Mamdani Responds to His Critics II

by Jun 30, 2009All Articles

posted by Mahmood Mamdani
In this second part, I intend to focus on the ideas, practices and politics of the Save Darfur movement. More specifically, I shall respond to three types of criticisms: (a) that I did not think it necessary to speak to responsible persons from Save Darfur before writing about the organization and the movement [Kevin Funk], this question has also been raised by a number of Save Darfur activists and organizers at public talks, including that at Howard University [telecast by C-Span]; (b) that I speak of Save Darfur in a monotone, when in reality it contains several tendencies [Rebecca Hamilton]; that I seem to exceptionalize it when Save Darur is no different from the Sudan government, which should also be seen as claiming to be a savior [Alex de Waal]; and that I also detract from the contributions of Save Darfur, when it should be credited with drawing attention to atrocities in Darfur after a lack of public awareness during 2003, in spite of the fact that much of the violence took place that year [Semhar Araia], and, finally, (c) that I do not fully grasp the fact that the difference between the mobilization around Iraq and that around Darfur lay not in greater popular support for Save Darfur but in more favorable media coverage and corporate donations for it[Kevin Funk].

By overplaying the public support for Save Darfur, I tend to exaggerate its power [G. Pascal Zachary]. Finally, it is wrong to see Save Darfur as the humanitarian face of the War on Terror, when it is neither a pawn of any branch of government nor a conspiracy of any sort, but in reality a more political version of the old-style apolitical humanitarianism, representing the liberal interventionist face of US hegemony. In other words, this is old wine in new bottles, plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose. [Alex de Waal].

Detailed Account of Contact with Save Darfur persons/representatives:

I would like to begin by dispelling the mistaken impression that I did not have any contact with responsible persons in Save Darfur Coalition when doing research for this book. Indeed, several contacts took place between March and June, 2007. Below, I give a full account for those interested and concerned.

• I published an article titled “The Power of Naming” in The London Review of Books on March 8, 2007.

• On March 28, 2007, I received an email from Amjad Atallah, currently Senior Director of International Policy and Advocacy, Save Darfur Coalition. This is how he introduced himself: “I am an attorney who has spent the last 17 years working on a variety of conflicts … I have also begun working on the Darfur issue, advising both Governor Bill Richardson in his attempts to renew peace talks as well as an advisor to the Save Darfur Coalition. I was part of the Governor’s delegation to Khartoum in January in which we met with President Bashir and several rebel commanders. In my position as advisor to Save Darfur, a number of recommendations I have made have been consistent with some of the concerns you noted in your article.” The next para had a specific suggestion: “In fact, I would find it very helpful if you could make the time to allow me to take you to lunch or dinner in NY sometime at your convenience to discuss ways that this issue could be best addressed both here and in the Muslim world (more the area of my emphasis). I would be happy to come up from DC if you let me know when might be good for you.” In the final para, he returned to my LRB article: “Your article has generated a great deal of stir and I received it from several sources once it was published. One came from a South African colleague of mine in whom I have great trust and whose opinion I respect highly and one came from an Israeli colleague of mine. It is testimony to your erudition and the strength of your arguments that the article has impacted such a diverse audience.”

• April 6, 2007: Amjad Atallah and I had a leisurely lunch at a restaurant near Columbia University and had an extended discussion focused on Darfur and Sudan. [The lunch is not listed in the Bibliography of the book because it was not a formal interview, although I took notes every now and then.].

• APRIL 8, 2007: I received an email from Amir Osman, International Outreach Coordinator, Save Darfur Coalition. It said: “Dear Dr. Mamdani,
Kamal Al-Gizouli in Khartoum asked me to tell you that he wants to talk to you regarding your visit and lecture in Khartoum …”

• I met Kamal El Gizouli, Secretary General of the Sudanese Writers Union (SWU), also head of the Save Darfur group in Sudan, in Khartoum several times, both formally and socially. On April 17, 2007, I gave a lecture at Khartoum University on the topic “Between Reconciliation and Justice: Learning from the African Experience” under the auspices of the Sudanese Writers Union. On May 7, 2007, I had a formal interview with Mr. El Gizouli [under El Juzuli in the list of interviews] in Khartoum on the subject of the conflict in Darfur. I have met Kamal several times since then, in both Khartoum and Addis Ababa.

