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The following address titled What Concerned Citizens Should Know about the Crisis in Darfur, was delivered by El-Hajj Mauri’ Saalakhan, Director of Operations for The Peace And Justice Foundation, at the University of Alabama in Birmingham, on Thursday, February 8, 2007
In the name of God, The Most Beneficent, The Most Merciful
(Following the speaker’s opening salutations, and a few other pertinent remarks, what follows is the full text of his opening address.)
Ladies and gentlemen, this evening I am going to share (what will no doubt constitute for some) a few inconvenient truths regarding the crisis in Darfur. So if you think you may be on the wrong side of the issue, and you’ve got a sensitive constitution, you had better brace yourself.
People who truly mean the Sudan well should reflect deeply on the following questions:
1. Does the Sudan have a culture of war? And if so, is the conflict in Darfur nothing more than an extension of this culture of war?
2. Does the crisis in Darfur result from racial, ethnic, or tribal tendencies - or is it at its core a politically motivated conflict? Does it constitute a power struggle between “Africans” and “Arabs” (as it has been widely portrayed)? Is it a simple case of genocide and ethnic cleansing, as some would have us believe?
3. Has all of the activity in the international community around this crisis been a help or a hindrance toward an effective resolution? Who has benefited most?
4. With all of the attention this issue has received, are most people well informed on the Darfur crisis or still confused on what the real issues are?
5. Of all the raging crises in the world today why has Darfur received so much attention?
6. America has a sizeable Sudanese population. Why haven’t more Sudanese been heard publicly on this issue?
7. What will it take to end the crisis?
Now for some Answers
1) Does the Sudan have a culture of war? And if so, is the conflict in Darfur nothing more than an extension of this culture of war?
It is a well established fact that in the not too distant past, “Arab” and “African” Sudanese (I use these terms in quotes because ALL Sudanese are AFRICAN) could “travel from north to south, east to west, freely and light-heartedly,” as one Sudanese opined. But today Sudanese have become embroiled in conflicts not of their own choosing. Widespread human and material devastation, fueled by outside forces, have opened the door to the real probability of long term blood feuds between families and tribes.
As we pointed out in our book entitled Target Sudan: What’s Really Behind the Crisis in Darfur, tribal elders once resolved conflicts successfully through traditional African-Islamic mediation efforts; but government interference in this traditional process (along with a perception that the government was inclined to come down on the side of certain Arab tribes) - coupled with outside non-Sudanese interference in the internal affairs of the country, and the influx of sophisticated high powered weaponry - has upset the balance and made the whole of Sudan more prone to chronic, destabilizing warfare.
The many tribes that comprise the Sudan have a long history of peaceful co-existence, despite the impact of colonialism and neo-colonialism. That said, while the Sudanese are not “racist” by nature, many Sudanese do have a color problem and/or an Arab-based superiority complex - and these tendencies have very divisive implications.
Discrimination has also been a reality in the Sudan at the institutional level since the country‘s independence in 1956. The lack of equal political representation, coupled with the lack of development throughout most of the country and programs that focus on northern culture, have caused justifiable animosity among many of the tribes (far removed from the area of Khartoum); tribes who have traditionally felt left out.
Given the fact that the Sudan is 70 percent Muslim, and the Darfur region is reportedly 100 percent Muslim, I sincerely believe that the only force capable of healing the country (and reconnecting its peoples) is ISLAM. And herein lies much of my profound disappointment.
In the past I’ve given the Sudan - both its government, and its people - more credit than they apparently deserved. I used to think the government had more on the ball (Islamically) than it does. I felt this way in large part because I wanted to believe that it did. I also used to think that the Sudanese people had more on the ball than all other African peoples, and that the post-colonial tribalism, which includes a color and class consciousness that has torn other African nations apart, was not nearly as bad in the Sudan. I am not so sure about this anymore.
2. Does the crisis in Darfur result from racial, ethnic, or tribal tendencies - or is it at its core a politically motivated conflict? Does it constitute a power struggle between “Africans” and “Arabs?” Is it a simple case of genocide and ethnic cleansing, as some would have us believe?
