Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Darfur and the Arab world

Nicholas Kristof is one of my favourite columnists, and probably the best Western one I read regularly. He's not one of these typical arm-chair critics with grand theories about how the world works. He's a journalist at the core and even though he has a spot on the NYT op-ed page, he's not forgotten what real, hardcore journalism is meant to be. He visits Mukhatran Mai every now and then, he goes to Darfur regularly, he once went to Cambodia to free a sex slave and does all sorts of other cool stuff other journalists would never bother to do.

As people who know his writings are well aware, he's been perhaps the most impassioned voice in the U.S. on Darfur. He's now in Chad covering the genocide which has spilt over the border from Sudan. Anyways, he had an excellent point on his blog on the silence that the Darfur issue has been greeted with in the Arab/Muslim world. (It's Times Select content, so don't bother clicking if you don't have access).

It’s important because it would make a tremendous difference if there were more rage in the Muslim world, especially the Arab world. Sudan is now able to say, largely correctly, that most of the criticism is coming from the U.S. and Christian countries, and it portrays the objections as an effort by neo-Crusaders to invade Sudan and steal Arab oil. If the Muslim world were only half as concerned by the slaughter of hundreds of thousands of people as it was by the Danish cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad, then vast numbers of lives could be saved.

So why isn’t the Islamic world upset? For starters, we all have blind spots, and we all tend to be more interested in brutality committed by outsiders. The world was furious when white South Africans were oppressing black Africans; the world isn’t much concerned by blacks like Robert Mugabe oppressing blacks.

There is also an element of racism, I think. One of Islam’s great strengths is the dignity it confers on even the poorest person. But the Arab world (as a region, not the religion of Islam as such) has a history of enslaving blacks and looking down on blacks, and I think there is less concern for the victims of Darfur because they are dark-skinned.

More broadly, we all see events through narratives. And the Arab narrative (and to some extent the larger Islamic narrative) focuses on Western colonialism and the sins of Zionism. There isn’t much room for fussing about Muslim-on-Muslim oppression, whether of Kurds, or Western Saharans, or Darfuris. I’ve sometimes thought that the only way to get the Arab news media interested in the plight of Darfur would be for Israel to lob a few shells into the Darfur desert.

In contrast, a major element in the Western narrative is the Holocaust and genocide, and so that gives genocide in Darfur a prominence that it lacks in the Arab world.

There are a couple of issues here I want to address. First of all, the comment about blind spots is, well, spot on. For instance, the Darfur issue isn't even the most horrendous in terms of lack of attention in Africa (and that really is saying something). Congo's African World War, as it is known, took about 3.5 million lives and led to millions of refugees. How many people know about that compared to, say, the 9/11 attacks or this summer's war in Lebanon? We don't even have to think about wars, though, to prove the point. People can be blind to every day things, like the fact that driving is statistically more dangerous than flying. At the bottom of this is the very banal fact that the media has an incredible amount of power in shaping our fears and knowledge.

Second, it really does amaze me how much violence and injustice is allowed by groups as long as the group doing it is not The Other. This concept is basically what I called Group Insult Allowability except it's multiplied by 100, on steroids and a cheese burger-only diet. For intance, blacks in the U.S. were sick and tired of the treatment meted out to them until they finally snapped in the 60s, leading to the civil rights movement. But today, blacks kill each other in gang warfare routinely and arguably do themselves as much, if not greater, harm than was ever done to them, and not a word is said, except by a few important personalities like Bill Cosby. Similarly, the Arab/Muslim world gets up in arms if Israel attacks Lebanon, but says nothing when Saddam kills his own people or the Taliban round up Shias in Afghanistan and shoot them. Maybe "says nothing" is a bit over the top, but the noise level is nowhere near where it should be.

What does this have to do with Darfur? Only the fact that almost all the victims are Muslims! Last time I checked, we were around 300,000 dead in Sudan/Chad. 300,000! But the Muslim world - its leaders and press - is by and large silent, because the killers are other Muslims (for an exception to silence, click here for an article in the Khaleej Times). Same thing in Iraq, where Shias and Sunnis are presently carrying out against each other two of the most effective ethnic cleansing campaigns seen in recent history. The lesson is: if you want to kill lots of Muslims, and not have the Muslim world hate you, just convert to Islam.

Not much else to say, so I'll leave you with a great quote on genocide, except I don't know who came up with it. It goes like: "After the holocaust, the world said never again. 'Never again', however, meant that never again would the world allow the genocide of Jews by Germany in 1930s Europe."