Category Archives: Middle East studies

The “genocide” in Darfur. Are former colonial powers really to blame?

A review of Mahmoud Mamdani’s “Saviors and Survivors. Darfur, Politics and the War on Terror ”. Part 1

by Anders Hastrup.

A new book by Mahmoud Mamdani has sparked great controversy among scholars and activists working on Darfur. The title is “Saviors and Survivors. Darfur, Politics and the War on Terror”. This is the first in a series of reviews of the book, where I discuss the main points of the work.

Many reviewers of the book have reacted strongly to the claims of Mamdani’s work, which is understandable since the book aggressively criticizes central figures in the Save Darfur Movement and the journalists whose reporting from the war zone helped kick start the campaign. The attack on the Save Darfur “lobby” and the role of Darfur in the “War on Terror” have caught the attention of many reviewers who eagerly debate these claims. The high pitched, near hysterical, tone of Mamdani’s attacks have provoked equally high pitched replies. This is a shame because two thirds of the book deals. This is a shame since the book is more than just a critique of the Save Darfur Movement. Two-thirds of the book deal with the history of Darfur itself, from the colonial legacy to the role of the region in the Cold War and the Islamist/securalist divide of the rebel movements

The openly provocative statements are at times refreshing and at other times historically inaccurate and illogical. The overall attack on the Save Darfur Movement, and indeed on most of the activist movements and engaged journalists is really controversial and not entirely fair. I shall return to these debates in later reviews. In the historical chapters we find an interesting analysis of the way in which the colonial power of Great Britain rewrote the history of Sudan, and particularly Sudanese Arabs, in a “native” and “settler” paradigm. This particular division has persisted and, claims Mamdani, is the root cause of the perception of the present war in an “Arab” – “African” dichotomy:

“The Save Darfur lobby in the United States has turned the tragedy of the people of Darfur into a knife with which to slice Africa by demonizing one group of Africans, African Arabs. For undergirding the claim that a genocide has occurred in Darfur is another, born of a colonial historiography, that Arabs in Sudan- and elsewhere on the African continent- are settlers who came in from the outside and whose rights must be subordinate to those of indigenous natives.” (p. 300)

This is interesting but not entirely true. Claims like these are typical of the “blame the colonial powers and their artificial division of peoples and places for all the evil that the post-colonial African continent has witnessed” paradigm that shines through much of his book.

Throughout the historical part of the work, Mamdani uses a great deal of sources from well known authorities on the history of Sudan and Darfur, and couples this with a wider historical understanding of both colonial and Cold War legacies. There are factual mistakes throughout the work (the rebel leader Abdul Wahid al Nur is referred to as “Abd el Nur”, for instance, which is annoying). It is, however, spite the flaws, an interesting account, and as a researcher on Darfur I welcome new angles to debate the origins of one of the greatest humanitarian catastrophes in the new Millenium.

I have lived and worked in Darfur for about a year and I continue to do research into the patterns and origins of the conflict. I have been interested in looking at explanations of the root causes of the conflict that go beyond the seemingly inherent “historical” opposition between “Arabs” and “Africans” in Darfur and Sudan as a whole. I have looked at landowning issues and the marginalisation of Darfur’s Arab tribes as a result of their lack of fixed territory and I have seen, and continue to see, these issues as key to an understanding of the conflict.

However, when I was in Chad for two months this spring interviewing the refugees who have fled from the horrors of the infamous janjaweed militia in Darfur, I was forced to rethink many of my earlier approaches to the conflict. Listening to people I realised that they themselves clearly saw this as a war of “Arabs” vs. “Africans”. If this is how the war is experienced, then this is their truth, and the truth is local, something Mamdani does not take into account in his conspiracy theories of the hegemonic world order behind the Save Darfur campaign.

