Mamdani Responds to His Critics II
In this second part, I intend to focus on the ideas, practices and politics of the Save Darfur movement. More specifically, I shall respond to three types of criticisms: (a) that I did not think it necessary to speak to responsible persons from Save Darfur before writing about the organization and the movement [Kevin Funk], this question has also been raised by a number of Save Darfur activists and organizers at public talks, including that at Howard University [telecast by C-Span]; (b) that I speak of Save Darfur in a monotone, when in reality it contains several tendencies [Rebecca Hamilton]; that I seem to exceptionalize it when Save Darur is no different from the Sudan government, which should also be seen as claiming to be a savior [Alex de Waal]; and that I also detract from the contributions of Save Darfur, when it should be credited with drawing attention to atrocities in Darfur after a lack of public awareness during 2003, in spite of the fact that much of the violence took place that year [Semhar Araia], and, finally, (c) that I do not fully grasp the fact that the difference between the mobilization around Iraq and that around Darfur lay not in greater popular support for Save Darfur but in more favorable media coverage and corporate donations for it[Kevin Funk]. By overplaying the public support for Save Darfur, I tend to exaggerate its power [G. Pascal Zachary]. Finally, it is wrong to see Save Darfur as the humanitarian face of the War on Terror, when it is neither a pawn of any branch of government nor a conspiracy of any sort, but in reality a more political version of the old-style apolitical humanitarianism, representing the liberal interventionist face of US hegemony. In other words, this is old wine in new bottles, plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose. [Alex de Waal].
Detailed Account of Contact with Save Darfur persons/representatives:
I would like to begin by dispelling the mistaken impression that I did not have any contact with responsible persons in Save Darfur Coalition when doing research for this book. Indeed, several contacts took place between March and June, 2007. Below, I give a full account for those interested and concerned.
“¢ I published an article titled “The Power of Naming” in The London Review of Books on March 8, 2007.
“¢ On March 28, 2007, I received an email from Amjad Atallah, currently Senior Director of International Policy and Advocacy, Save Darfur Coalition. This is how he introduced himself: “I am an attorney who has spent the last 17 years working on a variety of conflicts … I have also begun working on the Darfur issue, advising both Governor Bill Richardson in his attempts to renew peace talks as well as an advisor to the Save Darfur Coalition. I was part of the Governor’s delegation to Khartoum in January in which we met with President Bashir and several rebel commanders. In my position as advisor to Save Darfur, a number of recommendations I have made have been consistent with some of the concerns you noted in your article.” The next para had a specific suggestion: “In fact, I would find it very helpful if you could make the time to allow me to take you to lunch or dinner in NY sometime at your convenience to discuss ways that this issue could be best addressed both here and in the Muslim world (more the area of my emphasis). I would be happy to come up from DC if you let me know when might be good for you.” In the final para, he returned to my LRB article: “Your article has generated a great deal of stir and I received it from several sources once it was published. One came from a South African colleague of mine in whom I have great trust and whose opinion I respect highly and one came from an Israeli colleague of mine. It is testimony to your erudition and the strength of your arguments that the article has impacted such a diverse audience.”
“¢ April 6, 2007: Amjad Atallah and I had a leisurely lunch at a restaurant near Columbia University and had an extended discussion focused on Darfur and Sudan. [The lunch is not listed in the Bibliography of the book because it was not a formal interview, although I took notes every now and then.].
“¢ APRIL 8, 2007: I received an email from Amir Osman, International Outreach Coordinator, Save Darfur Coalition. It said: “Dear Dr. Mamdani,
Kamal Al-Gizouli in Khartoum asked me to tell you that he wants to talk to you regarding your visit and lecture in Khartoum …”
“¢ I met Kamal El Gizouli, Secretary General of the Sudanese Writers Union (SWU), also head of the Save Darfur group in Sudan, in Khartoum several times, both formally and socially. On April 17, 2007, I gave a lecture at Khartoum University on the topic “Between Reconciliation and Justice: Learning from the African Experience” under the auspices of the Sudanese Writers Union. On May 7, 2007, I had a formal interview with Mr. El Gizouli [under El Juzuli in the list of interviews] in Khartoum on the subject of the conflict in Darfur. I have met Kamal several times since then, in both Khartoum and Addis Ababa.
“¢ May 30, 2007: After my return to New York, I sent an email to Amjad Atallah, “My Sudan trip was very disturbing for me, and I do look forward to discussing the most difficult issues with you. I have a request of some material before we speak or meet. As we discussed last time, Save Darfur Coalition represents a new model that combines the incredible energy of grass roots involvement with the expertise of a market-savvy company. I shall be grateful for any information that would illuminate this particular coalition: (a) the advertising company hired by SDC; (b) the structure of SDC, from those who comprise its policy-making core to those who are organizationally liaised to it to ordinary members; (c) the funding strategy, and even just publicly available info on the total budget for one year, how it is raised and how it is spent. You can send me URL for what is available on the internet, attachments for material that can be sent via email, and mail to my home address where the material is available only as hard text. My home address is …” I never received a response to the subject matter of this email.
