Arab Intellectuals' Silence

07/08/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

I sent the Arab Imam several emails each followed by a phone call asking to talk to him about Darfur and its Muslim on Muslim violence which recently marked its fifth anniversary. Since my understanding is that the Koran directs Muslims to protect, defend and nurture other Muslims, no matter their race, I wondered what he, a Muslim and a man of God thought about it. The Koran I also know says that all Muslims are brothers before God. He never answered my messages.

I lived among Mombasa Arabs as a boy. Their ancestors were yesteryear's slave traders. For centuries Arabs have gravitated between two homes: Africa and the Middle East. The centuries of Arabs exploiting blacks and treating them as subhuman cast a dark pall on the land. In that time Arab racist attitudes have not changed much. In my nineteen fifties Mombasa, Arabs were property owners; blacks' betters and common oppressors. We were separated from them: by history and distance. Acts of Arab on black violence were a common occurrence and an integral part of my childhood. They were masters; we were their servants. The entrenched, centuries' old Arab exploitation inflicted on us a deeper pain than the British colonialism. To me, this is instructive of the difficult road ahead for black Darfurians.

Whereas Europe and America have mobilized to condemn the violence in Darfur and recently the three American presidential candidates signed a joint statement condemning the genocide, repeated attempts at the UN to put a brake on the genocide in Darfur have always been thwarted by Arab opposition. By the same twenty two state Arab League block that stood by Khartoum as two million blacks in South Sudan were systematically murdered by the Arab North.

European and American intellectuals have joined in condemnation of the Khartoum government's massacre and ethnic cleansing. We have all seen the flood of Western newspaper columns and heard the choir of American voices raised against the Sudanese terror on the people of Darfur.

And yet in it all there's a conspicuous absence: the voice of those close to the violence and turmoil, people who should know the magnitude of suffering among their black brethren. The lack of empathy by Arab intellectuals is troubling; I believe intellectuals are a nation's conscience, the eye that discerns with clarity through the tribal murky rhetoric, people's religious beliefs and poisonous social habits. Arab writers and thinkers seem to have plugged their ears.

The editorial pages of American newspapers are replete with Arab writers' outrage at the perceived injustices perpetrated against Palestinians by Israel. Yet they present a pathological myopia, that sees no ill, appreciates no suffering visited upon blacks in Sudan by Arabs. It has been disappointing to see writers, Fouad Ajami, Shibley Telhami and others carry forth on our daily TV news programs about the Middle East; TV stations like Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya tell the world of the suffering Arabs of Iraq and Palestine. Yet, they all say next to nothing, about Darfur. To my knowledge, there are no known political or religious Arab groups that condemn violence against black Africans.

What one sees is Arab leaders like Muamar Khadafi and Hosni Mubarak denying there's mass murder in Darfur. The 2006 Arab League conference in Khartoum barely acknowledged the Darfur genocide, vehemently opposing the call for UN troops to replace the beleaguered 7000 African Union peacekeepers. To these Arab leaders, you erase reality by denying it.

Sudanese Arabs are a good example of how religion and religious books can be misinterpreted and corrupted. As Sudanese Muslim soldiers kill other Muslims, Arab writers have not seen it fit to -- at least intellectually -- defend and support the victims of such violence.

How the Arab mind can not condemn slavery that still persists in 21st century Somalia, Sudan and other Arab nations is unfathomable. Clearly this is a further manifestation of an attitude of superiority that Arabs have over blacks. It also is one indication of the power Arabs wield over black Africans; a power I became familiar with as a child; something Arabs have wielded over blacks for many centuries. Darfur is confirmation of a simple and incontrovertible fact: conversion into Islam does not elevate blacks from slave to "personhood."

I once asked a well-known Iranian writer if she thought the Arab silence in the face of black suffering had an Islamic imprint. Not at all, she replied; adding that many Arab leaders were corrupt and dangerous. Anyone, including writers, who would question their violent behavior, might come to harm. Islam she insisted is a religion of peace.

My own experience convinces me that there is no sympathy in Arab hearts for black Africans. But that said, I wish Arab thinkers would join the intellectual mainstream -- as they did when Bosnia's Muslims were under attack by Serbs -- in condemning the systematic destruction of Sudanese blacks.