Friday, March 16, 2007

The Politics of Naming: Genocide, Civil War, Insurgency

Mahmood Mamdani is the Herbert Lehman Professor Government and professor of anthropology at Columbia University. Anything he has to say about the situation in Africa, especially Rwanda, Uganda or South Africa, should be taken very seriously. Few people are well informed on Darfur and he is among those better informed. His reading of the situation in Darfur generates questions about what is "real" and what is simply labelling. The problem we all have in trying to track the course of affairs in the world is how to evaluate the "information" that comes to us, most of it being constructed by interested parties. The naming of events and situations is a most important feature of the situations. So far, the Bush administration and other western powers have succeeded in using language to talk about Iraq that have stuck, and so have set the terms for how to conceive of the proper response. Are the terms we use for the situation in Darfur the most fitting?

The Politics of Naming: Genocide, Civil War, Insurgency
Mahmood Mamdani
London Review of Books

"The similarities between Iraq and Darfur are remarkable."
"...estimate of ... civilians killed ... is roughly similar. The killers are mostly paramilitaries, closely linked to the official military, which is said to be their main source of arms. The victims too are by and large identified as members of groups, rather than targeted as individuals. But the violence in the two places is named differently. In Iraq, it is said to be a cycle of insurgency and counter-insurgency; in Darfur, it is called genocide."
"What would happen if we thought of Darfur as we do of Iraq, as a place with a history and politics – a messy politics of insurgency and counter-insurgency?"
"Why should an intervention in Darfur not turn out to be a trigger that escalates rather than reduces the level of violence as intervention in Iraq has done?"
"Morally, there is no doubt about the horrific nature of the violence against civilians in Darfur. The ambiguity lies in the politics of the violence, whose sources include both a state-connected counter-insurgency and an organised insurgency, very much like the violence in Iraq."
"The worst thing in Darfur would be an Iraq-style intervention. That would almost certainly spread the civil war to other parts of Sudan, unravelling the peace process in the east and south and dragging the whole country into the global War on Terror."

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