Anna Mundow: Politics and humanitarianism


Richard Moore

Politics and humanitarianism

By Anna Mundow  |  March 22, 2009

Mahmood Mamdani, a third-generation East African of Indian descent, grew up in Uganda, studied at Harvard, taught at various African and American universities, and is currently Herbert Lehman Professor of Government at Columbia University. A political scientist and anthropologist, he is best known for “Good Muslim, Bad Muslim” and “When Victims Become Killers.” His latest book, “Saviors and Survivors: Darfur, Politics, and the War on Terror” (Pantheon, $26.95), meticulously exposes the tangled roots of the current conflict and the global forces at play in Darfur. Mamdani spoke from his home in New York City.

Q. Is there a link between this book and your previous work?

A. There are several; the most obvious is an understanding of the way in which the Cold War almost seamlessly morphed into the war on terror. Another connection – with my work on the Rwanda genocide and on the effect of colonialism in Africa – is the way in which identities are imposed from above.

Q. Such as who is an Arab, a Muslim, an African?

A. Yes. Interestingly, [originally] “Africa” was a word the Romans used for their North African province. But after the trans-Atlantic slave trade, “Africa” referred to parts of the continent from which slaves were hunted and sold. In Sudan, where everybody was equally native, the British arbitrarily identified certain groups as African and others as Arab.

Q. Why do you concentrate on the Save Darfur campaign?

A. In a context where African tragedies seem never to be noticed, I wondered why Darfur was an obsession with the global media. The reason, I realized, was that Darfur had become a domestic issue here, thanks to the Save Darfur movement. So I thought it important to examine the movement’s history, organization, and message. I learned that this self-confessedly political group whose level of organization is phenomenal spends its annual budget of $15 million not on assisting victims but on spreading the message.

Q. Why?

A. There are various motives. One part of the group emerged out of solidarity with the struggle in south Sudan and believes that Darfur is another version of south Sudan. Most have no idea of the difference between the two situations. Another wing is what I understand to be neoconservatives who want to incorporate Darfur into the war on terror. Both groups reinforce the racialization of the conflict and the demonization of the Arabs.

Q. For political reasons?

A. For political reasons. There are few sources that really analyze Save Darfur; the clearest I found was an article by Gal Beckerman in the Jerusalem Post [“US Jews leading Darfur rally planning,” April 27, 2006]. The facts there speak for themselves.

Q. Yet you say that this campaign depoliticizes Americans?

A. I’m struck by the contrast between the mobilization around Darfur and the lack of mobilization around Iraq. The explanation, I believe, lies in the fact that Save Darfur presented the conflict as a tragedy, stripped of politics and context. There were simply “African” victims and “Arab” perpetrators motivated by race-intoxicated hatred. Unlike Iraq, about which Americans felt guilty or impotent, Darfur presented an opportunity to feel good. It appealed to the philanthropic side of the American character. During the presidential election, Save Darfur’s constituency became integrated into the Obama campaign, and I welcomed that opportunity to organize around real concerns. The downside now is the attempt by Save Darfur to pressure the Obama administration to intervene militarily in Darfur.

Q. Are you saying that humanitarianism is a form of colonialism?

A. I’m saying that historically it has been. The movement after which Save Darfur patterned itself is the antislavery movement of the 19th century. Remember that the elimination of slavery was the ostensible reason given by British officials for colonization of the African continent. The cataloging of brutalities – real ones, not exaggerated –

was essential preparation for seizing chunks of real estate, again ostensibly to protect victims. Today, the humanitarian claim uses ethics to displace politics. Conflicts are typically presented as tribal or race wars between perpetrators and victims whose roles are unchanging.

Q. Does the problem lie in who uses the humanitarian label?

A. The language of human rights was once used primarily by the victims of repression. Now it has become the language of power and of interventionists who turn victims not into agents but into proxies. It has been subverted from a language that empowers victims to a language that serves the designs of an interventionist power on an international scale.

Q. Do you worry about the reaction to this book?

A. My experience is that it is better to defend what you have said than to explain why you left half the case unsaid. I worried about the extent to which the book is readable because the middle chapters are in-depth historical exploration. I worried about losing the general reader. But faced with a human-rights constituency determined to decontextualize this issue, I felt compelled to examine Darfur in both a regional and a historical context, focusing on its complexity. This morning I received figures from UNAMID [the United Nations Mission in Darfur] in Khartoum, on civilian deaths from conflict in Darfur during 2008. The figure was 1,520, with 600 dead as a result of the conflict in the south between different Arab groups over grazing land and 920 deaths attributable, I am told, more to rebel movements than to the government-organized counterinsurgency. This is the kind of complexity that has been totally simplified.

Anna Mundow, a freelance journalist living in Central Massachusetts, is a correspondent for the Irish Times. She can be reached via e-mail at •••@••.••• 

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