In countless interviews people would talk of how the Arab militias told them that the country should be “cleared of all blacks” and that “you are slaves and must leave” while burning, raping and killing their way through Darfur. Mamdani has taken very little time to hear how victims of the conflict themselves have put events into language. For the Darfurian population in the refugee camps of Eastern Chad, the perpetrators are indeed the “Arabs” set out to kill “blacks”. You cannot write off the local experience of blatant racist violence happening here and now as a continuation of a false dichotomy that has its origins in colonial historiography. It is an oversimplification and an exaggeration of the impact of colonial divisions on contemporary realities in Darfur. It is also an arrogant lack of respect for local knowledge and experience of the war on the ground by the people who have suffered through it.

In the two months I interviewed Darfurian refugees in Eastern Chad this spring I heard the same tale over and over again: “The Arabs came, killed my family, raped my wife, burned down my house and forced me to flee saying that the land should be cleared of all blacks”. If I were to follow Mamdani’s line of thought my reply would be: “No, you are not victims of the Arabs. The janjaweed are themselves victims of British colonial historiography that have falsely introduced a “native” vs. “settler” paradigm, which you can clearly find in MacMichael’s “A History of the Arabs in Sudan” from 1922”.

I don’t see the connection between the colonial historiographic legacy and the modern day engagement in the current war from the various interest groups. I don’t think that journalists reporting from the frontline were aware of this particular divide and the “origins” of it when they wrote their articles, telling the world of the extermination of villages by the militias. What I think they responded to was the sheer magnitude of the humanitarian catastrophe that unfolded in the course of a very short time, which they witnessed. I believe the reporting on the war as a war between “Arabs” and “Africans”, that has continued to inform the media coverage of the conflict, is a result of investigative journalism, where reporters took time to listen to the voices of millions of displaced who fled the janjaweed terror.

All the high pitched cliché ridden colonial critique aside, the book is still a refreshing comment and for my own part been it is  a great source of inspiration to continue to do research on the impact of colonial legacy on developments in Darfur, if nothing else then to find out where Mamdani is wrong.

New article on ethnic unrest in Iran

by Rasmus Christian Elling.

I would like to draw to your attention my recently published article on ethnic unrest in Iran:

‘State of Mind, State of Order: Reactions to Ethnic Unrest in the Islamic Republic of Iran’ in Studies in Ethnicity and Nationalism, vol. 8, issue 3, December 2008. Read the abstract here.

Orientalism: something like a disclaimer

By Sune Haugbolle.


As a blogging newbie I’m discovering how entries can be funny, and sometimes not so funny, in the way that they take on a life of their own on the Net. My previous piece about MESA 2008 and why we should put Said on the backburner was read by a lot of people, which is great. It was also not only linked, but quoted in full length on Daniel Pipes’ Campuswatch webpage, undoubtedly because it contained a critique of MESA president Mervat Hatem’s address in November which can be seen to fit with the general thrust of Martin Kramer’s longstanding attack on the Middle East Studies Association (his book Ivory Towers on Sand, etc). In other words, I was NOT included on Campuswatch for the same reasons as those of my friends who have had the honour. I don’t like that association, and I find it necessary to specify my critique. Having stated my dislike of the McCarthyist project of surveying ME studies for good (read patriotic, anti-Islamic and pro-Israeli) scholarship, it must be added that not all is bad on Campuswatch, and its Middle East Studies in the News section, where I was quoted, has in the past linked to many balanced and interesting pieces (e.g. this Juan Cole refutation of Thomas Friedmann). At the same time the incident has made me think about some of the fault lines in ME studies in new ways. So here’s something like a disclaimer, and an attempt to reflect further on the issue.


First, I do believe that Hatem’s address was indicative of an unreflective kind of celebration of Orientalism in certain circles (perhaps certain generations) of the Middle East Studies community, which I have observed and which I find problematic for several reasons. Said’s book is not flawless, nor is his representation of our discipline’s history. As David Irwin, Maxime Rodinson and many others have painstakingly demonstrated since the book was released thirty years ago, Said’s readings of European Orientalists do not do the scientific insights of their work justice. Nor is his lumping together of very diverse intellectual projects over several hundred years into one “Orientalist” truth regime persuasive at all when subjected to a closer reading of the original texts. So using it as some sort of Bible or Constitution of Middle East Studies is a betrayal of the rich history of our field.  


