While Iraq is seen as a place with messy politics, the Sudan is seen as a place without history and politics, and the Darfur-conflict as a case of "ethnic cleansing" and "genocide": "Arabs" are trying to eliminate "Africans". Why is the violence in Iraq and Darfur named differently? Who does the naming? What difference does it make? These questions are asked by anthropologist Mahmood Mamdani in his commentary The Politics of Naming: Genocide, Civil War, Insurgency in The London Review of Books:
The similarities between Iraq and Darfur are remarkable. The estimate of the number of civilians killed over the past three years is roughly similar. The killers are mostly paramilitaries, closely linked to the official military, which is said to be their main source of arms. The victims too are by and large identified as members of groups, rather than targeted as individuals. But the violence in the two places is named differently.
The most powerful mobilisation in New York City is in relation to Darfur, not Iraq, he writes. One would expect the reverse. Even some of those who are calling for an end to intervention in Iraq are demanding an intervention in Darfur; as one of the slogans of the campaigners go: ‘Out of Iraq and into Darfur.’
Mamdani criticizes the de-politisation of the Darfur-conflict, especially by New York Times op-ed columnist Nicholas Kristof:
To peruse Kristof’s Darfur columns over the past three years is to see the reduction of a complex political context to a morality tale unfolding in a world populated by villains and victims who never trade places and so can always and easily be told apart. It is a world where atrocities mount geometrically, the perpetrators so evil and the victims so helpless that the only possibility of relief is a rescue mission from the outside, preferably in the form of a military intervention.
Kristof made six highly publicised trips to Darfur, the first in March 2004 and the sixth two years later. He began by writing of it as a case of ‘ethnic cleansing’: ‘Sudan’s Arab rulers’ had ‘forced 700,000 black African Sudanese to flee their villages’ (24 March 2004). Only three days later, he upped the ante: this was no longer ethnic cleansing, but genocide.
Newspaper writing on Darfur has sketched a pornography of violence. It seems fascinated by and fixated on the gory details, describing the worst of the atrocities in gruesome detail and chronicling the rise in the number of them. The implication is that the motivation of the perpetrators lies in biology (‘race’) and, if not that, certainly in ‘culture’. This voyeuristic approach accompanies a moralistic discourse whose effect is both to obscure the politics of the violence and position the reader as a virtuous, not just a concerned observer.
The depoliticisation of the conflict gave campaigners several advantages. Among others, they were able to occupy the moral high ground. The campaign presented itself as apolitical but moral, its concern limited only to saving lives, Mamdani argues and concludes that the camp of peace needs to realise that peace cannot be built on humanitarian intervention:
The history of colonialism should teach us that every major intervention has been justified as humanitarian, a ‘civilising mission’. Nor was it mere idiosyncrasy that inspired the devotion with which many colonial officers and archivists recorded the details of barbarity among the colonised – sati, the ban on widow marriage or the practice of child marriage in India, or slavery and female genital mutilation in Africa.
I am not suggesting that this was all invention. I mean only to point out that the chronicling of atrocities had a practical purpose: it provided the moral pretext for intervention. Now, as then, imperial interventions claim to have a dual purpose: on the one hand, to rescue minority victims of ongoing barbarities and, on the other, to quarantine majority perpetrators with the stated aim of civilising them.
Iraq should act as a warning on this score. The worst thing in Darfur would be an Iraq-style intervention. That would almost certainly spread the civil war to other parts of Sudan, unravelling the peace process in the east and south and dragging the whole country into the global War on Terror.
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