Politics and Humanitarianism
- Politics and Humanitarianism
By Anna Mundow
March 22, 2009
Mahmood Mamdani, a third-generation East African of Indian descent, grew
up in Uganda, studied at Harvard, taught at various African and American
universities, and is currently Herbert Lehman Professor of Government at
Columbia University. A political scientist and anthropologist, he is
best known for "Good Muslim, Bad Muslim" and "When Victims Become
Killers." His latest book, "Saviors and Survivors: Darfur, Politics, and
the War on Terror" (Pantheon, $26.95), meticulously exposes the tangled
roots of the current conflict and the global forces at play in Darfur.
Mamdani spoke from his home in New York City.
Q. Is there a link between this book and your previous work?
A. There are several; the most obvious is an understanding of the way in
which the Cold War almost seamlessly morphed into the war on terror.
Another connection - with my work on the Rwanda genocide and on the
effect of colonialism in Africa - is the way in which identities are
imposed from above.
Q. Such as who is an Arab, a Muslim, an African?
A. Yes. Interestingly, [originally] "Africa" was a word the Romans used
for their North African province. But after the trans-Atlantic slave
trade, "Africa" referred to parts of the continent from which slaves
were hunted and sold. In Sudan, where everybody was equally native, the
British arbitrarily identified certain groups as African and others as
Q. Why do you concentrate on the Save Darfur campaign?
A. In a context where African tragedies seem never to be noticed, I
wondered why Darfur was an obsession with the global media. The reason,
I realized, was that Darfur had become a domestic issue here, thanks to
the Save Darfur movement. So I thought it important to examine the
movement's history, organization, and message. I learned that this
self-confessedly political group whose level of organization is
phenomenal spends its annual budget of $15 million not on assisting
victims but on spreading the message.
A. There are various motives. One part of the group emerged out of
solidarity with the struggle in south Sudan and believes that Darfur is
another version of south Sudan. Most have no idea of the difference
between the two situations. Another wing is what I understand to be
neoconservatives who want to incorporate Darfur into the war on terror.
Both groups reinforce the racialization of the conflict and the
demonization of the Arabs.
Q. For political reasons?
A. For political reasons. There are few sources that really analyze Save
Darfur; the clearest I found was an article by Gal Beckerman in the
Jerusalem Post ["US Jews leading Darfur rally planning," April 27,
2006]. The facts there speak for themselves.
Q. Yet you say that this campaign depoliticizes Americans?
A. I'm struck by the contrast between the mobilization around Darfur and
the lack of mobilization around Iraq. The explanation, I believe, lies
in the fact that Save Darfur presented the conflict as a tragedy,
stripped of politics and context. There were simply "African" victims
and "Arab" perpetrators motivated by race-intoxicated hatred. Unlike
Iraq, about which Americans felt guilty or impotent, Darfur presented an
opportunity to feel good. It appealed to the philanthropic side of the
American character. During the presidential election, Save Darfur's
constituency became integrated into the Obama campaign, and I welcomed
that opportunity to organize around real concerns. The downside now is
the attempt by Save Darfur to pressure the Obama administration to
intervene militarily in Darfur.
Q. Are you saying that humanitarianism is a form of colonialism?
A. I'm saying that historically it has been. The movement after which
Save Darfur patterned itself is the antislavery movement of the 19th
century. Remember that the elimination of slavery was the ostensible
reason given by British officials for colonization of the African
continent. The cataloging of brutalities - real ones, not exaggerated -
was essential preparation for seizing chunks of real estate, again
ostensibly to protect victims. Today, the humanitarian claim uses ethics
to displace politics. Conflicts are typically presented as tribal or
race wars between perpetrators and victims whose roles are unchanging.
Q. Does the problem lie in who uses the humanitarian label?
A. The language of human rights was once used primarily by the victims
of repression. Now it has become the language of power and of
interventionists who turn victims not into agents but into proxies. It
has been subverted from a language that empowers victims to a language
that serves the designs of an interventionist power on an international
Q. Do you worry about the reaction to this book?
A. My experience is that it is better to defend what you have said than
to explain why you left half the case unsaid. I worried about the extent
to which the book is readable because the middle chapters are in-depth
historical exploration. I worried about losing the general reader. But
faced with a human-rights constituency determined to decontextualize
this issue, I felt compelled to examine Darfur in both a regional and a
historical context, focusing on its complexity. This morning I received
figures from UNAMID [the United Nations Mission in Darfur] in Khartoum,
on civilian deaths from conflict in Darfur during 2008. The figure was
1,520, with 600 dead as a result of the conflict in the south between
different Arab groups over grazing land and 920 deaths attributable, I
am told, more to rebel movements than to the government-organized
counterinsurgency. This is the kind of complexity that has been totally
Anna Mundow, a freelance journalist living in Central Massachusetts, is
a correspondent for the Irish Times. She can be reached via e-mail at
ama1668@... <mailto:ama1668@...> .
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
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
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
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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