[Marxism] Mahmood Mamdani interview
lnp3 at panix.com
Fri Apr 24 06:24:20 MDT 2009
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.
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
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
Anna Mundow, a freelance journalist living in Central Massachusetts, is
a correspondent for the Irish Times. She can be reached via e-mail at
ama1668 at hotmail.com.
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