The Conversation We Are Not Having

by Jun 29, 2009All Articles

posted by Bridget Conley-Zilkic
The conversation we are not having on Mahmood Mamdani’s Saviours and Survivors concerns public activism.

Much of Mahmood Mamdani’s Saviours and Survivors presents a complex yet readable history of Darfur, Sudan. It will need experts on Sudan to analyze it properly, and I look forward to learning more through those discussions. But the book is framed by a critique of the activist movement, most of whom are not experts on Sudan and whose call to action in response to violence in Darfur has created the first major anti-genocide constituency. Mamdani’s criticism of this movement–-condensed to Save Darfur, and thereby simplifying the range of organizations and positions on Sudan—raises some important points, but I fear he and the activists will end up speaking past each other, defending their turf and avoiding what is the most difficult question implied by the book: is historically and politically informed human rights advocacy in the context of (even in the aftermath of) extreme violence against civilian communities possible?

Mamdani raises only half of this problem: the complexities overlooked by the current anti-genocide movement. He lands some solid punches, particularly when examining the most inflated and least informed rhetoric of the movement.

But because Mamdani is so focused on the political economy of activism, he refuses to allow civilian suffering to enter the equation of his argument and thereby misses the appeal of the activist movement. Mamdani argues that the focus on suffering provides a cover for acting on unexamined presumptions: suffering is actionable only if and when it fits into an easy narrative structure of pure good and pure evil. This narrative structure is created by circumscribing history and context so that its Manichean distinctions can be upheld and continued, ad infinitum. In Mamdani’s analysis, this circular logic is possible because of the cultural assumptions of the American audience, which forms the bulk of the anti-genocide movement, and its refusal to grapple with its own historical and political moment. He is right to note that one of the most striking absences in the Darfur movement is its lack of self-reflection, particularly about the post-colonial context in which it operates.

By tying his critique so tightly to recent events, Mamdani misses a fundamental problem common to both the activist movement and to human rights advocacy in general: based in legal language, the dominant mode of human rights advocacy is a way of engaging abuses that is intentionally devoid of context. This is its strength and also its limitation. Juridical human rights promise a way to counter power structures with universal standards – obviously there have been extraordinary gains in so doing – but is silent on history and political economy and, particularly, its own place in that economy. The activist movement was to some extent a critique of the professional human rights movement on the grounds that it did not deploy enough power in pursuit of universal standards. The version of rights the movement relies on is still devoid of context, but now demands access to the levers of power.

For those who believe that suffering and injustice provide the ethical impulse to seek out forms of intelligent action, rather than an alibi for self-satisfied engagement, the discussion has hardly even begun. I think many people (certainly not all) who became interested in Darfur were sincerely searching for ways to engage that would make a real contribution to the possibility of peace. The current state of expert discourse does them a disservice.

Has the situation in Darfur too often been described in simplistic terms? Yes. Was it described in terms that made sense “here,” but did not necessarily inform audiences about the nuances of identity and history in Sudan? Yes. Was this clear at the height of the emergency when the activist movement was gearing up? Not really. There was in 2003 and remains today a need for scholars to bring their deep knowledge to bear on political engagement. To accuse activists of not being scholars is to raise the question of where the scholars were in 2003, 2004, and 2005. Those experts who did speak up early on have since been accused of changing their positions as the conflict has unraveled. Being right in this context might well mean being late.

The conversation I fear we will not have is the one that talks neither about 2003-2005, nor about 1821, but about today. Let’s pretend we live in the year of 2009. The conversation we need today would involve activists and scholars speaking frankly about where the conflict stands, where the greatest threats to civilians are in Sudan (not just in Darfur), and what we need to know in order to intelligently engage on the issues.

In places where extreme violence has occurred, the historical, social and cultural issues that preceded the violence rarely are solved by the violence. Addressing them in the wake of enormous suffering renders the conversations infinitely more difficult. The points that Mamdani makes about the deeper history of Sudan are relevant, as is the suffering that the activist movement has mobilized around. Both are now realities on which an intelligent engagement needs to be founded. This should be the starting point for discussions about Sudan in 2009.

However, it is precisely the discussion that, I fear, will not occur. Too many people have too much equity in the positions they have staked out. Can the ethical impulse of concern be translated into sustainable and informed action? The search for this answer could be a task shared by both the popular movement and scholars. The fact that both have avoided it does not bode well for the crises of today nor those of tomorrow.

Bridget Conley-Zilkic has worked on issues related to preventing and responding to genocide for over 10 years.

Responses to “The Conversation We Are Not Having”
Bill Anderson:
April 13th, 2009 at 4:20 am
I would assume Mamdani has no problem with the Sudan Divestment Campaign. I don’t think he condemns public activism outright.

But the argument put forward by very well-informed activists such as John Prendergast that genocide = R2P = regime change is problematic (in all three elements of the equation) and is a position that not only Mamdani, but almost the entire AU and Arab League object to. I would have thought that most “non-expert” activists are sufficently sensitised by the Iraq debacle to see the danger signs in this approach.

Matthieu Gues:
April 13th, 2009 at 4:37 pm
Juridical human rights promise a way to counter power structures with universal standards – obviously there have been extraordinary gains in so doing – but is silent on history and political economy and, particularly, its own place in that economy.

I would be very interested to know, exactly, what those “extraordinary gains” are. Countering power structures has never worked, not once. You can talk meanie against particular governments, yes. You can’t stop them with laws that don’t have a chance to get a say without military force. Military force, involving thousands of civilian deaths, I cannot believe anyone would use the word gains, and much less, extraordinary gains. If anything, they’re very shitty losses.

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