Muslims and US public misled over Sudan
American Muslims in false dilemma over Sudan war
by Ismail Royer www.iviews.com
The war in Sudan is by nature an emotional issue. It is made more so by a few vocal advocacy groups who seem to have latched on to it as a means of promoting their religious or political causes.
With the help of high-powered public relations firms, several influential newspaper columnists, and connections in Congress, these advocacy groups have managed to dominate public discourse on the Sudan war and impose their narrow view on a largely ignorant American public-Muslims included.
The conventional wisdom is that the Arab-Islamic Government of Sudan is waging a jihad to enslave and forcibly convert the black Christians of the South. "Sudan: The Cross vs. The Crescent," reads the title of one publication by a "human rights" group.
The lines appear to be clearly drawn, and American Muslims are expected to join one camp or the other. They must either endorse a campaign whose rhetoric tends to degenerate into Muslim-baiting, or be accused of supporting a "slaving Arab regime."
But in reality, American Muslims have been presented with a false dilemma.
Although religion plays a role, the war in Sudan is not fundamentally religious. Large numbers of rebels fighting the central government are themselves Muslims, and many fighters allied with the government are Christian or practice traditional African religions. Contrary to the account of some advocacy groups, most Southern Sudanese are not Christian, but animist. Large parts of rebellious Sudanese regions are Muslim, including about half of the inhabitants of the Nuba Mountains.
Groups like Christian Solidarity International (CSI) and the American Anti-Slavery Group (AASG) distort their core issue, slavery in Sudan, to fit their "Islam vs. Christianity" scenario. "Slave raids, together with conventional warfare, are among the means used by the Government of Sudan to carry out its policy of Islamization," reads a CSI publication.
But the Sudan Human Rights Organization, a Cairo-based group of Arabs that opposes the Khartoum government, reports: "There is no reliable evidence that the purpose of enslavement is Islamization or Arabization."
"I strongly believe that if there was no war in Sudan, there would be no cases of slavery," said Charles Omandi, an official with the Sudan Catholic Information Office of the Diocese of Rumbek, Sudan. "Incidents of abductions are equally rampant and sometimes pit African tribes against each other.these mostly involve women who are forced into concubinage, say when the Dinka raid the Nuer and vice versa."
Those bent on painting the war as a religious conflict have embraced the Sudanese People's Liberation Army (SPLA), the main rebel group fighting Khartoum. In March of this year, the United Nations stripped CSI of its UN accreditation after the group invited SPLA commander John Garang to represent it in a meeting before the UN Commission on Human Rights.
Charles Jacobs of the American Anti-Slavery Group (AASG) calls the SPLA an "African defense force."
But in this year's Human Rights Report, the State Department said SPLA leaders were "responsible for extrajudicial killings, beatings, arbitrary detention, forced conscription, slavery."
John Prendergast, former Director of African Affairs for the US National Security Council, wrote: "Perhaps one of the most telling signs of SPLA treatment of civilians resulted from an exercise in which children in U.N. High Commission for Refugees' (UNHCR) camps in Uganda were asked to draw pictures depicting life in a refugee camp for International Refugee Day 1993. Most of the children drew harrowing pictures of pre-rape scenes, killings and lootings, with `SPLA' written on top of many of the pictures."
This month, iviews.com revealed that the two most prominent groups promoting an "Islam vs. Christianity" perspective of the war harbor extremist agendas. The American Anti-Slavery Group (AASG) grew out of a lobbying group of pro-Israel extremists and evangelical Christians whose program, in the words of founder Charles Jacobs, was to counter a "propaganda war" over Israel's public image run by "Arab-Americans and their friends." Although Jacobs claims to promote human rights, one pro-Israel group that he represents has published articles by a former leader of an anti-Arab group Israel outlawed and classifies as "terrorist."
The evangelical zeal of AASG's close ally, Christian Solidarity International (CSI), led them to an alliance with a former leader of a militant missionary organization linked to apartheid South Africa's security forces.
Painting the war as a religious and racial struggle serves a purpose, says Dr. John Voll, a professor of Islamic History at Georgetown University.
"The people for whom this is most importantly a religious war are people from the outside," said Voll. "CSI are not in Sudan to ensure a reaffirmation of Southern Sudanese identity; they have as the key of their mission statement that they want the world to be Christian...they are there because they want to convert the South to Christianity."
Jacobs' alliance with CSI on this issue is a natural outgrowth of his past work with fundamentalist Christian pro-Israel groups like the International Christian Embassy.
"The right wing ultra-Zionists demonize Islam and Arabs from a kind of racialized perspective, and the evangelical Christian forces demonize Islam from a religious perspective, but it's a commonality," said Chip Berlet, a senior analyst at Political Research Associates, an independent, nonprofit research center that tracks the US political right. "There is a shared interest."
The problem is that the narrow shared interests of CSI, AASG, and the South African militant missionaries are not necessarily the interests of the victims of Sudan's war-in fact, their interests are mutually exclusive. Moderate Christian relief groups delivering aid to South Sudan report that the religiously polarizing approach of militant Christian missionaries is causing strife among the population and disrupting their operations.
Now it seems that the narrow shared interests of the vocal fringe are overlapping with the interests of hawkish elements within the State Department. The Clinton administration is debating whether to send food aid to the SPLA, an ill-conceived plan roundly denounced by parties as diverse as World Vision, CARE International, Human Rights Watch, and former president Jimmy Carter.
SPLA commander John Garang has said that American food aid will enhance his ability to fight the civil war. What it will not do is to give him the ability to win it, thus guaranteeing a continuation of suffering.
"Providing food to armies and strengthening the hard-liners.will prolong a brutal war that has terrorized the people of Sudan for far too long," wrote Peter D. Bell, president of CARE USA, in a Washington Post editorial last week.
Meanwhile, groups like AASG are lobbying vigorously for the aid to flow.
"Having [Garang] as a hero fits into their broader global agenda," said Voll. "Even if Garang has many objectionable qualities, he has one favorable quality for them, and that is, he is not Muslim."
"The biggest obstacle [to peace] is US government policy," former president Carter said recently a Boston Globe interview. "The US is committed to overthrowing the government in Khartoum. Any sort of peace effort is aborted, basically by the policies of the US."
Those policies are strongly influenced by the incessant lobbying of groups like CSI and AASG, whose polarizing language and support for the human rights-abusing SPLA only promote conflict.
"The way you bring an end to the vicious slave trade and the suffering of the Sudanese people is to bring an end to the war," said Voll. "The way you bring an end to the war is not by providing support to one of the warring parties."
American Muslims do not need to defend the actions of the government of Sudan. Nor do they need to join the disingenuous CSI/AASG campaign. For them, for the American public, and for US policy, the way out of the false dilemma imposed by the fringe is to demand respect for human rights from both of the warring parties, and above all, an end to the senseless war.
Ismail Royer is the iviews.com Washington Bureau Chief