We have maintained from the beginning - and our position on this issue has NOT changed - that the crisis in Darfur at it core is a political struggle for power among competing groups. While ethnic and tribal considerations do indeed factor into the overall equation, the heart of the matter is a political struggle for control of Khartoum. This is NOT (and has never been) an issue of GENOCIDE or ETHNIC CLEANSING! As quiet as it’s kept, there have always been members of “Arab” tribes fighting on the side of the rebels, and members of “African” (or more appropriately labeled, non Arab) tribes fighting on the side of the government. As the UN’s International Commission of Inquiry on Darfur determined (pg. 22):
The roots of the present conflict in Darfur are complex. In addition to the tribal feuds resulting from desertification, the availability of modern weapons, and the other factors noted above, deep layers relating to identity, governance, and the emergence of armed rebel groups which enjoy popular support amongst certain tribes, are playing a major role in shaping the current crisis.
The investigators also found that when the conflict initially erupted, “the vast majority of the members of the two rebel movements came from essentially three tribes: the Fur, the Massalit, and the Zaghawa” (out of over 70 tribes in the Darfur region). And this is largely why these three tribes have reportedly born the brunt of the government’s retaliation.
A documentary, titled “Darfur Diaries,” was recently produced at a refugee camp comprised almost exclusively of members of the Zaghawa tribe. While I do believe that the imagery in this documentary is accurate, it nevertheless provides a small, selective window into what’s really happening on the ground in Darfur. In this regard, “Darfur Diaries” reinforces a false premise that unprincipled propagandists would have us believe: that the issue is genocide, plain and simple, perpetrated by a brutal out of control government, in concert with government-sponsored militia called Janjaweed (or devils on horseback), against very specific “black African tribes.” But what do the facts suggest?
The facts suggest that the findings of the United Nation’s International Commission of Inquiry on Darfur, were right on point: “No Genocide” - but “crimes against humanity” committed by belligerents on BOTH SIDES!
The facts also reveal that a number of prominent Jewish and evangelical Christian leaders and organizations were the first to introduce the loaded term “genocide” - not the Sudanese rebels! It was only later that anti-government Sudanese in the West began to dutifully follow suit. The question is why? Did something happen on the ground to justify the insertion of such a loaded legal designation? Or was there something more sinister behind its unveiling? Surely God knows best.
I personally believe that the anti-Islam, anti-Muslim propagandists needed a hook that would be equal in value, or of even greater propaganda value, as the “Muslims persecuting Christians” and the “Slavery in Sudan” propaganda that was used so effectively during the North-South civil war. What better ruse than to present the conflict, in a region almost exclusively Muslim, as Arab persecuting “black African” genocide!
I don’t think this was the only motive behind that decision, however. I also believe long-term geo-political interests, connected to the never ending “Arab-Israeli conflict,” also factored into the equation. To underscore this point, let us briefly revisit a page out of history. A formerly classified National Security Council Memorandum, dated March 17, 1978, reads in part:
We must envisage the possibility, however remote, that black Americans interested in African affairs may refocus their attention on the Arab-Israeli conflict. Taking into account the African descent of American blacks, it is reasonable to anticipate their sympathies would lie with the Arabs, who are closer to them in spirit and, in some cases, related to them by blood. Black involvement in lobbying to support the Arabs may lead to serious dissension between American blacks and Jews.
This memorandum was drafted at a time when African Americans, in increasing numbers, were becoming more aware (and involved) in the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa. In addition to the unholy mutual support alliance that the State of Israel had with this openly racist apartheid regime (and the fear that this relationship might be fully uncovered), there was also concern that African Americans might discover the parallels between the plight of Black South Africans and the Palestinian people - who were also being victimized by a brutal, ethnic-cleansing style occupation in their own land.
As the former South African Arch Bishop Desmond Tutu would relate (in a speech in Boston a few years ago) following his own visit to Occupied Palestine: “I’ve been very deeply distressed in my visit to the Holy Land; it reminded me so much of what happened to us blacks in South Africa.”
