Saviors and Survivors: Darfur, Politics, and the War on Terror February 17, 2015 23:00

By Mahmood Mamdani, Pantheon Books, 2009, hardcover, 398 pp. 

Get the book here!

Reviewed by Delinda C. Hanley

I’m ashamed to confess that I am an “underliner,” highlighting text that I may want to refer to in future articles. By the time I finished Saviors and Survivors, by the author of Good Muslim, Bad Muslim, I had marked up so many pages of this fascinating book, which examines the crisis in Darfur and the world’s peculiar response to that crisis, that you’ll want to get your own, pristine copy.

Putting the Darfur conflict in historical context, Mamdani asks a revealing question: Why was the world silent about far more deaths in conflicts in Rwanda, Angola, and the Congo, or deaths caused by AIDs and malaria on that continent, while Darfur became a tragedy of epic proportions?

The author provides thought-provoking answers, and explains why some Americans call this conflict a genocide. It began when the United States Holocaust Museum in Washington, DC issued its very first ever “genocide alert” in 2004, and soon, along with the American Jewish World Service, launched the “interreligious umbrella organization” Save Darfur Coalition (SDC). Save Darfur drew its foot soldiers from the student community across the U.S., Mamdani explains. A panel discussion at the museum on Sept. 14, 2004 led to the formation of an outreach program, Students Take Action Now: Darfur (STAND), which quickly spread across campuses. Students led a successful divestment campaign against companies that did business in Sudan.

Following an impassioned speech in May 2006 by Nobel Laureate Elie Wiesel, the SDC became a powerful lobby and, Mamdani writes, “by 2007, the coalition had grown into an alliance of ”˜more than 180 faith-based, advocacy and humanitarian organizations’ claiming a ”130 million person network.’”

Almost none of the money raised by Darfur advocates ever reached the people in Darfur, however. With an annual budget of $14 million, derived primarily from foundation grants and individual contributions, Save Darfur employs a staff of more than 30, as well as a full-time advertising agency, M+R Services, based in Washington, DC. Expensive, full-page Save Darfur ads never corresponded to reality on the ground, Mamdani charges.

“Ironically, the first international outcry arose at almost the same time as the dramatic reduction in the level of fatalities,” Mamdani writes, “yet international media reports did not acknowledge this development, and the international outcry did not subside...the rhetoric of the Save Darfur movement in the United States escalated as the level of mortality in Darfur declined.”

In fact, figures released by the World Health Organization (WHO) in 2004, the year the Save Darfur campaign was launched, stated that most of the dead were not direct victims of violence, that the main cause of death was diarrhea, reflecting “poor environmental sanitation.” Of course, Mamdani points out, these deaths may have been indirectly caused by violence because fighting delayed and sometimes deliberately obstructed the provision of emergency relief.

Stars have flocked to the campaign, including Meryl Streep, Angelina Jolie, Brad Pitt, Don Cheadle, Mia Farrow, George Clooney, Matt Damon, Steven Spielberg and Ocean’s Thirteenproducer Jerry Weintraub.

According to Mamdani, one of the most terrible results, intentional or otherwise, of the Save Darfur movement is that it actually distracted Americans from creating an effective mass movement around the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq. In Darfur, Mamdani writes, “Americans can feel themselves to be what they know they are not in Iraq: powerful saviors...Like the War on Terror, the Save Darfur Coalition speaks in the language of good and evil.”

In one of columnist Nicholas Kristof’s numerous articles about Darfur in The New York Times, he says the issue is not so much one of “human suffering” as of “human evil.” Darfur, Mamdani charges, has been “neatly integrated into the War on Terror, for Darfur gives the Warriors on Terror a valuable asset with which to demonize an enemy: a genocide perpetrated by Arabs.”

The central political thrust of the Save Darfur Coalition, according to Mamdani, is that there is only one way to save Darfur—that is, to occupy it through military intervention. Its raison d’êtreis to be sought in the War on Terror.

“If you visit the Save Darfur Coalition Web site, you will find a record of atrocities—rapes, burnings, killings..., almost none of it telling you when it happened,” Mamdani writes. “There is no discussion of history or politics: no context, no analysis of causes of political violence or possible consequences of military intervention [all of which can be found in Saviors and Survivors]. What you see and what you get is a full-blown pornography of violence, an assault of images without context.”

Mamdani’s book is much more than an exposé of the Darfur lobby in the United States, which “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.” Along with his in-depth analysis of the history of the conflict he proposes real solutions. He also warns readers, “At stake is the independence of Africa. The Save Darfur a clarion call for the recolonization of ”˜failed’ states in Africa. In its present form, the call for justice is really a slogan that masks a big power agenda to recolonize Africa.”

For its part, the Darfur lobby—including the U.S. Holocaust Museum—finally has acknowledged that the genocide in Darfur has ended. Undeterred, however, it has set its sights higher: on the entire country of Sudan. (And it’s perhaps no coincidence that its “Save Sudan” campaign was launched in the weeks leading up to a series of October protests marking the eighth anniversary of the U.S. attacks on Afghanistan.) See the preceding page for more on the morphing of the Save Darfur into the Save Sudan campaign.

Delinda C. Hanley is news editor of the Washington Report on Middle East Affairs.