• May 30, 2007: After my return to New York, I sent an email to Amjad Atallah, “My Sudan trip was very disturbing for me, and I do look forward to discussing the most difficult issues with you. I have a request of some material before we speak or meet. As we discussed last time, Save Darfur Coalition represents a new model that combines the incredible energy of grass roots involvement with the expertise of a market-savvy company. I shall be grateful for any information that would illuminate this particular coalition: (a) the advertising company hired by SDC; (b) the structure of SDC, from those who comprise its policy-making core to those who are organizationally liaised to it to ordinary members; (c) the funding strategy, and even just publicly available info on the total budget for one year, how it is raised and how it is spent. You can send me URL for what is available on the internet, attachments for material that can be sent via email, and mail to my home address where the material is available only as hard text. My home address is …” I never received a response to the subject matter of this email.

• June 7, 2007: I wrote again, hoping that a change of subjects may help renew contact with Amjad Atallah: “I have been thinking of your question: the critique aside, what should one do? Here are some thoughts: 1. The only solution to this problem would have to be political, one that would end the fighting by declaring a cease-fire, as prelude to talks. 2. To get to a cease-fire, there would need to be talks about talks, i.e., preliminary talks. 3. Preliminary talks should focus on agreement around a set of principles. What should these principles be? In my view (a) demilitarization of civil society, (b) acknowledgement that state administration should take into account the existence of Darfur as an historical entity, (c) acknowledgement that pastoralists have a legitimate grievance as regards right of access to grazing pastures during the dry season, (d) a larger political reform ensuring adequate representation for Darfur in the Sudanese state and its key institutions. 4. Outsiders like SDC should seek to get formal and public support from their governments and the UN that (a) the solution to the problems of Darfur is primarily the responsibility of, first, the people of Darfur and Sudan, including the government of Sudan and, then, of the peoples of Africa, including the AU. The U.S. needs to make clear its support for the CPA, for the GoNU [Government of National Unity] and hence disavow any agenda of forcible regime change, in response to which other UNSC [UN Security Council] members agree to exercise leverage in pursuit of a common strategy. (b) call off the economic boycott, and acknowledge that political pressure needs to be brought on both sides (GoS and rebels and neighbors) to come to the negotiating table (c) Acknowledge that any peace-keeping force in Darfur would have to be composed mainly of Africans and that the present contention about whether the AU or the UN should comprise this force is really about where the political responsibility for the force resides, within or outside Africa. (d) The appropriate resolution is for the rich states to accept financial responsibility through the UN and to accept that political responsibility should remain with the AU.”

• June 8, 2007: Amjad Atallah responded as follows: “ Thank you for this. It is exactly the kind of analysis I can use. It does make sense, at least to me, and I think the challenges I will face will be in 4(b) and (c). However, these are issues that need to be raised. I am also going to share your ideas, if you don’t mind, with our friends in South Africa. I’ll stay in touch and we should speak again before we both leave the country again.”

• Given that there was no response to the questions I had sent on May 30, 2007, I thought the communication rather one-sided. There was no further contact between us.

Multiple Tendencies in the Save Darfur Movement

Save Darfur began as an inter-faith coalition. At the first public rallies it organized, Save Darfur distributed faith packets, marked as “Christian”, “Jewish”, “Muslim” or “Interfaith”. I have discussed these at some length in the book. They give a remarkably transparent view of the worldview that informed evangelical leadership that drove this Coalition. Confronted with evil in the world, these faith packets counseled a clear division of political responsibility between adherents of different religions: Christians must lead, Jews must navigate and ‘good’ Muslims must inform on ‘bad’ ones.

The more Save Darfur grew, the more it came to incorporate different tendencies. I identify two important ones, each with its own formative experience and distinctive worldview. One was driven by the experience of the Rwandan genocide. Recall that Save Darfur activism began as a commemoration of the tenth anniversary of the Rwandan genocide. This is how it highlighted the central lesson of Rwanda: that, when it comes to genocide, there is no time to ask questions, for our moral responsibility is first to act, to stop the genocide before it is too late. That begged two key questions. First, how do we know it is genocide? Who tells us? Second, how do we stop the violence except by addressing the issues that led to it in the first place?

