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Darfur and the Politics of Race: Understanding the Save Darfur Coalition

Hishaam D. Aidi
Date Published: 
November 01, 2007
    The Save Darfur campaigns are better understood by looking at the post-September 11 US political scene. Unlike other “hot spots” across Africa, the Darfur tragedy reverberates deeply in the US because it is represented as a racial conflict between “Arabs” and “indigenous Africans,” and because the Darfur crisis offers a unique opportunity to unite against the new post-Cold War enemy. While some involved in the campaigns have been seeking genuine ways to support Darfurians—opportunists have racialized the conflict in order to divide Arabs and Africans by playing on historic and manufactured (colonial) divisions in Sudan. Hishaam Aidi looks at the history of race in Sudan and the current misrepresentation of the conflict in Darfur.

The challenge in examining Sudan’s long-running civil war is to understand how, unlike other African civil wars, the conflict came to be “racialized” and not “ethnicized.” While popular representations of the Sudanese civil war as pitting the “Arab Muslim” north against “African Christian/animist” south may be simplistic, it is equally inaccurate to argue, as do many Arab apologists, that racial distinctions and prejudice were introduced by British colonialists. photo: Shane Bauerphoto: Shane BauerHistorians have argued that by the sixteenth century, Muslims in the north were claiming Arab ancestry, and the labels one hears today—’abd or slave for southerners and Fallata for those of Western African origin—derive from the late eighteenth century when the kingdoms of Funj and Fur were raiding the south for slaves and northern Sudanese Muslims “invent[ed] derogatory ethnic and racial categories to refer to non-Muslim groups in the South.” Centuries before the advent of the British, northern Muslims were claiming a superior Arab identity asserting descent from either the Prophet Muhammad or other distinguished Arabian ancestors, and viewed the peoples of southern Sudan, the Upper Blue Nile and the Nuba mountains as “enslaveable” non-Arabs. These categories, explains one historian, “demarcated and racialized the people of the Sudan. Color in itself became quite irrelevant; many ‘Arab’ Sudanese were and are darker than some Southerners. But descent did and does matter; even conversion to Islam could not fully compensate for the absence of accepted Arab ancestry.” (Mis)Representing Sudan British colonial policy built upon “the existence of these two invented opposing identities.” The British administration carved up the Sudan into an “Arab North” and an “African South,” and divided the peoples into three racial categories—”Arabs,” “Sudanese” for ex-slaves and “Fallata,” and in the 1930s, attempted to develop the south along “indigenous and African lines” through a return to “tribal” law and “indigenous languages.” The idea of an “indigenous south” juxtaposed to an Arab north was thus a British innovation that would have far-reaching political repercussions. In the parts of Africa where colonialists categorized a particular group as a race instead of an ethnicity, that group would be ideologically and “legally constructed” as non-indigenous, and via the “migration hypothesis,” in effect deracinated and depicted as having originated elsewhere. When Sudan gained independence, the state builders in Khartoum embraced an Arab nationalism based on “a genealogy that stretched into the Islamic Arab past” and attempted to impose an Arab identity—and later Islamic law—not only on the north, but also on the southern territories. In consolidating the Sudanese state, the leadership would use a racial language that dated back to the seventeenth century, but they also adopted the racial categories and idea of “indigeneity” introduced by the British. Yet although many in the north self-identify as Arab and claim descent from noble Arabians who supposedly immigrated to Africa, that does not make them non-indigenous. The “Arab” versus “indigenous African” dichotomy runs through most discussions of the Darfur conflict. Alex de Waal has argued that, “The Arab-African dichotomy is historically and anthropologically bogus. But that doesn’t make the distinction unreal, as long as the perpetrators subscribe to it.” The perpetrators, in this case, the Darfuri Arabs who are attempting to exterminate the “indigenous” people of Darfur, “are ‘Arabs’ in the ancient sense of ‘Bedouin,’ meaning desert nomad…. Darfurian Arabs, too, are indigenous, black and African. In fact, there are no discernible racial or discernible religious differences between the two: all have lived there for centuries; all are Muslims.” Ethnic identities and categories have long been fluid in western Sudan, but have recently hardened around the political labels of Arabs and African. In the 1990s, in imitation of the southern Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) and to gain political traction, leaders of the Darfurian separatist movement embraced the label “African” instead of the alternative “Muslim.” An attempted alliance between Darfurian separatists and the SPLA had failed, but as the SPLA continued to resist the Khartoum regime and “gained a high international standing, [Darfurian leaders] too learned to characterize their plight in the simplified terms that had proved so effective in winning foreign sympathy for the south: they were the ‘African’ victims of an ‘Arab’ regime.” Discordant historiographies The clash between Arab nationalism and African nationalism in Sudan has occurred less violently in a number of North African states. In fact, what has enraged black nationalist opinion in the US is not simply the Sudan war, but the wider Arab world’s “conspiracy of silence” about the presence of racialism and slavery in the region, coupled with the arrogance