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Racism has been flourishing amidst violence, among disproportionately well-armed Arabs who can

kill with impunity. One could perhaps extend the adage that ‘a language is a dialect with an army’

to say that, with regard to Sudan today, Arab and African ‘races’ are ethnicities with armies.



When Does Ethnic Identity Turn into Racism

By Heather J. Sharkey


In 2003, as the current round of war was erupting in Darfur, the historian Douglas H. Johnson published a book called The Root Causes of Sudan’s Civil Wars. His use of the plural—‘wars’, not ‘war’ in his title—was significant. Johnson argued that the civil war that plagued Sudan from 1955 to 1972 (usually called the ‘first’ civil war); the war that afflicted the country from 1983 until, arguably, the signing of a Sudan Government-SPLM/A treaty in 2005 (usually called the ‘second’ civil war); and other internal conflicts in modern Sudan, had all been related to each other organically.64

His framework has made it easier for scholars to situate the current Darfur conflict within the plurality of Sudanese civil conflicts, and to show linkages between Darfur, the Nuba Mountains, and Southern Sudan. Two connections are salient. First, many observers suggest that the political rhetoric of John Garang inspired and emboldened the Darfurian rebels of the Sudan Liberation Army (SLA), whose attack on government garrisons in El Fashir 2003 are said to have precipitated the current violence.

Garang extolled the possibility of a ‘New Sudan’—a Sudan that would be ethnically pluralistic and socially inclusive, and inherently ‘Africanist’ rather than ‘Arabist’.65 Darfurian rebel leaders later envied what Garang and the SPLA secured in the ‘Comprehensive Peace Agreement’ with the Beshir regime in 2005: promises of a sharing of power and wealth, and of a degree of political decentralization (much as in the accord of 1972), but this time with an escape clause – namely, a planned future referendum on whether Southern Sudan should remain part of the whole or secede.66

De Waal and Flint have suggested that Garang’s death in an apparently accidental helicopter crash in 2005, a mere two weeks after the signing of the treaty, was a blow for Darfur as well; had Garang lived, he might have placed a check on the Khartoum regime’s efforts to egg on and abet the Arab militias.67

The second salient connection is that the conflicts in Southern Sudan, the Nuba Mountains, and Darfur also occurred within the context of Arab militarization. In the mid-1980s, the Northern Sudanese government decided to arm Arab tribal militias in order to wage proxy wars against Southern Sudanese and Nuba ‘rebels’ and civilians. These militias were the forerunners of the Janjaweed who now ravage Darfur, even though the exact tribal composition of these armies has differed.

Similarly, in the late 1980s and the 1990s in Southern Sudan and the Nuba Mountains, as now in Darfur, militias on the ground were supported by the central government’s military intelligence and aerial bombardment campaigns.68 But Darfur’s militarization was aggravated by another, external factor: in the 1980s, the Libyan government began to arm Darfurian Arabs, in this case with the idea of using them to topple the Chadian regime of Hiss`ene Habr´e.69

Reflecting the offbeat pan-Arabist ideology of Mu’ammar Qadhafi, who had a vision of creating an Arab Muslim belt in Sahelian Africa, the Libyan government also recruited some Darfurian Arabs into the Tajammu’ al-’Arabi, which de Waal described as a crucible for Arab racial supremacist ideology.70

In 2004, under the leadership of Musa Hilal (whom deWaal and Flint call one of the most powerful leaders of the Janjaweed militias) Tajammu’ al-‘Arabi issued a directive that called upon its supporters to ‘change the demography of Darfur and empty it of its African tribes’.71 When does Arab ethnic identity become Arab racism?

Amir H. Idris has pointed out that racism in the Sudanese context has been rooted in local histories of slavery and in the unequal distribution of wealth and power between regions and social groups. But in the post-colonial period, and now especially in the context of Darfur, Idris has argued that racism has sharpened within the climate of fear surrounding Arab pastoralists—who are buffeted by drought and desertification, awash in guns but not in well-watered grazing lands, and abetted by a regime that is determined to retain its power by crushing internal rebellions.72

Racism has been flourishing amidst violence, among disproportionately well-armed Arabs who can kill with impunity. One could perhaps extend the adage that ‘a language is a dialect with an army’ to say that, with regard to Sudan today, Arab and African ‘races’ are ethnicities with armies.

