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Friday, April 03, 2009

Harvard Book Store: Mamdani, Darfur

April 2, 2009, Cambridge, MA -- Columbia Professor Mahmood Mamdani, whose new book Saviors and Survivors has been just released, discussed his understanding of Darfur's local, national Sudanese, American, and international politics.

Mamdani began to look at the issue of Darfur in 2003 and was struck by the rapid globalization and the fact-indifference of the SaveDarfur movement, which consistently misrepresented the facts in a media blitz. For example, according to WHO the death toll was 50-70,000 while SaveDarfur claimed 400,000. SaveDarfur ignored drought and desertification, which were probably responsible for 70% of the mortality. A legitimate debate would ask how many could have been saved by timely assistance to the Darfuri population.

The British colonial land registration which gave some Darfuri groups homelands and others nothing created an inevitable background of conflict. The British favored settled populations over nomads.

Three somewhat overlapping periods characterize the Darfur civil wars.

Between 1987-1989 the scale of the violence went up tremendously because with drought and desertification life itself seemed to be at stake as Darfuri anthropologist Sharif Harir pointed out.

The 40 year Chad Civil war was subsumed into the Cold War during the 1980s. Libya and the Soviet backed one side while France, the USA, and Israel supported the other. Whenever one side had advantage, the other regrouped in Darfur, which by the late 1980s was awash with weapons.

An 18 month period of unprecedented brutality and mass killings began in 2003 and ended in September 2004 when tensions in the national government spilled over into Darfur as the reconciliation mechanisms put in place after 1989 broke down.

Yousif Takana analyzed the complexities of the conflict in "Darfur Conflict Mapping analysis" found in Darfur -- Daruf Dialogue and Consultation. He found a North South conflict between peasants and nomads. In the South, there was an East West conflict with Arab tribes on both sides. In other words, the real fault line lay between tribes with homelands and those without.

The major ramp up Darfur activism took place after the violence subsided. In 2008 1500 civilians were killed 600 from Arab tribal violence and 900 from the struggle between insurgents and counter-insurgents.

The African Union (AU) has been trying to end the conflict under a model based on the end of Apartheid:
  • absence of victory,
  • political reform,
  • impunity or amnesty for the past.
The system has worked in Mozambique. Why should it not apply in Darfur?

US Darfur advocates demand accountability and enforcement of justice
  • even though clear-cut perpetrators and victims do not exist and
  • even though there are no safeguards to prevent the ICC prosecutor, who is only accountable to the UN Security Council, from going rogue in response to great power politics.
The SaveDarfur message, which has played a role in prosecutor Ocampo's choices, is simply incorrect and has no connection with the facts on the ground.

Jewish groups seized on the Arab/Arabized-identity of some of the indigenous African populations to demonize alleged Arab politics of genocide.

In his book on pp. 57-59, Professor Mamdani writes:
The central thrust of the Save Darfur campaign is that Darfur is a moral and not a political issue. To drive a wedge between morality and politics, Save Darfur worked through religious bodies and presented itself primarily as an interreligious coalition. It offered Americans the possibility of uniting around a moral cause --Darfur--regardless of political allegiance or ideological inclination. Where else could political figures as divided as Al Sharpton and Elie Wiesel speak from the same platform but one dedicated to saving Darfur -- as on April 30, 2006, at Washington's National Mall? Both spoke as Americans -- saviors without having to cite any other tradition in common. The Reverend Al Sharpton evoked the civil rights struggle: "This has been a long struggle, but now, when we see you here today, on the same ground that Martin Luther King came, on the same grounds that civil rights and civil liberties came, we know when America comes together, we can stop anything in the world. History will write that we came together in the first decade of the twenty-first century and stopped genocide in Sudan." For his part, Elie Wiesel evoked humanity: "We are here today because if we do nothing, Al Qaeda and the world's number one holocaust denier, the infamous ruler of Iran, Ahmadinejad, will send terrorists there .... Darfur today is the world's capital of human suffering. Not to offer our help, not to urge our government to intervene in every manner possible is to condemn us on grounds of inhumanity. Darfur deserves to live. We are the only hope."