of Arab nationalist and Islamist regimes and movements toward non-Arabs in North and sub-Saharan Africa. Many African and African-American observers note that Arab heads of state will spout a pan-African rhetoric while being deeply contemptuous of Africa. Nasser supported the civil rights movement and spoke passionately of continental solidarity, but also said: “We are in Africa… We will never in any circumstances relinquish our responsibility to support, with all our might, the spread of enlightenment and civilization to the remotest depths of the jungle.” Likewise, Libyan strongman Muammar Qaddafi, another champion of Africa known for his grandiloquent appeals to black America, is the author of The Green Book, which holds that blacks have more children than other races because they “are sluggish in a climate that is always hot.” Qaddafi has attempted to annex northern Chad, arming groups along the Chadian and Sudanese borders in an effort to build an “Arab belt” across the Sahara. These supremacist attitudes permeate Arab intellectual circles. Egyptian historian Hilmi Shaarawi, arguably the Arab world’s most renowned Africanist, has tartly observed that most Arabic-language scholarship on Africa treats the continent as a “cultural vacuum,” a “continent without any culture and civilization” waiting to be fecundated by Islam and Arab culture. The conflict between Arab and African nationalism is also an ideological “war of visions.” While many sub-Saharan African regimes sought to celebrate their indigenous languages and cultures after independence, many North African regimes that joined the Arab League would embrace their own “migration myth,” retroactively tracing their populations’ national origin to Arabia (a claim that would provide ammunition for black nationalists and others seeking to portray North Africans as settlers). Most North African states made Arabness (‘uruba) the official identity, Arabic the official language and suppressed—or even criminalized—the expression of indigenous, non-Arab languages and identities. The homogenizing historiography of the state builders is now coming under attack by self-described “indigenous” nationalist movements in the Sudan and the Maghrib. In Morocco, the Berberophone movement has successfully pressured the government to change history textbooks that claimed that the country’s entire population, Arabic- and Berber-speakers alike, originated in the Middle East. Unaware of this conflict of historical and political visions, many African-Americans are galled by the Arab nationalist and Islamist disdain for non-Arab and pre-Islamic culture, in particular that Egypt’s pharaonic heritage does not figure more prominently in the country’s political discourse. African-Americans note that Egyptian intellectuals and officials often refuse to even engage with different Afro-diasporan groups drawn to ancient Egypt’s culture—even dismissing them as “pyramidiots.” In March 1989, for instance, a controversy arose over an exhibit about Ramses the Great at the Texas State Fairgounds in Dallas. An urban group called the Blacology Speaking Committee threatened to boycott the exhibit, alleging that the organizers had not placed sufficient emphasis on the blackness of Ramses II. Abdellatif Aboul-Ela, director of the cultural office of the Egyptian embassy in Washington, responded with an op-ed in the Washington Post which captured many Egyptians’ attitudes toward race and Africa: “They should not…involve us in this racial problem that I thought was solved and buried a long time ago. We are not in any way related to the original black Africans of the Deep South. Egypt, of course, is a country in Africa, but this doesn’t mean it belongs to Africa at large. This is an Egyptian heritage, not an African heritage…. We cannot say by any means we are black or white.” Groups across Africa and the African diaspora may also reject the labels “African” or “black” in favor of more local identities, but black nationalists see the refusal of North Africans to identify with pan-Africanism as particularly offensive because they are “sitting on” on a glorious African heritage. This background is crucial to understanding why Sudan emerged as a cause after September 11. Marketing Darfur In December 1999, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright declared that, much as she deplored Sudan’s suffering, “the human rights situation in Sudan is not marketable to the American people.” Less than three years later, on October 7, 2002, Congress passed the Sudan Peace Act by a vote of 359-8, condemning Sudan’s human rights record and promising stepped-up US involvement in the peace process. The bill was praised as an “expression of unity” that brought together sundry political interests and leaders. “Republicans and democrats, blacks, whites, Hispanics and Asians, men and women,” crowed radio personality and long-time Sudan activist, Joe “The Black Eagle” Madison, about the diversity of the lobbying effort. Rep. Charles Rangel (D-NY) joked that in his 30 years in Congress he had never before been on the same platform with Texan Republican Dick Armey. As the Bush administration was attempting to broker an end to the war in the south, the Darfur crisis captured America’s imagination. In April 2004, the US Holocaust Memorial Museum issued a “genocide alert” about Darfur—the first in the institution’s history. At a Darfur Emergency Summit convened on July 14, 2004 by the American Jewish World Service and the Holocaust Museum, Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel stated, “Sudan has become today’s world capital of human pain, suffering and agony.” The American Jewish World Service subsequently helped establish the Save Darfur Coalition, comprising more than a hundred American organizations to lobby the US government and the United Nations. Also in July, Secretary of State Colin Powell, speaking