The Darfur Genocide: Ideology of Hatred in a Brokered State

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.

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3 thoughts on “The Darfur Genocide: Ideology of Hatred in a Brokered State

  1. Al Haj Warrag is an important voice in Sudanese affairs and deserves to have his views read and debated. I would like to respond to three points in his article.

    (1) The hubris of Islamism

    One of al Haj’s points is that the Sudanese Islamists, in government for more than 20 years, have succumbed to hubris: they have arrogated the position of God. I would respond, first, that they are not the only long-term rulers to have succumbed to such delusions. It is not a prerogative of those who base their claim to power on religion.

    Second, while there may be an element of truth in the allegation of hubris, I believe the situation is more complicated. The late Abdel Salam Hassan, after studying the thought and practice of Hasan al Turabi, concluded that his definition of the Islamic state was one ruled by Hasan al Turabi. In opening the doors of ijtihad, Turabi had set the Sudanese Islamist movement down a slippery slope of constant re-examination of its philosophy and tactics, in which clever echoes of the Koran and Hadith were sufficient to establish the legitimacy of a position. Abdel Salam used to argue, that this was in fact a sharp divergence from the Salafism of Saudi Arabia and its jihadist offspring, and that the cooperation between the NIF and al Qaida in the early and mid-1990s was a marriage of convenience and mutual desperation. The notorious April 1992 el Obeid fatwa that proclaimed the Nuba jihad he dismissed as the work of “second rate provincial ulama” and noted, penetratingly, that neither Turabi nor his senior acolytes had formally endorsed it. Moreover, the apogee of Turabi’s Islamist project was fifteen years ago, the project then disintegrated amidst serious internal acrimony, and the Darfur war was to a significant degree fought over the ruins of that project.

    I therefore agree with al Haj that there is an Islamist tendency that can indeed become hubristic in the way he describes, but I would argue that it is a simplification, and an error, to characterize this as the driving force or defining feature of Sudanese Islamism in the last ten years.

    (2) Darfur war as counterinsurgency.

    I have become associated with this argument, based on my phrase “counter-insurgency on the cheap” and my contention that atrocity was the byproduct of counterinsurgency and not (as for example the ICC Prosecutor would have it) the other way around. It is also, if you like, “atrocity by force of habit”, insofar as the government falls back upon established institutions and mechanisms for promoting counterinsurgency, harking back both to the zenith of Islamist jihadism, and also to the 1985-86 period when the bankrupt government fastened upon the militia strategy largely for financial reasons. In a protracted internal war, motives are rarely unmixed. (I would not, of course, subscribe to the view that the Darfur war was mere counterinsurgency.)

    (3) The ruling class as “brokers”

    This is an important insight and I think a correct one. (And it has an element in common with my argument that politics in Sudan resembles a marketplace, an auction of short-term loyalties.) The class structure of Sudanese politics changed in the 1970s, with a historic shift away from an economy based on agriculture, industry and trade, to one driven by debt, financial capital, and an urban real estate and consumer boom, all of this closely associated with the Gulf oil boom and the associated remittances from expatriate workers in the Gulf, Islamic banking, etc. The changing financial foundation of the state and the dominant class fundamentally altered Sudanese politics and indeed ended up by commoditizing political loyalty itself. Throughout this period—beginning with Nimeiri’s establishment of the Military Economic Corporations in 1982—the army as a national institution has been undermined. In a context of rebellion, this generates a counter-rebellion based in part on renting militia, as a partner to official security and military institutions which function in part in pursuit of private (factional or commercial) interest. As al Haj concludes, security is indeed “brokered” in Darfur: it is the product of bargaining in this complicated marketplace.

