What Does Darfur Have To Do With The “War On Terror”?
A renowned scholar and commentator on African affairs and U.S. foreign policy, Mahmood Mamdani’s views have attracted considerable criticism from across the political spectrum. In particular, his analysis of the Robert Mugabe government of Zimbabwe has drawn ire from both the right and left, with some contending that he is downplaying the crimes of the Mugabe regime. With his new book’s aim of cutting Western media and activist portrayals of the Darfur conflict down to size, and formulating a fresh, historically-grounded narrative about its causes, will Mamdani’s Saviors and Survivors prompt him to be labeled an apologist for Omar al-Bashir’s regime as well?
Despite his pull-no-punches style, Saviors and Survivors seems to have achieved the impressive feat of not automatically turning off everyone it criticizes. Both the New York Times and the New Republic, which have been at or least near the forefront of the simplistic moralizing about Darfur that Mamdani rightfully despises, have run generally favorable reviews of the book – suggesting perhaps an opening in mainstream discourse for alternative views on Darfur. So what does Saviors and Survivors bring to the table?
Mamdani spends slightly more than half of the book engaging in an extensive deconstruction of the formation of “African” vs. “Arab” and “native” vs. “settler” identities in Darfur and Sudan. This leads to his thesis that the current Darfur conflict actually “began as a localized civil war (1987-89) and turned into a rebellion” – a clash between landed “natives” and landless “settlers” in Darfur that was fueled by the British colonial legacy of retribalization, environmental degradation, an influx of weapons due to the Cold War, and, finally, “a brutal counterinsurgency” waged by Khartoum (p. 4).
The merits of these particular conclusions will have to be properly evaluated by academic specialists – and indeed, some of Mamdani’s arguments have been challenged by distinguished Sudan researchers such as the historian Martin Daly. Nevertheless, the rest of Saviors and Survivors, more incendiary in tone, sees Mamdani wielding these historical arguments, as well as an extensive bibliography of source material, to launch a withering attack on Save Darfur activism.
Though the words may seem harsh when applied to a movement rife with high-schoolers, Mamdani’s formulation that “Save Darfur activists combine a contemptuous attitude toward knowing with an imperative to act” seems a fair characterization of Save Darfur’s national leadership and most visible celebrity-activist supporters (6). One is reminded of one of Save Darfur’s most prominent public faces, the actress Mia Farrow, commenting that activists should “Leave it to the [U.S.] government to decide how to best help the people of Darfur,” and instead focus their efforts more blandly on “let[ing] them know you want to help.” It is a sad day for Darfurians when hordes of U.S. activists attempt to “save” them by blindly trusting, and indeed empowering Washington to exert itself in the region in whatever way it sees fit – including militarily. Such advocacy is not in the interest of the victims, but rather, serves to buttress U.S. foreign policy aims (hence Mamdani’s constant invocations of the “War on Terror”), which are far from humanitarian.
Clearly then, as Mamdani posits, something is amiss in Darfur activism. As he notes after reviewing the oft-inflated death tolls for the conflict, “Ironically, the first international outcry [about Darfur] arose at almost the same time as the dramatic reduction in the level of fatalities,” and likewise, “The rhetoric of the Save Darfur movement in the United States escalated as the level of mortality in Darfur declined” (33). This coincided with “a major public campaign, involving Save Darfur and key Western governments, to have the African Union [force in Darfur] replaced by the United Nations” (41-42). So what accounts for the gap between Save Darfur’s rhetoric and the facts on the ground in Darfur – the region that is to be “saved”?
Mamdani is right to frame his analysis of the political economy of the Darfur conflict in the U.S. with the dominant paradigm of our times, the so-called “War on Terror.” Calling Save Darfur somewhat vaguely “the humanitarian face of the War on Terror,” he notes a shared “feel-good imperative” behind the two themes, in which it is not the suffering peoples in the countries we are said to be seeking to liberate that matters, but rather the projection of Western power (6). More precisely, as is the case with the War on Terror, Mamdani boils Save Darfur’s logic of salvation down to what is euphemistically called a Western military intervention – that is, an invasion of Sudan (47).
While this used to be an explicit goal of at least parts of the Save Darfur movement, activists have largely shied away from this position in recent times, at least in public. Though Save Darfur continues to call for an “intervention” as a solution to the conflict, sustaining Mamdani’s characterization of a Western invasion as a continued position of Save Darfur, and indeed its “central political thrust,” would require examining a more contemporary batch of sources than the ones he cites (47) – or, as Rebecca Hamilton notes in her contribution to the debate, interviewing some of the figures involved. In fact, in its push for an “intervention” in Sudan, Save Darfur has been perhaps deliberately coy about this point, as its usage of the term “intervention” seems to leave the door open to potentially supporting a U.S.- or Western-led invasion of Sudan, while on a more benign level it could be read to mean nothing more than support for UN and AU peacekeepers.
In seeking to explain why “All have been seduced to abandon their political dogmas and bathe in the moral glow of a global humanitarian cause that highlights the plight of some of the most wretched of our fellow humans,” (52) Mamdani poses a highly pertinent question – why is this cause Darfur and not Iraq?
Of course, as citizens of the invading and occupying power in Iraq, we bear direct moral responsibility for the death and destruction in that country, in a way that we simply do not for Darfur. We should undoubtedly feel sympathy for Darfurians, and be in solidarity with them in seeking to address the causes of their suffering, though basic moral calculus indicates that our guide for action should lead us to focus our limited energy as activists on addressing humanitarian crises based on both their severity, and also our power to actually be able to do something about them.