The second tendency that Save Darfur incorporated as its mobilization grew comprised activists whose formative experience lay in solidarity work with the insurgency in the South of Sudan. This group assumed that Darfur was just another version of the South of Sudan. But Darfur was not, for at least two reasons. First, the formation of the Sultanate of Dar Fur had been very different from that of the Sultanate of the Funj in riverine Sudan; whereas both Sultanates had been slave-based, the enslaving power in the Sultanate of the Funj was Arab, but the slave-driving power in the Sultanate of Dar Fur was Fur. The second big difference between Darfur and the South was more contemporary. As I pointed out in the book, whereas the conflict in the South began as an insurgency against the central government in Kharoum, the conflict in Darfur began as a civil war (1987-89) and only later (2003) turned into an insurgency against the central government. The political consequence of this is crucial: whereas the South was able to forge a single leadership, earlier under the Anyanya and later under the SPLA, the insurgency in Darfur was neither able to forge a single organization nor a single leadership. There is as yet no Darfuri counterpart of John Garang or the SPLA.

This much said, I need to point out that my interest in the book was more in the unified practice that gave cohesion to the movement around Saving Darfur than in the variety of formative experiences and diverse theoretical perspectives that informed the different tendencies that comprised it.

Saving Darfur as a Practice

Semhar Araia is no doubt right that Save Darfur must be credited with directing media and public attention during the period of the worst violence, and that too at a time when there was hardly any public consciousness of atrocities being meted out in Darfur. I say this much in the book. But I follow this observation with two questions which puzzled me greatly. First, I realized that as soon as it became a Save Darfur concern, Darfur stopped resembling other African tragedies. Unlike Rwanda, or Angola, or Congo, which were always local and regional concerns, Darfur became globalized, almost overnight. Second, I realized that the level of mass atrocities in Darfur declined sharply after September 2004, which was only a couple of months after Save Darfur was founded, which was on 14 July. Instead of acknowledging this change and recognizing that the opportunity was ripe for a political settlement, Save Darfur continued to talk of a “continuing genocide” – and still does – in its public pronouncements. Why, I wondered, was Save Darfur mobilization the most successful when its message was the least truthful.

To these two, I must add a third puzzle. Kevin Funk is right to raise questions about the relative strength of activism around Darfur and Iraq. There is, in fact, no single and straightforward answer. The only way to get the picture right is to historicize it. The year 2003 saw the greatest mobilization against the war in Iraq, one that was worldwide, and one that remains unmatched by the mobilization around Darfur. But then, the mobilization around Iraq dissipated, suddenly, as if it had been so much mist on the ground. Over the next two years, its space was taken by another mobilization, one around Darfur. Though never as strong as the anti-war mobilization of 2003, Save Darfur compared favorably with the diminished anti-war mobilization between 2004 and the U.S. Presidential campaign of 2008. We need to ask ourselves: How much of this was due to an outright displacement – Out of Iraq, into Darfur – for which Save Darfur no doubt deserves most credit.

I pointed out in the book that Save Darfur was different from both the peace movement of the 60s and 70s and the anti-apartheid movement of the 80s. Unlike either, it was a war mobilization: ‘Boots on the ground’! But more important than a difference in objective was the difference in the process that Save Darfur set into motion and the method it pioneered.

The peace movement had turned the world into a classroom. Its signature activity was the ‘teach-in’. Save Darfur has no such interest or inclination. The world for Save Darfur is an advertising medium. Save Darfur relates to its constituency not as would an educator but as would an ambitious advertiser. Save Darfur shunned educators, but looked for show biz personalities, mainly from the world of entertainment and sports. Disdaining education and debate, it openly cultivated the ‘CNN effect’. Its interest lay more in cultivating name recognition that an understanding of the complexity of issues that drove the violence and, indeed, the conflict. No wonder Save Darfur has created more of a feel good constituency than an informed movement.

The more it sought an expanded constituency, the more Save Darfur’s focus shifted from college students to high school kids. The shift in turn exemplifies its search for a gullible constituency. It is no exaggeration to say that the high school kids became Save Darfur’s version of child soldiers in African conflicts – all enthusiastic participants in processes that none really understood nor were encouraged to understand. Unlike the peace movement of yesteryears, Save Darfur had no ambition to bring its constituency face-to-face with educators in a discussion on history, politics and issues.

