On 23 November 2004 at 6:00 a.m., the village of Adwa in South Darfur was attacked by the Sudanese army and the Janajaweed militia. Most villagers were still asleep, or had woken up for the morning prayer, while two helicopter gun-ships and an Antonov plane approached the village. Meanwhile, heavily armed militia men entered the village with land cruisers. In the next few hours, more than 20 villagers were brutally killed and over 100 villagers were severely injured, including women and children. All the homes in the villages were burnt down. Many villagers fled into the mountains, but several were captured. Men were immediately shot, while women were kept in detention for two days. Young girls were repeatedly raped by the attackers in the presence of their mothers. All the victims of the attack belonged to the Fur tribe (1).
The attack on Adwa village is merely one example of the horrors that have been occurring in Darfur since 2003. According to the International Commission of Inquiry on Darfur, over 800 villages were destroyed in Darfur (2), while the Sudanese police even estimates that number at 2000. Nearly 2 million people in Darfur have fled their homes and are living in camps, which constitutes over one third of the Darfuri population. 300,000 civilians are estimated to have been killed, thousands of women were raped. Victims belonged to the Fur, Zaghawa and Massalit tribes of Darfur.
Mass violence against civilians in Darfur started in February 2003, after rebels of the Sudan Liberation Movement (SLM) had attacked the town of El Fasher. Their attack was a revolt against decades of neglect of the Darfur region by the central government, ruled by the military dictatorship of Omer Al Bashir. Lacking political means to fight against their marginalization, the Darfuris picked up arms to pressure the Sudanese government. The government responded with extreme military force against civilians and created the Janjaweed militia to fight the SLM. Yet, although experts in the West tend to depict the government’s response as a mere counter-insurgency strategy, I believe this explanation to be insufficient. The cruelties committed in Darfur followed the same structure as violence used by the regime in the war against armed rebels in the southern part of the country (1983-2005). In 1992, the government of Sudan declared Holy War (jihad) in the Nuba Mountains after which Arab militia started to destroy villages, in a similar way as the Janjaweed in Darfur.
Theodor Adorno famously stated that the barbarism of Auschwitz created an obligation for reflection. Philosophy after Auschwitz should be aimed at rearranging human thought and action in a way that would prevent a repetition of Auschwitz in the future.(3) In my opinion, the genocide in Darfur creates a similar imperative. And my analysis leads to the conclusion that the cruelties committed in Darfur by the Sudanese government in Darfur are the bitter fruits of an evil tree: the Islamist ideology. And the methods the regime adopted in their destruction of the Darfuri people, are deeply rooted in this ideology.
The Islamist ideology is based not only on a dogmatic interpretation of Islam, but more so on the assumption that the Islamist leaders are a representation of God on earth. The Islamist state is considered a holy project, which holds an absolute truth. Within this framework, any opposition against this state is understood as an opposition to God himself and is intrinsically evil. And since the Islamist leaders are considered to represent God, they are considered to have a monopoly on virtue. The goal of maintaining the Islamist state justifies all means, including killing civilians and the burning children. Bakri Hassan Salih, the former Sudanese Minister of Defense, defended the regime’s strategy in Darfur by saying that the presence of one rebel in a village makes that village a military target.(4) Following this logic, over 800 villages were burnt to the ground and its inhabitants slaughtered. The Islamist leaders never questioned the justness of these tactics. Actually, their Islamist ideology does not require questioning the aptness of the methods used by the regime: as the Islamist leaders believe they represent God, they themselves become the barometer of justice. But, by putting themselves in God’s place, they actually destroy God as a point of moral orientation. The Islamists’ ideology thus undermines the very God it claims to represent, and thereby eliminates the moral boundaries of its political action.
In the South and in the Nuba Mountains, crimes against humanity were justified by qualifying the victims, who were mainly Christians, as infidels (kafir). From the Islamists’ point of view, this validates the use of extreme means to destroy them, in the context of a Holy War (jihad). But in Darfur, where the vast majority of the population is Muslim, things were more complicated. A mechanism needed to be developed, according to which the people of Darfur could be classified as evil, justifying their destruction. Capitalizing on the Salafist roots of its ideology, the regime managed to develop a powerful narrative that categorized Darfuris as infidels by connecting them to Judaism. The Salafist interpretation of Islam represents “the Jew” as the anti-thesis of Islam that constitutes an absolute evil. This interpretation hinges on a few verses in Koran that describe the war between Prophet Mohamed and the Jews in Medina in the 7th century. According to these Koran verses, violence against Jews was justified during the war in Medina, but the Salafist interpretation ignores the historical context in which the verses were written. Instead, Salafism holds these verses as universally applicable, legitimizing the use violence against Jews at any time. The everlasting Isreali-Palestinian conflict has further amplified the Salafist discourse. In addition, it has enabled Salafists to make a connection between “the Jews” and “the West”, emphasizing western support to Israel. As a result, the West, Israel, Judaism and Christianity are all classified as evil according to the Salafist interpretation of Islam.