Getting back to the 1978 NSC memorandum, one of life’s ironies is that there is perhaps no other country on the Mother Continent wherein the mixture of African and Arab blood has become so intertwined, over the course of centuries, than in that historic land known as Balad as-Sudan (The land of the Blacks).
3) Has all of the activity in the international community around this crisis been a help or a hindrance? And who has it benefited the most?
Darfurians have not really benefited from the internationalization of this crisis. If anything, their collective situation has worsened. People who used to take pride in working by the sweat of their brows, to feed their families and fellow villagers, now find themselves idle and dependent on international aid. What is the short and long-term consequence of such psycho-social destabilization?
Millions of Sudanese are stranded in a twilight existence. Children are being robbed of their childhood; mothers, daughters and sisters are being raped and having their personhood violated in other ways; men and boys are being killed and permanently disabled…while others see their manhood eroded by circumstances and uncertainties beyond their control.
The combination of enormous natural wealth and small pockets of development (primarily in the north), against the backdrop of political instability and widespread destitution, have resulted in a culture and a society torn between its past and future. The one-sided politicization of the Darfur crisis in the international community has made the crisis worse, in my humble opinion - and in the opinion of many experts on the ground in Darfur. Those who have benefited most from this tendency are outside propagandists with sinister (self-serving) agendas – along with the multi-national interests that they serve.
4. With all of the attention this issue has received, are most people well informed on the Darfur crisis, or still confused on what the real issues are?
The short answer to this question is confused…but the question is, why? (Could it be by design?)
One way for the reader to better understand the malicious propaganda campaign being waged around this issue of Darfur, and the propagandists themselves, is through deep reflection over observations made by a number of Sudan experts, as well as experts in the study of propaganda.
David Hoile, author of Images of Sudan: Case Studies in Propaganda and Misrepresentation writes (pg. 46):
In addition to whatever state-sponsored propaganda there has been with regard to Sudan, there has also been considerable “private sector” misinformation, emanating from non-governmental organizations, pressure groups and individuals, especially within the United States. This activity has had a number of motivations, political, ideological, religious and fundraising. It has brought secular, left-wing organizations that loath conservatism and religious values into the same camp as deeply religious and conservative groupings who are fundamentally or opportunistically anti-Islamic.
Next we have an observation made by John Stauber, founder of the Center for Media and Democracy, and director of “PR Watch” (source: “War on Truth: The Secret Battle for the American Mind. An Interview with John Stauber,” The Sun, March 1999):
Much of what you see on national and local TV news is actually video news releases prepared by public relations firms and given free to TV stations and networks. News directors air these PR puff pieces disguised as news stories because it’s a free way to fill air time and allows them to lay off reporters. Of course, it’s not just television that’s the problem. Academics who study public relations report that half or more of what appears in newspapers and magazines is lifted verbatim from press releases generated by public-relations firms.
David Hoile argues that this is precisely what occurred with regard to the so-called “slave redemption” activities that were organized a few years ago in the Sudan, by the American Anti-Slavery Group in Boston.
Finally, we have an observation made by Sudan specialist Alex de Waal, former director of African Rights and currently director of Justice Africa:
Foreign correspondents often team up with international humanitarian agencies. The journalists focus on the work of the international agencies, while the latter provide logistics, accommodation and analysis. This often means that the “story” is the work of a foreign relief agency, told from their point of view. In extreme cases, “news” and international NGO commercials become almost the same thing. A claim by a relief agency…is often a news story in itself.
These are some of the factors which render the Darfur crisis confusing for the average citizen, despite the enormous amount of coverage it has received in the local, national, and international media. The goal of far too many of these organizations has not been to inform and educate, but rather, to mislead and indoctrinate!
5. Of all the raging crises in the world (including Africa), why has Darfur received so much attention?
This is truly the million dollar question; a question that even anti-Khartoum government observers in the West have raised. Let us take for example a salient observation made by columnist Anne Applebaum, in an op-ed piece titled “Why Only Darfur?” (The Washington Post, 11/21/06): “Darfur is not the only place in the world where there has been mass murder, even ethnic mass murder, on a large, historically familiar scale,” she opines.
