By Savo Heleta
March 25, 2009 — The recent conflict between Israel and Hamas in Gaza created fury and protests around the globe and especially in the Arab and Muslim world. A number of countries in the Middle East and North Africa saw some of the largest demonstrations in their history that condemned the killings of civilians and children by the Israeli forces.
At the same time, the Middle Eastern media, such as Al Jazeera, had a 24/7 coverage of the conflict.
One has to wonder why the Darfur conflict has never received similar attention.
Since 2003, Sudan’s western province of Darfur is an epicenter of a conflict between the mainly African rebels and the Arab-controlled government of Sudan and its proxy militias.
As in Gaza, the civilians in Darfur are paying the highest price. It is estimated that over the last six years about 200,000 people have died in Darfur from fighting, starvation, and diseases. The United Nations and aid agencies estimate that over two million Darfurians, out of a population of about six million, are currently living in refugee camps.
Even in the grimmest moments in Darfur, in 2003 and 2004, when the entire communities have been brutally destroyed by the government forces and their militias, a very few people in the Arab and Muslim world protested and condemned the killings of innocent Darfurians. Up to this day, not one Arab or Muslim leader has publicly criticized Sudan’s actions and atrocities in Darfur.
Suffering in the hands of an Arab regime
The Sudanese ruling elite portrays itself as an Arab regime both at home and abroad. Some would say this helps explain the lack of concern for the Darfur conflict in the Arab world. However, both sides in Darfur are Muslim and Darfurians, both Arabs and Africans, are Sudan’s most devout Muslims.
Rami Khouri, a Lebanese journalist, thinks that the silence in the Arab world "is not specific to Darfur or Sudan, but rather reflects a wider malaise that has long plagued the region: Arab governments tend to stay out of each other’s way when any one of them is accused of wrongdoing, and most Arab citizens have been numbed into helplessness in the face of public atrocities or criminal activity in their societies."
This changes only when Muslims suffer in the hands of non-Muslims – Americans, Russians, Serbs, or Israelis, to name a few. Then the Arab and Muslim governments and organizations are very active in condemning the atrocities while citizens show solidarity with the victims and demonstrate against "crusaders, infidels, or Zionists."
But when Muslims suffer on a large scale in the hands of an Arab regime, then there is barely any condemnation of the violence and crimes in the Arab and Muslim world.
Even though millions of innocent Muslims have been the victims in Darfur over the last six years, the fact that they are the victims of an Arab regime seems to prevent the Arab public and governments from often even acknowledging the suffering and humanitarian catastrophe in Darfur.
Darfurians matter less than Gazans
Ahmed Hussein Adam, the spokesperson of the Justice and Equality Movement, currently the most powerful Darfur rebel movement, have condemned the killings in Gaza but "observed with deep regret and sorrow the political, diplomatic, and humanitarian mobilizations for the civilians in Gaza, while [the Arab countries] adopted a dismissive attitude for the safety and security of civilians in Darfur."
Adam says that it is shameful that many in the Arab world seem to "consider blood of the people of Darfur [to be] less important than the blood of the people of Gaza."
Abdel Wahid Al-Nur, the leader of one faction of the Darfur rebel Sudan Liberation Movement, thinks that "if the Arab and Islamic countries mobilized 10% of what they [have done recently] for Gaza," they could have stopped the suffering of millions in Darfur long time ago.
Throughout the Darfur conflict, the Arab League stood by Sudan and defended its dismal actions. When the International Criminal Court’s prosecutor decided to seek an arrest of Sudan’s president for the alleged war crimes and genocide committed in Darfur, the League slammed the move and called it an "unbalanced stance."
After the International Criminal Court issued an arrest warrant for Omar al-Bashir for war crimes and crimes against humanity in Darfur, the Arab and Muslim world continued to support the Sudanese regime. Prince Saud Al-Faisal, the Saudi Arabian foreign minister, said his country "stands by Sudan with our heart and soul" despite the indictment.
In the aftermath of the recent Gaza conflict, however, the Arab League immediately called on the United Nations to "form an international committee to investigate Israeli crimes in Gaza and set up a criminal court to try Israeli war criminals."
It is appalling that the people of Darfur, who have suffered unspeakable atrocities since 2003, do not matter to many in the Arab and Muslim world only, it seems, because their tormentors are Arab Muslims and not Jews or Christians.
The killings of children and civilians in Gaza have be condemned in the strongest terms possible. But what about the innocent people in Darfur and their anguish and suffering? They are human beings, too!
Savo Heleta is the author of "Not My Turn to Die: Memoirs of a Broken Childhood in Bosnia" (March 2008, AMACOM Books, New York). He holds an Mphil degree in Conflict Transformation and Management from Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University in Port Elizabeth, South Africa.