Home | Comment & Analysis    Wednesday 11 August 2004

Darfur’s ugly resonance in the Arab world


By Rami G. Khouri, The Daily Star

August 11, 2004 — The relative silence of the Arab world has been one of the striking dimensions of the tragic events in the Darfur region of western Sudan in the past 18 months. Up to 50,000 people may have died and over a million have been made refugees there, as a result of attacks by Arab militias. The international consensus was reflected in the recent UN Security Council resolution giving the Sudanese government one month to disarm the militias and restore security. Human rights groups and governments in the West have described events in Darfur as "ethnic cleansing" and even "genocide," while the Sudanese government rejects these accusations and claims that no more than 5,000 people have died in the region.

Based on documentation by credible international human rights groups and the UN itself, the world finally moved to stop the human suffering in Darfur when the United States and the UN took the lead to act in June. Throughout the past 18 months, as the tragedy has unfolded in Darfur, the Arab world has been conspicuously absent from the debate. While a few voices in the region have spoken out for decisive diplomacy to restore security and calm in Darfur, many other voices in the media and among government officials have taken a much more relaxed stance, even accusing the US of meddling in the region to secure future oil interests.

The Arab silence on this issue probably is not specific to Darfur or Sudan, but rather reflects a wider malaise that has long plagued our region: Arab governments tend to stay out of each other’s way when any one of them is accused of wrongdoing, and most Arab citizens have been numbed into helplessness in the face of public atrocities or criminal activity in their societies.

The modern history of the Arab world over the past 50 years has been defined by two broad trajectories that are intimately related: the concentration of economic and military power in the hands of small numbers of people who form the governing power elites, and that governing elite’s steady provision of basic services and job opportunities to the citizenry.

As the average citizen experiences a relatively consistent improvement in basic life conditions (water, electricity, telephones, hospitals, schools, jobs) he or she tends to leave the government alone in its conduct of other political policies - including violent actions against one’s own citizens.

This basic governing contract explains much of the silence and acquiescence by otherwise decent Arabs in the face of atrocities or criminal activity carried out by fellow citizens, or even by their own government. Darfur in Sudan is only the latest in a string of violent domestic episodes within Arab countries that have been largely ignored by other Arab countries. The long and depressing list includes rebellions, civil wars, repression and other forms of violence in key Arab countries like Algeria, Lebanon, Syria, Yemen, Sudan, Palestine, Iraq, Egypt and Libya.

Because most Arab governments use violence as a policy instrument - legitimately to secure public order, they would argue - Arab governments turn a blind eye to the violence practiced by their fellow governors. This is a strange sort of professional courtesy among fellow autocrats and security state managers who rationalize it by saying that Arab states do not interfere in the domestic affairs of other states.

Therefore, Colin Powell and Kofi Annan visit Darfur and call world attention to its plight before Arab League Secretary-General Amr Moussa or any Arab foreign minister considers making the same trip.

Most ordinary Arab citizens do not speak out against the atrocities in Sudan because their modern history has taught them that they have neither the right nor the ability to impact on the policies of their own government, let alone other Arab governments. The Arab citizenry collectively has been numbed into a sad state of helplessness and docility in the face of government policies. We watch Darfur today like we watched atrocities in decades past - as pained but powerless spectators.

Darfur troubles us all, but moves few to action in the Arab world. Darfur is very far away for most Arab citizens, and pains closer to home are more urgent - whether the pain of inequity, corruption and economic stress in one’s own country, the impact of Israeli occupation policies in Palestine and neighboring states, or the American war machine in Iraq. We grieve in our hearts for the suffering of Sudanese nationals in Darfur, but as individual Arab citizens we can do little to change facts in faraway lands - because we can do equally little to change realities in our own neighborhoods in Beirut, Amman, Rabat, Damascus, Riyadh or Cairo.

The more troubling consequence is that small groups of bombers and terrorists have exploited this state of Arab helplessness, seeking public support for their militancy. Thus large numbers of ordinary, decent Arab citizens instinctively reject the atrocities against fellow Arabs in Darfur, but do not speak out or act to stop them; and equally large numbers of Arabs - majorities in troubled lands, the polls tell us - similarly do not speak out when Arab terrorists bomb Arab, American or other targets.

A troubled Arab citizenry’s silent acquiescence in violence and passivity in the face of homegrown atrocity, is today the single most important, widespread symptom of the malaise that plagues this region. It would be a terrible mistake to misdiagnose the Arab silence on Darfur as reflecting some Arab, Islamic or Middle Eastern cultural acceptance of violence. This is, rather, a troubling sign of Arab mass dehumanization and political pacification at the public level, which are largely our own fault due to our acceptance of poor governance and distorted Arab power structures over a period of decades.

Rami G. Khouri is executive editor of THE DAILY STAR

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