However, not every expert on Sudan is ready to accept the argument that Arab racism or racial supremacy is a real factor in the current Darfur conflict, or in Sudanese internal politics more broadly. In 2005, in a review of G´erard Prunier’s recent book on Darfur, for example, the development economist Michael Kevane expressed scepticism about Prunier’s contention that ‘the Arab vs African clash [in Darfur] is not a local and ethnic one’ but rather ‘a national and racial one’.

Prunier ‘lays it on thick’, he wrote, in claiming that ‘the northern elite has been deepening its self-conception as a racial group, characterized by Arabness’, Kevane also expressed scepticism about what he called Prunier’s pop-psychologizing tendency to ascribe the intensity of the Sudan government’s Arabization agendas to a sense of inadequacy within the larger Arab world—that is, to a sense that Sudanese Arabs, because of their dark skins and their experiences of facing discrimination in the Middle East, were somehow not Arab enough.73

Many scholars and activists nevertheless agree with Prunier in contending that a kind of racial self-consciousness lurks behind the Sudan government’s Arab ideology. Al-Baqir al-Afif Mukhtar made this claim about Sudan’s Arab identity crisis particularly strongly. ‘Northerners think of themselves as Arabs, whereas the Arabs [sic] think otherwise. Northerners’ experience in the Arab world, especially in the Gulf [where many have migrated for work], proved to them beyond any doubt that the Arabs do not really consider them as Arabs, but rather as ‘abid, slaves . . .. Almost every Northerner in the Gulf has had the unpleasant experience of being called ‘abd.’

Northern Sudanese aspire to full inclusion in the Arab community, Mukhtar concluded, but their experiences in the wider Arab world, combined with their experience of being categorized with ‘blacks’ when they migrate to Europe or North America, have compounded their anxieties.74 The unease of Northerners may be deepened by first-hand awareness of Arabic’s non-hegemonic status in Sudan – a reality that one can apprehend merely by spending time on a public bus in Khartoum, and listening in on a multiplicity of languages.

In their introduction to a volume on Race and Identity in the Nile Valley (2004) Carolyn Fluehr-Lobban and Kharyssa Rhodes noted that the study of racism in the Nile Valley has been so sensitive a topic that it has been largely avoided. Those accused of being racist tend to deny it, while those who claim to have experienced racism feel its barbs sharply and testify to its relevance in day-to-day life on the streets in Cairo and Khartoum.75 Even a cursory look at Sudanese post-colonial writings in Arabic and English shows that this subject warrants much deeper study, since discourses about race as a social category in Sudanese post-colonial society (generally between ‘Arabs’ and ‘Africans’), and about the high position of Arabism in Sudan’s cultural hierarchy, are very common.

References to Arab cultural superiority abound in Arabic works. Consider, for example, the work by a respected Northern Sudanese intellectual, Muhammad al-Makki Ibrahim. In a study of Sudanese thought written in 1965 and published in at least two subsequent editions (in 1976 and 1989), Ibrahim described Sudanese Arab culture as the product of historical ‘cross-pollination’ through which there ‘emerged a new creature who was the modern Sudanese, who was formed neither of pure Arab blood nor of pure African (zanji), but who certainly combined in his tissues the two kinds of bloods, and carried in his brain the product of the more powerful and more perfect culture: Arab culture’. In Ibrahim’s view, Arabization had proceeded historically as Africans either ‘exchanged their idolatrous and Christian religions for entering into Islam’, or ‘as Africans withdrew into the equatorial forests, [so that] the echo of their national cultures died down’.76

Metaphors of Arab cultural conquest are also common. In 1979, one Northern Sudanese historian described the country’s rural peripheries as zones where, in the early twentieth century, educated Northern Sudanese Muslims carried out a ‘conquest’ (ghazw) for the spread of Islam, while in the early 1990s another praised Northern Sudanese government employees who, upon being posted to Sudan’s peripheries, ‘rushed into battle unsheathing the weapons of modern science amidst surroundings . . . like something from the Stone Age’.77

Discourses about race are also abundant, even in cases where writers dismiss its relevance. In the late 1960s, for example, the historian Muddathir Abdel Rahim made a plea for the irrelevance of the Arab–African divide, and argued that Sudan should be understood as an Afro-Arab composite. ‘Both [Arab and African], according to popular conception, are indicative of certain racial groups and are therefore regarded as being mutually exclusive,’ he wrote. ‘In fact, however, Arabism is a cultural, linguistic and non-racial link that binds together numerous races: black, white and brown.’

