Rami Khouri is executive editor of THE DAILY STAR, Lebanon's leading English
language newspaper and a leading commentator in the Arab World. As the
genocide in Darfur continues, I am reproducing an article by Rami Khouri
from 2004, where he attempts to answer the question on everyone's lips: Why
is the Arab world silent as Darfurians die?
The question was again asked by Fatema Abdul Rasul who wrote angrily in
Khouri's newspaper last month: "For the entire Muslim and Arab world to
remain silent when thousands of people in Darfur continue to be killed is
shameful and hypocritical."
Khouri feels that "Most ordinary Arab citizens do not speak out against the
atrocities in Sudan because their modern history has taught them that they
have neither the right nor the ability to impact on the policies of their
own government, let alone other Arab governments. The Arab citizenry
collectively has been numbed into a sad state of helplessness and docility
in the face of government policies. We watch Darfur today like we watched
atrocities in decades past - as pained but powerless spectators."
Read and reflect.
August 11, 2004
Darfur's ugly resonance in the Arab world
By Rami G. Khouri
Daily Star, Beirut
The relative silence of the Arab world has been one of the striking
dimensions of the tragic events in the Darfur region of western Sudan in the
past 18 months. Up to 50,000 people may have died and over a million have
been made refugees there, as a result of attacks by Arab militias. The
international consensus was reflected in the recent UN Security Council
resolution giving the Sudanese government one month to disarm the militias
and restore security. Human rights groups and governments in the West have
described events in Darfur as "ethnic cleansing" and even "genocide," while
the Sudanese government rejects these accusations and claims that no more
than 5,000 people have died in the region.
Based on documentation by credible international human rights groups and the
UN itself, the world finally moved to stop the human suffering in Darfur
when the United States and the UN took the lead to act in June. Throughout
the past 18 months, as the tragedy has unfolded in Darfur, the Arab world
has been conspicuously absent from the debate. While a few voices in the
region have spoken out for decisive diplomacy to restore security and calm
in Darfur, many other voices in the media and among government officials
have taken a much more relaxed stance, even accusing the US of meddling in
the region to secure future oil interests.
The Arab silence on this issue probably is not specific to Darfur or Sudan,
but rather reflects a wider malaise that has long plagued our region: Arab
governments tend to stay out of each other's way when any one of them is
accused of wrongdoing, and most Arab citizens have been numbed into
helplessness in the face of public atrocities or criminal activity in their
The modern history of the Arab world over the past 50 years has been defined
by two broad trajectories that are intimately related: the concentration of
economic and military power in the hands of small numbers of people who form
the governing power elites, and that governing elite's steady provision of
basic services and job opportunities to the citizenry.
As the average citizen experiences a relatively consistent improvement in
basic life conditions (water, electricity, telephones, hospitals, schools,
jobs) he or she tends to leave the government alone in its conduct of other
political policies - including violent actions against one's own citizens.
This basic governing contract explains much of the silence and acquiescence
by otherwise decent Arabs in the face of atrocities or criminal activity
carried out by fellow citizens, or even by their own government. Darfur in
Sudan is only the latest in a string of violent domestic episodes within
Arab countries that have been largely ignored by other Arab countries. The
long and depressing list includes rebellions, civil wars, repression and
other forms of violence in key Arab countries like Algeria, Lebanon, Syria,
Yemen, Sudan, Palestine, Iraq, Egypt and Libya.
Because most Arab governments use violence as a policy instrument -
legitimately to secure public order, they would argue - Arab governments
turn a blind eye to the violence practiced by their fellow governors. This
is a strange sort of professional courtesy among fellow autocrats and
security state managers who rationalize it by saying that Arab states do not
interfere in the domestic affairs of other states.
Therefore, Colin Powell and Kofi Annan visit Darfur and call world attention
to its plight before Arab League Secretary-General Amr Moussa or any Arab
foreign minister considers making the same trip.
Most ordinary Arab citizens do not speak out against the atrocities in Sudan
because their modern history has taught them that they have neither the
right nor the ability to impact on the policies of their own government, let
alone other Arab governments. The Arab citizenry collectively has been
numbed into a sad state of helplessness and docility in the face of
government policies. We watch Darfur today like we watched atrocities in
decades past - as pained but powerless spectators.
Darfur troubles us all, but moves few to action in the Arab world. Darfur is
very far away for most Arab citizens, and pains closer to home are more
urgent - whether the pain of inequity, corruption and economic stress in
one's own country, the impact of Israeli occupation policies in Palestine
and neighboring states, or the American war machine in Iraq. We grieve in
our hearts for the suffering of Sudanese nationals in Darfur, but as
individual Arab citizens we can do little to change facts in faraway lands -
because we can do equally little to change realities in our own
neighborhoods in Beirut, Amman, Rabat, Damascus, Riyadh or Cairo.
The more troubling consequence is that small groups of bombers and
terrorists have exploited this state of Arab helplessness, seeking public
support for their militancy. Thus large numbers of ordinary, decent Arab
citizens instinctively reject the atrocities against fellow Arabs in Darfur,
but do not speak out or act to stop them; and equally large numbers of
Arabs - majorities in troubled lands, the polls tell us - similarly do not
speak out when Arab terrorists bomb Arab, American or other targets.
A troubled Arab citizenry's silent acquiescence in violence and passivity in
the face of homegrown atrocity, is today the single most important,
widespread symptom of the malaise that plagues this region. It would be a
terrible mistake to misdiagnose the Arab silence on Darfur as reflecting
some Arab, Islamic or Middle Eastern cultural acceptance of violence. This
is, rather, a troubling sign of Arab mass dehumanization and political
pacification at the public level, which are largely our own fault due to our
acceptance of poor governance and distorted Arab power structures over a
period of decades.