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Darfur Activist Under Fire

Huffington Post Contributor   First Posted: 05/16/09 06:12 AM ET Updated: 05/25/11 02:15 PM ET

Is the war in Darfur genocide? Have American activists done anything to help stop the violence? On Tuesday, John Prendergast and Mahmood Mamdani faced off to try to answer these questions.

The buzz on the Columbia campus this week was that the debate would be the Ali-versus-Foreman of intellectual match-ups.

And that's pretty much how it happened. On Tuesday, John Prendergast, co-chair of the ENOUGH Project and a prominent advocate working with the Save Darfur Coalition, went toe-to-toe with Mahmood Mamdani, a Columbia University professor of government and anthropology who is Save Darfur's most scathing critic.

But while the audience expected something sporting, it was clear that the debaters took their subject matter--a brutal conflict that has killed tens or hundreds of thousands of people (depending on whose numbers you use), and has displaced many more--quite seriously.

In policy circles and in the 130 million-strong Save Darfur activist community, debate has been raging about whether or not the violence in Darfur can be called genocide, how American advocacy has affected the conflict, and whether or not the International Criminal Court's (ICC) indictment of Sudan's president, Omar al-Bashir, is a practical response to the crisis.

Mamdani, in his recently published book Saviors and Survivors: Darfur, Politics, and the War on Terror, came out forcefully on just about all of these issues. (Full disclosure: I took his class last semester.) Here's a rundown some of the points he makes that are at odds with Prendergast and Save Darfur's understanding of events:

• Genocide--Mamdani argues that the violence in Darfur was a brutal counterinsurgency but does not qualify as genocide. Citing a U.S. Government Accountability Office report, he says that activists have severely overestimated the number of deaths in Darfur.

• Advocacy--Mamdani argues that activists have been motivated by Darfur because, since most Americans do not know its history well, it offers a place where they can pursue a simplistic moral crusade. He contrasts this to the response to the war in Iraq, a place that most Americans acknowledge is politically complex. He criticizes Save Darfur for moving the focus in the Darfur conflict away from what he sees as its real political and environmental causes, and falsely recasting it as a racial struggle.

• The ICC--Like the African Union and Arab League, Mamdani contests the legitimacy of the ICC case against Omar al-Bashir, because the Security Council created it, and the United States--the case's main promoter--has itself rejected participation in the ICC. (For its critics, the ICC in this case smacks of imperialism.) Also, Mamdani does not see the case as expedient to Sudan's peace.

These were more or less the points the professor laid out in the debate. Would the activist strike back? He definitely tried.

Prendergast said that studies of deaths in Darfur are all just "guesstimates" anyway.

"Maybe it's stupid, frankly, to talk about the numbers of people dying, because we don't really know," he said. "Most of these figures are wild estimates. They're simply, crazily wild estimates."

As for the ICC, Prendergast said he hoped that the court, although it has not brought a conviction in its first five years of existence, would start building successes that would show there are consequences for war crimes.

"I think most of us activists are sustained by hope, more than anything else," he said.

Most surprisingly, Prendergast maintained that Save Darfur was not after a military intervention in Sudan. Mamdani has often cited activist slogans like "Out of Iraq, into Darfur" to argue that Save Darfur is a war mobilization movement more than it is a peace movement.

"For quite some time now the activists have been focused very exclusively on a much more effective political response," Prendergast countered.

"Peace is the objective," he added. "Let me tell you frankly that any other representation of their position or our position is a distortion."

(The impression, however, is not helped by some of Save Darfur's more hawkish advocacy materials. Most recently, the Coalition complained that General Scott Gration, President Obama's special envoy to Sudan, was speaking softly but not carrying a big stick.)

In one of the most provocative moments of the night, Mamdani said that, in contrast to the antiwar movement of the 1960s, which "turned the world into a classroom" Save Darfur "has turned the world into an advertising medium."

"It has not created or even tried to create an informed movement, but a feel-good constituency," he said. "Its focus is increasingly shifting from college students to high school kids. These are Save Darfur's version of child soldiers."

Prendergast countered that Save Darfur has never hidden the fact that it is an advocacy group--an integral part of the American political scene--and not a humanitarian organization. He didn't respond directly to the "child soldiers" characterization, but did say that, over the last year, "we've tried to assert a little more adult supervision into this movement."

It was a back-and-forth that fulfilled the expectations of the audience. Intellectually, it seemed Mamdani scored a TKO--the depth of his knowledge of African history was on full display, and his conceptual criticism of the Save Darfur movement was withering.

A question-and-answer session that followed the debate reminded the audience that more was at stake than an intellectual title belt. Several Darfuris came to the microphone and talked about living through violence. One man said his father and brother had been killed, and his wife raped in front of him. Another said he lost 27 family members. Those speakers attacked Mamdani, accusing him of being in the pocket of the Sudanese government.

If the blogosphere and other reports from Darfur are any indication, such reactions to the professor's scholarship are not universal among Darfuris or aid workers in Sudan.

Nevertheless, the comments were a reminder to the audience that the issues in Darfur are far from academic abstractions.

And for Mamdani, it seems, that may be exactly the point. In response to those speakers, he called the conflict in Darfur in 2003 and 2004 "mass slaughter". He also implied a parallel between Sudan's war on Darfur and the United States' against Iraq.

"We have a language where we have different words for some killings--we call them genocide--and different words for other mass killings, which we call war, or counterinsurgency," he said. "We are in danger of accepting certain kinds of violence as normal--as maybe even good violence."

For Americans considering their government's role in violence in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, and elsewhere, it was a message that might at least give them pause.

Eamon Kircher-Allen is an international affairs master's student at Columbia University.

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