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The Current:
Spring 2007
Mamdani's Darfur Lobby
Armin Rosen

In October 2004, Columbia Professor Mahmood Mamdani gave a speech in Dakar, Senegal presenting his views on politics and the Darfur crisis. His address did not satisfy those confident in describing the conflict as a straightforward, morally unambiguous Arab-on-black genocide. In fact, Mamdani specifically warned against this view. "There is a need," said Mamdani, "to beware of groups who want a simple and comprehensive explanation, even if it is misleading; who demand dramatic action, even if it backfires; who have so come to depend on crisis that they risk unwittingly aggravating existing crises."

After spending much of his speech explaining why the Darfur conflict was not a genocide, Mamdani argued that the use of such alarmist language was of great significance: "Does the label 'worst humanitarian crisis' tell us more about Darfur or about those labeling and the politics of labeling?" asked Mamdani. "Are we to return to a Cold War-type era in which America's allies can commit atrocities with impunity while its adversaries are demagogically held accountable to an international standard of human rights?"

The reality of Darfur, according to Mamdani, is complicated, while the reality of Darfur activism is political. In hearkening back to the Cold War, Mamdani accused members of the Darfur lobby of promoting an "us versus them" dichotomy that legitimized comparisons between the decades-long conflict with the Soviet Union and the War on Terror. Mamdani would clarify this view in a December lecture on Darfur in which he claimed that some groups were using the issue to "bring Sudan into the War on Terror."

Though Mamdani has a knack for making immoderate opinions sound reasonable, his true message is unmistakable. Humanitarian concern alone cannot possibly explain America's increasing interest in Darfur. The more than one and a half million refugees that the conflict has created cannot sufficiently explain it. Neither can a mounting death toll in the hundreds of thousands. Instead, Mamdani makes a serious accusation: that far from being humanistically motivated, the words "Save Darfur" are jingoism in its most Orwellian disguise. Mamdani believes that protest is "demagogical" so long as America supports repressive regimes. Any protest therefore is political, its motivations covert, deceptive, and fundamentally self-serving.

It is a conclusion that is incongruous in many ways. Mamdani has chided the west for its intellectual complacency regarding oft-misunderstood regions like Darfur, so why does he attack the only people working against western political complacency—namely, the groups organizing for public awareness on Darfur? And why, in a lecture this past December did Mamdani identify "some of the most important players in the Save Darfur Coalition" as an external force opposed to and even actively working against a negotiated peace in Darfur? According to Save Darfur Coalition executive director David Rubinstein, the coalition is so concerned with finding a peaceful settlement that it paid for former New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson's travel expenses when he went to the region as a negotiator. And yet Mamdani, convinced of the ulterior motives of "right wing" Darfur activists, is dismissive.

Perhaps the most crucial question begged by Mamdani's lectures and essays on Darfur is: why do critics of the Darfur lobby attach such importance to how the conflict is labeled? For professor Dirk Salomons, director of the Program for Humanitarian Affairs at Columbia's School of International and Public Affairs (SIPA), the debate over whether an intensifying conflict that has already killed a quarter-million people and displaced over two million more is an ethnic cleansing or genocide is "totally stupid." Salomons says the conflict falls along the "continuum of denying other people's humanity...getting into a fight over labeling totally misses the point." The critics of the Darfur Coalition have done just that. They have provoked a fight over labeling, and the obvious question is "Why?"

What makes accounting for this debate on Darfur so difficult is the absence of any real debate outside the one over the use of the word genocide. Mamdani's various lectures on the conflict are therefore significant for giving the illusion of a debate when there is, in reality, little real division on Darfur even between Save Darfur and its critics.

Mamdani's most spurious accusations appeared in a March 2007 article in the London Review of Books. Extrapolating from scant anecdotal evidence, Mamdani claimed that Darfur activists have covertly used both popular moral indignation and the War on Terror to make the case for either direct U.S. intervention in Darfur or intervention "by proxy." Willfully ignorant of the stated goals of the Save Darfur Coalition, Mamdani uses the terms "humanitarian intervention lobby" and "Save Darfur campaign" interchangeably, and attempts to explain why Darfur activists have been so eager for a U.S. intervention in the region. He cites Rwanda as one possibility. "With very few exceptions," writes Mamdani, "the Save Darfur campaign has drawn a single lesson from Rwanda: the problem was the U.S. failure to intervene to stop the genocide."

Perhaps Mamdani missed the letter from Rubinstein on behalf of the coalition to Illinois Democratic Senator Richard Durbin urging him to use his position as chair of the Senate Subcommittee on Human Rights to push for an "A.U./U.N. hybrid peacekeeping force." Rubinstein's policy suggestion stands in stark contrast to Mamdani's portrayal of Darfur activists, but for Mamdani to concede that the Save Darfur Coalition does not want an "Iraq-style intervention" would counter his basic premise that there is a major difference of opinion on Darfur.

