Darfur and the Media

The New York Times Nicholas Kristof was among the first journalists to report extensively on Darfur, and his writings contributed immensely to a gradually expanding awareness of the volatile region. However, like many reporters, Kristof described the conflict as a struggle between Arab rulers and ‘black Africans.’ While Kristof glossed over the more complex realities of the conflict, his approach served a useful purpose and was widely emulated by the international press. Matched with ‘genocide,’ the native African versus oppressive Arab rendition offered a badly needed angle. It made Darfur simple. It made Darfur saleable. It made Darfur a war of religion and ethnicity.

When reporters describe the combatants as ‘black Africans’ and Arabs, they imply that non-Muslim native Darfurians are being expelled by foreign Arabs, people totally unlike themselves in culture, language and ethnicity, recent arrivals searching for new lands to conquer. Understanding the conflict in these terms only raises the misconception that the Government of Sudan is not responsible for the violence, that the fighting is waged for localized reasons only. It also reinforces false stereotypes and cultural misunderstandings against Arabs perpetuated and strengthened by other ongoing international conflicts. Encouraging such assumptions, even unintentionally, perhaps threatens to discourage people from believing that a solution can be reached. Put bluntly, it angles the conflict as "just another Jihad."

It is this misconception that I would like to address here. This entry will only serve to provide a brief introduction, while a forthcoming entry will offer an alternative way for media to report on Darfur that is just as saleable as the current one.

Painting Darfur as a war of religious and racial tensions is a tempting mistake to make. The idea that Darfur is a race war extends from our popular understanding that Africa is divided between two distinct halves. To the north, we assume, are the Arab lands stretching the length of the Mediterranean coast and the Red Sea, with the non-Arab, non-Islamic and black Africa south of the deserts. Sudan, and particularly Darfur, simply does not conform to this tidy geographic fault-line. Sudan is among Africa’s most diverse countries, with a plethora of distinct religious practices, languages and ethnicities. To package Darfur’s conflict as one between ‘black Africans’ and ‘Arabs’ is simply untrue.

To begin with, the majority of Darfurians are Muslims, either followers of the Sufi Tijoniyya sect from Morocco or the Ansar followers of the Mahdi, a movement that originally arrived from the Middle East. Darfur’s adherents adopted a relaxed approach to Islam and became renowned for their memorization of the Qur’an. Islam was adopted as the state religion of the Dar Fur Sultanate, and remains central to the spiritual and social lives of Darfurians today.

The ‘native black Africans’ are composed of six principle peoples, though in reality there are many more. The Fur were the founders of the ruling Dar Fur Sultanate and the engine of Islamic expansion, but they have always been a minority. In the north there is the Tunjur and Zaghwa, in the east the Berti and Birgid, and to the west the Masalit.

Darfur’s Arabs arrived in their greatest numbers between the fourteenth and eighteenth centuries. They predominately emigrated as two groups: from east and west Africa came scholars and traders; and slowly moving south from the northwest came nomadic Juhayna Bedouins in search of grazing lands. For hundreds of years Arabs and non-Arabs intermarried, traded and co-existed peacefully. A common and resilient culture naturally emerged between them. Therefore, it is unreasonable to imply that the conflict is a war between native black Africans and foreign Arabs.

So who is fighting and why? The long answer is best left for another entry. While it is true that resource conflicts in Darfur during the 1980’s intensified because of ethnicity, and while it is true that both rebel groups and the Sudanese government are promoting the conflict as one of ethnicity to bind disparate groups under a common banner, the conflict does not strictly adhere to such simplicities. Darfur is ultimately a conflict about resources. It is about access to water and arable land, precious commodities that are found in increasingly short supply. It is also about having a voice in the central government, about a political disconnect with the capital Khartoum that overrides local differences.

Links and Sources:

An excellent article found in a news magazine often overlooked in the West: Carina Ray, “Are ‘Arabs’ killing ‘Black Africans’ in Darfur?” New African (January 2009) http://www.africasia.com/services/opinions/opinions.php?ID=2059&title=ray

For an explanation of Nicholas Kristof’s Darfur reporting see: Nicholas Kristof, “Genocide in Slow Motion,” The New York Review of Books (February 2006)http://www.nybooks.com/articles/18674

Alexander De Waal, “War in Darfur and the Search for Peace” (Harvard: Global Equity Initiative, 2007). Of particular interest is Chapter 4, “Islam and Islamism in Darfur” by Ahmed Kamal El-Din.

1 comment:

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