Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Darfur, the Arab world, and the alleged international community - Some things we think but do not say (Joseph Britt)

Back in August 2005 Joseph Britt, who was guest-posting for a while on Dan Drezner's old blog, wrote a penetrating piece that cut right through a lot of prevailing bullshit, evasiveness, and pseudo-sophisticated doubletalk. What he had to say was important and on-target then ... and I am reminded it of because it remains important and on-target now.

=> Since some of the issues raised by Britt in that piece are potentially inflammatory and open to distortion or misuse, it is probably worth adding something about this key passage in his discussion:
What do we think but do not say? Well, for starters, we think that Arabs do not care very much about human rights. To be more precise, and more accurate, Arabs feel deep and genuine outrage when an Arab male is treated with something less than respect by a non-Arab and especially by a Jew; Arabs mistreated by other Arabs are of less concern. Non-Arabs being shot, blown-up, gang-raped or starved by Arabs are no problem at all, whether they are Muslim or not and perhaps especially if they are black Africans.
First, I think it is important to emphasize that if this passage were taken entirely literally, it would be deeply unfair to some Arabs and to some sectors of Arab public opinion. But with respect to the broad pattern of responses to the Darfur atrocity by Arab governments and by the great bulk of Arab public opinion (and to other mass atrocities committed against non-Arab populations, like Saddam Hussein's genocidal assault on Iraqi Kurds in 1988), it is hard to see it as either unfair or inaccurate. (For some further background, see here; and for some expressions of outrage by the Nigerian writer, political activist, and public intellectual Wole Soyinka that are less measured in tone than Britt's piece, see here & here.)

Second, Britt has definitely captured some basic premises underlying what a wide range of people, across the ideological spectrum, think about Arab public opinion, whether or not they put it so explicitly. (And that includes pseudo-sophisticated invocations of Arab rage or humiliation to explain why support for terrorist attacks against civilians is 'understandable' and condemning them is pointless. Of course, people who make such arguments often think of themselves as pro-Arab.) This is worth pondering.

=> Those who read through Britt's discussion to the end will notice that he himself is careful to add the following clarification:
Now, it is very likely that the great majority of people in the Arab countries do not support genocide in Darfur. Many of them may not even know where it is. It is not something that the media available in Arab countries has covered extensively. And silence by Arab governments and media has not been challenged by Western governments and media
And furthermore, is this an exclusively Arab phenomenon?
Are we talking fundamentally about an Arab issue here? Looked at globally, we are not.
Nevertheless,
Arab indifference to Arab genocide does not, of course, excuse inadequate efforts by Western countries to aid its victims. Nor does South Africa's weak and cowardly support of Zimbabwe's kleptocrats or Beijing's embrace of its comrade in Pyongyang mean the West has no responsibilities in these situations. But surely one of those responsibilities is to lay aside our reflexive political correctness and say something about the things we know to be true.
Yours for reality-based discourse,
Jeff Weintraub
====================================
Thursday, August 18, 2005
The things we think and do not say
Joseph Britt

Somewhere in the field of American foreign policy there is room for a paper with the title of that document with which Tom Cruise's character Jerry MacGuire began a major career transition. The subject of the paper would be human rights catastrophes in what used to be known as the Third World, particularly the genocide in Darfur.

What do we think but do not say? Well, for starters, we think that Arabs do not care very much about human rights. To be more precise, and more accurate, Arabs feel deep and genuine outrage when an Arab male is treated with something less than respect by a non-Arab and especially by a Jew; Arabs mistreated by other Arabs are of less concern. Non-Arabs being shot, blown-up, gang-raped or starved by Arabs are no problem at all, whether they are Muslim or not and perhaps especially if they are black Africans.

Many cultural attitudes, including this one, have deep historic roots; these are not my primary concern here. What matters instead is that keeping silent about large things carries a heavy price.

The New Republic ran a useful primer on the Darfur situation on its web site a short while ago, by Smith College Professor Eric Reeves; his assessment of where things stand now in Sudan -- this also contains material on the north-south civil war that has gone on there since the early 1980s -- is well worth reading as well.

Reeves is an expert on this subject; I am not. Yet even Reeves fails to note what to the casual observer appears fairly central to this grim story -- namely, that the protracted war against a civilian population of Darfur is considered an outrage, a horror, and an affront to humanity by the United States, by European peoples and governments, and by several African states, but by no Arab government and hardly any Arab media. Arabs are not represented among relief workers or peacekeepers in Darfur, all of whom come from countries much farther away than Egypt or Saudi Arabia; Arab contributions to humanitarian relief funds, according to a UN report, have been negligible. Terrorism has, rather late in the day, become a major issue of Arab Muslim theologians and intellectuals; not so genocide carried out by Arab Muslims against a mostly Muslim population over more than two years.

Let us note the most obvious consequence of this before saying anything else -- it makes action to stop genocide exponentially more difficult for the United States and other countries who would like to when the Arab government in Khartoum feels no pressure from other Arab governments or Arab media. This is true intellectually and morally; it is also true physically, since humanitarian relief and peacekeeping in Darfur cannot stage through nearby Egypt or Libya and must instead be maintained across the whole breadth of the Sahara Desert, like a dumbbell held at arm's length.

Now, it is very likely that the great majority of people in the Arab countries do not support genocide in Darfur. Many of them may not even know where it is. It is not something that the media available in Arab countries has covered extensively. And silence by Arab governments and media has not been challenged by Western governments and media.

I don't mean to pick on The New York Times here; there are worse offenders. But it does seem oddly symbolic that of the two Times columnists who write most frequently about the Arab world one -- Nick Kristof -- has published many pieces about genocide in Darfur without ever writing one about Arab indifference to it or what that might mean, while the other --Tom Friedman -- writes "whither the Arabs" commentary regularly without mentioning Darfur at all.

With respect to governments, it is tempting to suggest that this would be a good subject on which to unleash one of John Bolton's famous tirades on the United Nations. There is no reason, though, that other governments must be silent unless the United States speaks. Distasteful and occasionally repellent though the task can be, the United States often has to do business with the more barbarous governments of the world -- it was central to brokering the fragile settlement of Sudan's north-south civil war, for example. It should not be too much to expect Canada, say, or Germany to do something useful for a change and challenge Arab indifference to genocide in the UN or some other international forum.

Are we talking fundamentally about an Arab issue here? Looked at globally, we are not. Other human rights disasters are taking place as I write this -- the destruction of Zimbabwe, the decades-long nightmare of North Korea -- and the conduct of South Africa and China, respectively, toward these situations is inexplicable without mention of the indifference of these governments to human rights and human suffering. A humane, stable world order is unlikely to establish itself if only North American, European and a few other governments are willing to build it. And that is the case right now.

Arab indifference to Arab genocide does not, of course, excuse inadequate efforts by Western countries to aid its victims. Nor does South Africa's weak and cowardly support of Zimbabwe's kleptocrats or Beijing's embrace of its comrade in Pyongyang mean the West has no responsibilities in these situations. But surely one of those responsibilities is to lay aside our reflexive political correctness and say something about the things we know to be true.

posted by Joseph Britt on 08.18.05 at 06:02 PM

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home