In his London Review article, Mamdani writes that "to reinforce the peace process must be the first commitment of all those interested in Darfur." With a "comprehensive" peace treaty in effect in Darfur since April of 2006, the deployment of U.N. troops to the region would be consistent with the world body's stated goal of peacekeeping—to "stabilize conflict situations" while the provisions of a treaty are put into effect. This is hardly the same thing as an "intervention," especially since the U.N. approved the deployment of around 20,000 peacekeepers in August of 2006. It would be, in fact, a reinforcement of the peace process. Thus Mamdani plainly ignores the fact that his suggestion of reinforcing the peace process neatly coincides with the policies the vast majority of Darfur activists support.

The paradigm of a negotiated peace backed by a multinational peacekeeping force is accepted across the political spectrum—there is no difference between Illinois Democratic Senator Barack Obama's and Kansas Republican Senator Sam Brownback's respective platforms on Darfur, as both advocate increasing humanitarian aid, supporting the African Union's mission in the region, and deploying a multinational force to Darfur. So the "debate" amounts to little more than bickering over the motivations—or rather, the perceived motivations—of the academics, politicians, and protestors involved in the Darfur issue. Given that the stakes of this debate are, at least conceptually, the lives of over 2 million refugees and roughly 6 million Darfuris, it seems to be the most bizarre and counterproductive discussion imaginable.

On one side are academics and left-wing voices who see Darfur activism as a disingenuous form of political opportunism. Mamdani is not the only scholar who has made this accusation. Syracuse African American Studies and Political Science professor Horace Campbell says that the U.S.'s "neocon leadership" is using the perceived Arab-on-black genocide in Darfur as a means of "mobilizing a crusade against Islam" and "fighting wars in Iraq, Palestine, and Iran." Professor Richard Lobban of Rhode Island College, in an article for Macmillan's Encyclopedia on Race and Racism, writes regarding the term genocide that, "Notably three non-African and non-Arab nations were the most interested in applying this term. Perhaps for reasons of domestic pressures, or as diversionary efforts were England, the United States and Israel." The article then makes gratuitous reference to Israel's "violating numerous U.N. resolutions in lands it occupies by military force." Mamdani is somehow not alone in his assessment. There are many other academics with the same warped perception of the motives of Darfur activists.

Some groups do view the Darfur issue as a political opportunity. The more right-wing elements of the Save Darfur Coalition includes protestors like Charles Jacobs, who unapologetically views the Darfur conflict as a way of helping Israel, and Dr. Peter Pham, a professor at James Madison University and the head activist on Africa for the more interventionist Foundation for the Defense of Democracies. Jacobs has criticized the Save Darfur Coalition for deliberately avoiding the fact that the "same people doing this to the Darfuris are planting bombs in pizza parlors in Israel" and sees the movement as excessively humanistic, in sharp contrast to Mamdani, who views it as excessively political. Dr. Pham supports unilateral military intervention in theory on the grounds that responsibility for stopping the conflict "falls back on anybody capable of acting and who will act," adding that Sudan's pro-terrorist, Islamist government has already made that country a part of the War on Terror.


Refugees escaping Janjaweed assaults. Time Magazine, 2006.

However, Pham says he is far from giving up on a multilateral solution to the conflict, and both Jacobs and Pham believe that Darfur is primarily a humanitarian issue. Almost everyone in the Coalition shares this sentiment. Antonios Kireopoulos, representative for the National Council of Churches in Christ on the Save Darfur Coalition's executive committee, says that his organization and most others in the Coalition are "in it for the moral imperative to end the genocide and only to end the genocide." American Jewish World Service president and Save Darfur Coalition founding member Ruth Messinger says that her organization is "aware of the nuances" in Darfur. But in her mind, the conflict's details are secondary to the immediacy of the humanitarian situation. Smith College professor Eric Reeves demonstrated an almost encyclopedic grasp of the conflict's nuances when he spoke on a panel at Columbia on February 22nd and his message was essentially similar to Messinger's: the most important fact about Darfur is that the conflict is getting worse, thus making the conflict deserving of our immediate attention.

With even the far right in favor of multilateralism and in complete agreement that the most pressing concern in Darfur is the ever-increasing death count, it is impossible to overemphasize the extent to which this debate is the fabrication of Mamdani, Lobban, Campbell, and other academics. While Mamdani uses peripheral elements like Jacobs's and Pham's as representative of the activist response, Mamdani's own policy suggestions closely mirror those of Messinger, Rubinstein, and other Darfur activists. Namely, they all promote what Rubinstein characterizes as a "realistic" course of action. According to Rubinstein, the Darfur conflict can be resolved through a "ceasefire, an independent force to protect civilians, and a long-term peace process;" a statement not far from Mamdani's suggestion in Dakar that the solution is to "organize in support of a culture of peace, of a rule of law and of a system of political accountability."

