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The Dangers of Misunderstanding Sudan: Muslims Seek Voice in Darfur Demonstrations
Although American Muslim leaders have spoken out vociferously against the atrocities in Darfur, there were no Muslim groups or speakers listed in the rally program at last weekend’s "Rally to Stop Genocide" in Darfur that took place in Washington D.C. This prompts speculation that there is an agenda of exclusion at work to present a distorted picture of the Muslim role in the Darfur crisis.
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.
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.
Arab American Institute President James Zogby did speak out forcefully at the rally against the ongoing atrocities in Darfur. 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.
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.
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.
As The Arab American News 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.
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 to the conflict in sight. Here are five truths to challenge the most common misconceptions about Darfur:
1 Nearly everyone is Muslim
Early in the conflict, I was traveling through the desert expanses of rebel-held Darfur when, amid decapitated huts and dead livestock, our SUV roared up to an abandoned green and white mosque, riddled with bullets, its windows shattered.
In my travels, I've seen destroyed mosques all over Darfur. The few men left in the villages shared the same story: As government Antonov jets dropped bombs, Janjaweed militia members rode in on horseback and attacked the town's mosque -- usually the largest structure in town. The strange thing, they said, was that the attackers were Muslim, too. Darfur is home to some of Sudan's most devout Muslims, in a country where 65 percent of the population practices Islam, the official state religion.
A long-running but recently pacified war between Sudan's north and south did have religious undertones, with the Islamic Arab-dominated government fighting southern Christian and animist African rebels over political power, oil and, in part, religion.
"But it's totally different in Darfur," said Mathina Mydin, a Malaysian nurse who worked in a clinic on the outskirts of Nyala, the capital of South Darfur. "As a Muslim myself, I wanted to bring the sides together under Islam. But I quickly realized this war had nothing to do with religion."
2 Everyone is black
Although the conflict has also been framed as a battle between Arabs and black Africans, everyone in Darfur appears dark-skinned, at least by the usual American standards. The true division in Darfur is between ethnic groups, split between herders and farmers. Each tribe gives itself the label of "African" or "Arab" based on what language its members speak and whether they work the soil or herd livestock. Also, if they attain a certain level of wealth, they call themselves Arab.
Sudan melds African and Arab identities. As Arabs began to dominate the government in the past century and gave jobs to members of Arab tribes, being Arab became a political advantage; some tribes adopted that label regardless of their ethnic affiliation. More recently, rebels have described themselves as Africans fighting an Arab government. Ethnic slurs used by both sides in recent atrocities have riven communities that once lived together and intermarried.
"Black Americans who come to Darfur always say, 'So where are the Arabs? Why do all these people look black?' " said Mahjoub Mohamed Saleh, editor of Sudan's independent Al-Ayam newspaper. "The bottom line is that tribes have intermarried forever in Darfur. Men even have one so-called Arab wife and one so-called African. Tribes started labeling themselves this way several decades ago for political reasons. Who knows what the real bloodlines are in Darfur?"
5 The "genocide" label made it worse
Many of the world's governments have drawn the line at labeling Darfur as genocide. Some call the conflict a case of ethnic cleansing, and others have described it as a government going too far in trying to put down a rebellion.
But in September 2004, then-Secretary of State Colin L. Powell referred to the conflict as a "genocide." Rather than spurring greater international action, that label only seems to have strengthened Sudan's rebels; they believe they don't need to negotiate with the government and think they will have U.S. support when they commit attacks. Peace talks have broken down seven times, partly because the rebel groups have walked out of negotiations. And Sudan's government has used the genocide label to market itself in the Middle East as another victim of America's anti-Arab and anti-Islamic policies.
Perhaps most counterproductive, the United States has failed to follow up with meaningful action. "The word 'genocide' was not an action word; it was a responsibility word," Charles R. Snyder, the State Department's senior representative on Sudan, told me in late 2004. "There was an ethical and moral obligation, and saying it underscored how seriously we took this." The Bush administration's recent idea of sending several hundred NATO advisers to support African Union peacekeepers falls short of what many advocates had hoped for.
"We called it a genocide and then we wine and dine the architects of the conflict by working with them on counterterrorism and on peace in the south," said Ted Dagne, an Africa expert for the Congressional Research Service. "I wish I knew a way to improve the situation there. But it's only getting worse."