Though comparing mortality figures may seem a grim exercise, the U.S.-led invasion and occupation of Iraq has exacted a death toll surely several times higher than the Darfur conflict, as Mamdani reviews. Further, it is axiomatic that as U.S. citizens, our power to lessen the suffering in Iraq – by, say, withdrawing U.S. troops, in accordance with the wishes of the majority of the Iraqi population – is undeniably greater than is the case for Darfur.
To make the case that U.S. activists have been taken in by Darfur’s “moral glow” while ignoring our destruction of Iraq, Mamdani notes that “The most powerful mobilization in New York City – where I have lived for the larger part of the year since 1999 – was for Darfur, not Iraq.” As he does, one would of course “expect the reverse,” if basic humanitarian principles were indeed at play (59).
However, as I have argued elsewhere, based on my own careful review of media reports, Darfur rallies have not come even close to approaching the numbers of participants drawn by the largest protests against the war in Iraq. In fact, for what may have been the most publicized and attended Save Darfur rally on record – which took place on April 30, 2006, in Washington, DC – media reports generally put the size of the crowd in the “thousands.” In contrast, an anti-war protest in New York City, which occurred just days before, drew what even corporate media sources conceded was many times more – “tens of thousands” of people.
Anyone who follows news about Darfur will find their inbox bursting forth on a daily basis with stories of high-school and college students trying to “save” Darfur – but to therefore accept this notion that Darfur activism has more support than anti-war activism, based on corporate media coverage, serves to validate the bias that underlies their selection of stories. Save Darfur surely has a more developed activist infrastructure than the movement against the invasion and occupation of Iraq, and for obvious reasons receives favorable media coverage and sizable donations from major corporations while anti-war groups do not. Yet to attribute the elite’s bias against anti-war activism to the population at large simply does not seem to accord with the facts as we know them. One might instead draw the conclusion that the number of people in the U.S. opposing the war in Iraq has been relatively impressive given the near total dearth of substantive critiques of its true motives in mainstream discourse, as well as the usual ludicrous denunciations of “anti-Americanism” hurled at any figures who have felt even tempted to undertake such a project.
What is undoubtedly true, however, is that the political and media elite focus on Darfur as a region to be “saved,” while not doing the same for Iraq (or other crises of our making, such as Palestine or Afghanistan). This fixation on Darfur is not a coincidence, in Mamdani’s estimation. He notes that:
Perhaps Save Darfur should be credited with….depoliticizing Americans, especially those Americans who felt a need to do something in the face of disasters perpetrated by the Bush administration. The Save Darfur Coalition was able to capture and tame a part of this potentially rebellious constituency – especially students – thereby marginalizing and overshadowing those who continued to mobilize around Iraq. This successful displacement was indeed a model campaign, a successful lesson in depoliticization. (60)
Unlike the disaster of our making in Iraq, then, “Darfur is a place of refuge….It is a cause about which they can feel good” (62). Since the Save Darfur campaign limply calls on the U.S. to “do something” to address a conflict in which we are not the ones holding the guns, it is palatable to the establishment in ways that a campaign to end the occupation of Iraq or terminate U.S. arms shipments to Israel is not. Though it is unclear if Mamdani is arguing that Save Darfur set out to deliberately “capture and tame” insufficiently docile segments of the population, it does to some extent seem to have had this effect – a disastrous outcome at a time when the U.S. (not to mention its victims across the globe) could have benefited greatly from the emergence of more vibrant anti-imperialist social movements than what anti-war activism has been able to muster.
The point is hardly that we should be ignoring Darfur – rather, as Mamdani proscribes, we should act, but based on a careful understanding of the relevant facts. In this, the principle of solidarity must be at the forefront; that is, we should listen to the people on the ground, and not impose solutions from without.
In this vein, Saviors and Survivors could have benefited from additional source material from internal Darfurian and Sudanese opposition parties and movements. A fuller airing of their views would have given Darfur activists, whose campaigns Mamdani has critiqued rather perceptively, more of a basis (should they be seeking one) for righting their ships and launching a movement that stands in solidarity with Darfurians instead of for “saving” them.
At some points, word choice will likely open Mamdani to criticism. Mimicking the regrettable and ubiquitous logic of “anti-Americanism,” he notes that Save Darfur is on an “anti-China campaign,” and that “China claimed that the priority in Darfur was a negotiated settlement, and all powers needed to invest their energies to make this outcome possible” (51). Though factually correct, is China’s call sincere enough to merely repeat at face value? Further, is “counterinsurgency” a profound enough term to adequately describe the Sudanese government’s role in the Darfur conflict? (47)
These quibbles aside, Saviors and Survivors serves as a valuable warning against forcing the Darfur conflict into our ready-made “War on Terror” stencil – a convenient storyline for the West in which a nefarious Chinese-backed Arab cabal in Khartoum is perpetrating an ongoing genocide against the helpless and ready-to-be-saved Darfurian Africans. By advocating such an interpretation of the conflict, Darfur activists and commentators are allowing Darfur to be “not just an illustration of the grand narrative of the War on Terror but also a part of its justification.” (71) In his analysis of Save Darfur, Mamdani’s is an invaluable contribution in allowing us to understand Darfur in its own right, free from the ideological baggage of our time.
Kevin Funk is co-author, with Steven Fake, of Scramble for Africa: Darfur – Intervention and the USA. He maintains a website with his commentaries at www.scrambleforafrica.org.