The Dangers of Misunderstanding Sudan

Last weekend’s “Rally to Stop Genocide” in Darfur that took place in Washington D.C. was not quite what it seemed. At the last minute, organizers had to scramble to find someone–anyone–who was either Sudanese or Muslim to speak at the rally when Sudanese immigrants realized that the announced speakers included eight Western Christians, seven Jews, four politicians and assorted celebrities–but no Muslims and no one from Darfur.

The Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR) and other American Muslim groups, including the Islamic Society of North America, the Islamic Circle of North America, the Muslim Public Affairs Council, and the Muslim American Society Freedom Foundation, are members of the coalition. But no representative from these, or any Muslim coalition member, was allowed to speak.

Arab American Institute President James Zogby did speak out forcefully against the ongoing atrocities. Zogby, who said he represented Arab Americans of all religious affiliations at the rally, demanded “that action be taken now to stop the killing from all sides and protect the wounded people of Darfur.”

“It is unfortunate that the Save Darfur Coalition chose not to list any mainstream American Muslim groups in the rally program,” said CAIR Executive Director Nihad Awad. “This disturbing omission calls into question the coalition’s true agenda at the rally.”

The violence in Darfur has been perpetrated upon villages by government sponsored militias and the rebels and has produced more than 1.3 million internally displaced refugees. Peace talks between the warring parties have been going on for two years.

Two Jewish groups–the American Jewish World Service and the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum–that founded the Save Darfur Coalition organized Sunday’s rally. They say they have been particularly appalled by the atrocities in Darfur. “Determined to make ‘never again’ not just a meaningless cliche, they have taken a leading role in anti-genocide advocacy and education,” according to the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

That would be admirable, except the exclusivism with which they went about this rally intimates that something other than altruism is going on here.

Indeed, there is a hidden agenda in the efforts of some of those putting Darfur on the radar of Americans–several of them, in fact. Pro-Israel groups, Christian Zionists and neocons paint the Darfur situation as Arabs against Africans. This helps them in their efforts to paint all Arabs/Muslims as terrorists. And by labeling the conflict as genocide, they both deflect attention from Israel’s mass murder of Palestinians and make the Arabs look just as bad as the Israelis.

There are strategy issues involved also. According to a book published by the Dayan Institute for Middle East and Africa Studies called “Israel and the Sudanese Liberation Movement,” Israel long ago adopted a strategy which they call ‘pulling the limbs, then cutting them off.’ What this policy entails is the building of bridges with minority groups in various countries, pulling them out of the nationalist context and then “encouraging” them to separate.

Tel Aviv hoped that this strategy would inevitably weaken the Arab world, break it down and threaten its interests at the same time. In order for this strategy to work, Mossad agents opened lines of communication and connections with the Kurds in Iraq, Maronites in Lebanon and southerners in Sudan. Now they’re trying it with Darfurians.

Sadly, many of those clamoring for harsh measures against Sudan’s government have innocently bought the pro-Israel propaganda on Sudan and betray a misunderstanding of the causes for the conflict. As Emily Wax wrote in the Washington Post:

“Although analysts have emphasized the racial and ethnic aspects of the conflict in Darfur, a long-running political battle between Sudanese President Omar Hassan Bashir and radical Islamic cleric Hassan al-Turabi may be more relevant.” Al-Turabi and Bashir are political rivals. Al-Turabi, though sequestered in his villa, actively stimulates anti-government uprisings. Wax quotes a Sudanese human rights worker: “Darfur is simply the battlefield for a power struggle over Khartoum,” said Ghazi Suleiman. “That’s why the government hit back so hard. They saw al-Turabi’s hand, and they want to stay in control of Sudan at any cost.”

Wax also pointed out that nearly everyone is Muslim, everyone is black, it’s all about politics, the conflict is international and the ‘genocide’ label made it worse.

The differences in Darfur are largely between lifestyles: the sedentary versus the nomadic peoples (from among whom the notorious Janjaweed come). The difference between Arabs and non-Arabs is also ethno-linguistic.

Whatever the cause of the divisions, mass murder and displacement are wrong. For activists and analysts to work on this, however, they need to grasp the basic issues. Mischaracterizing the causes can be regressive. The call for divestment from Sudan, for instance, though well-intentioned for some, is a mistaken approach.

Foreign Policy ranked Sudan the most failed state in the world. Three decades of war and famine after famine does that to a country. That it beat out barely-functioning states such as Somalia, Iraq and Afghanistan, speaks to the threadbare sovereignty the government suffers. For a country like Sudan, in a continent like Africa, investment is needed. The U.S. and Western powers should support the African Union and bolster it with aid. They should take the billions they give Israel and give them to Africa. After all, there are still far more displaced Palestinians than there are Darfurians.

As wrong and murderous as the Khartoum government is, there is an on-going struggle for statehood and cohesion. While that is far from giving license to uproot and kill Darfur’s civilians, this is not equivalent to the calculated, ideological program of an industrialized, exclusivist state, such as Israel or apartheid South Africa.

When modern economies and governments oppress, divestment exerts pointed political pressure. Its effectiveness depends on that. Their systems are largely operational and responsive, so divestment sets in motion the forces of change. How could it do anything to a failed, war-torn state the U.S. government already opposes?

Let the African Union have incentives to offer and the ability to mobilize to quell death and destruction in Darfur, Sierra Leone, and most urgently, the Congo. Africa as a whole needs the world’s assistance. Five of the top ten failed states in the Foreign Policy report are in Africa.

The Muslim members of the Save Darfur Coalition this week reiterated their concern for the crisis in Darfur. The joint statement stresses that the humanitarian workers on the ground have warned the international community and the region that politicizing the Darfur conflict will ultimately result in more suffering and will endanger more civilians.

The organizations have requested a meeting with President Bush and Secretary Rice. The organizations offer the following recommendations for peace, urging that the U.S. take effective measures to help the innocent civilians in Darfur:

1. Demand that the Government of Sudan rein in the militias that now rampage villages.

2. Pressure the rebels to accept the peace offer presented by the African Union mediators and which has been accepted by the government of Sudan.

3. Warn Eritrea and Chad that they must stop supporting the rebels if they continue to reject peace offers by African Union mediators.

4. Help reduce the potential for ethnic- or religious- based conflict by clarifying to the American public that those leading rebel and government forces are both Muslim and both African Sudanese.

5. Urge the international community to obtain more humanitarian assistance from non-governmental organizations (NGOs).

As this piece went to press on Friday, May 5, 2006, the Darfur peace talks ended with a signing ceremony between the government and the largest rebel faction, the Sudanese Liberation Movement. It remains to be seen if the new treaty will reconcile the crisis.

Will Youmans is a Washington, DC-based writer. He blogs at

This article originally appeared on Arab-American News.