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In the summer of 2003, few would have predicted that Darfur would become a cause célèbre in the Western world. Despite thousands being killed, the death toll did not rival that of neighbouring Congo, where a civil war had claimed millions. The West had turned its attention to Iraq after the US invasion in March of that year. In the context of the “war on terror”, another African conflict was unlikely to grab headlines.

 

Unexpectedly, however, the conflict set in motion one of the largest activist campaigns in American history. Within two years, hundreds of thousands of activists marched in Washington, DC and New York City and raised over $100 million. Bumper stickers, television ads, billboards, newspapers, and Hollywood stars told the story of the “genocide” in Darfur. It was described as a battle of good vs. evil, Arab vs. African, and, sometimes, Muslim vs. Christian. To stop the “genocide”, the activist campaigns advocated for a military intervention in Darfur. Until now, few have dared to question the intent or strategy of the activist campaigns.

According to Mahmood Mamdani, the activists who advocate intervention in Darfur are as delusional as the neoconservatives who planned the invasion of Iraq. Americans trapped in a “war on terror” mindset have mischaracterized the situation in Sudan. In a recent debate, Mamdani, a Ugandan-born anthropologist at Columbia University, went as far as saying that the young volunteers of the Save Darfur Coalition were “equivalent to the child soldiers of Africa”.

In a new book, Saviors and Survivors: Darfur, Politics, and the War on Terror, Mamdani challenges the popular and scholarly assumption that the primary cause of the war in Darfur was ethnic or racial hatred. He argues that casualty rates have been severely inflated and that the activists have been selective about the information they distribute through their awareness campaigns. Without these mischaracterizations and the “war on terror mindset” of the American public, Mamdani argues, the conflict in Darfur would have been unremarkable in the context of other world conflicts.

To prove his point, Mamdani dissects the standard historical narratives given by the most recent and respected authors of the Darfur story, such as Harvard scholar Alex de Waal, Smith College’s Eric Reeves, the International Crisis Group’s John Prendergast, and the French academic Gerard Prunier. He supplements his critical reading of the scholarship with archeological records, archival diaries, and interviews with elusive players such as Sudan’s leading Islamist politician, Hassan al-Turabi, and rebel leader Minni Minawi.

Mamdani demonstrates that race is not always as it seems in the region. He argues that the conflict is driven not by racial hatred, but by a complex history of ecological changes in the Sahel, a breakdown of administration since the beginning of the colonial period, and the ongoing regional conflict among Libya, Chad, and Sudan.

To prove this, Mamdani draws on his background in anthropology to demonstrate that intermarriage, nomadic lifestyles, and over a thousand years of migration have contributed to the diminution of race as a way of classifying tribal groups. Today, Mamdani argues, the concept of race in Darfur is not based on biological similarities, but instead on political allegiances and a flawed system of classification introduced by the British during the colonial period when “race was wholly a political construction for political purposes.” Mamdani contends that because of these changes and the political context of the war on terror, groups like the Save Darfur Campaign have been able to use the language of race and genocide to mischaracterize the Darfur conflict, pitting Arab villains against black African victims.

While Mamdani’s analysis of the history and current crisis of Darfur may be comprehensive, his analysis of the American activist movement is not. For example, Mamdani equates the movement with only one activist campaign, the Save Darfur Coalition (SDC). Calling it the “Save Darfur Movement”, Mamdani assumes that the SDC represents all activists.

Mamdani not only lumps all of the activist campaigns together, he also suggests that the activists, the US government, and other Western countries have interchangeable agendas on Darfur. Throughout the first chapter and the conclusion of the book, Mamdani discusses these Western institutions as if they are all “marching in tandem” and driven by a “central political thrust”. He argues that these Western institutions/governments and activists, in keeping with the days of Western colonialism, all aim to intervene militarily and punish the government of Sudan.

Although Mamdani does not supply evidence to prove this argument, the argument itself may be accurate. For decades before the Darfur activist movement began, American groups had been advocating for marginalized Christians in southern Sudan. Before Darfur was ever mentioned in the US media, activists for southern Sudan had become influential lobbyists in Congress. The Sudan Campaign Coalition, which included African-American liberals such as Representative Donald Payne of New Jersey and religious conservatives such as Senator Sam Brownback of Kansas, had worked to shape foreign policy and raise public awareness about Sudan.

The involvement of these groups was crucial to the Darfur activist movement when it emerged in 2004. The Sudan Campaign’s network of religious organizations and influence in government helped launch the SDC and helped draft and pass legislation in line with the Darfur activists’ efforts, despite the fact that the US did not intervene militarily.

Between the lobbyists, the partnership with key politicians, and the public pressure cultivated and directed by the SDC, it is safe to say that the Save Darfur Movement had a tight grip on the US government’s policy toward Darfur. Once the activist movements began to shape US policy successfully, the Save Darfur Movement pressured other western governments—specifically Security Council members Britain and France—through letter-writing campaigns and protests. By 2006, the campaign had catalyzed Security Council action—although China and Russia remained on the sidelines.

Mamdani is also not wrong to say that the Save Darfur “movement” is unitary. IRS reports show that the Save Darfur Coalition has been a primary funder for other major activist groups such as the Genocide Intervention Network. These reports also indicate that the most influential activist campaigns, i.e., the Enough Project, the Sudan Campaign, the Genocide Intervention Network, and STAND, share board members and very similar statements of intent. The problem with Mamdani’s argument, therefore, is not that he is incorrect, but that he assumes facts that must be proven.

Despite this shortcoming, however, Mamdani’s analysis of the Darfur conflict is one of the more exhaustive and all-inclusive assessments to date. Ultimately, activists and governments in the West did not ignore the Darfur conflict, but they did ignore the historical and cultural context that produced the conflict. Mamdani shows that good intentions do not always lead to positive change. Hopefully, his analysis will lead campaigners and policymakers to re-evaluate their efforts—and perhaps to chart a new course.

Marc Gustafson is a DPhil student in Middle Eastern Studies at St. John’s College, Oxford. His research focuses on the role of Western activists in the Darfur conflict.

 

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