legitimate occupants of their lands and because they have a long tradition of militant resistance, supported at different times by other Middle Eastern states, most recently Iran. They are stubborn and, thus, they have to be concentrated, starved and killed until they elect exit.
But there is more to the Israeli case than this. Israel needs its captive Palestinian population for without it neither the current power of the religious right nor the populist authoritarianism of Benjamin Netanhayu has any justification for existence. Like Kurds in Turkey, Jews in Hungary, Muslims in India and other visible biominorities, Palestinians in Israel are the guarantee of a permanent state of paranoid sovereignty. This paranoid sovereignty is Israel’s major claim to the sympathies and armed assistance of the United States since Israel would be far more susceptible to moderate voices if Palestinians were to disappear or exit. An outbreak of democracy is the last thing the Israeli religious and political right want, and the Donald Trump White House also hates any hint of moderation in any of its client states. The Israeli policy of aggressive and ongoing settler colonialism is intended to produce a continuous border theater in which Palestinians are indispensable in the creation of a permanent state of paranoid sovereignty.
So, what do the Palestinian and Rohingya cases (extreme ideal types, as it were) teach us? That solutions to the “problem” of biominorities depend on whether you want to keep the despised minority in order to avoid actually producing some semblance of democracy, or whether you want to delink the group from their lands or resources, with no pressing need to use their presence as a pretext for an ever-militant militarised state. You either need the minority to keep paranoid sovereignty alive, or you need their resources more than you need their biominor threat.
What then of other genocidal trends we see in different regimes and regions across the world? Do these thoughts about Palestinians and Rohingyas offer us a more general insight? That both Rohingyas and Palestinians are Muslim does not account for the very different ways in which Myanmar and Israel treat them. The loose post 9/11 discourse of the Muslim threat allows the two states (and others) to legitimise their violence, but the global dynamics of genocide are not primarily about Muslimness. The fact is that all nation states rely on some idea, however covert, of ethnic purity and singularity. Biominor plurality is thus always a threat to modern nation states. The question is what combination of extrusion and incarceration a particular nation state finds useful. As they consider the possibilities, Israel and Myanmar offer them two radical options, which just happen to have Muslim communities as their targets. But today’s varieties of genocide are not as much about religion as they are about paranoid and/or predatory nation-states.
Arjun Appadurai is the Goddard Professor of Media, Culture, and Communication at New York University.