Should Save Darfur be seen as analogous to the Sudan government, both saviors of different types, as Alex de Waal suggests? To equate the two would be to confuse between hard and soft power. If there is an analogy, it should be with America’s global War on Terror, though on a local scale. The Sudan government pursued its own version of the War on Terror – its ‘little’ War on Terror, as I said in the book – in Darfur. To be clear, the Sudan government’s weakness lay in that it lacked its own version of soft power. It lacked its own Save Darfur. Unlike the official American global War on Terror, official Sudan’s little War on terror had no “humanitarian face”. This is not to claim that there was a conspiracy afoot in America, or that Save Darfur was subordinate to one or another agency of the U.S. government. I never claimed that in the book, for I do not think so. Rather, I argued that Save Darfur related to different agencies of the U. S. government separately and differently. The agencies in turn related to Save Darfur in their own way, with the State Department the least open to Save Darfur pressure, and Congress the most receptive to it.

Save Darfur should neither be seen as an unofficial agency of the U.S. government nor a more politicized version of the old humanitarian movement. To do so would be to capitulate to intellectual laziness, to the temptation to understand phenomena by analogy and thereby to miss their most distinctive aspect. With Save Darfur, it would be to miss its most innovative aspect: its entrepreneurial dimension. As I will show in the third and final part of my response, Save Darfur has brought to American public life a new technique a new mobilizing technique: how to commodify grief and market it successfully. Not for nothing is Save Darfur’s media outreach based on packaging and marketing the suffering of the Darfuri people – which is why it often accuses critics of belittling and ignoring the suffering of victims. Not surprisingly, its success has spawned a whole breed of human rights entrepreneurs eager to try out Save Darfur-type wares, thereby hoping to reproduce its success on a larger landscape, this time that of Congo.

Responses to “Mamdani Responds to His Critics II”
Marc Gustafson:
May 12th, 2009 at 1:12 pm
Dear Mahmood,

I agree with most of this rebuttal, and most of the last one, and understand the surface-logic behind equating the mindset of the Save Darfur Coalition (SDC) to the mindset of the War on Terror, but I don’t agree with the analogy between young SDC volunteers and child soldiers. Comments like these, in my opinion, seem to serve the purpose of provocation more than providing to the substantive debate. Using this analogy sensationalizes the SDC in the same way the SDC sensationalized the conflict in Darfur.

Despite this stylistic quibble, I do have a few suggestions that may act as a supplement to your rebuttal and may make the case that the activist campaigns are more of an “unofficial agency of the US” than you suggest.

1) You write: “The second tendency that Save Darfur incorporated as its mobilization grew comprised activists whose formative experience lay in solidarity work with the insurgency in the South of Sudan” – This is an important part of the evolution of the activist movement for Darfur that I believe could have received more attention in your book. For example, the involvement of the Sudan Campaign Coalition (SCC) and its tendency to mix issues of Southern Sudan with issues of Darfur (see transcripts from Joe Madison’s national radio show and the protests organized by the SCC leaders in the summer of 2004) is part of the reason why the war was mischaracterized. Furthermore, the influence of the SCC in Congress during the summer of 2004 is also of importance because the coalition likely provided pressure on Colin Powell to declare (even after he said it had not occurred) that genocide had occurred in Darfur. The SCC also played a role in drafting the House and Senate resolutions on genocide. In fact, Donald Payne and Sam Brownback, two key board members of the Sudan Campaign, were the respective drafters of each bill. Lastly, the SCC also helped give the SDC inroads into shaping US government legislation, which leads me to my next point.

2) It can be shown that the SDC not only mischaracterized the Darfur conflict, like you argue, but it also shaped legislation in Congress in ways that have been detrimental to the victims of the Darfur conflict. In 2006, when, according to IRS statements, the SDC hired lobbyists in Washington to help shape the debate (and legislation), bills, which supported the aims of the activist campaigns, were drafted and passed. For my dissertation, I’ve been looking at how the SDC and other activist groups were able to shape legislation in Congress. For example, an analysis of US resolutions passed between 2006 and 2009 highlight the influence of the activist movement and demonstrate how disconnected the US/activists were from the situation on the ground. In these US bills, three patterns are obvious:

