Mis-portraying Conflict in Dar Fur and its Usages:
Divestment from Sudan as Investment in Israel, as an Example
The events that have unfolded in Sudan’s western region of Dar Fur in the past three years are indeed tragic. They shall remain a deep scar in the hearts and minds of many for years to come. But describing this tragedy as “genocide” does deserve to be questioned. The lost of innocent lives, irrespective of numbers, is certainly a matter to be condemned, and it that sense, it does not matter what we call it, as all parties involved should be held accountable. But proposed solutions and actions require a clear understanding of the issue at hand in all of its dimensions. I do not wish here to go into the details of the Dar Fur crisis. That is a matter for another article. But it is the popularized “narrative” of the Dar Fur crisis and its usages I wish to question.
Not unlike analyses of Rwanda in 1994, the common analysis of the Dar Fur issue “explains” it simply in terms of racial and tribal animosities, therefore, tainting the conflict with a sense of “inherent barbarism” and hopelessness. The actors here are “evil/Arabs” against “victim/Africans”; an imagery that resonates well in Western minds. This “narrative” ignores political, economic, environmental, regional and global factors contributing to, and at heart of, the crisis. These factors include, but are not limited to, divisions within Sudan’s ruling party, the National Congress; economic underdevelopment and marginalization; desertification and the struggle over water resources; and the roles of Eritrea, Chad and the US. It is this particular “narrative,” Arabs against black Africans, however, that has enabled the mobilization of thousands in the West around Dar Fur. In some respects, it is similar to that “narrative” of the Arab-Israeli conflict in Palestine as a “thousand years old” conflict between the “Children of Ishmael” and the “Children of Israel”; hence, senseless, childish and hopeless, in need of “parental” guidance and interference.
The Dar Fur issue in the US has especially gained momentum. Activists and US officials have insisted on describing the Dar Fur crisis as “genocide,” thus contradicting UN (1), EU (2) and AU (3) investigative reports. While these reports have recognized the prevalence of wide spread abuses and atrocities, they have rejected the existence of a deliberate and systematic targeting of a specific group; an important component of the term “genocide.” But why do groups in the US insist on the term? The term “genocide” not only “hypes up” perceptions of the crisis, but also, demands responses from the US government and the UN. Some have remarked that interest in Dar Fur partly lies in liberals’ attempt to “make up” for Rwanda. Former US ambassador to the UN, John Danforth, remarked in a BBC interview that the description of the Dar Fur crisis as genocide was done by the US government for “internal consumption,” to please the Christian right in an election year (4). What is also noticeable is the heavy involvement of various American Jewish organizations in the (anti-) Sudan campaign. On July 18, 2005, a “Call to Action on Darfur” was made by several Jewish organizations “as a way to highlight the importance of this issue to all Jews, to focus energies from the Jewish community against this genocide, and to increase Jewish communal involvement in this effort.” (5) In essence, “Bush’s opportunity to adopt an election-season cause [in 2004] that can appeal simultaneously to fundamentalist Christians, the National association for the Advancement of Coloured People, multilateralist liberals and the altruistic “left”… [was]…too tempting to pass up.” (6) But the “Arab bashing” that has accompanied the (anti-) Sudan campaign, as The Guardian’s journalist Jonathan Steele has described in his October 7, 2005 article “Darfur wasn’t Genocide and Sudan is not a Terrorist State,” raises legitimate questions regarding alternative motives and agendas (7).
One of the tools of the (anti-) Sudan campaign has been to call for “divestment” from companies dealing with Sudan. Some of these divestment calls have already succeeded, including at Harvard and Stanford Universities. It took student activists at Stanford University only three months of organizing to have the university pass a “divestment from Sudan” resolution (8). The other divestment campaign, “divestment from Israel,” however, has not been able to generate the same degree of success. In March, 2005, for example, the University of Michigan’s Student Assembly voted against divestment from Israel. Opponents of “divestment from Israel” there argued that Israel had been singled out for condemnation (9). Considering the popularized Dar Fur “narrative,” it may appear, thus, that “Arab crimes” are more deserving of “punishment” than Israeli ones. Ironically, some within the “divestment from Israel” campaign appear to support “divestment from Sudan.” An argument has been made that “divestment from Sudan” would provide a “precedence” to strengthen their cause.
