Many people reading the recent news from Darfur may be confused. On October 25, just daSuanys before peace talks on the conflict in Darfur were due to begin in Libya, anti-government rebels in Darfur were reported to have attacked oil installations in the neighbouring region of Kardofan, kidnapping two foreigners and warning other foreign oil workers that they had a week to leave the country or they would face similar attacks. The start of the talks in Sirte were then delayed because rebel groups refused to take part.
Just a moment, many people in the West must have thought. Anti-government rebels in Darfur attacking foreign workers and refusing to join peace talks? What’s that about? We thought the government were the baddies, Arabs perpetrating a racial genocide against the innocent Africans of Darfur. So who are these rebels, and why are they attacking foreigners?
The fact is that the situation in Sudan is far more complex than people in the West realise, largely because there has been an intensive propaganda campaign to misrepresent the situation in Darfur for a variety of reasons. While there is undoubtedly immense suffering in Darfur, as many people have highlighted, what we are seeing is not the genocidal ethnic cleansing of Africans by Arabs, but a civil war between an African government trying to hold its country together, and rebel groups with local agendas of their own, supported by outsiders with broader agendas that they are trying to promote at the expense of the local people. It is certainly true that many in Darfur have suffered appallingly in the war; but to suggest that one side has been primarily responsible and the other wholly innocent is quite untrue. Local militias allied to the central government in Khartoum have certainly perpetrated atrocities against local people who have allied themselves with the rebel groups; but equally, the rebel groups have perpetrated atrocities against supporters of the government. Such unfortunately has traditionally been the style of local conflict in Africa, and to suggest that the government in Khartoum claiming to be Islamic is somehow wholly responsible, as many Westerners are quick to do, is completely wrong.
This is just another example of secular Westerners blaming everything bad in the Muslim world on “Islamic extremists”. It is particularly unfortunate to see Muslim groups in the West ignorantly jumping on the Darfur bandwagon without critically assessing the dominant discourse on the subject, usually because they hope to prove their moderation to Western governments and organisations. In doing so, however, they implicitly endorse and support the mainstream western interpretation of the Darfursituation, undermining those trying to correct it.
What, then, is the Western interest in Darfur? As usual, there are probably a number of different interests coming together and intermingling. For many well-meaning people in aid organisations, there probably is a humanitarian element, even if it is tinged with deep-rooted Islamophobic elements. But for the economic elites and government, there are more explicitly self-serving agendas. One thing many people do not know is that southern Darfur in an oil-rich area currently being explored by Chinese companies licensed by the Khartoum government. The Western oil industry and governments undoubtedly have an interest in taking over these fields. (Interestingly, the rebel groups that attacked the Chinese workers last month have links with Western bodies.)
Beyond oil, however, there is another, more general Western interest in Darfur. It has replaced Bosnia as one of the the main arguments used by Westerners to counter suggestions of anti-Muslim bias in Western policies. If we were anti-Islam, Westerners often say, why would we be helping the Muslim victims of other Muslims in Darfur? And why are we doing so much, when Muslim countries are doing nothing? If Muslims in the West are so concerned about Iraqis and Palestinians, why do they do nothing about Darfur? Last month we even had the Israelis trumpeting the fact that they are accepting refugees from Darfur to live in occupied Palestine. The only answer to this propaganda on Darfur is for Muslims to equip themselves with information about the real situation there, and be prepared to answer back. Unfortunately few have made the effort to do this, and so the propaganda goes unchallenged.