So why does Mamdani construct this seemingly artificial debate? One of the most likely reasons is concern over the dangers of oversimplified discourse on Darfur. In his Dakar speech, Mamdani characterized the conflict not as racial warfare exacerbated by political circumstance, but as a political circumstance with social and ethnic dynamics shockingly far removed from the Arab-African dichotomy portrayed frequently by activists in the United States. Both Mamdani and Lobban have noted that Darfuris have joined some of the government-sponsored groups fighting the rebels, and the aggressive nature of the rebel groups—as well as the moral and political ambiguities inherent in any insurgency-counterinsurgency conflict—makes it irresponsible to typecast the conflict in Darfur. Lobban, for instance, is concerned that "demonizing" the Sudanese government "angelizes" the rebels, who Reeves described as "ruthless."

But this concern is misguided, given that this simplified discourse has produced the same conclusions as Mamdani's own analysis, and that a complicated one might have negative consequences of its own—Lobban supports a peace process in Darfur similar to the one in Southern Sudan. But in that situation, an estimated two million people died over a twenty-year period before a permanent peace settlement and U.N. peacekeepers could be put in place. Mamdani, and to a greater extent Lobban, would exchange a simplified, proactive discussion on Darfur for a more complex but probably more complacent one. This academic paralysis, though perhaps stemming from a more technically "accurate" assessment of the situation, does precious little to address the ongoing suffering in Darfur. In this respect, Messinger is correct in saying that the region's opaque political situation "doesn't obscure the fundamental overarching fact: the government and the militias it has armed wants to destroy as many of the people in Darfur as possible."

Then there is the irrational offshoot of Mamdani's claim: the paranoid fear that groups involved in Darfur activism are using the issue for purely political reasons to pursue or reinforce a right-wing or pro-Israel political agenda. This idea was most fully developed by Columbia professor Hisham Aidi in the spring 2005 issue of the Middle East Report. In an article entitled "Slavery, Genocide and the Politics of Outrage," Aidi wrote that it is "post-9/11 domestic politics" more so than moral concern that explains the American public's mobilization on Darfur. Aidi is explicit as to which group benefits from an organized movement against "genocide" in Darfur. Writes Aidi, "The Zionist concern for minorities in the Arab world is strategic: by focusing on how Arab states treat their minorities, pro-Israel scholars can shift the spotlight from Palestine, highlight Arab double standards...and show how Israel protects minority rights better than any other state in the region. Given the American Jewish community's silence over the Congo, Uganda and Sierra Leone, it seems the outrage over Darfur is as moral as it is political."

Mamdani at least implicitly backs this idea in his March article, in which he says that the "Christian right and the Zionist lobby" have "depoliticized" Darfur in order for the issue to better serve their own individual interests. This is another observation shockingly at odds with the facts. The groups forming the core of Save Darfur, like the American Jewish World Service and the Union for Reform Judaism are Jewish but not specifically Zionist. Mamdani has subtly but troublingly conflated Jewish activism with Zionist activism, and in doing so has necessarily tied Jewish activism to Jewish self-interest.

Aidi argues that Jewish activism on Darfur is fundamentally opportunistic, and dismisses the possibility of pure humanitarian interests in Jewish concern over the Arab or Muslim world. Even this idea has its supporters, despite the fact that it is flatly contradicted by the lack of attempts by activists to connect Darfur, Israel, and terrorism. In a 2002 book review in the Journal of Palestine Studies entitled "Deconstructing Holocaust Consciousness," Columbia professor Joseph Massad favorably reviews Peter Novick's The Holocaust in American Life, Norman Finkelstein's The Holocaust Industry, and Mark Chmiel's Elie Wiesel and the Politics of Moral Leadership. The second of these is a notorious tract outlining the alleged Jewish exploitation of Jewish suffering, and has been widely criticized for its promotion of anti-Semitic stereotypes. It is one of the most maligned works of "scholarship" to appear in recent years, and Brown University history professor Omer Bartov characterized it as "irrational and insidious" shortly after its publication in 2000. In light of this, it is almost inconceivable that Massad would give it an unqualified positive review. Even more troubling, Massad calls the three books "indispensable for anyone interested in understanding how international Zionism, Israel and the United States have collaborated in producing an elaborate ideological defense system of Israeli crimes."


A village in Chad destroyed by Janjaweed militias. Time Magazine, 2006.