But let us look at the recent proposal presented to the regents of the University of California, calling for divestment from Sudan, and to be voted on January 19, 2006, at UC San Diego. The proposal contains a precarious clause: “a policy of divestment from a foreign government shall be adopted by the University only when the United States government declares that a foreign regime is committing acts of genocide.” (10) What this proposal consequently does is ignore the findings of many other international bodies and leaves it solely up to the US government to be the “moral compass” of the public. Given the recent “fumbles” of US policy makers (WMDs, war in Iraq, Abu Ghraib, domestic spying, etc…) one has to seriously put this clause to question. But even further, this clause would make it nearly impossible for the “divestment from Israel” campaign to succeed at the University of California, since it is unlikely that the US Government would ever describe abusive Israeli governmental practices as “genocidal.” In fact, this clause would have made it impossible for the University of California to divest from Apartheid South African in the 1980s!
To reiterate, critique of the popularized “narrative” of Dar Fur and its usages is not to belittle the seriousness of what is indeed a horrible tragedy. But Dar Fur apparently has also become a source of “political opportunism” for several interested groups. Continues calls to deny the African Union leadership in this crisis by American activists and officials should be viewed as attempts to remove Sudan from its “African circle,” and pave the way for American intervention. But the success of the (anti-) Sudan campaign also lies in the inability of many Arab and Muslim activists and intellectuals to maintain Afro-Arab dialogue and solidarity, once called for by the likes of Malcolm X. Such a dialogue and solidarity could provide for fresh meanings and articulations of “Pan Africanism” and “Arabism,” clearly needed today. In addition, Sudan appears to have been removed by some from its “Arab and Muslim circles.” Failure to place Sudan in the greater framework of Arab and Muslim political conciseness is indicative of a failure to comprehend the ways interested groups, such as Christian fundamentalists and Zionists, take to action vis-à-vis Arab and Muslim issues. Palestinian thinker, Muneer Shafeeq has commented “what is occurring in Dar Fur in Sudan, [including] targeting Sudan’s unity and sovereignty…cannot be disconnected from what has occurred in Afghanistan and Iraq, and what is occurring in…Palestine.” (11) A point unfortunately missed by many.
Isma’il Kamal is studying History and International Relations at the University of California, Davis.
- United Nations, September 18, 2004, “Report of the International Commission of Inquiry on Darfur to the United Nations Secretary-General.”
- “Sudan massacres not genocide, says EU.” Guardian Unlimited, August 10, 2004.
- Peter Beaumont, “US ‘hyping’ Darfur genocide fears,” The Observer, October 3, 2004.
- Anne Penketh, “White House described Darfur as ‘genocide’ to please Christian Right,” The Independent Online Edition, July 2, 2005.
- American Jewish World Service, July 18, 2005. “Hundreds of Jewish Groups Sign on to “Call to Action on Darfur.”
- Peter Hallward, “Enough Imperial Crusades,” Guardian Unlimited, August 18, 2004.
- Jonathan Steele, “Darfur wasn’t Genocide and Sudan is not a Terrorist State,” Guardian Unlimited, October 7, 2005. http://www.guardian.co.uk/Columnists/Column/0,5673,1586994,00.html
- Stanford Report, June 9, 2005, “University to divest from four companies connected to Sudan.”
- Jeremy Davidson, “MSA votes against divestment,” The Michigan Daily, March 16, 2005. http://www.michigandaily.com/vnews/display.v/ART/2005/03/16/423817d1226d7?in_archive=1
- University of California Regents, November 14, 2005, “Request for a thorough presentation on the divestment of the university holdings in four foreign companies engaged in substantial business in Sudan and thereby assisting the Government of Sudan in its genocidal campaign in Western Darfur,”
- Muneer Shafiq, “Al-tadamun ma’ al-Sudan wa hal al-mushkil al-insani,” Al-Shaab, August 13, 2005, (in Arabic).
Grassroots Interview With Qutbi Al-Mahdi
From an early age Qutbi al-Mahdi has been involved in the Islamic movement in Sudan. While studying for his PhD in Islamic Studies at McGill University (Canada), Qutbi was active with MSA and then ISNA, where he served as President from 1984-1986. Immediately after receiving his PhD in 1989 he served as Director General of Muslim World League in NY for two years. Returning to Sudan, Qutbi became involved with the newly formed Islamic government. He has served in many posts since the early 1990s: Ambassador to Tehran, Director General of Political Affairs in the ministry of Foreign Relations, Minister of Hajj, and Minister of Social Planning. Presently he is Political Advisor to the President.
G: Is Sudan an Islamic state?