In a similar vein, the Egyptian scholar of Sudanese Arabic literature, ‘Abd al-Majid ‘Abidin, reflected in 1972 on Sudan’s Arab–African hybridity and averred that Arabs are simply those who speak Arabic, that there is no difference between a pedigreed and assimilated Arab, and that Blacks can be Arabs as well. ‘Abidin argued that Arabism transcended tribalism or racism, while Arab identity was the only force capable of binding Sudan’s diverse groups together. ‘Abidin stated, further, that embracing Africanism (tazannuj) would be divisive precisely because Africans (zunuj) were so heterogeneous and, he claimed, lacked a basis in language or civilization. ‘The call to Africanism . . . would lead to a call for division, fragmentation, and tribalism in this country.’78

What counts, of course, is not what Arabism should be according to its theorists; what counts is rather what Arabism and Arabization have been, on the ground, in Sudan. In this spirit, Nyombe remarked, regarding the Northern Sudanese nationalists’ desire to spread Arabic and Islam, that ‘These were not bad objectives in themselves, but immoderate northern zeal to convert southerners into Moslems and Arabic language speakers in the shortest time possible often drifted into extreme and intolerant policies. . ..’79

Idris remarked in a similar spirit that successive post-colonial Sudanese regimes have treated non-Arabs and Arabs as though they have different ‘entitlements’. ‘Those who are considered Arabs by the racialized state are treated as citizens,’ he wrote, ‘and those who are perceived as non-Arabs are treated as subjects.’80 Still others have rejected Arabism’s totalistic claims: some have not wanted a Sudan with cultural unity; some have preferred a Sudan that recognizes and tolerates difference. This rejection of monoculturalism and assimilation is what prompted John Garang, in the end, to call for a New Sudan that would be a ‘united, secular, democratic, multi-racial, multi-lingual, and multi-religious Sudan’.81

Successive Sudanese governments—parliamentary and dictatorial alike—have cherished the ideal of the Sudanese Arab so much that they have insisted on assimilation, rather than pluralistic inclusion and acceptance of difference, as the only approach to national unity. In trying to pursue their agendas in the context of civil wars, they have turned Arabization and Islamization into martial policies. The Beshir regime has been particularly clear on this score: Beshir declared in the 1990s that his regime was ‘fighting for [the] Sudan’s Arab-Islamic existence’, that its policies to impose Islamic law and Arabic were merely a reflection of divine will, and that its war against dissidents was a jihad.82

But the policies that Beshir ascribed to God’s will have bred only ill will, particularly since his regime has supported Arabization in a country that has had a post-colonial political and economic culture of Arabs-take-all. In May 2000, an anonymously authored and distributed ‘Black Book’ made the rounds in greater Khartoum, eluding government censorship: it purported to show ‘what everyone knew but never articulated: that the vast majority of government positions in Khartoum, from cabinet ministers to their drivers and all the bureaucracy in between, were held by members of three [Arab] tribes which represented only 5.4 percent of the population’.83 Some claim that the book’s authors had ties to the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM), one of the two rebel groups that took to violence in Darfur in 2003.84

Such is the depth of ill will that many non-Arab Sudanese today appear to look upon Northern riverine Arab elites as outsiders, enemies, colonizers, and usurpers—certainly not as compatriots. In 2007, the Arabic language continues to spread as a lingua franca, particularly in Darfur (including in displaced people’s camps),85 among Southern Sudanese refugees, and in southern towns, though the appeal of Arab identity and ideology appears more limited than ever. . . .

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64. Douglas H. Johnson, The Root Causes of Sudan’s Civil Wars (Indiana University Press, Bloomington, IN, 2003).

65. Kevane, ‘Lako Tongun discusses his life and the situation in Sudan’; and Idris, Confict and Politics of Identity in Sudan, p. 89.

66. Alex deWaal, ‘I will not sign: reflections on the Darfur peace agreement’, London Review of Books 28, 23 (30 November 2006).

67. Flint and de Waal, Darfur, pp. xii–xiii.

68. Flint and de Waal, Darfur, pp. 24–5.

69. J. Millard Burr and Robert O. Collins, Africa’s Thirty Years’ War: Libya, Chad, and the Sudan, 1963–1993 (Westview Press, Boulder, CO, 1999).

