Rogaia Abusharaf on 'Debating Darfur'

Rogaia Abusharaf, Associate Professor of Anthropology at Georgetown University School of ‎Foreign Service in Qatar and CIRS Faculty Fellow 2012-2013, led a Focused Discussion on ‎‎“Debating Darfur in the World” on April 24, 2013. The lecture focused on the narratives that ‎have been used by the Sudanese government, Western media, and diaspora communities to make ‎sense of the Darfur crisis. Reporting on the extent of violence, Abusharaf recounted that “during ‎the seven years of strife in Darfur, more than 2.7 million persons have been forcibly displaced. ‎Human rights organizations estimate the death toll at 400,000,” although, she said, this figure is ‎significantly higher if we take into account those who died as a result of displacement and other ‎circumstances related to the conflict.‎

The Darfur crisis has become a linchpin for various interest groups, including Western public ‎figures and media outlets, as a cause célèbre often to further ulterior political and ideological ‎goals. In this context, the narrative used to describe the crisis often echoes that of the WWII ‎Holocaust as it is rooted in notions of ethnicity and ethnic cleansing. “Yet,” Abusharaf argued, ‎‎“the deployment of the Arab versus African formulation as the sole explanatory model divorced ‎from other sociopolitical forces shaping society in Darfur is a serious distortion,” as these are ‎unstable ethnic categories that do not neatly subscribe to Darfurian power and identity structures. ‎Darfur has a long history of intermarriage and reciprocity between the hybrid ethnic groups, and ‎so this strict categorization of Arab versus African cannot be sustained except through the ‎epistemic violence of reductionist and ideologically-loaded political narratives. She continued by ‎noting that “ethnicity, when politically mobilized and manipulated, camouflages other ‎fundamental dimensions of the conflict, such as banditry, land-tenure systems, environmental ‎degradation, arms proliferation and militarization, border politics, and systemic marginality.” In ‎the past, “alterity did not prompt massacres;” in the current climate, however, it is used as ‎justification for violence, either deliberately or inadvertently by irresponsible actors.‎

As judgment for the atrocities taking place in Darfur, President Omar Hassan Al-Bashir was ‎issued with an arrest warrant by the International Criminal Court. The warrant elicited both pro ‎and anti Al-Bashir sentiments, locally and within the Sudanese diaspora abroad. The responses of ‎these groups differ markedly from each other as the groups align themselves with different ‎strategic interests. Citing her ethnographic research conducted at Darfur-related conferences, ‎rallies, and meetings, Abusharaf explained how political and cultural identities produce radically ‎different discourses on Darfur. In the United States, for example, questions of race and gender ‎are at the forefront of framing the Darfur crisis, whereas the diasporic discourses annunciated in ‎Doha are more aligned with narratives of reconciliation and social cohesion. ‎

Darfur has thus become the site upon which notions of anti-imperialism and victimization are ‎simultaneously enacted by pro and anti Al-Bashir camps, respectively. These narratives have been ‎broadcast in the international media as public theatrical performances where Darfur is ‎simultaneously portrayed as resistance to neocolonial international forces as well as to domestic ‎ethnic marginalization.‎

As a final thought, Abusharaf commented that there are current concerted efforts taking place in ‎Doha to address the Darfur crisis. This is a loose organization of interested people that do not ‎classify themselves according to strict ethnic divisions, but along the lines of an active civil ‎society. “In the midst of passions, pity, propaganda, and polarization, debating Darfur requires a ‎special objectivity and distance from approaches that enlarge rifts and fragmentation that keep ‎the tragedy going,” she concluded.‎

Rogaia M. Abusharaf is the CIRS SFS-Q Faculty Fellow, and an Associate Professor of ‎Anthropology at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service in Qatar. She is the author ‎of Transforming Displaced Women in Sudan: Politics and the Body in a Squatter Settlement ‎‎(University of Chicago Press 2009); Female Circumcision: Multicultural Perspectives(Ed.). ‎‎(University of Pennsylvania Press 2006) and Wanderings (Cornell University Press 2002). She is ‎the editor of a 2010 special issue of South Atlantic Quarterly (Duke University Press). She was a ‎recipient of Postdoctoral and Senior fellowships at Durham University in the U.K. and at Brown ‎and Harvard Universities. Her work was supported by Guggenheim Foundation, the Royal ‎Anthropological Institute, the Sir William Luce Memorial Fellowship, Andrew Mellon and MIT ‎Center for International Studies and Rockefeller Bellagio Study Center, Qatar University ‎College of Arts and Sciences.‎
 

Article by Suzi Mirgani, Manager and Editor for CIRS Publications.