Religion & Liberty Online

The FAQs: State Department Says Actions of Islamic State Constitute Genocide

isis persecutionWhat did Secretary Kerry say about Islamic State and genocide?

In a speech on Thursday, Secretary of State John Kerry said that the U.S. has determined that the actions of Islamic State (aka ISIS) against Christians and other minority groups in Iraq and Syria constitutes an act of genocide.

My purpose in appearing before you today is to assert that, in my judgment, Daesh [Islamic State] is responsible for genocide against groups in areas under its control, including Yezidis, Christians, and Shia Muslims. Daesh is genocidal by self-proclamation, by ideology, and by actions – in what it says, what it believes, and what it does. Daesh is also responsible for crimes against humanity and ethnic cleansing directed at these same groups and in some cases also against Sunni Muslims, Kurds, and other minorities.


We know that Daesh’s actions are animated by an extreme and intolerant ideology that castigates Yezidis as, quote, “pagans” and “devil-worshippers,” and we know that Daesh has threatened Christians by saying that it will, quote, “conquer your Rome, break your crosses, and enslave your women.”


The fact is that Daesh kills Christians because they are Christians; Yezidis because they are Yezidis; Shia because they are Shia. This is the message it conveys to children under its control. Its entire worldview is based on eliminating those who do not subscribe to its perverse ideology. There is no question in my mind that if Daesh succeeded in establishing its so-called caliphate, it would seek to destroy what remains of ethnic and religious mosaic once thriving in the region. 

Why does Secretary Kerry refer to Islamic State as “Daesh”?

Daesh is a loose acronym of the Arabic for “Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant” (al-Dawla al-Islamiya al-Iraq al-Sham).

According to France 24, the term was first used in April 2013 by Arabic and Iranian media that were hostile to the jihadist movement and wanted to send the message that the group is neither truly “Islamic” nor a “state.” Daesh became a name commonly used by the enemies of the IS group, and was later adopted by the governments of France and the UK.

Why was the announcement made today?

As part of the 2015 omnibus government spending bill (which passed in December), Congress included a resolution requiring the Obama administration to say whether Islamic State was committing genocide.

Just yesterday a State Department spokesman said they’d miss Congress’s deadline and that Secretary Kerry was taking a “measured” approach and that his decision would come soon. 

What was the related measure Congress voted on this week?

On Monday the House of Representatives unanimously voted (393 – 0) on a non-binding “sense of Congress” resolution labeling the crimes of Islamic State against Christians and other minority religious and ethnic groups in Syria and Iraq to be “genocide.”

As the Washington Post notes, the last time the House voted for such a resolution was in 2004, when it said genocide was being committed in Darfur. 

What exactly constitutes “genocide”?

The term genocide was coined in the 1940s by Raphael Lemkin from the rooted words genos (Greek for family, tribe, or race) and –cide (Latin for killing). Lemkin, a Polish lawyer who emigrated to the U.S. in 1941, drafted the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, a resolution that was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in 1948.

The Genocide Convention was the first human rights treaty adopted by the General Assembly of the United Nations. Article 2 of the Convention defines genocide as any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial or religious group:

(a) Killing its members;

(b) Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group;

(c) Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part;

(d) Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group;

(e) Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.

What is the basis for calling Islamic State’s actions “genocide”?

Numerous non-governmental organizations have documented the atrocities committed by Islamic State. For example, in a letter sent to Secretary Kerry on Tuesday, the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty outlined a number of ways that IS’s actions constitutes genocide, including “genocidal intent”:

Daesh has not tried to hide its genocidal intent. Rather, Daesh uses the idea of a holy war against other religions as a means to recruit new members. Daesh has singled out Christians and Christianity in both its statements and its acts. In Dabiq, for example, Daesh threatened to attack the Vatican—the seat of the largest Christian grouping. Those who have encountered Daesh, both scholars and soldiers, have declared that the group is intent on wiping out Christians in Iraq and the Middle East. Victims of Daesh also confirm that they were singled out for attack simply because of their faith.

Will this change U.S. policy toward Islamic State?

Probably not. Secretary Kerry did not say how this designation will affect future policy. As he said in his speech,

I want to be clear. I am neither judge, nor prosecutor, nor jury with respect to the allegations of genocide, crimes against humanity, and ethnic cleansing by specific persons. Ultimately, the full facts must be brought to light by an independent investigation and through formal legal determination made by a competent court or tribunal. But the United States will strongly support efforts to collect, document, preserve, and analyze the evidence of atrocities, and we will do all we can to see that the perpetrators are held accountable.

The U.S. would likely have aided in those efforts even if it wasn’t officially called genocide. However, as Greg Stanton, president of the group Genocide Watch, told theWashington Post, the use of the genocide designation by the U.S. could help bring ISIS members to the International Criminal Court. “Let’s say ISIS wouldn’t be impressed,” says Stanton. “But it could galvanize the world. And I don’t mean just military action. I think we need a concerted effort to get Muslim countries especially to confront ISIS theologically and ideologically.”

Joe Carter

Joe Carter is a Senior Editor at the Acton Institute. Joe also serves as an editor at the The Gospel Coalition, a communications specialist for the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, and as an adjunct professor of journalism at Patrick Henry College. He is the editor of the NIV Lifehacks Bible and co-author of How to Argue like Jesus: Learning Persuasion from History's Greatest Communicator (Crossway).