Perhaps the more important reason why I found Hatem’s address so troubling is that I sensed it was full of repressed knowledge. I cannot believe that she honestly thinks that the UN Human Development Reports reflected Orientalist attitudes, internalised by the Orientals who wrote them, more than the well-documented multiple social and political crises in the Arab world that the reports described. In other words, the knowledge that there is a measure of truth in some of the right-wing attacks on the region, which are of course truly Orientalist in their generalisations, was repressed in Hatem’s speech. In that sense it reflected how the politicisation of Middle East Studies can force people to adopt skewed standpoints that actually betray the knowledge we produce about the region, because their opponents are so radically far to the right in their argumentation.     


Certainly, the attacks on Said and Orientalism that we have witnessed since 2001, represented by the likes of Irwin, Kramer and Ibn Warraq (Irwin being the least ideological of the three), have also been taken too far. In their most extreme, theses critics argue that Said has become a spokesperson or icon for apologetics of everything they think is wrong with the Middle East, be it (an ill-defined) “Islam,” human rights abuses, lack of political freedom, suicide bombers, or Palestinian “terror,” and that MESA is dominated by such individuals who are blind to these ostensibly very obvious things. This is of course an extreme simplification of Said’s work and of the rich and sophisticated research being produced on the Middle East. I don’t share this position, and certainly not the general Said bashing. For me, Edward Said was principally a humanist, who was the product of a particular time and intellectual milieu that reacted against imperialism, intellectual conservativism and, most of all, the tragic injustices committed against the Palestinian people. In fact, I think the main mistake of the Said critics of the last few years is when they (choose to) ignore the reality of Orientalist stereotypes in present and past Western society and scholarship, but also the reality of imperialism and its lingering effects in the Arab world. Not that the reality that the book sought to counter can be used as an excuse for the mistakes and misreading it contains, but it does, to some extent, explain why we can sympathise with its fundamental position. Furthermore, as I said in my last post, the focus on Western misrepresentations of the “Orient” is still a timely intellectual project, not least in the US.


The radical critique of Said which sees him as a “charlatan” (Ibn Warraq) completely ignores all this. That is exactly why my hair stood up when I was listening to Hatem’s presidential address: she fitted the Said critics’ stereotypical image of MESA so well! And she was speaking as the president after all.


That kind of discourse can only lead to a dialogue of the deaf who accuse the other of serving up a dish of stereotypes that has nothing to do with the real world. This whole politicisation of our field may be a fact that we have to deal with, but not one that we should seek to perpetuate. Perhaps the best way to rid ourselves of a polemical war of trenches and extreme politicisation of our work is to ignore the Orientalism debate a tad bit, to the extent that it is possible. A friend of mine commented on my unlikely inclusion on Campuswatch that this proves exactly why Said can’t be put on the backburner. In other words (at least I presume this is what she meant), as long as the likes of Kramer are out there, we need to be aware of stereotypes and politically powerful lobbies who promote the old Orientalist canard about the Orient as intrinsically backwards and therefore in need of help (and invasions). Perhaps. But it should not – must not – lead us to lose focus of our real job: to describe and understand current and past social reality in the Middle East.


MESA 2008: put Said on the backburner

by Sune Haugbolle.

Here is the promised post on MESA, a bit late due to my busy schedule in the States. The 42th annual meeting of the Middle East Studies Association as usual included hundreds of panels on diverse issues in the field. It may be hard to draw out trends from that smorgasbord of new research, but I’ll try.