before Congress, described the Darfur tragedy as “genocide.” As the fall semester began, vigils took place on college campuses across the country, as students attempted to start a Sudan divestment campaign similar to that waged against apartheid-era South Africa. “This is the most impressive and widespread coalition on an African crisis that we’ve seen since the anti-apartheid movement in the 1980s and early 1990s,” said John Prendergast, a top Africa aide at Clinton White House, now with the Brussels-based International Crisis Group. Meanwhile, Khartoum’s harboring of Osama bin Laden in 1996 made it central to the war on terrorism. The presence of oil, eyed by Europe and China, made Sudan increasingly relevant to a Bush administration looking for alternatives to Persian Gulf oil. To many Americans, moreover, the Sudanese civil war was part of the “clash of civilizations,” with southern Sudan a “civilizational faultline” where Islam bloodily bordered a rival civilization and where it was crucial to contain the expanding Islamic threat. The conservative Christian lobby, working with Democrats and the Congressional Black Caucus, had helped push through the Sudan Peace Act. What surprised many observers was that Darfur suddenly became a domestic political issue threatening to undermine the administration’s peace efforts. Darfur brought together Wiesel and Jimmy Carter, civil rights leaders, human rights activists, entertainers Dick Gregory and Danny Glover, conservative Republicans and liberal Democrats, retired Sen. Jesse Helms and Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield of Ben and Jerry’s ice cream company. Referring to the “black/white-left/right” “coalition of conscience” for Darfur, evangelical leader Franklin Graham proudly said, “You have groups that don’t agree politically, who have a totally different view of world events. Yet when it comes to Sudan, we are working together.” Given that there were no Christian victims in Darfur to mobilize the Christian right, the Darfur campaign puzzled many Africa watchers. In August, the Washington Post observed: “[Darfur] is a tragedy of unimaginable proportions—except that with hardly a turn of the globe, other calamities easily can seize our imagination. For if there were an international misery index, Darfur would have lots of company.” The piece contended that Darfur had become “one of the world’s hot causes” because the refugee camps are accessible, there is a preexisting network of African-American and Christian activists and the Rwandan genocide had just turned ten. Two months later, the Los Angeles Times similarly inquired why the Ugandan civil war, just south of Sudan, which had displaced two million and caused the rape of tens of thousands of women, went “virtually unnoticed by the outside world.” The article theorized that Darfur had won the “lottery of world attention” because it had resonated with an “unusual constellation of interests,” namely evangelicals, African-Americans and Jewish American groups “brought in [by] charges of genocide, with their echoes of the Holocaust.” Many African observers were also perplexed by the American public’s attention to Darfur. An editorial in the Kenyan daily The Nation stated that Darfur was attracting “undue attention” and overshadowing more important “problem areas.” After Congress passed a resolution, terming the Darfur crisis a genocide, contradicting the African Union, the European Union and the UN, the respected weekly Jeune Afrique wondered how the main lobby group behind the bill, “the Congressional Black Caucus, came to be persuaded that Sudan was genocide perpetrated by ‘whites’ on blacks.” When Powell and UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan traveled to Darfur, flying over the tortured region of northern Uganda, one prominent African intellectual asked: “Why didn’t [Annan] stop here [in Uganda]? And why not in Kigali? And Kinshasa? Should we not apply the same standards to the governments in Kampala and Kigali and elsewhere as we do to the government in Khartoum, even if Kampala and Kigali are America’s allies in its global ‘war on terror?’” The Arab and Islamic press, suspicious of the attention the Darfur campaign, have seen it as either the Bush administration’s prelude to regime change in oil-rich Sudan or a public relations ploy to shift attention away from Palestine and Iraq. But the Save Darfur campaign is better understood by looking at the post-September 11 domestic political scene. Unlike other “hot spots” across Africa, the Darfur tragedy reverberates deeply in the US because it is represented as a racial conflict between “Arabs” and “indigenous Africans,” because Sudan is where the “moral geographies” of black, Jewish, and Christian nationalists overlap and because the Darfur crisis offers a unique opportunity to unite against the new post-Cold War enemy. This article is a reprint from Middle East Report 234. This version is only part of the comprehensive piece that Hishaam Aidi originally wrote for Middle East Report and the full article with references can be found here. Left Turn decided to reprint part of Aidi’s article to provide a deeper understanding of the complex situation in Darfur. We encourage readers to see the full article online. Hishaam Aidi teaches at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs, where he edits Souls: A Critical Journal of Black Culture, Politics and Society. Dr. Aidi’s research interests include the politics of globalization, North-South relations, and social movements. As a journalist, he has written for, The New African, and Middle East Report. He holds a PhD in political economy of development from Columbia University, and has taught the David C. Driskell Center for the Study of the African Diaspora at the University of Maryland. He is currently researching black internationalism in North Africa and the Middle East.