Wednesday, October 18, 2006


If you haven't read Juan Cole's blog yet, go do it. Although the stuff he writes about is far from uplifting, he is probably the best source for news on the current situation of Iraq and related matters of foreign policy and general interest and he even occasionally delves into linguistic issues, like the "wipe off the map" controversy. I stopped by yesterday (Tuesday 17th), read the latest posts, clicked couple of links and then my eyes fell on this sentence:

Other Sunni families have been ethnically cleansed and forced to take refuge in Dhuluiyyah.

Now as we all know, the phrase "ethnic cleansing" came into wide usage in the 90's during the Yugoslav war(s) to describe the forcible removal of various populations from certain areas. "Ethnic" and "areas" seem to be the key concepts here and that is why I find the above statement rather odd.

First of all, the incident described involves people of same ethnic origin, but different religious persuasions. The atrocities comitted by Sunnis on Shiites and vice-versa would therefore be most fittingly referred to as confessional cleansing (and believe it or not, I got 105 Google hits).

And secondly, ethnic cleansing or indeed any kind of cleansing and cleaning requires an object, something the dirt or filth is removed from. Tools can be cleansed, houses can be cleansed, files can be cleansed (either of incriminating data or formatting). But families? What can they be cleansed of? Could it be that the object of this verb phrase is not something the dirt is removed from, but rather something to be removed as dirt?

Apparently so. And it's not the first time these words are used in this manner, as evidenced by this 1999 Time article on the forgotten victims of the Yugoslav war(s):

The ethnic cleansing of Kosovo’s estimated 100,000 Gypsies began only after the Serbs withdrew...

Here (and in many other similar contexts) we have a group of people who have been removed from a territory. And while the act of such removal can be described as "ethnic cleansing" of the said territory, the phrase "ethnic cleansing of people X" clearly means "the removal of people X", without any indication as to where from, i.e. without any indication as to what is being cleaned. Similarly, the verb "to ethnically cleanse" (as in the example by Juan Cole above) can only mean "to drive out, to expel, to remove, to displace" (of a group of people). I suspect that once the original term gained wide circulation, the emergence of the verb "to ethnically cleanse" was only inevitable. But still, it is a rather interesting shift. Any other thoughts?

P.S.: I wish this phrase and this post had never existed. I really do.


Anonymous said...

“Sectarian cleansing” is the more common term. I don’t think it’s descriptively legitimate to say that religion cant’t be an ethnic differentiator; it’s exactly the difference between Serbs and Croats, Poles and Belarussians, and many Urdu-speaking Pakistanis and Hindi-speaking Indians, for example.

bulbul said...

"Sectarian cleansing" makes sense, thanks Aidan.
As for religion as an ethnic differentiator, it certainly applies to Serbs, Croats and Bosniaks and people in Pakistan and India. But still, there are linguistic, historic and cultural differences between Serbs and Croats and Urdu and Hindi speakers, respectively. This does not apply to Iraqi Shiites and Sunnis.

I'm not so sure about Poles and Belarussians, though. After all, Poles are Western Slavs while Belarus is an Eastern Slavic nation.

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