“¢ June 7, 2007: I wrote again, hoping that a change of subjects may help renew contact with Amjad Atallah: “I have been thinking of your question: the critique aside, what should one do? Here are some thoughts: 1. The only solution to this problem would have to be political, one that would end the fighting by declaring a cease-fire, as prelude to talks. 2. To get to a cease-fire, there would need to be talks about talks, i.e., preliminary talks. 3. Preliminary talks should focus on agreement around a set of principles. What should these principles be? In my view (a) demilitarization of civil society, (b) acknowledgement that state administration should take into account the existence of Darfur as an historical entity, (c) acknowledgement that pastoralists have a legitimate grievance as regards right of access to grazing pastures during the dry season, (d) a larger political reform ensuring adequate representation for Darfur in the Sudanese state and its key institutions. 4. Outsiders like SDC should seek to get formal and public support from their governments and the UN that (a) the solution to the problems of Darfur is primarily the responsibility of, first, the people of Darfur and Sudan, including the government of Sudan and, then, of the peoples of Africa, including the AU. The U.S. needs to make clear its support for the CPA, for the GoNU [Government of National Unity] and hence disavow any agenda of forcible regime change, in response to which other UNSC [UN Security Council] members agree to exercise leverage in pursuit of a common strategy. (b) call off the economic boycott, and acknowledge that political pressure needs to be brought on both sides (GoS and rebels and neighbors) to come to the negotiating table (c) Acknowledge that any peace-keeping force in Darfur would have to be composed mainly of Africans and that the present contention about whether the AU or the UN should comprise this force is really about where the political responsibility for the force resides, within or outside Africa. (d) The appropriate resolution is for the rich states to accept financial responsibility through the UN and to accept that political responsibility should remain with the AU.”
“¢ June 8, 2007: Amjad Atallah responded as follows: ” Thank you for this. It is exactly the kind of analysis I can use. It does make sense, at least to me, and I think the challenges I will face will be in 4(b) and (c). However, these are issues that need to be raised. I am also going to share your ideas, if you don’t mind, with our friends in South Africa. I’ll stay in touch and we should speak again before we both leave the country again.”
“¢ Given that there was no response to the questions I had sent on May 30, 2007, I thought the communication rather one-sided. There was no further contact between us.
Multiple Tendencies in the Save Darfur Movement
Save Darfur began as an inter-faith coalition. At the first public rallies it organized, Save Darfur distributed faith packets, marked as “Christian”, “Jewish”, “Muslim” or “Interfaith”. I have discussed these at some length in the book. They give a remarkably transparent view of the worldview that informed evangelical leadership that drove this Coalition. Confronted with evil in the world, these faith packets counseled a clear division of political responsibility between adherents of different religions: Christians must lead, Jews must navigate and “˜good’ Muslims must inform on “˜bad’ ones.
The more Save Darfur grew, the more it came to incorporate different tendencies. I identify two important ones, each with its own formative experience and distinctive worldview. One was driven by the experience of the Rwandan genocide. Recall that Save Darfur activism began as a commemoration of the tenth anniversary of the Rwandan genocide. This is how it highlighted the central lesson of Rwanda: that, when it comes to genocide, there is no time to ask questions, for our moral responsibility is first to act, to stop the genocide before it is too late. That begged two key questions. First, how do we know it is genocide? Who tells us? Second, how do we stop the violence except by addressing the issues that led to it in the first place?
The second tendency that Save Darfur incorporated as its mobilization grew comprised activists whose formative experience lay in solidarity work with the insurgency in the South of Sudan. This group assumed that Darfur was just another version of the South of Sudan. But Darfur was not, for at least two reasons. First, the formation of the Sultanate of Dar Fur had been very different from that of the Sultanate of the Funj in riverine Sudan; whereas both Sultanates had been slave-based, the enslaving power in the Sultanate of the Funj was Arab, but the slave-driving power in the Sultanate of Dar Fur was Fur. The second big difference between Darfur and the South was more contemporary. As I pointed out in the book, whereas the conflict in the South began as an insurgency against the central government in Kharoum, the conflict in Darfur began as a civil war (1987-89) and only later (2003) turned into an insurgency against the central government. The political consequence of this is crucial: whereas the South was able to forge a single leadership, earlier under the Anyanya and later under the SPLA, the insurgency in Darfur was neither able to forge a single organization nor a single leadership. There is as yet no Darfuri counterpart of John Garang or the SPLA.
This much said, I need to point out that my interest in the book was more in the unified practice that gave cohesion to the movement around Saving Darfur than in the variety of formative experiences and diverse theoretical perspectives that informed the different tendencies that comprised it.