In this essay, and in another one entitled "Palestinians and Jewish History," Massad argues that any Jewish activism on genocide is necessarily an offshoot of Zionist ideology. Massad reasons that the Holocaust is a poor excuse for Jewish humanism, because the very intimation of a connection between Jews and genocide provides an ideological basis for Israeli crimes. If one supports Israel, the process of interacting with and reacting to a historical legacy of suffering operates as a political and ideological buffer for the Jewish state, whether one intends for it to do so or not. For Massad and Aidi there is an obsession with the idea that Zionist motives inform all Jewish activism and, therefore, any such activism must be scrutinized because its motives are necessarily cynical. By their reasoning, Jewish activism on Darfur would be self-serving and illegitimate no matter the scope of the killing in Darfur. To Massad and Aidi, the specter of Zionism cancels the possibility of purely moral or humanitarian efforts by Jewish activists.

Regarding Mamdani, whose reputation is built upon his sophisticated views on African identity politics, it is significant that he fails to find legitimacy in connecting the necessity of action on Darfur to past Jewish suffering. Perhaps as a political scientist, Mamdani may find it difficult to accept that anything can have purely humanist motivations. But there is more to this than the naturally skeptical tendencies of the political thinker. There is another motive that drives Mamdani to construct the Darfur "debate"—his grotesque prioritization of African sovereignty over African lives.

The closing lines of his Dakar speech state that Darfur is a "test...to defend African sovereignty in the face of official America's global 'war on terror.'" Fear over American aggression in Darfur has been consistent throughout Mamdani's work on Darfur, and in both his Dakar speech and in his London Review article, Mamdani ominously warned against American intervention in Darfur "by proxy." He used similar language during a November speech at Northwestern University. "Don't become a proxy," Mamdani instructed students interested in becoming involved in Sudan activism. "If you act out of ignorance, then innocence will be no excuse for the consequences of your action."

Mamdani's London Review article also makes it clear that the consequence he most specifically fears is an "Iraq-style intervention"—legitimate, except that none of the "important players" in the Save Darfur Coalition that Mamdani alluded to in his January talk actually support this stance. There is an obvious academic sleight of hand involved in recasting as duplicitously militant what is actually a peace advocacy movement. But it is more than bad logic—a February poll by the Genocide Intervention Network found that Americans support multilateral over unilateral action on Darfur, and that only 37% favored sending 10,000 or more American troops to the region. Meanwhile, of the five Save Darfur Executive Committee members interviewed for this piece ("important players" in the Coalition to be sure), none of them support anything remotely resembling Iraq-style intervention.

In Dakar, at Columbia, and in the London Review of Books, Mamdani has used American intervention as a proverbial straw-man argument. With such scant public support for the use of American military force, Mamdani's anxieties have less to do with Darfur than with his own feelings about African sovereignty and the possible expansion of American influence on the continent. Campbell holds a similar viewpoint. He stresses the moral equivalency between the United States' Iraq policy and the Sudanese government's campaign in Darfur and believes that supporting peace in Darfur means being "against the militarism of the United States of America." For each, the specter of American imperialism is of more pressing, immediate concern than the less conjectural threat of ethnic warfare consuming Darfur. And for each, the key issue here is not the root causes of the Darfur conflict that they themselves have identified—the key issue is, inexplicably, the United States and the threat it poses to regional sovereignty.

Of course, a crisis like the one in Darfur mocks the very idea of African sovereignty. After all, it is a sovereign Sudan that has repeatedly resorted to "genocide by habit" in Eric Reeves's words, to deal with uprisings in the country's south and north, and it is a sovereign African Union that has been unable to pressure Sudan into allowing a more effectual peacekeeping force in the region. Sovereignty has effectively allayed the imaginary threat of American military intervention—but it has not been particularly effective at stopping the conflict and human suffering in Darfur. American militarism has been kept in check. But Reeves and his co-panelists at Columbia, including the U.N.'s head of humanitarian relief in Darfur, agreed that the slaughter is only getting worse.

These criticisms may have no more complicated a source than an academic superiority complex. Complex situations are a boon to those who are intelligent enough to interpret them, and this is something that Mamdani is conscious of—his faculty profile says the he has "a secondary interest in the institutional reproduction of knowledge."

If eggheadism turns out to be Mamdani's reason for criticizing Darfur activism, then his argument that complication devalues action raises the possibility that his "politics of scholarship" is scholarship itself. Scholar-activists like Reeves, who has spoken at rallies and testified before Congress, provide a template for turning the esoteric details of a far-off civil war into a popular call for action. An articulate, respected, and forward-thinking academic like Mamdani could easily bridge the gap between scholarship and activism.

This would be significant: uniting activism with scholarship should be a priority for activists and scholars alike, especially in a situation as perplexing as the Darfur crisis. But Mamdani does nothing to solve this problem and others in the region by simply pointing out that they exist.

So he is correct in saying that innocence is no excuse for a misguided stance on Darfur. But neither is being one of the top Africanists on earth.


Armin Rosen is a first-year in the joint program between the School of General Studies and the Jewish Theological Seminary. He is Associate Opinion Editor for the Spectator and a contributor to the Blue and White. He can be reached at arr2133@columbia.edu.


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