The Darfur Diversion

Editor’s note: In 2009 when I read Mahmood Mamdani’s book, I accepted many of its arguments uncritically. Since then I’ve had occasion to reappraise my position and regret many of the things I wrote. Darfur was not my specialisation and I should not have passed confident judgments on it. I should not have doubted the good faith of the many people trying to bring attention to Darfur’s tragedy. Nor should I have been so eager to accept the geopolitical arguments to downplay the real atrocities being committed on the ground. The Bashir regime’s actions in Darfur were unjustifiable, tantamount to genocide, and I should have rejected any argument that downplayed the crimes. The years since 2011 have been an education and I am glad to be rid of the infantile contrarianism that defined my past politics. I am immensely grateful to the influence of the late Tony Judt who guided me towards what is hopefully a more humane and reflective politics. I hereby repudiate this piece and offer my unreserved apologies to the people of Darfur.

Saviors and Survivors: Darfur, Politics and the War on Terror by Mahmood Mamdani, Verso, 2009.

The Electronic Intifada, 8 June 2009

Saviors and Survivors
“Saviors and Survivors: Darfur, Politics and the War on Terror” by Mahmood Mamdani

In Errol Morris’s 2004 film The Fog of War, former US Defense Secretary Robert McNamara recalls General Curtis LeMay, the architect of the fire-bombings of Japan during WWII, saying that “if we’d lost the war, we’d all have been prosecuted as war criminals.” LeMay was merely articulating an unacknowledged truism of international relations: power bestows, among other things, the right to label. So it is that mass slaughter perpetrated by the big powers, from Vietnam to Iraq and Afghanistan, is normalized as “counterinsurgency,” “pacification” and “war on terror,” while similar acts carried out by states out of favor elicit the severest of charges. It is this politics of naming that is the subject of Mahmood Mamdani’s explosive new book, Saviors and Survivors: Darfur, Politics and the War on Terror.

Like the Middle East, parts of Africa have been engulfed in conflict for much of the post-colonial period. While the media coverage in both cases is perfunctory, in the case of Africa it is also sporadic. To the extent that there is coverage, the emphasis is on the dramatic or the grotesque. When the subject is not war, it is usually famine, disease or poverty—sometimes all together, always free of context. The wars are between “tribes” led by “warlords,” that take place in “failed states” ruled by “corrupt dictators.” Driven by primal motives, they rarely involve discernible issues. The gallery of rogues gives way only to a tableau of victims, inevitably in need of White saviors. A headline like “Can Bono save Africa?” is as illustrative of Western attitudes towards the continent as the comments of Richard Littlejohn, Britain’s highest-paid columnist, who wrote at the peak of the Rwandan genocide “Does anyone really give a monkey’s about what happens in Rwanda? If the Mbongo tribe wants to wipe out the Mbingo tribe then as far as I am concerned that is entirely a matter for them.”

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Saviors and Survivors: Mahmood Mamdani at SOAS

Mahmood Mamdani is a renowned African scholar (of Indian origin) who was ranked by Foreign Policy magazine as one of the world’s 100 leading public intellectuals.  Earlier this week he delivered the following lecture at The School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) to promote his new book Saviors and Survivors: Darfur, Politics and the War on Terror.

Saviors and Survivors (31:39): MP3 | Torrent

Questions and Answers (50:23): MP3

[Attribution 2.5 UK: Scotland]

You (and I) got Darfur Wrong

 Mahmood Mamdani
Mahmood Mamdani

From Open Source with Chris Lydon:

Who can imagine that a Save Darfur coalition vocally including Al Sharpton (”we know when America comes together, we can stop anything in the world”), Mia Farrow, the US Conference of Catholic Bishops, Elie Wiesel (”Darfur today is the world’s capital of human suffering”), Nat Hentoff, Bob Geldof, George Clooney, Angelina Jolie, Harold Pinter, Oprah Winfrey, the gold-medal speed skater Joey Cheek, Tony Blair and Dario Fo might be profoundly shallow in its reading of the brutal warfare in Sudan five years ago… and just as wrong-headed in its drum beat for an American intervention?

Mahmood Mamdani can. We are talking here about his book Saviors and Survivors and his argument that the Darfur rescue campaign, which became a sacred cause of our civil religion, was not so much the moral alternative to Iraq, the Bush “war on terror,” and Cheney-think as it was a variation and extension of the same toolkit. I begin with a sort of confession that I may be a sample of Mamdani’s problem — having drenched myself in Nicholas Kristof’s New York Times columns and largely absorbed the common framework that Darfur was about Arabs slaughtering Africans, and that somebody had to something about it.

Continue reading “You (and I) got Darfur Wrong”

The Darfur Debate


This debate between Mahmood Mamdani and John Prendergast took place on April 14, 2009 at the School of International and Public Affairs and the Institute for African Studies, Columbia University. I recently finished Mamdani’s new book Saviors and Survivors, which I will be reviewing for The Electronic Intifada shortly. The book is a tour de force brimming with political, historical, and anthropological insights. I would highly recommend it to anyone with interest in the subject.

(Also see James North’s review of the debate, and this follow up post.)

The Politics of Genocide

Mahmood Mamdani is a renowned African scholar (of Indian origin) who was last year ranked by Time as one of the world’s 100 leading intellectuals. He has previously authored the timely and influential book Good Muslim, Bad Muslim where he looks at the history of political Islam in the context of the so-called War on Terror. Here Mamdani appears on GRITtv with Laura Flanders to present the central thesis of his latest book Saviors and Survivors: Darfur, Politics, and the War on Terror. (via Firedoglake)Vodpod videos no longer available.

more about “The Politics of Genocide“, posted with vodpod

In his new book, Saviors and Survivors: Darfur, Politics, and the War on Terror, Columbia University Professor Mahmood Mamdani contends that the use of the word genocide is as political as ever and strategic ignorance about the history and current day politics of post-colonial Africa is just as great. Mamdani discusses the crisis in Darfur, the nature of Save Darfur advocacy, and what he sees as a dangerous collusion of colonialism and Anti-Terror rhetoric.