Saving Darfur as a Practice
Semhar Araia is no doubt right that Save Darfur must be credited with directing media and public attention during the period of the worst violence, and that too at a time when there was hardly any public consciousness of atrocities being meted out in Darfur. I say this much in the book. But I follow this observation with two questions which puzzled me greatly. First, I realized that as soon as it became a Save Darfur concern, Darfur stopped resembling other African tragedies. Unlike Rwanda, or Angola, or Congo, which were always local and regional concerns, Darfur became globalized, almost overnight. Second, I realized that the level of mass atrocities in Darfur declined sharply after September 2004, which was only a couple of months after Save Darfur was founded, which was on 14 July. Instead of acknowledging this change and recognizing that the opportunity was ripe for a political settlement, Save Darfur continued to talk of a “continuing genocide” – and still does – in its public pronouncements. Why, I wondered, was Save Darfur mobilization the most successful when its message was the least truthful.
To these two, I must add a third puzzle. Kevin Funk is right to raise questions about the relative strength of activism around Darfur and Iraq. There is, in fact, no single and straightforward answer. The only way to get the picture right is to historicize it. The year 2003 saw the greatest mobilization against the war in Iraq, one that was worldwide, and one that remains unmatched by the mobilization around Darfur. But then, the mobilization around Iraq dissipated, suddenly, as if it had been so much mist on the ground. Over the next two years, its space was taken by another mobilization, one around Darfur. Though never as strong as the anti-war mobilization of 2003, Save Darfur compared favorably with the diminished anti-war mobilization between 2004 and the U.S. Presidential campaign of 2008. We need to ask ourselves: How much of this was due to an outright displacement – Out of Iraq, into Darfur – for which Save Darfur no doubt deserves most credit.
I pointed out in the book that Save Darfur was different from both the peace movement of the 60s and 70s and the anti-apartheid movement of the 80s. Unlike either, it was a war mobilization: “˜Boots on the ground’! But more important than a difference in objective was the difference in the process that Save Darfur set into motion and the method it pioneered.
The peace movement had turned the world into a classroom. Its signature activity was the “˜teach-in’. Save Darfur has no such interest or inclination. The world for Save Darfur is an advertising medium. Save Darfur relates to its constituency not as would an educator but as would an ambitious advertiser. Save Darfur shunned educators, but looked for show biz personalities, mainly from the world of entertainment and sports. Disdaining education and debate, it openly cultivated the “˜CNN effect’. Its interest lay more in cultivating name recognition that an understanding of the complexity of issues that drove the violence and, indeed, the conflict. No wonder Save Darfur has created more of a feel good constituency than an informed movement.
The more it sought an expanded constituency, the more Save Darfur’s focus shifted from college students to high school kids. The shift in turn exemplifies its search for a gullible constituency. It is no exaggeration to say that the high school kids became Save Darfur’s version of child soldiers in African conflicts – all enthusiastic participants in processes that none really understood nor were encouraged to understand. Unlike the peace movement of yesteryears, Save Darfur had no ambition to bring its constituency face-to-face with educators in a discussion on history, politics and issues.
Should Save Darfur be seen as analogous to the Sudan government, both saviors of different types, as Alex de Waal suggests? To equate the two would be to confuse between hard and soft power. If there is an analogy, it should be with America’s global War on Terror, though on a local scale. The Sudan government pursued its own version of the War on Terror – its “˜little’ War on Terror, as I said in the book – in Darfur. To be clear, the Sudan government’s weakness lay in that it lacked its own version of soft power. It lacked its own Save Darfur. Unlike the official American global War on Terror, official Sudan’s little War on terror had no “humanitarian face”. This is not to claim that there was a conspiracy afoot in America, or that Save Darfur was subordinate to one or another agency of the U.S. government. I never claimed that in the book, for I do not think so. Rather, I argued that Save Darfur related to different agencies of the U. S. government separately and differently. The agencies in turn related to Save Darfur in their own way, with the State Department the least open to Save Darfur pressure, and Congress the most receptive to it.
Save Darfur should neither be seen as an unofficial agency of the U.S. government nor a more politicized version of the old humanitarian movement. To do so would be to capitulate to intellectual laziness, to the temptation to understand phenomena by analogy and thereby to miss their most distinctive aspect. With Save Darfur, it would be to miss its most innovative aspect: its entrepreneurial dimension. As I will show in the third and final part of my response, Save Darfur has brought to American public life a new technique a new mobilizing technique: how to commodify grief and market it successfully. Not for nothing is Save Darfur’s media outreach based on packaging and marketing the suffering of the Darfuri people – which is why it often accuses critics of belittling and ignoring the suffering of victims. Not surprisingly, its success has spawned a whole breed of human rights entrepreneurs eager to try out Save Darfur-type wares, thereby hoping to reproduce its success on a larger landscape, this time that of Congo.