70. See also Amnesty International, ‘Beyond any doubt: Sudan uses and supports the Janjawid in Darfur’ (AI Index No. 41/028/2006, 8 December 2006).

71. Flint and de Waal, Darfur, pp. 38–9. 72. Idris, Conflict and Politics of Identity in Sudan, p. 80; see also Burr and Collins, Africa’s Thirty Years’ War, pp. 243–4, 259.

73. Michael Kevane, review of G´erard Prunier’s Darfur: The ambiguous genocide, in Sudan Studies Association Newsletter 24, 1 (October 2005), pp. 15–18.

74. Mukhtar, ‘The crisis of identity in Northern Sudan’ in Fluehr-Lobban and Rhodes, Race and Identity in the Nile Valley, pp. 213–24.

75. Fluehr-Lobban and Rhodes, Race and Identity in the Nile Valley, pp. xiii–xiv (see also the essay in this volume by Maurita Poole, regarding Cairo, pp. 265–77); Zeineb Eyega, ‘Sudanese black identity’ (talk given at the Darfur Symposium, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, 1 March 2007).

76. Muhammad al-Makki Ibrahim, al-Fikr al-sudani: usuluhu wa-tatawwuruhu, second edition (Matba’at Aru al-Tijariyya, n.p., 1989), pp. 11–12.

77. Ahmad ‘Abd al-Rahim Nasr, al-Idara al-baritaniyya wa’l-tabshir al-islami wa’l-masihi fial-Sudan (Wizarat al-Tarbiya wa’l-Tawjih, Khartoum, 1979), pp. 25–6; Mirghani Hasan ‘Ali, Shakhsiyyat ‘amma min al-Mawrada (n.p., [Omdurman, early 1990s?]), p. 43.

78. ‘Abd al-Majid ‘Abidin, Dirasat Sudaniyya: majmu’at maqalat min al-adab wa-al-tarikh, second edition (Khartoum University Press, Khartoum, 1972), pp. 38–40.

79. Nyombe, ‘Survival or extinction’, p. 109.

80. Idris, Conflict and Politics of Identity in Sudan, p. 83.

81. W¨ondu and Lesch, Battle for Peace in Sudan, pp. 33–4.

82. Lesch, The Sudan, p. 22.

83. Flint and de Waal, Darfur, pp. 17–18.

84. Abdullahi Osman El-Tom, ‘The Black Book of Sudan: imbalance of wealth and power in Sudan’, Journal of African National Affairs 1, 2 (2003), pp. 25–35, at OSSREA (1 May 2007).

85. Consider the emergence of the Arabic monthly newspaper Afiya Darfur: launched in 2006, with the financial support of European governments, this periodical targets a readership of Darfurians in displaced people’s camps. Simon Haselock, 'Overview of the Albany AssoARAB'.

Source: Heather J. Sharkey. “Arab Identity and Ideology in Sudan: The Politics of Language, Ethnicity, and Race.” African Affairs Advance Access published December 18, 2007.

posted 31 March 2008 

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Rock the Casbah

Rage and Rebellion across the Islamic World

By Robin Wright

While Wright's book, which examines the multifaceted "counter-jihad"—the phenomenon of moderate Muslims confronting violent and authoritarian interpretations of Islam—is consistently engaging, it too often feels more like advocacy than analysis, and tends to be overly coloured by optimism. Wright's Rock the Casbah—taken from the title of the famous Middle East-themed song by The Clash—picks up where her earlier Dreams and Shadows: The Future of the Middle East left off. And that's the problem. Wright finds new reform-minded Muslims to praise, but conceptually, this book is almost identical to her previous one.

An award-winning journalist, Wright originally set out to write about the counter-jihad in both the Middle East and the West. (The book's working subtitle—still found on some websiteswas How Sheikhs, Comedians, Rappers, and Women Are Challenging Osama Bin Laden.) Her overview of this subject proves quite appealing.

Wright shows how radical Islam, Arab authoritarian regimes, and Western bigotry are receiving a verbal thrashing at the hands of Muslim playwrights, poets, comedians, and gay activists. Oh, and don't forget the rappers: "Rap spawned a new sass in countries where the state controlled the media, banned the opposition, orchestrated elections, and arrested the outspoken - conditions that have in turn fostered alienation and extremism."

