Views » September 12, 2004
Black Muslims and the Sudan
The situationin Darfur is forcing a focus on an issue the Muslim world has tended to avoid: race.
It has taken a genocide in Darfur, where hundreds of thousands have been killed in a brutal campaign of ethnic cleansing and countless more continue to die in disease-ridden refugee camps, to force influential segments of the black activist community to put aside their differences and acknowledge a long history of ongoing atrocities in the Sudan.
For years, some black activists have charged the Islamic government of Sudan with supporting Arab militias that raid Christian and traditionalist areas of southern Sudan and force their black African captives into slavery. Others argued that those charges were manufactured primarily to justify Western intervention in the region.
Initially, the disagreement was centered in the Black Nationalist community and, to put it simply, was divided between nationalists who were Muslim and those who were Pan-Africanists. Many Muslim nationalists believed the charges of slavery were fabricated for the purpose of anti-Islamic propaganda. But Pan-African nationalists found more than a grain of truth in the charges and pushed the issue into the public light.
The apparent sectarian character of the militia raids eventually energized various Christian groups and they began mobilizing in opposition to the Sudanese government. The ardent support of these often right-wing groups further clouded the issue for many black activists who suspected their new allies had ulterior motives.
Thus, the effort to bring attention to the issue of slavery in the Sudan was crippled. But a dedicated group of pan-African nationalists continued to push the cause and consistently condemned the Sudan’s Islamic regime; some blamed prominent black Muslims for helping to keep the issue off the table.
“Black Muslims were reluctant to criticize the Islamist government in the Sudan, which is based in the north in Khartoum, because of their religious and other ties,” says Nate Clay, talk-show host, newspaper publisher and one of the most vocal members of this pan-Africanist group.
Clay is gratified that so many black activists, politicians and celebrities have been willing to get arrested in front of the Sudanese embassy in Washington D.C. in the last few months to protest the atrocities in Darfur. But he also is a little disgusted.
“What really bothers me about this sudden flash of consciousness is that they’ve only become interested in the Sudan in the face of the white media’s interest in the issue,” he says. “Where were they when the Sudanese government and its Arab militia were busy killing 2 million black Africans in the southern Sudan?”
He believes African-American leaders were intimidated by black Muslims—in particular, Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan. “Farrakhan knows about this and I’ve heard him condemn Arab racism. But he talks out of both sides of his mouth. I think he has become too dependent on Arab money.”
But the latest conflict in Darfur pits Muslim against Muslim. As Eric Reeves reported in the September 20 issue of In These Times (See “Deathly Silence,” p. 8), members of the tribal groups most affected by the ethnic cleansing are Muslim, as are the government and its Arab militia (the Janjaweed). Although the government reportedly got involved to suppress political opposition, the conflict now seems to be driven by ethnic, or at least cultural, animosities. Many members of the Janjaweed are dark-skinned Africans who identify with Arab culture. They would more accurately be called Arabized militia.
Since the religious component has been neutralized, several African-American Islamic groups have joined the protest against the Sudanese government’s treatment of the Muslim tribal groups that don’t identify themselves as Arabs. In fact, one group—Project Islamic H.O.P.E.—has called for Islamic governments and organizations to protest Khartoum’s action in Darfur.
“These Arab and Muslim leaders seek out our support on issues like Palestinian rights, religious racial profiling of civil liberties violations and American treatment of Islamic countries, but these Muslim leaders aren’t saying anything about the genocide of the African population in the Sudan,” says Najee Ali, founder of Islamic H.O.P.E. The issue also sparked some heated discussions at the recent convention of the American Society of Muslims, the largest group of indigenous Muslims in the country.
The situation in Darfur is forcing a focus on an issue the Muslim world has tended to avoid: race. And although the Western media’s depiction of the current conflict as one between Arab and African groups is too simplistic, there is a well-documented history of anti-black Arab bias in the region that has seldom been explored.
So, while Darfur has closed gaps between black activists, it has opened one between Muslims. Too bad it required the tragedy of another African genocide to provoke a conversation about Arab racism that is long past overdue.
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Salim Muwakkil is a senior editor of In These Times, where he has worked since 1983. He is the host of The Salim Muwakkil show on WVON, Chicago's historic black radio station, and he wrote the text for the book HAROLD: Photographs from the Harold Washington Years.