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So what do SDC and 007 have in common?

April 21, 2009

Some people have done things that they aren’t proud of and can’t live down.  Take Sean Connery, who followed up Diamonds are Forever with Zardoz, an epically awful film in which he wore an outfit that should have came with a warning label like “CAUTION: Before wearing, seriously reexamine your life.” or “WARNING: Avoid being filmed or photographed while wearing this monstrosity.  The internet will be invented soon and bloggers will mock you relentlessly for your humiliating fashion choices someday.”

Not Pictured: Sean Connery’s Sanity

Not Pictured: Sean Connery’s Sanity

The Save Darfur Coalition’s Zardoz is their history of oversimplifying the Darfur conflict as an Arab vs. African dichotomy.  However, lately SDC has tried to pretend that they don’t oversimplify the conflict in this manner.  Just a few short clicks from their main page, they have this relatively new section called Notes on Ethnic Terminology, in which they assert that they avoid “framing the genocide in Darfur as a conflict between ‘Arabs’ and ‘Africans.'”  Furthermore, when two SDC employees attended a speech given by Mahmood Mamdani on March 20th, 2009 one of them retorted, during the Q&A portion of the event:

…the other charge that you make, that we have tried to simplify the conflict into an Arab vs.  African — is completely false and that we unfailingly make an attempt to simplify the conflict.  If you looked at our website – and as a good researcher – if you googled at the bottom “Arab” the third item that would appear would be a note on ethnicity in Darfur that explains the complexity which you have so – uh – you know – uh – eloquently laid out…

“Completely false,” huh?  Thems some mighty big words, son!  Just because you’re parading some fancy “Notes on Ethnic Terminology” around now doesn’t absolve you of past sins of oversimplification.  I mean, Connery can’t deny that he starred in Zardoz just because he went on to play Indiana Jones’ dad!

The sticky truth is that descriptions of the conflict as Arab vs. African have historically polluted SDC literature.  It started in 2004 when they said, in a unity statement, that “a government-backed Arab militia known as Janjaweed has been engaging in campaigns to displace and wipe out communities of African tribal farmers.”  The use of this rhetoric has continued throughout the Coalition’s existence.  The most glaring example is:

Genocide is happening in Darfur. You can help end it. In 2003, two different kinds of people, the Arab Muslims and the Black Africans, started fighting in Darfur, Sudan. The government is ruled by the Arab Muslims, and they want to eliminate the Black Africans. The two groups are fighting for the little amount of water and land resources that are in Darfur. More than 400,000 Black African people have been killed, and more than 2 million Black African people have been forced to leave their homes.

Other examples abound.  Below are some from the SDC newsroom:

Government-backed Arab militias have pillaged, raped and murdered their way through black African villages in a genocidal campaign targeting civilians.

Desperate to locate new energy sources, the Chinese invest a billion dollars a year in Sudan and purchase two-thirds of its oil. Proceeds from these sales help fund the Arab militia known as the janjaweed, which continues to murder, rape, and dismember non-Arabs in Sudan’s western region of Darfur.

For more than four years, Arab militias have been killing, raping, looting and burning their way through black African villages in Sudan’s Darfur region.

But what I find most interesting are the materials they’re targeting at children.  The materials offered on SDC’s Dollars for Darfur site, the main resource for K-12 students, contain very mixed messages.  Some just flat out simplify the conflict:

In February 2003, the Sudan Liberation Army (SLA) and the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM) rebel groups were formed by members of the Fur, Zaghawa, and Masalit to demand reparation for the marginalization of Darfur, and to denounce the government’s failure to protect the indigenous population from Arab nomad raiders.  In response, a largely Arab guerilla force called the Janjaweed was created to target and attack civilian populations from the Zaghawa, Fur, and Masalit tribes…The ongoing conflict in Darfur started as a rebel uprising against the government but got international attention when the Janjaweed – Arab militias backed by the Sudanese government – began attacking black Africans.

While other materials on the same page verbosely, almost desperately assert that the conflict is not simply Arab vs. African.  One wordy discussion guide for teachers instructs them to:

Give a short background to the history of the conflict and the myth that the crisis in Darfur is an Arab versus African conflict. Explain that the Janjaweed militias, the main perpetrators of the violence, are generally labeled as “Arabs” and the civilians as “Africans”. This creates the myth that the crisis is an “Arab vs. African” conflict. This is not true; Darfur is a diverse land – people speak many different languages. The terms “Arab” and “African” apply not only to ethnic and linguistic similarities but also to cultural and socio-economic connections.  It is true, however, that the conflict has intensified identity differences between groups. Before the crisis, identity was very fluid and the distinctions between “Arab” and “African” were not absolute. Since the conflict began, identity has been redefined due to security, blood money or material interest, or incentives of being recruited as Arab militia. The government exaggerated identity differences and completely new community groups emerged as a result. Therefore, identity divisions are less of a cause of the conflict than a result of it.

Really?  Teachers should explain all that to their classes?  Some of these kids may still eat paste, for cryin’ out loud, and SDC wants to explain abstract concepts like “redefined identity” to them?  It seems to me that the statement above is more likely to deflect criticism from SDC’s critics who may get ahold of the document than to educate students in any meaningful way.  I’m sure that wasn’t SDC’s intention, though.

In light of all this information, what I wonder most is why SDC is trying to deny that they’ve oversimplified the conflict just because Mamdani and a few other detractors are calling them out on it.  If I were them, I’d say “Yeah, we dumbed it down to sell it to the masses with short attention spans.  And you know what?  Everyone knows what Darfur is now.  Mission accomplished, so suck it.”  Seriously, those would be my exact words.

But SDC’s trying to deny that they were ever guilty of oversimplification.  That seems like a bad strategy to me, as proof of the contrary is too easy to find.  I mean, how can SDC possibly think that they’re successfully handling this PR nightmare when it’s so easy to find a photo of them in a red speedo?

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