Darfur is often equated with Rwanda, which for any thinking person should be an insult to their intelligence. In Rwanda, almost a million people, belonging to one tribe, lost their lives through targeted mass murder in a matter of days; while in Darfur the undocumented death count reportedly ranges somewhere between 300,000 and 400,000 over a three year period - and this number results primarily from the consequences of forced population dislocation (i.e. disease and starvation).
There are other countries where man-made political and humanitarian crises are far worse than the one in western Sudan, i.e. Uganda, the Congo, Chechnya, Korea - I could go on and on. Has anyone here seen the movie “Blood Diamond?" I believe this movie is based on the callous and brutal exploitation of Sierra Leone, West Africa, and its peoples.
And let us not leave out what may objectively rank as the worse man-made humanitarian crisis in the world today - a clear case of ethnic cleansing and GENOCIDE, if there ever was one - the Zionist orchestrated devastation of the Palestinian people!
Ms. Applebaum concluded her op-ed (“Why Only Darfur?”) with the following words:
“But when future generations look back on this era, they will judge us not only for how we responded to the most primitive and the most apolitical of horrors. They will also judge us by the consistency with which Western and international institutions battled sophisticated totalitarianism in all its forms. That is, they will judge us by the United Nations’ application of its own declaration on human rights, by America’s ability to live up to the rhetoric of its leaders, by Europe’s willingness to stand behind its stated values. The creation of an international coalition to end genocide is a stunning achievement, but its goals are still not deep or broad enough.” (I couldn’t agree more.)
6. America has a sizeable Sudanese population. Why haven’t more Sudanese been heard publicly on this issue?
In one word: FEAR. Over the past three years, the only Sudanese that the American public has consistently heard from are the American-based spokespersons for the rebel groups fighting against the Khartoum government, and the Sudanese front men working with such organizations as the Washington-based “Save Darfur Coalition,” and the Holocaust Memorial Museum.
There are a countless number of Sudanese around the country (including Darfurians), with a different point of view on the crisis, who nevertheless cower in silence (primarily, I believe) because of the anti-Muslim bias in America’s post-9/11 political atmosphere, coupled with official U.S. government policy toward the government in Khartoum!
The actions (or inaction) of the Sudanese community at present, reminds me of the actions (and/or inaction) of Iraqis in America in the months leading up to the 2003 full scale war on Iraq! Those Iraqis who were on the side of the Bush Administration (and the Zionists), helping to beat the drums for military intervention, at the end of the day got exactly what they campaigned for! And now look at what has become of their homeland!
7. What will it take to end the crisis?
Sincere and well-meaning citizens, of this ever shrinking global community, must open their eyes to certain realities. What drives the international focus on Sudan is not altruism! The driving factor, we believe, is ISLAM (vis-à-vis right-wing Christian evangelism and the so-called “War on Terrorism“); OIL (and Sudan’s other natural resources); WATER (and other geography-related strategic considerations); and the ARAB-ISRAELI CONFLICT (Apartheid Israel’s perpetual need for convenient cover).
Contributing our part toward a resolution of the crisis also requires that we come face-to-face with a number of inconvenient truths.
For starters, the conflict is NOT GENOCIDE (an attempt to destroy, “in whole or in part,” national, ethnic, or religious groups, as such) on the part of the Sudanese Government. There are very legitimate criticisms that can be laid at the feet of the government in Khartoum, but attempted genocide is not one of them! ALL TRIBES in the Darfur region have been tragically impacted by a crisis that was initially instigated by two “rebel groups.” (We should never forget this FACT.)