  2. Dear Al Haj Warrag and Alex,

    Like Alex I would like to thank Al Haj Warrag for raising the important question of the role of ‘Political Islam’, or Islamism, and its physical force expression of Jihadism, in the Muslim World and their relationship with the West and the related question of promoting democracy in response because they need to be discussed fairly and dispassionately, also on the pages of ‘Making Sense of Sudan’ not in the least because of the prominent role of Islamism and Jihadism in the contemporaneous history of modern Sudan.
    But, I would like to pick on Al Haj’s comments in his last paragraph about developing a comprehensive strategy to weaken political Islam and promoting democracy, or as I would suggest the often troubled and contradictory relationship between the Liberal Left in the West and Islamist ideology, and not on Al Haj’s equation of ‘Kalma’ with ‘Auschwitz’, against which I have again recently strongly argued on this Blog, or about the other points Al Haj made about Sudan with which Alex already has dealt expertly.
    I would like to start with referring to Mahmood Mamdani and others who recently have pointed out that there is a connection between Germany and the history of modern genocide, directly in its former African colonies such as South West Africa, and indirectly during WWI when Imperial Germany’s ally Ottoman Turkey under Young Turk rule ethnically cleansed its Armenian population.
    However, also then the UK and France with their large imperial possessions in the Muslim World were not without justification afraid of Germany and Ottoman Turkey playing the ‘Muslim card’, but only Sultan Ali Dinar of Dar Fur heeded the call to Jihad from Ottoman Sultan and Caliph in 1916, resulting in his death, the incorporation of his sultanate into the Anglo-Egyptian Sudan with the French no longer objecting, while the British were successful in their sponsorship of the Arab revolt against Ottoman Turkey.
    But diverse events such as the abolition of the Sultanate and Caliphate by Kemal Attaturk and the disappointment of Arab nationalism with what they themselves achieved eventually following the Western Allies victory as well as the example of the Russian Revolution, led not only to the appeal of Communism, but also to the appeal of the parallel and competing forces such as the hardening of Arab nationalism into Arabism as well as Islamism, of which the latter had naturally an appeal beyond the Arab heartland of the Muslim World.
    Both Arabism as well as Islamism initially were modernising forces breaking down feudal and tribal identities and structures as well as offering an alternative for Western Liberalism or Communism.
    Again during WWII Germany under the Nazis and their Axis partner Imperial Japan were trying to play the Muslim card under an anti Western (Liberal) banner, but without much success again, though the Nazis left a poisonous legacy of modern European anti Semitism against Jews of any description in the Arab and Muslim worlds as well as to this day lasting communal bitterness in the Balkans and the Caucasus due to sections of local Muslims joining SS militia.
    WWII did not only resulted in the defeat of Nazi Germany and Japan but also meant the end of Empire for the Western colonial powers in Asia and Africa with many of the veterans in the Allied armies from the Asian and African colonies, many of them Muslim, demanding successfully democracy and nationhood for themselves.
    However, as often independence failed to deliver what the majority expected in many newly independent nations in Africa and in the Arab world both in Western supported Right leaning authoritarian regimes and in Soviet Union supported left leaning authoritarian Arabist regimes, ‘Political Islam’ or Islamism, albeit now under the growing influence of Wahabism and Salafism, offered again an alternative.
    These politicised literalist religious ideologies offered also an alternative identity to sections of alienated ‘second generation’ immigrant communities in Europe of mainly South Asian and North African descent that had shed their identity based on the cultural and ethnic links to the home countries of their parents but did not like as much what they considered Western decadence as well as Western policies towards the Arab and Muslim worlds.
    The campaign against Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses is one of the first expressions of this phenomenon that achieved wider public notice in the West and which resulted in different responses from the Right and the Liberal Left. On the one hand, one section of the Right saw it as a confirmation of its prejudice, albeit shifting from race to a kind of cultural relativism, that the peoples and cultures of Asia and Africa were not able to ‘enjoy’ Western style democracy.
    But one section of the Left also shifted to a form of cultural relativism in reverse that with its emphasis that no one culture was ‘superior’ to another resulted in an aversion to judge, let alone interfere even in those cultural and religious expressions among the ‘immigrant’ communities and their counties of origins, even to such an extent that if they contradicted their own Western Liberal values and to a willingness to accept Islamists as fellow anti imperialists as well.
    On the other hand one witnessed also the rise of the interventionists of Neo Liberals under the ‘R2P’ banner and of the Neo Conservatives, whether evangelical Christian Right or secular, but who don’t care much about spreading Western style liberal democracy and are prepared to support warmly authoritarian regimes as long as they are and remain ‘our bastards’ for the protection of Western interests, just like during the Cold War; in fact Islamism and Jihadism were actively supported in the Muslim World from South East Asia to Africa against a blown out of all proportions ‘Communist threat’, more often than not no more than Left leaning nationalist movements and governments, up to the events on the Balkans and in Afghanistan that mark the transition from the Cold War into the ‘war on terror’ and of which the consequences are still with us.
    While we should be all familiar with the consequences of ‘Charlie Wilson’s War’ in Afghanistan, less well known or accepted as a fact is that sections of Islamism in Europe made the next step into physical force Jihadism in Bosnia and Kosovo too, mainly because it does not fit the narrative and imagery of ‘spreading democracy’ and ‘dismantling the last vestiges of Communism’ as the unholy alliance of Neo Liberals and Neocons wanted us to believe.
    That interventionist alliance became unstuck in Iraq and Afghanistan and the irony is that the majority in the Muslim communities in Europe have turned to supporting those sections of the Left that opposed first the Western interventions on the Balkans as well as later in Afghanistan and Iraq, abandoning the interventionist Neo Liberals and Neocons, who now can only murmur about ‘ungrateful Muslims’. But Al Haj is completely right to question, and I am so bold to paraphrase his words, the equally unholy alliance of Islamists and Western Marxist-Leninists or Left cultural relativists, though there are no easy answers.
    The answer would not be as ‘Save Darfur’ enthusiasts in the US would have liked to put it of bringing the Western ‘military boots’ from Iraq to Darfur as the consequences for the wider already volatile Sahara-Sahel region would be unthinkable, as I hope Al Haj would agree with me.
    Neither is the tactic of using instead African proxies provided by the West’s new best friends in the Rift of such Lefties as Zenawi, Museveni and Kagame, as Somalia is proving.
    Modern Sudan was the result of the interventionism of the then unholy alliance of British Imperialist Liberals and evangelical Christians and as an independent nation it became one of the battlefields in Africa of the Cold War when the West was quite prepared to support its Islamists of various forms when the former needed the latter.
    May be the Sudanese should stop listening to the weasel words from outside whether they come from Western Neo Liberals, Neocons, Marxist-Leninists, or Left cultural relativists and for that matter from Islamists from nearby or further away, and start serious talking to each other on the basis what unites them instead of what divides them.

  3. As I was searching for an article in The New Yorker, I came across an article about the latest open elections in Sudan. This article caught my eye because I’ve read and heard much about the genocide that happened, should I say, is happening in Darfur at the moment; and I believe is an important issue. Furthermore, the article: Sudan elects wanted Bashir as president, talks about the open election Sudan had for the first time in 24 years. The article states that Omar Hassan al-Bashir won as president by winning 68 of the presidential vote. The article also states that he is planning to combine with the president of Sudan’s semi-autonomous south to maybe make southern Sudan into its own state. Along with the elections there was much controversy. Many believed that Bashir’s campaign was a mockery and that this election would not bail him out of the warrant the International Court placed against him.

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