a) There is almost no mention of the rebel groups in Darfur or any prescribed effort to curb their violent behaviour, but there are continuous condemnations and sanctions against the Government of Sudan; this mirrors the literature, email newsletters and the advertisements of the activist campaigns.
b) There is an overemphasis on reducing the rate of violent deaths, even after the violent death-rate had dropped dramatically – as you rightly pointed out (although I would argue that the death rate dropped dramatically after the April 8th ceasefire of 2004 and not as late as September).
c) There is very little mention of the peace process in Abuja in the US resolutions or in the discussions at congressional hearings. This also mirrors the literature, email newsletters and the advertisements of the activist campaigns. Perhaps this is why Salim Ahmed Salim, the AU mediator at the Abuja Talks, wrote a letter to the UN on January 13, 2006 stating that “the funding situation of the Talks remains extremely precarious,” despite the fact that the US had contributed almost $2 billion by that point to stopping the violence in Darfur.

3) Lastly, the cooperation between the different activist campaigns, while shaping legislation on Darfur, was remarkably effective and evidence of this cooperation can be used to demonstrate that the activist movement is more unitary than most people think, which partly addresses a criticism put forward by Eric Reeves after your first post. Furthermore, an assessment of publically available IRS reports and activist websites also demonstrate how much the different activist groups have in common. Board members are shared. Contributions are given from one campaign to the next and the statements of intent are remarkably similar.

Finally, in case there is anyone out there interested in yet another review of Mr. Mamdanis book, feel free to read my review in the Oxonian. It was just published yesterday and addresses some of the points made here in more detail.

Vagn Sparre-Ulrich:
May 13th, 2009 at 1:29 pm
Thanks for an interesting contribution. I have some reservations as to your analysis of the relationship between the Funj and the Darfur Sultanates. You call the Funj sultanate for Arab based. Is this the reality? I see it as a much more complex state formation developing the socalled (maybe Shilluk based) “Black Sultanate” into an Islamic entity later on. But was that Arab? Arab and Islamic are not one category as I understand it. And what are you trying to prove by calling it Arab? Contrasting it with the socalled “African” Furs? And isn’t it the same analysis the Save Darfur campaign is using? I do not understand your point here.

Concerning the Save Darfur claims of similarities between South Sudan and Darfur situations. In the sense of center/periphery problems in Sudan they are right. There are several regions in Sudan apart from the South and Darfur with political marginalized periphery problems in Sudan: the Red Sea Hills and the Northern Region (in connection with the construction of the new hydro-electrical Dam) for example. So, there is nothing wrong in comparing the South with Darfur from this perspective. But of course there are differences between the different regions. This is obvious.

Jeff Howell:
May 13th, 2009 at 2:01 pm
I thank Marc Gustafson for pointing out the sensationalist absurdity of calling student activist leaders in the Save Darfur movement, “Child Soldiers.”

As a high school teacher who advises a STAND chapter in Massachusetts, I’ve been rather confounded by the criticisms of Mr. Mamdani against the movement.

Given that he seems to have no idea what student activists do, I thought I’d list some of our activities.
–My students do things like raise money for the civilian protection program run by the Genocide-Intervention Network.
–We have supported aid agencies, such as Doctors Without Borders, with fund-raising concerts.
–Our students decorated a tent with messages of hope, which was eventually shipped to Chad by the Darfur Peace and Development Organization to serve as a school room in a refugee camp.
–We met with representatives from Senator Kennedy’s office in Washington, D.C. to express our concern for the people of Darfur and all of Sudan.
–We have emailed or written our local Congressman William Delahunt to support a variety of initiatives related to Darfur, ranging from appropriation bills for US aid to the region to the Sudan Divestment Act.

On the education side, I’ve piled kids into my car and driven a couple of hours to listen to Eric Reeves or Samantha Powers or Karen Hirschfield or Alex DeWaal or Gloria White Hammond or John Prendergast. Afterwards we discuss what we hear, see what we can do to learn more, share books to read like Samantha’s or Alex’s or Eric’s or John’s, then plan fund raisers to figure out what little we can do to help.

Some of the criticisms leveled by Mr. Mamdani, such as the oversimplification of the conflict, may be true at the most basic entry point to understanding for students. The vast majority of students may not get past that entry point, but it certainly isn’t the intent of myself or others to lead some naive army off on a bellicose mission.

