Sudan in black and white?

By Michelle Chen Mar 05, 2009

The arrest warrant issued by the International Criminal Court for Sudanese President Omar Hassan al-Bashir is stoking debate on how the international community should define and address conflict (particularly the United States, which has not formally recognized the ICC). Despite waves of international media coverage and zealous activism, there remain stark rifts in the portrayal of the conflict, hinging on public perceptions of war crimes, racism and humanitarian responsibility. An alternative narrative takes what is routinely branded as genocide or ethnic cleansing and points out that the issue is in fact a more nuanced, historically entrenched conflict, with more than two sides and many shades. In the arena of political perception, the language of race can clarify, simplify or obfuscate the contours of warfare. Here are excerpts of an interview on with Columbia University professor Mahmood Mamdani, a prominent commentator on the framing of Darfur (h/t Hugh Hamilton at WBAI and Black Agenda Report)

IOL: Why do you think that activists and the media, especially the Western, define the conflict in Darfur in such a simplified manner: African vs. Arab? Mamdani: Well, I think it is political. You can make sense of it not by focusing on those they are defining, but on their audience. Whereas the former live in Darfur, their audience is in the West. They understand that the Western audience would be quick to grasp a racialized distinction and would be easy to mobilize around it. It says much more about the potency of the history of race in the West rather than the relevance of the notion of race in Darfur…. IOL: Why do you think the term "genocide" has been used to describe the conflict in Darfur but not in Congo or Iraq despite the similarities in the conflicts that pit the "state" against an "insurgency"? Mamdani: The conflicts in Congo and Iraq are different; the scale of killings is much higher. In Congo it is said to be four to five million. In Iraq it is said to have exceeded a million. So from that point of view, these conflicts are much worse than that in Darfur. The conflict in Iraq arises from an occupation and resistance to an occupation. The conflict in Darfur started as a civil war between tribes in Darfur, 1987 and 1989, and the government was not involved at all. The government became involved, first in 1995 and then 2003, but it is still not an occupation, it is an internal conflict. So why would what’s happening in Darfur be described as "genocide" while the numbers involved are less than in Iraq and when the conflict began as a civil war between tribes internal to Darfur and only then developed into an insurgency against the central government, followed by a counter-insurgency in response to that insurgency? Why?… Those outside of Sudan, the Save Darfur movement in the US, are looking at it from their own vantage point which is not simply a global vantage point or a West-centered one, but worse, it’s the vantage point of the most reactionary circles in the US, those waging the "war on terror". They are painting this conflict not as a conflict over questions of land, not a conflict over questions of law and order, an insurgency/counter-insurgency — which is how the Government of Sudan is seeing it —, but as a conflict between "Arab" and "African"; they’ve racialized the conflict completely. They are partly responsible for the conflict being racialized. Consider the fact that it is a much more racialized conflict now than it was five years ago. When the Save Darfur movement claims that this violence is African versus Arab its explanation is not historical or political. Its explanation basically is that the Arabs are "race-intoxicated" and they are just trying to wipe out the Africans. The Save Darfur movement does not educate the people they mobilize about the history of Darfur. It does not educate them about what issues drive the conflict. So they know nothing about the politics of Darfur, the history of Darfur, the history of the conflict. All they know is that Darfur is a place where "Arabs" are trying to eliminate "Africans". That’s all. Darfur is a place where "evil lives", so they have completely "moralized" the conflict and presented it as a struggle against evil. This evil is thus portrayed as ahistorical, or trans-historical, living outside of history — except that evil is said to live in this place called Darfur and Sudan. The conclusion means of course that you have to eliminate this "evil". There is no settlement to a conflict like that. You can’t settle it, you can’t negotiate, there is only one way to have peace and which is to eliminate the evil. So ironically they are trying to create that which they say they are combating.

This discussion, of course, should not let war criminals “off the hook,” as Desmond Tutu cautions in a NY Times op-ed. But it does call into question how we should treat race and racism when confronting international injustice and work to map out solutions. How we define a conflict from an outside perspective raises the question of which institutions are empowered to define the parameters of the conversation. Ultimately, the policy ramifications, as well as the political reaction, will shape the fate of those caught in the middle of the crisis, no matter what you call it. Image: Thinkbridge blog