The Sudanese regime took the Salafist discourse one step further and managed to categorize Muslims who collaborate with the Jews or the West as non-Muslims, thus essentially reducing them to infidels. Depicting Darfuris as non-Muslims started by emphasizing that the Fur, Zaghawa and Massalit tribes were not Arab. Yet, this was not enough to legitimize their destruction. Through thoroughly planned propaganda by the state-media, the regime created the image that Darfuris were receiving support from Israel and from the West. The Zaghawa tribe was even portrayed as having Jewish origins. An avalanche of such accusations quickly led people to see the Darfuri tribes as non-Muslim, and therefore evil: no longer to be considered human. This turned the Darfuri tribes into a legitimate target for brutal attacks, which mounted to the killing of 300,000 Darfuri civilians in the name of God. Most of the killing was done by the Janjaweed militia, a paramilitary force that was created and supported by the government army. The militia were mobilized among Arab tribes in the Darfur region, through the government’s hatred campaigns which depicted the killing of Darfuris as an act of virtue, part of the Holy War (jihad).
The mobilization of tribal militia to perform security tasks should be understood as the result of a shift in the socio-economic structure of the Sudanese state, which occurred in the mid-1970s. Before then, the Islamists were part of a petty bourgeoisie of professionals. After the mid-1970s, they increasingly became involved in high-risk speculation activities with capital from the Gulf states. Speculation typically requires no long-term interest and, hence, no responsibility for the investments’ outcomes. Speculators are not investors, but merely brokers who mediate between buyers and sellers without defending the interest of either party. Rather, a broker acts on his own interest in the process, which inevitably leads him to manipulate both parties. All Islamist leaders in Sudan come from this societal stratum of brokers, and the way they run the state is a result of their broker mentality. Since the mid-1990s oil-extraction became the state’s main economic activity and the oil-rents have further intensified the broker mentality of the Islamist leaders.
Instead of building the state’s security sector and responding to the insecurity in Darfur as a real state, the Islamists responded to the violence as brokers in security. Mobilizing the Arab militia on the basis of hatred requires no long term investment as the militia partially finance themselves through looting. The state is reduced to a broker between the two warring parties, only fuelling the fight with propaganda. This has created militia which are no longer accountable to anyone, and whose actions are not controlled by the state, law or ethics. This has brought forth crazy militia, such as the Janjaweed, whose ruthless killings follow no logic, but merely blind hatred. With the state-army reduced to mere suppliers of the militia, the Islamist regime in Khartoum to some extent reduced itself to speculators in the war, nourishing it only with the cruel ideology of political Islam.
Over two million people in Darfur have been displaced by the war and are living in camps. Kalma camp in South Darfur is the largest one and is currently home to over 90,000 displaced. Just as Auschwitz became the symbol of the Holocaust, Kalma has become the symbol of the Darfur genocide. “Kalma” in Fur language means “heart”, but it is the product of a politico-religious ideology that has no heart. The cruelties of Darfur are a logical result of the Islamist ideology, which is driven by hatred and intolerance, and considers the killing of children and the rape of young girls justified. The West should not tolerate this ideology of intolerance and governments should do all they can to prevent repetition of these brutal crimes. A political system should be put in place in Sudan that guarantees the protection of human rights of the Sudanese people in Darfur and elsewhere. Pressure on the regime through tougher sanctions and increased support to the victims in Darfur are essential measures in achieving that goal. But further, the West needs to develop a comprehensive strategy to weaken political Islam and to promote democracy in the Islamic world, as to prevent similar crimes in the future. While the extreme right’s politics of scapegoating Muslim immigrants is clearly not the correct response to the threat of political Islam, the liberal left is yet to develop a viable strategy to counter the immoral elements of the Islamist ideology. And until it does, the risk of a new Darfur will remain.
(1) Report of the International Commission of Inquiry on Darfur to the United Nations Secretary-General (ICID), January 2005, pp. 68.
(2) ICID, pp. 63 – footnote.
(3) T.W. Adorno (1973) Negative Dialectics.
(4) ICID, pp. 66.