Home | Comment & Analysis    Monday 23 August 2004

On the frontiers of Islam

By Robert O. Collins, The Bitterlemons-international

Darfur (Land of the Fur) is the western region of the Republic of the Sudan, approximately the size of France, in which the volcanic Jabal Marra mountain massif rises 3,000 ft. (900 meters) above the Sudanic plain. In the north live the non-Arab Zaghawa camel nomads, in the center non-Arab sedentary farmers—the Fur, Massalit, Daju, and Berti—and in the south the Baggara Arab cattle nomads who graze their herds beside the African cultivators. All the peoples of Darfur are Muslims, but a few Africans still practice their traditional religions whose vestiges can be found in Darfurian symbiotic Muslim practices on this frontier of Islam.

Historically, ethnic tensions between farmers and herdsmen, African and Arab, latent and volatile, have always been present and accepted in Darfur, and have been exacerbated by long-standing competition for pasture, agricultural land, and water in which verbal disputes can quickly erupt into violence. Quarrels over scarce resources became particularly acute during the great global drought of the 1980s that hastened the desertification of northern and central Darfur. This produced enormous pressure on limited sources of water and grazing as the camel nomads moved south in search of both.

African-Arab rivalry within Darfur has been further complicated from without by the awlad al-bahar (people of the river, the Nile) who despise and discriminate against the awlad al-ghareb (people from the west). The perceived differences between those Sudanese living along the Nile in villages, towns, and cities and those from the rural hinterland run very silent but very deep in past and present Sudan. This ethnic and cultural prejudice against those Sudanese living on the periphery has been further exacerbated by the established pattern of governance in the Sudan by the awlad al-bahar. Their area of control constitutes a circumference of no more than a few hundred miles from the confluence of the two Niles, and their authority diminishes proportionately with the distance from Khartoum.

When Omar Hassan al-Bashir and his fellow Islamist officers seized power on June 30, 1989, they founded the People’s Defense Force (PDF) of some 150,000 conscripts to protect the 30 June Revolution and to suppress the rebellion in the South, essentially replacing the army as the instrument to enforce the Islamization of the Sudan. Neither this rabble in arms nor the demoralized remnants of the old Sudan Armed Forces were trained, equipped, or motivated to fight in the semi-deserts of the West or the swamps and rainforests of the South. Consequently, when the Sudan Liberation Army and the Justice and Equality Movement declared their insurgency in Darfur in March 2003 and swept to stunning victories, President Bashir armed the Baggara Arabs, whose gangs are called the janjaweed, or peshmerga in western Darfur.

More subtle but equally divisive to any settlement on this frontier of Islam was the determination by the revolutionary regime in Khartoum to impose its Islamist ideology on all Sudanese and Arab culture, language, and militant Islam as the foundation of Sudanese society—when less than half the Sudanese claim Arab origins and another third are non-Muslims. The Arabo-centric enthusiasm of Bashir and his National Islamic Front (now the National Congress) government reopened old and deep wounds in Sudanese society. The injection of an Islamist ideological and racist definition as to who is "Arab" and who is zuruq, black, or the more pejorative epithet abid, slave, to distinguish between Arab and African has generated a devastating tragedy that justifies killing, rape, and enslavement of these marginalized people by a cynical and dysfunction government in denial.

Throughout the summer of 2003, 5,000 janjaweed, supported by the government’s helicopter gunships, began their ethnic cleansing of the Fur, Massalit, and the Zaghawa. The pattern of destruction was the same. The men were killed, often mutilated, the women raped, and the children sometimes abducted. The village was burned, the livestock seized, and the fields torched, and the infrastructure—wells, irrigation works, schools, clinics—methodically destroyed in a systematic scheme to drive the African population from its ancestral holdings. Ethnic cleansing in Darfur means clearing the land for Arab colonization. By the summer of 2004, ethnic cleansing and displacement of Africans had conservatively claimed 50,000 lives, forced a million people from their lands as internally displaced persons (IDPs), and sent another 200,000 into refugee camps in Chad whose president, Idriss Deby, is a staunch supporter of the Khartoum regime. Another 350,000 Darfurians were expected to die within the next nine months from famine and disease when their planting before the summer rains was made impossible by the janjaweed.

The reaction of the international community has been anxiety, anger, and frustration. As the enormity of the ethnic cleansing became transparent from dozens of reliable reports, coincidentally at the tenth anniversary of the Rwanda genocide, the growing fear by the international community for the people of Darfur turned to anger. There were numerous demands to declare the disaster in Darfur "genocide" that would, by treaty, require forceful intervention either with or without the sanction of the UN. Anger became frustration as the government of the Sudan, despite many rhetorical denials no one believed, stonewalled efforts by western humanitarian organizations and ignored its pledge to disarm the janjaweed, whom it could not control but who represented the Arabization of African Darfur. Iraq, elections in the United States, and the national interests of France and China in the Sudan have reduced the prospect of military intervention by the US, EU, UN, and the African Union, which does not have the resources, to little more than pious pronouncements.- Published 19/8/2004 (c) bitterlemons-international.org

Robert O. Collins is professor of history emeritus at the University of California Santa Barbara. He first went to the Sudan in 1956 and has since written extensively on the Sudan, the Southern Sudan, and the Nile.