Mahmood Mamdani’s new book, Saviors and Survivors, suggests that the Save Darfur campaign borrows its playbook and players from America’s War on Terror, not to mention colonial projects of olde.
Anna Mundow interviews Mamdani in the Boston Globe:
A. I’m struck by the contrast between the mobilization around Darfur and the lack of mobilization around Iraq. The explanation, I believe, lies in the fact that Save Darfur presented the conflict as a tragedy, stripped of politics and context. There were simply “African” victims and “Arab” perpetrators motivated by race-intoxicated hatred. Unlike Iraq, about which Americans felt guilty or impotent, Darfur presented an opportunity to feel good. It appealed to the philanthropic side of the American character. During the presidential election, Save Darfur’s constituency became integrated into the Obama campaign, and I welcomed that opportunity to organize around real concerns. The downside now is the attempt by Save Darfur to pressure the Obama administration to intervene militarily in Darfur.
Q. Are you saying that humanitarianism is a form of colonialism?
A. I’m saying that historically it has been. The movement after which Save Darfur patterned itself is the antislavery movement of the 19th century. Remember that the elimination of slavery was the ostensible reason given by British officials for colonization of the African continent. The cataloging of brutalities – real ones, not exaggerated – was essential preparation for seizing chunks of real estate, again ostensibly to protect victims. Today, the humanitarian claim uses ethics to displace politics. Conflicts are typically presented as tribal or race wars between perpetrators and victims whose roles are unchanging.
Q. Does the problem lie in who uses the humanitarian label?
A. The language of human rights was once used primarily by the victims of repression. Now it has become the language of power and of interventionists who turn victims not into agents but into proxies. It has been subverted from a language that empowers victims to a language that serves the designs of an interventionist power on an international scale.