Just like last year, one of the best attended and most talked-about panels was on new trends in the study of Saudi Arabia. This year’s Saudi panel included two of the young researchers, Thomas Hegghammer and Stephane Lacroix, who organised last year’s tremendous “new directions in the study of Saudi Arabia.” This time they, along with a host of other brilliant scholars, were asking whether the global spread of Saudi Islamism can be attributed to a Wahhabi masterplan, or to an “accident of globalisation.” Their answers were somewhere in-between, provided through detailed analysis of the different groups of salafists and wahhabi activists and thinkers from the late 1970s to today and their intricate links with the Saudi authorities. Look out for the excellent (fellow Scandinavian) Hegghammer’s forthcoming book on the topic, which will be out with Cambridge UP next year. The panel chair Marc Lynch has a more detailed write-up of the different papers here.

Another striking event for me was the incoming President of MESA’s address. Unfortunately it was strikingly…disappointing, in my opinion, and perhaps indicative of a trend in the field. Mervat Hatem spoke about the influence of Edward Said’s Orientalism on Middle East studies and about power and knowledge in general. The first reason why I found it disappointing is that these addresses should offer at least some kind of overview of the field of Middle East Studies, which Hatem’s didn’t. Secondly, her rendition of this important question offered nothing new (do we really need to be taken through Foucault and Said again?) and was overly uncritical in its celebration of the book, I thought.

Don’t get me wrong, I think the focus on Western misrepresentations of the “Orient” is still relevant – particularly in an American context. And Said’s intervention was certainly needed at the time, even if it vilifies several Orientalists whose work had much more real insights into Middle Eastern societies to offer than most present-day Middle East scholars. But Mervat Hatem’s talk was typical for those in the field whose focus on misrepresentations in a Western context sometimes leads them to forget social reality in the Middle East. Hence, she cited the recent UN Human Development Reports as examples of how Western conception of “modernity” and “development” are internalised by Arab intellectuals to critique their own societies in a way which she found “Orientalist”.

Really, that’s so off the mark. The problems with education, gender inequality and authoritarianism in the Arab countries are real and pressing, and cannot be written off as Orientalist constructions. As one of my university professors once said to me, “put Said on the backburner” and focus on people in the Middle East instead. I understand that Orientalist fantasies are alive and kicking in parts of Western societies, and in the States more than anywhere else. Representations do matter, for sure. But I don’t think that they should be the main concern of Middle East studies anymore in 2008. Instead, let’s take a hard, balanced look at the other forces that have shaped the history of the modern Middle East, like the young researchers on the Saudi Arabia panel and many more did so excellently at MESA.    


by Sune Haugbolle.

As-salamu ‘alykum! Under this signature of CUMINet you’ll be able to follow the bits and pieces of my work that makes it onto the blog. There’s going to be a fair bit of Lebanese affairs as that is my main orbit in the universe of things Middle Eastern (as much as I try to break loose from it). I was in Beirut recently and will return in January, and regularly, and one of my next entries will be about the situation there.

Second, I’ll be writing about my research with the New Islamic Public Sphere Programme. My current project deals with secularism as a (dying) force in Arab media and the cultural industries – you can read more about it here. At the moment I’m ploughing my way through a stack of old articles from the Lebanese press on secularism that I collected at the as-Safir archives. There’ll be an entry on that at some point if I ever make sense of it.

I will also be devoting time to theoretical debates, anecdotes, field notes, and Middle East studies discussions. On that note, I’ll be blogging MESA 2008 from Washington D.C. from November 21 to 24. The programme looks promising this year. I’ll be chairing a panel with my Oxford friend and former al-Jazeera starlette Nahid Siamdoust on memory in popular culture, Sunday morning at 8.30. Other than that we’ll see what comes up. I’ve definitely got the panel on “Arab Thought in the Post-Liberal Era, 1939-1975” marked down. Nothing could be more important in Hourani-inspired work on intellectuals than to fill the gap on the period immediately after Arab independence. It’ll be fun. MESA is always an occasion for meeting old friends, tuning in to debates and trends in the field, and meandering between films, books, and ending up with something unexpected. – More soon!