Sunday, May 20, 2007


Khalil Bendib on Darfur

I have previously posted two (see links at bottom) of Khalil Bendib's excellent editorial cartoons on Darfur. Below, for your edification, are three more.

Regarding the first cartoon, I've often marvelled at how some people who know that Colin Powell et al. spread falsehoods in the run up to the 2003 US invasion of Iraq seem to be taken in so easily by these liars when it comes to Darfur.

The second cartoon, I think, speaks to the false dichotomy of black/African vs. Arab that is frequently propagated in Western discourse. For example, in an April 27, 2007, NPR report Gwen Thompkins distinguishes between "black rebel forces" and "government-sponsored Arab militias." The accompanying text on the National Public Radio web site speaks of "Tension between the region's African farmers and Arab pastoralists" and says "People in Darfur refer to themselves as 'black,' and many Darfuris say that the dispute with the Arab-dominated government in Khartoum is ethnically based." An NPR report the day before ("U.N. Aid Chief Tours Darfur's Refugee Camps") was just as bad describing the fighting as between "African rebels and Arab militias."

However, all or nearly all parties to the conflict in Darfur are Africans, black, and Muslim and the question of Arab identity is, by no means, a simple matter either. As the Washington Post's East Africa bureau chief Emily Wax writes in "5 Truths About Darfur" (emphasis added):
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?"
As Alex de Waal, director of Justice Africa, writes in "Darfur's deep grievances defy all hopes for an easy solution" in the Observer (UK):
Characterising the Darfur war as 'Arabs' versus 'Africans' obscures the reality. Darfur's Arabs are black, indigenous, African and Muslim - just like Darfur's non-Arabs, who hail from the Fur, Masalit, Zaghawa and a dozen smaller tribes.

Until recently, Darfurians used the term 'Arab' in its ancient sense of 'bedouin'. These Arabic-speaking nomads are distinct from the inheritors of the Arab culture of the Nile and the Fertile Crescent.

'Arabism' in Darfur is a political ideology, recently imported, after Colonel Gadaffi nurtured dreams of an 'Arab belt' across Africa, and recruited Chadian Arabs, Darfurians and west African Tuaregs to spearhead his invasion of Chad in the 1980s. He failed, but the legacy of arms, militia organisation and Arab supremacist ideology lives on.

Many Janjaweed hail from the Chadian Arab groups mobilised during those days. Most of Darfur's Arabs remain uninvolved in the conflict, but racist ideology appeals to many poor and frustrated young men.

Since 1987 there have been recurrent clashes between the Arab militias and village self-defence groups. Their roots were local conflicts over land and water, especially in the wake of droughts, made worse by the absence of an effective police force in the region for 20 years.

The last intertribal conference met in 1989, but its recommendations were never implemented. Year by year, law and order has broken down, and the government has done nothing but play a game of divide-and-rule, usually favouring the better-armed Arabs.

In response, the non-Arab groups (some of them bedouins too - there's a clan related to the Zaghawa that even has the name Bedeyaat) have mobilised, adopting the label 'African', which helps to gain solidarity with the southern-based Sudan People's Liberation Army, and is a ticket to sympathy in the West.
So, whose interest is served by falsely promoting the image of the Darfur conflict as one of Arabs committing "genocide" (a term the United Nations and Doctors without Borders say does not apply) against black Africans? Undoubtedly, part of the problem is the media's desire to simplify complex issues but the "war on Islam" and Arabophobia cannot be ruled out as key factors.

See also

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