October 05, 2009

“Save Darfur”: Fast the Eid!

by Alex de Waal - September 14, 2009

America’s Darfur campaign sometimes goes beyond parody. The last few weeks have shown this to the full, beginning with the fantastical “Sudan Now” campaign and culminating in the proposal to fast the Eid. It beggars belief.

Having spent most of the last few months in Sudan, especially Darfur, it is increasingly evident that “Save Darfur”—here meaning not just the Save Darfur Coalition but the wider movement—is out of touch with realities. What they describe and prescribe has little or no relation to what is happening and what should be done. Three recent “Save Darfur” activities highlight this.

First is their campaign to push Obama to “keep the promise” and the ridiculous advertisements in newspapers and the Obamas’ vacation destination. They might do well to recall John Maynard Keynes’s well-known riposte to someone who accused him of inconsistency: “When the facts change, I change my mind? What do you do sir?” The facts have changed, the campaign hasn’t. A few months ago I asked rhetorically, “Can Sudan activism transform itself for the Obama era?” So far, the record is dispiriting.

There’s an episode in Joseph Heller’s Catch 22 where the principal character, Yossarian, is tending to a badly wounded young airman, Snowden. He goes about stemming a leg wound in the airman’s leg, while the boy mutely nods, until Yossarian realizes that he is meaning that there’s another wound too—a piece of shrapnel has got inside Snowden’s flak jacket and torn open his side. Yossarian has been busy bandaging the wrong wound while the poor boy is dying. It’s the defining trauma of the book. And it’s the defining error of the “keep the promise” campaign—money misspent on a campaign that is only hampering General Scott Gration the task he has correctly identified, which is finding a workable political settlement for Sudan as a whole. The efforts by “Save Darfur” to try to link its clamour on Darfur with the national issue stretches credibility.

Next was a revealing quote from John Prendergast in response to the remark by Gen. Martin Agwai, outgoing UNAMID Force Commander, that the war in Darfur was essentially over. He could not dispute Gen. Agwai’s facts nor his integrity. Prendergast’s criticism was that this was “something that takes the wind out of the sails of international action.”

This was perhaps more illuminating than Prendergast intended: his campaign is not about domestic solutions but international (read: U.S.) action. That’s Save Darfur’s second big error: if there is to be a solution, it will come from inside Sudan, and must be political, addressed at the structural political challenges of Sudan. A campaign focused on a genocide that isn’t happening, for the U.S. to step up its pressure to stop killing that has already ended, is just making Save Darfur look poorly-informed, and America look silly. Intermittently, “Save Darfur” has tried to rebrand itself as a peace movement—but its origins as an intervention campaign make it virtually impossible to make the transformation. Peace cannot be forced or dictated. If “Save Darfur” is interested in peace, the best it can do in the cause of peace is to fall silent.

Third–and simply stunning–is the choice of date for a fast for Darfur: 21 September. Muslims have been fasting since the beginning of Ramadhan and Eid will fall on 20 and 21 September. As soon as I mentioned the date to my wife, who is a Muslim, she laughed out loud. Not just her: every Muslim, Sudanese or otherwise, I have mentioned this to (trying my best to keep a straight face) has guffawed in amazement. Just as Darfurians are breaking their fast, Save Darfur’s campaigners will be starting theirs. The choice of day is astonishingly ignorant of, and insensitive to the Muslim world. “Save Darfur” may be a multi-faith initiative, but Muslims hardly count. “Save Darfur” isn’t about Sudan, or indeed Darfur, at all–it’s about an imagined empathy and generating a domestic American political agenda. Shame on you, Prendergast and your fellow “activists”, shame, shame, shame.


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