Wednesday, April 04, 2007

Darfur and Iraq: The Politics of Naming

The Politics of Naming: Genocide, Civil War, Insurgency by Mahmood Mamdani
The similarities between Iraq and Darfur are remarkable. The estimate of the number of civilians killed over the past three years is roughly similar. The killers are mostly paramilitaries, closely linked to the official military, which is said to be their main source of arms. The victims too are by and large identified as members of groups, rather than targeted as individuals. But the violence in the two places is named differently. In Iraq, it is said to be a cycle of insurgency and counter-insurgency; in Darfur, it is called genocide. Why the difference? Who does the naming? Who is being named? What difference does it make?

Hmm... could it be that the West names conflicts differently depending on who is the perpetrator? If we are the perpetrators, it is definitely Insurgency/Counterinsurgency not genocide. What about the participation of Arabs? Caveman voice: "Ug. Us Good. Them Bad."

As compared to the near blackout about Iraqi suffering in the American media:
Newspaper writing on Darfur has sketched a pornography of violence. It seems fascinated by and fixated on the gory details, describing the worst of the atrocities in gruesome detail and chronicling the rise in the number of them. The implication is that the motivation of the perpetrators lies in biology ('race') and, if not that, certainly in 'culture'. This voyeuristic approach accompanies a moralistic discourse whose effect is both to obscure the politics of the violence and position the reader as a virtuous, not just a concerned observer.

The scariest thing is the call for military intervention in Darfur.
What would happen if we thought of Darfur as we do of Iraq, as a place with a history and politics - a messy politics of insurgency and counter-insurgency? Why should an intervention in Darfur not turn out to be a trigger that escalates rather than reduces the level of violence as intervention in Iraq has done? Why might it not create the actual possibility of genocide, not just rhetorically but in reality? Morally, there is no doubt about the horrific nature of the violence against civilians in Darfur. The ambiguity lies in the politics of the violence, whose sources include both a state-connected counter-insurgency and an organised insurgency, very much like the violence in Iraq.

It is as if military intervention would somehow purge American guilt over not intervening in Rwanda. But:
What the humanitarian intervention lobby fails to see is that the US did intervene in Rwanda, through a proxy... Instead of using its resources and influence to bring about a political solution to the civil war, and then strengthen it, the US signalled to one of the parties that it could pursue victory with impunity. This unilateralism was part of what led to the disaster, and that is the real lesson of Rwanda.

Terrible crimes against humanity, ethnic cleansing, and genocide arise and are worsened in the context of war. War is the problem, or at least the catalyst. It is not the answer. "Strengthening those on both sides who stand for a political settlement to the civil war is the only realistic approach. Solidarity, not intervention, is what will bring peace to Darfur."

Read the Article or listen to an interview with Mahmood Mamdani

Also see Iraq is a Humanitarian Disaster, Too


Anonymous said...

excellent - I just wrote a post on the politics and power involved in naming and defining, and this is a great example of that in action. I'm going to link to it.

Red Jenny said...

It's a very interesting post. In case anyone else would like to check it out here it is.

DBB said...

There is a difference between choosing to call something one of two words that have predefined meanings (genocide versus insurgency) and taking one word that has one particular meaning (racism) and making up a whole new definition for that word.

Obviously, there is politics in language choice, but again, choosing to call something a word (or words) that already has a meaning (redeploy versus cut and run, stop-loss versus backdoor draft) is different than radically changing the meaning of a word.

Anonymous said...

DBB, racism isn't a word that has 'one particular meaning' and it never has been. It's meaning has shifted during history and it is still differently interpreted now. If you asked 100 people on the street, I wonder how many answers would be the same?
The fact that it's a word so variously interpreted, or misinterpreted, should be a clue. Think about WHY this happens with language. It's not neutral.
The points that RJ and TG are making about the politics of naming are related points.

Red Jenny said...

The meaning of words is never stable - that is because language exists in a social and historical context. Words are constantly being redefined, and those in power usually also control the common meaning of words. Renaming and redefinition can be an important instrument of social change.

Why do you think our aboriginals call themselves "First Peoples" or "First Nations" rather than "Indians"? Because they have the right to self-identification. Because they were here first. Because some stupid european's case of mistaken identity is a bad reason for a name - do you see, the incoming Europeans forced an identity on a peoples, and the words they used were a part of it. Taking back the right to self-identify is one step towards empowerment.

Words have power in this world.

liberallatte said...

I agree that "insurgency/counterinsurgency" in Iraq is an example of manipulation by words by the media, (and also your/TG's point on "racism") but what's happening in Darfur is undoubtedly genocide... I don't know if not intervening into Darfur is the best option; not the unilateral US invasion but the UN peacekeepers. But what do you exactly mean by solidarity, and what do you think we should do to stop the genocide there? We need solidarity with people of Darfur, but the Sudanese govt. hasn't complied with the international agreements and the genocide is happening now.

Red Jenny said...

Well, I definitely don't mean bombing their pharmacies, or actually any type of air strike at all. UN peacekeeping is one part of the puzzle, sure.