But the author displays a worrisome tendency to ignore the "sword that cuts both ways" aspect of certain trends in the Arab world. She asserts that the "counter-jihad's most critical components ... were the clerics who originally inspired and conferred legitimacy on al Qaeda" but who now chastise the monster they helped create. However, continuing to invest such people with power is problematic. What if some of these clerics change their minds yet again - say, when they are released from Egyptian prisons, from which many of them have recently and perhaps not coincidentally begun denouncing terrorism? Wright apparently does not realise that the counter-jihad's best chance of long-term success lies in its ability to break Muslim clerics' stranglehold on interpreting Islam.

A similar case of selective observation occurs in Wright's analysis of how the headscarf has become "a kind of armour for Muslim women to chart their own course, personally or professionally," in patriarchal Arab countries such as Egypt. By donning the headscarf, many women have silenced their male would-be guardians and enabled themselves to participate more fully in the social and even political spheres. However, Wright fails to note that in using conservative Islamic dress as their means of socio-political advancement, they have simultaneously marginalised Christian and secular Muslim women.

Wright deals with the Arab Spring by collapsing it into the counter-jihad. This does not always work, because the masses of moderate Muslims in Arab countries who non-violently opposed quasi-secular and militaristic dictatorships were not actively engaged in a struggle against radical Islam.TheNational

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Capitalism and the Ideal State  (Marcus Garvey)/ Negroes and the Crisis of Capitalism (Du Bois)

Slavery and Its Legacies at Emory University: Reflections on History and Accountability

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1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created

By Charles C. Mann

I’m a big fan of Charles Mann’s previous book 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus, in which he provides a sweeping and provocative examination of North and South America prior to the arrival of Christopher Columbus. It’s exhaustively researched but so wonderfully written that it’s anything but exhausting to read. With his follow-up, 1493, Mann has taken it to a new, truly global level. Building on the groundbreaking work of Alfred Crosby (author of The Columbian Exchange and, I’m proud to say, a fellow Nantucketer), Mann has written nothing less than the story of our world: how a planet of what were once several autonomous continents is quickly becoming a single, “globalized” entity.

Mann not only talked to countless scientists and researchers; he visited the places he writes about, and as a consequence, the book has a marvelously wide-ranging yet personal feel as we follow Mann from one far-flung corner of the world to the next. And always, the prose is masterful. In telling the improbable story of how Spanish and Chinese cultures collided in the Philippines in the sixteenth century, he takes us to the island of Mindoro whose “southern coast consists of a number of small bays, one next to another like tooth marks in an apple.” We learn how the spread of malaria, the potato, tobacco, guano, rubber plants, and sugar cane have disrupted and convulsed the planet and will continue to do so until we are finally living on one integrated or at least close-to-integrated Earth. Whether or not the human instigators of all this remarkable change will survive the process they helped to initiate more than five hundred years ago remains, Mann suggests in this monumental and revelatory book, an open question.

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Sex at the Margins

Migration, Labour Markets and the Rescue Industry

By Laura María Agustín

This book explodes several myths: that selling sex is completely different from any other kind of work, that migrants who sell sex are passive victims and that the multitude of people out to save them are without self-interest. Laura Agustín makes a passionate case against these stereotypes, arguing that the label 'trafficked' does not accurately describe migrants' lives and that the 'rescue industry' serves to disempower them. Based on extensive research amongst both migrants who sell sex and social helpers, Sex at the Margins provides a radically different analysis. Frequently, says Agustin, migrants make rational choices to travel and work in the sex industry, and although they are treated like a marginalised group they form part of the dynamic global economy. Both powerful and controversial, this book is essential reading for all those who want to understand the increasingly important relationship between sex markets, migration and the desire for social justice. "Sex at the Margins rips apart distinctions between migrants, service work and sexual labour and reveals the utter complexity of the contemporary sex industry. This book is set to be a trailblazer in the study of sexuality."Lisa Adkins, University of London

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The White Masters of the World

From The World and Africa, 1965

By W. E. B. Du Bois

W. E. B. Du Bois’ Arraignment and Indictment of White Civilization (Fletcher)

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Ancient African Nations

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Negro Digest / Black World

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The Death of Emmett Till by Bob Dylan  The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll  Only a Pawn in Their Game

Rev. Jesse Lee Peterson Thanks America for Slavery / George Jackson  / Hurricane Carter

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The Journal of Negro History issues at Project Gutenberg

The Haitian Declaration of Independence 1804  / January 1, 1804 -- The Founding of Haiti 

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update 10 February 2012 




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