May 1 2007

CounterSpin Interview: Mahmood Mamdani on Darfur

Western Media Must Share Responsibility

There is no doubt that intense war and human suffering exists in many places around the world. The war in Congo, for instance, escapes media scrutiny, but is probably the deadliest of our time, killing millions of people. It’s worth considering, then, which conflicts we are told to pay close attention to, and what we are told about those conflicts. The war in Iraq, of course, is heavily covered; the violence in Darfur, less so. But how we talk about these conflicts is very different.

CounterSpin talked to Mahmood Mamdani, a professor of government and anthropology at Columbia University who wrote an essay for the London Review of Books (3/6/07) about the disparate treatment of Iraq and Darfur. His most recent book is Good Muslim, Bad Muslim: America, the Cold War and the Roots of Terror.

CounterSpin: In your piece, titled “The Politics of Naming: Genocide, Civil War, Insurgency,” you write that the conflicts in Iraq and Darfur are remarkably similar in certain ways, but that our conversations about them are very different. Iraq is understood to be very complex; there are competing religious and political factions. The story of Darfur is simplified—paramilitary groups that we label as “Arabs” are brutally attacking civilians we label “Africans.” What is wrong with that conventional framing of Darfur? What is the political context that you think is missing?

Mahmood Mamdani: The key thing that is missing from the Darfur story is that Darfur, like Iraq, is an insurgency and a counterinsurgency. The civilian victims of Darfur are framed and victimized by violence between two armed groups, and the atrocities in Darfur are meted out from both sides. Even though the main atrocities are coming from the government and the paramilitary associated with the government, the U.N. Commission on Darfur, established in early 2005, in their list of the 51 who should be tried for war crimes, that list included those from both sides—both from the government and the paramilitaries, as well as from the two insurgency movements.

CS: And the counterinsurgency movements, or the Arab groups that we usually refer to as the Janjaweed. You write that the reporting on Darfur and many other things give us a simple moral world. On March 13, the L.A. Times ran a piece headlined “Rebels Pose a New Threat to Darfur’s Displaced.” It discussed violence against civilians and aid workers in Darfur, and it noted that “the prime culprits are new: Darfur’s rebels.” It sounds like what you are saying is that this is not necessarily new, it’s just out of line with what we are usually told.

MM: What is new is that rebels have fragmented and are beginning to fight one another. What has happened since the last peace talks in Abuja is that on both sides—the side of the rebels, the insurgency, and the side of the government, the counterinsurgency—power has shifted to those who are unwilling to go for a political settlement.

And in my view, for this the external media, the international media, particularly the Western media, must take a share of responsibility, because of the way they have reported Darfur, they have obscured the fact that there is a civil war going on. They have obscured the fact that the only way to stop the violence against the civilians is to settle this civil war.

Instead, they have promoted the idea of an external military intervention as a possible solution. And the very prospect of an external military intervention has given hopes to the rebels that they may in fact end up with the entire cake, and instilled fears among the government that they may end up with no power whatsoever. So on both sides, it has reinforced those who think military and violence is the only way for them to safeguard their own position.

CS: New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof is probably the U.S. journalist most identified with this story, with Darfur. You point out his columns are remarkably inconsistent when it comes to something that should be consistent, the number of people killed in Darfur. Nonetheless, many people would look at what he is doing and say, well, at least he is doing something rather than nothing. What do you see that’s problematic about the way he covers Darfur?

MM: There are several things that are problematic. Maybe the least problematic are the numbers, even though the inconsistency of the numbers is so evident. Nicholas Kristof made six trips to Darfur starting around 2004, and after each trip, he reported a certain number dead, a very definite number, with total confidence. And the numbers started very high; in 2004-05, he was talking of 300,000- 400,000, roughly.

And then, when the U.N. Commission for Darfur report came out in early 2005, the U.N. Commission had asked the rebel movements to give their estimate of the numbers dead, and the rebel movements said 70,000, and immediately Kristof’s estimates came down. Kristof never explains why his estimates vary, never even acknowledges that they vary. Each time he gives them with equal confidence.

But I think worse than his playing around with numbers to make a point is the fact that he has established Darfur as a morality site where there is one group of perpetrators, which he identifies as “Arabs,” which kills another group of victims that he identifies as “Africans.” Abstracted from this is the fact that killings are going on from both sides, and the more important fact that it is extremely difficult to identify this kind of distinction between Arab and African.

The U.N. Commission on Darfur tried to identify who was killing whom, and said that Arab and African were not clearly identifiable groups, that in fact both of them speak Arabic, that there is intermarriage; that the clear distinction is not between Arab and African, but between peasants on the land and pastoralists who move about. And that, in fact, the traditional arrangement between peasants and pastoralists, whereby they shared scarce land during this dry season, had broken down because of the drought that began from the early 1980s.

The political groups who are interested in as much power as possible have played upon this breaking down of communal arrangement of dividing resources, and the external groups, who have their own interests—particularly, and this is my interpretation, the furthering of the war on terror—have put enormous pressure to identify these groups as Arab and African.

CS: So you think that these distinctions are difficult in the real world to parse, but in the political world, it’s a very useful distinction to say Arabs are killing Africans here, we must do something?

MM: Well, it’s both a useful distinction and it’s becoming a real distinction in the sense that as the U.N. commission on Darfur pointed out, in fact those who speak Arabic are not all supporting the Janjaweed; many of them are opposing the Janjaweed. And those who speak local languages besides Arabic are not all supporting the rebels; many of them are in the army.

But now what’s happening is that those who are supporting the government are being known as Arabs, and those who are supporting the rebels are being known as non-Arabs. So these identities are becoming completely political rather than cultural identities, and they are being fanned very strongly from outside.

CS: Beyond the harm that is inherent in misinforming people about the world, what’s the political danger here? It sounds like there is a perhaps well-intentioned movement to stop what is being called genocide in Darfur, but that that movement, particularly in the West, could actually give political cover to making things worse.

MM: Any well-intentioned movement with the slightest knowledge of what is going on on the ground would recognize that the way to stop violence is to stop the fighting. And if you want to stop the fighting, we have to arrive at a political agreement between the two sides which are fighting, unless you think you are going to eliminate one side, in which case you would have accomplished a genocide. And the way the Save Darfur movement is going about it, which is not to prioritize stopping the fighting but to prioritize an introduction of military forces inside, threatens to escalate the fighting rather than de-escalate it.

Mahmood Mamdani was interviewed for CounterSpin (3/16/07) by Peter Hart with Steve Rendall. Mamdani’s article for the London Review of Books, “The Politics of Naming: Genocide, Civil War, Insurgency” (3/6/07), is available online.