Assad's not 'using a crematorium', he's executing a holocaust

Assad's not 'using a crematorium', he's executing a holocaust
Comment: The word 'crematorium' obscures the extent of Assad's crimes. His furnace is an illegal way of disposing of bodies, denying relatives their right to a corpse, writes Mansour Omari.
5 min read
16 May, 2017
Satellite image of the Sednaya prison in 2013 [Image via Amensty]

"We now believe that the Syrian regime has installed a crematorium in the Sednaya prison complex which could dispose of detainees' remains with little evidence."

This was a part of statement at a special briefing by Stuart Jones, US Acting Assistant Secretary for Near Eastern Affairs on May 15, 2017.

The statement revealed that the US has evidence that Bashar al-Assad's regime has built a furnace at Sednaya military prison near Damascus, to dispose of the bodies of thousands of murdered prisoners.

Studying the social, cultural and historical context of language use is an important criteria in evaluating a text. This method is called the "contextual lens" as put by Zsófia Demjén, a senior lecturer at UCL's Centre for Applied Linguistics:

"The interdependence of language and context: How context shapes and is shaped by texts, what is being done with texts, the co-created nature of texts."

The US statement is a good example of describing a non-western incident - a crime in this case - using western vocabularies, that are associated with western context.

How has recontextualisation effected the content of the text; the information, and its impact on the audience? And why does this matter?

The US statement is a good example of describing a non-western incident - a crime in this case - using western vocabularies

Moving a phrase or a word from its original context to another is a creative practice. It involves recontextualising language, and exploiting a phrase or word in a new context, which produces a new effect.

Let's take an Arabic news headline as an example from the French television network, France 24:

"Washington accuses Damascus of setting up a 'cremation' to hide the remains of thousands of prisoners who have been liquidated"

This headline is translated from the original headline in Arabic, that included the word "rufa:t" which means "remains" in Arabic.

But the exact meaning of "rufa:t" in Arabic is the debris and crumbs from anything that is broken and destroyed. So, "rufa:t" could be used to describe the remains of burnt bodies, or the remains of a long buried corpse that have decayed over several years.

  Read more: Syria regime 'burning thousands of bodies' to hide mass-killings

In this case, the use of "rufa:t" was a linguistic mistake, that led to false information. It also mitigated the original impact of the information/crime that describes bodies or corpses being burnt. The wrong use of this word, could be a part of media linguistic manipulation, to achieve a specific purpose, or simply an innocent mistake.

Looking through the contextual lens again, at the use of "crematorium" in the US statement. The most common use of crematorium is in contexts of accepted and legal practice such as funeral services. A crematorium is usually found in a funeral home, chapel, cemetery; but not in the Islamic world, or in Syria.

A crematorium is usually found in a funeral home, chapel, cemetery; but not in the Islamic world, or in Syria

The ashes after cremation may be stored in an urn or scattered on land or water. None of this is applicable in Assad's furnace.

But "crematorium" was used in the context of describing an unspeakable act, even though nothing in the word "crematorium" implies the multiple crimes and violations that are associated with this act.

First, hiding another crime is a criminal act in itself: "an effort to cover up the extent of the mass murders taking place in Saydnaya".

Second, those bodies were burnt, without the consent of their families, who were not informed of it, and denied access to their relatives' dead bodies in the first place. Many of them do not even know if their relatives are dead or alive.

Assad's acts therefore violated the relative's right to possession of a dead human body, the deceased's right to a decent burial, and the respect for how his/her corpse should be disposed of.

The ongoing western discourse resulted, in this case in mitigating the impact of the crime on the audience

This crime is also a sin according to Islamic law, which bans the burning of dead bodies.

Cremation is considered "haram" - forbidden in Islam. The dead should be cleaned, shrouded, prayed for, and buried in the earth and visited with reverence. Any other treatment, including cremation, is considered an act of disrespect and sin.

To sum up, language here was manipulated and recontextualised, resulting in a disparity in representation that is highly political in nature, between how things were, and how they ought to have been presented.

The ongoing western discourse resulted, in this case in mitigating the impact of the crime on the audience, including global media. The use of "crematorium" over "furnace" to describe Assad's burning of dead bodies only serves to further legitimise his actions in western eyes.

Similarly, Syrians have recontextualised the Arabic word for "crematorium" - "mahraqa", which is the same word for "holocaust". This allowed Arabic speakers to use the translated word to describe an ongoing "Syrian holocaust".

Mansour Omari is a Syrian journalist and Syria correspondent for Reporters Without Borders.

He is the author of Syria Through Western Eyes: In-depth look on the Western reporting on Syria in 2013-2014. He has written for publications including The New York Times, The Daily Beast, Apostrophe and several Syrian media outlets.

Follow him on Twitter: @MansourOmari

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.