Islamophobia and Natural Language Processing (December 2019)

Ted Pedersen
Dec 13, 2019 · 6 min read

The Fall semester has raced by and I realize I’ve been slow on my updates. But, there is news.

I’ve been analyzing tweets and working on a taxonomy of Islamophobia suitable for use in annotation. There has been a lot of ground to cover in that Islamophobia has been studied in many contexts outside of NLP, and then of course there is a lot of work within NLP on hate speech and offensive and abusive language that is directly relevant. I’ve not quite pulled things together well enough to summarize here, but that will be the subject of my next update. Note to self, don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.

I’ve also been doing (as usual) a fair bit of reading. The theme in a lot of that has turned to genocide in a very unplanned way. It is of course connected to this project in that one of my core beliefs is that hate speech is often a stepping stone to genocide. I’m not the first to observe this, although there is another school of thought that argues that hate speech is “just” speech and shouldn’t be taken so seriously. I’m quite confident that view is wrong.

The usual definitions of genocide refer to the systematic destruction of a particular race or ethic group, and of course Muslims are neither a race nor an ethnic group. However, they are often perceived or treated as one and so I think it’s no exaggeration to say that persistent and virulent Islamophobia has the potential to lead to genocide. This is not a theoretical discussion given the genocide in Bosnia in 1995, the more recent Rhoningya genocide in Myanmar, and the ongoing relocation of the Uyghur in China, all of which targeted Muslim people.

This ends up not being a very systematic selection of readings, nor do I have anything particularly original to say about any of them or the events described. I’m also very aware that I’m well outside my usual areas of expertise, and so if you have ideas for further reading, comments, or criticisms I would be very happy to have those and would take them in a spirit of self-education.

Having made all the disclaimers here are a few reactions to what I’ve been reading the last few months.

Srebrenica : Record of a War Crime, by Jan Willem Honig and Norbert Both.

This is a genuinely harrowing book. It is a detailed retelling of the genocide at Srebrenica in 1995, and offers a nightmarish account of how more than 8,000 Muslims, primarily men and boys, were tortured and executed by the Serbian Army between July 6 -16.

What is particularly startling is that Srebrenica was designated a safe area by the United Nations, and Peacekeeping forces were in place to ostensibly protect the inhabitants of this town. In the end though the UN did little more than serve as witnesses a genocide.

It is a frightening story both for the precision and cruelty of the Serbian military operation, and also for the inability and unwillingness of the United Nations to do anything meaningful to help avoid executions of a massive scale.

What is particularly frustrating is that just one year earlier there was a similar failure by the United Nations in Rwanda, where a genocide on a much wider scale occurred between April — July, 1994. Peacekeeping forces were again on the ground, but were under-supplied and in the end ordered not to take action to stop prevent the genocide of the Tutsi people.

We With to Inform You that Tomorrow we will be Killed with our Families : Stories from Rwanda, by Philip Gourevitch

The Rwanda genocide was so massive that the number of dead can only be estimated at somewhere between 500,000 and 1 million. How could killing on such a scale occur in just a few short months? The answer is both obvious and chilling - the genocide was carried out by “ordinary” Hutus who saw it as their civic duty to kill their friends, neighbors, and even relatives who happened to be Tutsi. While they may not have enjoyed the killing, it was a social obligation.

Rather than a crazed bloodletting the Rwanda genocide is described as a means of strengthening the ties and fabric within the surviving community. In fact that is a consistent theme through all of these books, that genocide is not a frantic act of mad rage that leaves the perpetrators shaken and horrified thereafter, but is often much more coolly calculated and is carried out believing that it is right and in service of a longer term good. What we see clearly throughout all of these accounts is that a necessary precursor to genocide is to identify and treat a group of people as an “other” that is foreign, invading, and undesirable.

Rwanda also clearly shows the role of mass media and hate speech in inciting and organizing genocide on this scale. Extremist radio was constantly broadcasting anti-Tutsi messages and music, which helped to embolden and mobilize a very large and distributed killing force.

The degree to which “ordinary” people are aware of or involved in genocide is often a question. This is certainly a question asked about the Holocaust during World War II. Some histories have argued that ordinary Germans were largely unaware of the Holocaust, however the next book argues that this is not true.

Hitler’s Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust, by Daniel Goldhagen.

This book makes a case that the extermination of the Jews was carried out by a larger portion of the Nazi military than previously believed, and that there was in German society in general support for the policies and actions of the Holocaust. This was due to long standing support for a particularly vicious form of antisemitism that held that Jews should be eliminated from Germany. This is again an example of the kind of “othering” of a group of people that can ultimately lead to genocide.

It is fair to say that the thesis of this book is controversial, and still much debated. However, it does seem reasonable to ask the question as to how genocide on a massive scale could be carried out without the knowledge and cooperation of at least some portion of the ordinary people living through such times.

The House of the Pain of Others: Chronicle of a Small Genocide, by Julian Herbert.

This book was a very accidental find. I had not heard of the book or the genocide described before, and just stumbled across it during random browsing at a local bookstore. This book revolves around a genocide in May 1911 that took place in Torreon, Mexico where 300 Chinese immigrants were brutally murdered by the Army of Francisco Madero, one of the leaders of the Mexican Revolution which was then in its early days.

The story of Chinese immigrants to Mexico is not particularly well known, but there has long been a Chinese population in Mexico, first drawn by the opportunity to find work building railroads, as was also the case in the United States. But as is often the case with immigrants the Chinese caused a tension and were treated with suspicion and as an insidious “other” to be feared and contained. As a result they were subjected to both overt and casual racism that in this case escalated to genocide.

This is a very non-linear book and goes back and forth from present to past, telling the story of the genocide while at the same time describing the author’s efforts to discover all the different versions of the truth associated with this unknown and still disputed event in Mexican history.

King Leopold’s Ghost : A Story of Greed, Terror and Heroism in Colonial Africa, by Adam Hocschild

This book is not specifically about a genocide, but rather about slavery so brutal that its effect was that of genocide. The Rubber Terror occurred in the Congo from 1885–1908, and during that time untold numbers of Africans were forced on pain of amputation and death to harvest rubber. If quotas were not met harsh punishments were meted out up to and including execution. All of this was done in the name of enriching King Leopold of Belgium, who one hopes is rotting in hell as we speak.

The larger context of these events is the European “discovery” and exploration of Africa. We meet Henry Morton Stanley, best known for his search for Dr. Livingstone, and not surprisingly find him to be a fraud and scam artist. Joseph Conrad also moves in and out of the story since his novel “Heart of Darkness” was based on experiences in the Congo during this same time.

The only summarizing comment I have beyond those made above is that once you start to look you realize that genocide is common. It is not a rare black cloud of evil that suddenly descends in an unexpected way, rather it is a clear consequence of steadily escalating attitudes, laws, and policies that embed hatred into a society and seek to isolate and separate one group so as to stigmatize, assign blame, and then eliminate in the name of public good.

Ted Pedersen

Written by

Computer Science professor at the University of Minnesota, Duluth. Natural Language Processing and Computational Linguistics. http://www.d.umn.edu/~tpederse

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