A form of religious stereotyping emerged in 2006, when the SDC began to organize a series of public rallies, the first in April and the second in September, to mobilize mass support behind an interreligious call for military intervention in Sudan. The SDC prepared several sets of "action packets" for the April 2006 rally. The packets were identified according to religious affiliation: initially as Christian Faith, Jewish, Interfaith, and General Faith. After the April 2006 rally, with some noticeable unease, Muslims were added to a "civilized" campaign: a "Muslim Faith Action Packet" was added. The faith packets conveyed a clear division of responsibility among faiths. The Christian faith packets were the most explicit: They spoke of "divine empowerment" and "the burden to save." The "Christian Sample Prayer" asked God to forgive their failure to believe that "you have empowered us to protect our brothers and sisters." The Jewish faith packets emphasized "the special moral responsibility of Jews as 'quintessential victims' to identify genocide whenever it occurs." The "Jewish" million postcards material read: "Instead of mourning a genocide, what if we could STOP one? As Jews, we have a particular moral responsibility to speak out and take action against genocide." If Christians were meant to lead and Jews to bear witness, Muslims were asked to fight oppressors in their midst. The text in the Muslim faith packet focused "greatly on training Muslims in how to aid others, deal with conflict, avoid being oppressive, and intervene when other Muslims oppress." Clearly, the executive committee of Save Darfur thought of its constituency in terms of a religious hierarchy: If Christians were empowered to save and Jews sensitized to empathize, good Muslims had the potential to check bad Muslims by fighting oppressive tendencies within their own communities.

These "faith packets" have been revised many times over. The main effect has been "to nuance claims about ethnicity" But traces remain, perhaps as testimony to an original sin. Take these examples from material accessed at the Save Darfur site on January 29, 2008. The "Discussion Guide for Christian Congregations" asks: "How will we as a congregation be the keeper of our brothers and sisters in Darfur?" And the "Discussion Guide for Jewish Congregations" asks: "Is it possible to both bear witness to the Holocaust and other events in Jewish history while acting on Darfur? Does one detract from the other?" And then: "Do Jews carry a special responsibility to victims of genocide?" But this is how the "Discussion Guide for Muslim Communities" begins: "The violence in Darfur is inflicted by Muslims on Muslims. Does that change the obligation of Muslim people around the world to intervene?" Clearly, Darfur is a Muslim atrocity to which good Muslims must bear witness.

That Muslims have a special responsibility to fight oppression in their midst is a message often conveyed by New York Times op-ed columnist Nicholas Kristof. Kristof chides Muslim and Arab peoples, and the Arab press in particular, for lacking the moral fiber to respond to this Muslim-on-Muslim violence, presumably because the violence is inflicted by Arab Muslims on African Muslims. In one of his early columns (May 29,2004), Kristof was so outraged by the silence of Muslim leaders that he asked, "Do they care about dead Muslims only when the killers are Israelis or Americans?" Two years later, he asked in an April 23, 2006, column, "And where is the Arab press? Isn't the murder of 300,000 or more Muslims almost as offensive as a Danish cartoon?" Six months later, Kristof pursued this line on NBC's Today show: "The question is, why are Muslims who, in their -- in the Quran, who are taught that killing is wrong, it's against Allah, why are they not stepping up, and telling Muslims who are killing other Muslims, to stop?"
The incessant advocacy effort led Americans to view Darfur as a place where evil lived, and they related to Darfur as humans and not as citizens. Americans put the Iraq war in the category of a tax while saving Darfur became a charity. In effect Darfur supplanted the sort of anti-war activism that would have been expected on the basis of the US Vietnam War politics of the 60s and 70s.

The Darfur Cause is a dangerous form of feel-good politics, which must be challenged because of the damage in does in both the USA and also the Sudan, which respectively require rational foreign policy and political reform more than either country needs a morality drama.

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