One well documented support for our argument in this regard, was published in the November 19, 2006, edition of The Washington Post newspaper (in the “Outlook” section), by Julie Flint, coauthor of Darfur: A Short History of a Long War. In her commentary, Flint (no supporter of the Khartoum government), writes about the dire straits of one of the “Arab tribes,” known as the Abbala. Listen to what she has to say:
In the fourth year of the war in Sudan’s Darfur region, tens of thousands of Arab nomads are barely clinging to life in the ravaged valley that extends north from the central Jebel Marra massif. There settlements have been destroyed and their herds targeted. Their traditional migration routes have been cut. The villages, markets and clinics on which they depended lie abandoned and in ruins. Their children have one of the highest mortality rates in Darfur. Measles, whooping cough, hepatitis E, jaundice and the most virulent form of meningitis, W135 - rural Darfur has them all. There are small, everyday tragedies, too, repeated in almost every community…
The Abbala, the camel nomads of North Darfur, have always been the most vulnerable, the most neglected, of the region’s many communities. So it is no coincidence that the hard core of today’s Janjaweed militias - the Sudanese government’s predominantly Arab proxies in the war against rebel troops - come from their ranks.
In her report, Ms. Flint also touched upon the indifference that relief workers are met with, whenever the plight of the Abbala (or other “Arab tribes”) is raised:
Relief workers who voice their concerns to the U.N. leadership meet with blank stares - and silence. “We’d bring up the Arabs and mention how they might be suffering and a hush would come over the room,” said an aid worker based at El Fasher, the capital of North Darfur state. “A few months ago, I asked U.N. human rights monitors how many cases of abuse by rebels against Arabs they’d heard of. They said they’d never investigated a single incident of violence against Arabs.”
In her article, Ms. Flint also described the Sudan Liberation Army - one of the two main rebel factions that entered into a negotiated settlement with the government a few months ago (led by Minni Minnawi) - as “a faction so abusive that many Darfurians now call it ‘Janjaweed 2.’” (It appears, however, that revelations like this only come to the surface when the “rebel” group no longer fights against the government (something to think about).
Here’s another inconvenient truth: the perspective of Emily Wax (East Africa bureau chief for The Washington Post) on the prevailing myths regarding the Darfur crisis. Here is part of what she had to say:
Heard all you need to know about Darfur? Think again. Three years after a government-backed militia began fighting rebels and residents in this region of western Sudan, much of the conventional wisdom surrounding the conflict - including the religious, ethnic and economic factors that drive it - fails to match the realities on the ground. Tens of thousands have died and some 2.5 million have been displaced, with no end in sight. Here are five truths to challenge the most common misconceptions about Darfur.
She then proceeded to outline the following: (1) Nearly everyone is Muslim; (2) Everyone is black; (3) It’s all about politics; (4) This conflict is international; (5) The “genocide” label made it worse. (The report titled “Five Truths About Darfur,” appeared in the April 23, 2006, edition of The Washington Post.)
In short, people of good will MUST become much better informed on the issue, first and foremost; and then those of us with the power to act, must become far more constructively proactive on the issue.
A few months ago, the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA), the Muslim Public Affairs Council (MPAC), and the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) released a joint statement which recommended the following:
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).
These recommendations are significant steps in the right direction; however, I would modify number one. Contrary to popular belief, all of the “Janjaweed” militias operating in Darfur are not under the control of the government. This inconvenient truth was attested to by the UN’s Jan Pronk, following the partial peace agreement last May (2006):
The UN’s chief envoy to Sudan warned that the peace deal would not mean an immediate end to fighting, even though the government had given orders to various tribal leaders in the field to cease fire. Some of the warring factions, including parts of the Janjaweed, were not under the government’s control, Pronk told a news conference. (Associated Press, 5/8/06)
In conclusion, among Sudanese themselves - in both the Sudan and the diaspora - there are different points of view on what should be done to resolve the conflict in Darfur, and other potential conflicts which appear to loom on the horizon. Some advocate a return to Islam, along with more transparent, corrective policy on the part of the government (and they reject any and all external interference); another segment of the population advocates outside multi-national intervention along with “regime change;” others argue for a new constitution that reflects the diverse culture of the whole country, along with power and resource sharing agreements; and then there are those who support neither the government in Khartoum, nor the rebels - because both are seen as fighting for their own interests at the expense of the people.
God willing, we will soon publish a second (updated) edition of Target Sudan: What’s Really Behind the Crisis in Darfur, which will include a very specific list of recommendations from The Peace And Justice Foundation.
I thank you; and look forward to the discussion to follow.