Last week, I was invited to speak at the Save Darfur mobilization in Washington, DC. The decision to accept was both easy and complicated.
Easy, because how could any person of conscience ignore the need to speak out in defense of the victims of the horrible conflict that has been raging in the western part of Sudan? The stories of widespread rape, the slaughter of innocents, the deaths of hundreds of thousands and the dislocation of families make Darfur one of the great tragedies of this new century.
But two factors made my decision a complicated one. One was related to the complications inherent in the conflict itself. The other, had to do with the make up of the US-based movement that is supporting Darfur.
There are, to be quite blunt about it, no "good guys" in the Darfur conflict. Elements on all sides of this madness have committed atrocities. What has been done cannot be explained away as "defense" or "mistakes" as the parties would have it.
To make matters worse, there are divisions within the ranks of the various factions that add even greater complexity to the picture. And then there is the ever-present and growing danger represented by the involvement of Sudan and its neighbor Chad both in Darfur and in each other's internal affairs.
A further complication was presented by the fact that at the very same time is this mobilization was occurring, the government of Sudan and the major rebel groups were involved in African Union (AU) sponsored negotiations in Abuja, Nigeria. In fact, the date of the Washington rally coincided with the deadline the AU had given the parties to complete their talks and sign a peace agreement. There were some who raised concern that the rally itself might lead some parties to stiffen their opposition to signing the agreement.
And then there were questions raised by the composition of the coalition itself and the views of some of the speakers who were to participate in the Washington mobilization. It is a fact that a number Evangelical Christian organizations who had been engaged in controversial missionary/conversion efforts in Darfur were involved, as were some Jewish groups who had a history of using Sudan as an issue to drive a wedge between Arabs and Africans.
Some of the rhetoric in the US about Darfur has been shaped by these groups and their perspectives. In some articles, the conflict is presented as an "Arab-led genocide against black Africans," others have either mistakenly or deliberately conflated their oversimplified view of the Southern Sudan-Khartoum conflict with Darfur and have, therefore, portrayed Darfur as if it were an "Muslim assault on Christian and animist Africans!"
With no other Arab speaker on the program, I understood what might be interpreted either by my absence or my presence at the rally. After consultations with several Arab friends and a number of experts on African affairs, I resolved to participate.
It was important that Arab Americans make clear our deep concern with the humanitarian crisis in Darfur. Our presence in this multi-ethnic multi-religious coalition sends this message.
And while we may have had questions about some of the groups involved in the Save Darfur effort, the coalition included significant respected US and international organizations as well. The International Crisis Group, the US Conference of Catholic Bishops, Amnesty International, the AFL-CIO/Solidarity Center and a number of US Muslim groups had signed on as sponsors. My presence, I hoped, would give voice to our concern and help provide some balance in the day's discussions.
I focused my remarks on two central points: support for the peace talks in Abuja, urging the parties to accept the AU mediation efforts; and recognition of the growing consensus at the United Nations, shared by many members of the African Union and Arab League that more must be done to secure the peace in Darfur, protect the innocent, return the displaced, punish those who have committed war crimes and provide more humanitarian assistance to those in need--but recognition, as well, that this consensus had to be acted upon.
I noted that we should commit ourselves to take no side in this conflict, but the side of peace with justice and the protection of innocents.
I closed by urging the participants to make universal their commitment to fighting injustice, terror and war, by expanding their vision to include not only Darfur but Iraq, and Israel/Palestine as well.
It is hoped that the Abuja process will bear fruit, but, even with an agreement, there are enormous challenges ahead. If the mobilization accomplished anything at all, it is that silence, passivity, or concern without action are not enough. Too many lives have been lost and too many are still at risk.