STAND, which started in 2004 as Students Taking Action Now: Darfur, amended its mission by 2006, emphasized in its name change to STAND: A Student Anti-Genocide Coalition. Preempting today’s critics who wonder why no one pays attention to other pressing conflicts, STAND uses a conflict barometer with such indicators as percentage of civilian death to pick out focal points for the upcoming semester projects. Currently, campaigns for Darfur, Burma and Congo are ongoing, with individual chapters (now number over 800 in high school and college) selecting their schools area of focus.

The kids involved are typically the brightest, most idealistic youth around. My job, and the job of other adults involved in STAND as faculty advisors, is to focus their remarkable drive to best serve the anti-genocide cause. Not one of these kids is a child soldier.

Alex de Waal:
May 14th, 2009 at 2:56 am
The “child soldiers” quip is perhaps more double edged than the sides in this debate recognize.

Mahmood Mamdani, as a Ugandan, must know that the NRA which captured Kampala in 1986 was composed to a significant degree of child soldiers. The majority of these were teenagers who had joined the movement because there were no other options, and out of a precocious political maturity brought on by the experiences of Uganda in the 1970s and ’80s. While in the movement, the best of their commanders were mentors, protectors and teachers. Museveni himself ran long seminars on politics and sociology for his child soldiers. Some of them later went on to university education and rose to high positions in government, parliament and the army. Child soldiering in this sense was liberating. It is a far cry from the drugged up, brainwashed kids sent in to battle in Liberia, or the cannon fodder of the trenches in the Iran-Iraq war.

My experience with the young activists in America has been that they are extraordinarily hungry to learn, driven both by a passionate sense of ethics and also a reflectiveness and determination to explore how their personal commitment can make a difference in the modern world. Activism and reflection are not incompatible and this, I think, is one of the most positive and defining features of the school and college based campaigns. (There are other campaigns that have been far less reflective, and other components of the Save Darfur campaign that are far less thoughtful). And these young people are learning a vast amount through their activism. “Child soldiers” in the sense of young people committed to liberation through action, may not be so far off the mark.

Marc Gustafson:
May 14th, 2009 at 6:05 am
Alex, I agree that both groups are committed to liberation, but one group is committed to the liberation of themselves while the other group is committed to the liberation of others. The motivations of each group – i.e. survival, desperation, defense, family hardship vs. concern, interest, compassion, self-improvement – are completely different. For these reasons, I think the comment should not be used because it oversimplifies the complex psyche and situation of each side.

Furthermore, the child soldiers of Uganda, like you said, are not representative of most child soldiers. So why did Mr. Mamdani not refer to them directly if he had them in mind when he made the comment?

Alex de Waal:
May 14th, 2009 at 6:28 am
Dear Marc

your comment is appreciated. The point of my response was chiefly to point out that behind every label is a more complicated reality. The label “child soldier” invokes an image of a the kids sent by Charles Taylor into the front line, the brutalized and often deliberately crazed killers. Many of the NRA young fighters were very different: volunteers, selfless, idealistic. They also suffered trauma but their stories are more complicated.

It is not for me to explain what Mahmood had in mind when he used the phrase.

It is also true that behind any label such as the volunteers and activists of the Save Darfur movement lies a complicated reality, a mix of motives and aims, a mix of expertise and emotion.

Ana Majnun:
May 15th, 2009 at 3:13 am
There is a saying that, “When bear tries to follow a termite home, bear just gets lost.” I do not know exactly what this saying means, but it came to my thinking as I was reading these posts about the role of Save Darfur. They seem to be unaware of a serious methodological flaw: in assessing the role of Save Darfur, if there is no comparison, no control group, no counterfactual, then all the above is just plausible correlation. I notice, for example, that none of the discussion tries to measure the Sudanese government’s lobbying efforts. Nor do they evaluate Save Darfur in context of numerous lobby groups oriented around particular international issues. Is Save Darfur more or less effective than the Free Tibet movement? Do they spend more or less? Was Save Darfur movement *the result* of legislators “willingness to be influenced” or did it actually influence anyone to do something they would not have done otherwise. That Colin Powell reversed himself on the genocide thing… was that any different from the numerous examples of two-faced Bush administration policies on practically every issue? I would write more but I see a termite over there in the corner of the room and I believe I shall follow it….

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