M: In the West when you talk about religious state, you have the idea of a state, which is ruled by a religious hierarchy. In our government we do not have a religious hierarchy. Our leaders are elected by the people. Leaders are simply citizens. The state must reflect the views of the majority people. Other peoples must have secure rights. Our Constitution states that minorities have certain rights such as full citizenship (the concept of citizenship is not based on religion), the right to worship and other fundamental rights. We have a federal system that people of every region have the right to rule themselves. They have the right to legislate for themselves. They can use their own custom to make law. They have the right to express their cultural identity. We have a multi-cultural society.
G: Why is it considered an Islamic state?
M: The Constitution does not say that Sudan is an Islamic state. The constitituion says that the sources of legislation are the religious custom and concerns of the Sudanese people. Because the majority of people are Muslim, then the source of law is Islam. The Shari’ah laws are being instituted, such that, for example, the economy is Islamic. No interest is allowed in the economic system. Actually, since 1983 there has been no-interest-based banking in Sudan. No bank in Sudan uses interest. No insurance company uses interest. All laws were revised in light of the Shari’ah. In education and mass media you see the reflection of Islam. All curriculums have been revised and anti-Islamic material purged. Zakah is being collected and distributed. The government is taking part in promoting Islamic values. In non-Muslim areas we encourage people to be religious— if you are Christian then follow the ways of Christ
G: Why is America against Sudan?
M: The United States became disenchanted with Numeiri when be started talking about Islam. But Sudan was an ally of the United States, so they couldn’t do much. With the downfall of Numeiri the US supported anti- Islamic trends in Sudanese politics during the rule of Sadiq al-Mahdi. Al-Mahdi was there for four years and he was struggling with tremendous pressure against Islam. When the National Salvation Revolution took place, American increased its activities. Those who are influencing American Sudanese relations are enemies of Islamization. There are two interest groups that are leading the way—the Jewish lobby and some Christian fundamentalists. The Jewish lobby realized that Sudan is a part of Islamic politics and that Sudan is a threat to the Israeli strategy in the region. The Christian fundamentalists want Southern Sudan to become de-Islamized and developed into a Christian state and hopefully have influence in the central government. These special interests groups are against the character of Sudan. We are not dealing with American national interest as such, but with special interest groups that are influencing policy. The rest of America is not interested in Sudan. We have no problem with America. America does not have a colonial history in Sudan. There are a lot of shared interests.
G. What about the complaints against the Sudanese government? Human rights abuses in particular?
M: America uses a double standard. When America allied with Numeiri, Sudan was a military government that executed many people—it was a brutal dictatorship. People were jailed and disappeared. America said nothing. One American official said to me, “In those days we knew he is a bastard, but he is our bastard.” The military revolution in 1989 was initially supported by America. They thought that the military was going to stop applying Shairi’ah laws, and make a deal with Garang (leader of the Southern Sudanese forces). America gave them military funds even though a law forbade funds for governments established by a coup d’etat. When America learned of the Islamic nature of the government, it started sanctions and they started crying about human rights abuses and democracy. In the beginning of the revolution people were arrested because there were individuals who would work to overthrow the government. This is natural. But people have been released and there are few political prisoners. If people are arrested it is done by the law. The complaints of human rights abuses are political propaganda. Sudan has the least number of political prisoners. In terms of democracy Sudan is now a multi-party Democracy, but American hostility has not changed.
G: What about slavery?
M: The complaints about slavery in Sudan started with the Christian Solidarity International. The situation is that tribal conflicts in the South between nomadic tribes leads to kidnapping from each side and those kidnapped will not be released until they are rewarded. Usually these conflicts are solved by negotiators between the tribes. Christian groups claim that the government is practicing it, but it is completely untrue. There have been campaigns staged by the Christian Solidarity to buy back slaves. It was proven later to be a hoax and people involved admitted that they had been paid to appear on television and say what they did. In the Sudanese Constitution slavery is a crime and it is a criminal offense. One writer said that there are slave markets in Umm Durman. All naked lies even according to the United Nations. The problem is tribal conflicts.
G: Do you think a strong relationship can be developed between Sudan and American Muslims?
M: Yes. Sudan welcomes a brotherly relationship with American Muslims. Sudan is a resourceful place to study Islam and Africa. You can pursue African studies such as anthropology and you can pursue Islamic Studies. Sudan is a Muslim society, an African milieu, and English speaking. There are three universities—University of Qur’an Karim, the University of Umm Durman and African International University. All three are full universities, but their orientation is Islam.
Or think ye that ye shall be abandoned, as though Allah did not know those among you who strive with might and main, and take none for friends and protectors except Allah, His Messenger, and the (community of) Believers? But Allah is well- acquainted with (all) that ye do.