Mahmood Mamdani on Iraq and Darfur

The following paragraphs began an article by Columbia University’s Mahmood Mamdani comparing Western attitudes to Iraq and Darfur.  The article originally appeared in the LONDON REVIEW OF BOOKS in March and was reprinted in THE AMERICAN CONSERVATIVE last month. 

The Politics of Naming: Genocide, Civil War, Insurgency

Mahmood Mamdani

The similarities between Iraq and Darfur are remarkable. The estimate of the number of civilians killed over the past three years 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. Why the difference? Who does the naming? Who is being named? What difference does it make?

The most powerful mobilisation in New York City is in relation to Darfur, not Iraq. One would expect the reverse, for no other reason than that most New Yorkers are American citizens and so should feel directly responsible for the violence in occupied Iraq. But Iraq is a messy place in the American imagination, a place with messy politics. Americans worry about what their government should do in Iraq. Should it withdraw? What would happen if it did? In contrast, there is nothing messy about Darfur. It is a place without history and without politics; simply a site where perpetrators clearly identifiable as ‘Arabs’ confront victims clearly identifiable as ‘Africans’.

A full-page advertisement has appeared several times a week in the New York Times calling for intervention in Darfur now. It wants the intervening forces to be placed under ‘a chain of command allowing necessary and timely military action without approval from distant political or civilian personnel’. That intervention in Darfur should not be subject to ‘political or civilian’ considerations and that the intervening forces should have the right to shoot – to kill – without permission from distant places: these are said to be ‘humanitarian’ demands. In the same vein, a New Republic editorial on Darfur has called for ‘force as a first-resort response’. What makes the situation even more puzzling is that some of those who are calling for an end to intervention in Iraq are demanding an intervention in Darfur; as the slogan goes, ‘Out of Iraq and into Darfur.’

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? Why might it not create the actual possibility of genocide, not just rhetorically but in reality? 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 full article can be found at

Mamdani’s replies to criticisms in the LRB’s letters column can be found at

An earlier piece of his, with a similar title but a very different focus, can be found at

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  1. lefalcon

     /  September 5, 2007

    Sounds like this guy’s trying to be “clever.”
    His point is so devastating & well-thought-out,
    that I can’t quite figure out what it is.

    There’s an enormous difference between Darfur
    and Iraq: The invading force would not be
    in Darfur for the purpose of controlling Sudan’s
    rich resources…unless dust has suddenly
    become precious in the global marketplace.

    I’ll look at the article more closely when I
    get the chance…

  2. acilius

     /  September 5, 2007

    Actually Sudan does have quite a bit of oil. If they could sort out their various civil wars, the Sudanese might well figure in the second rank of the world’s oil producers. Not that an invasion of Sudan by a US-led force would be likely to bring either order to that country or wealth to the invaders.

    Anyway, the invading forces Mamdani is comparing in the opening sections of the paper are the Sudanese state in Western Sudan and the USA & co in Iraq. Those who call for US military intervention in Darfur cite a study estimating 200,000 “excess deaths” in western Sudan as a result of the first years of Khartoum’s attacks on rebel areas. Yet the same methodology, employed by virtually the same group of researchers, produced the LANCET study which estimated that the first years after March 2003 saw 655,000 “excess deaths” in Iraq. If that first finding implies that the USA should intevene militarily in Western Sudan to force the Sudanese state to stop its military actions in that region, then the second finding implies that the USA should intervene militarily in Iraq to force the USA to stop intervening militarily in Iraq.

    My favorite line in Mamdani’s piece is this:
    “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?” You know you’re in trouble when your region would benefit from receiving the level of understanding that westerners bring to their considerations of Iraq.

  3. lefalcon

     /  September 11, 2007

    Yeah: If only Americans had the same
    immeasurable profundity of understanding
    vis-a-vis Sudanese society that they already have of Iraqi society.

    There is nothing so dangerous as a person (or for that matter, a government or a collectivity of some sort) that believes itself to have a thorough grasp of something…
    while in reality it’s wallowing in its own pitiful delusions.

    As the venerable Mark Twain once pointed out:
    “It ain’t what you don’t know that
    gets you in trouble;
    it’s what you know for sure
    that just ain’t so.”

    Much fist-pumping and strange grunting sounds
    as I “slam home” my devastating point…

  4. acilius

     /  September 11, 2007

    Good point! And very timely today, the 911th anniversary of 9/11. What, it’s only the sixth anniversary? It seems more like it’s been going on for 911 years. I’m pretty sure we’ve been living with this for at least 911 years. Perhaps since the year 911.

  5. lefalcon

     /  September 12, 2007

    I agree: This must be at least the 911th anniversary of 9/11!

    Gosh: Hasn’t Bush been president for an
    awfully long time?

    We still have well over a year before
    we can see his backside: Euww!!

    Which is probably just as well,
    considering that it is with the greatest
    fear and trepidation that I try to even
    imagine “what” will occupy the White House
    after Bush??

    It’s now officially Ramadhan:
    Deeply ironic, no doubt, that this festive
    Islamic month should begin *the very next
    day* after 9/11: Muslims world wide spit
    in the face of the West!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
    Can’t they have the decency to wait a couple
    more days, in respect of the somber tone
    of 9/11…? 9/11’s somber tone clearly
    extends beyond itself: I’d say for a good
    two or three more days.

    The gates of paradise have been flung open
    for one month!!; and the hatch to hell
    slammed closed!!…This is what a young friend
    of mine says.

    I’m quite exhausted from Operation: Full Blast,
    wherein an employer attempts to tear
    *new assholes* for its employees.
    Jesus: Talk about “cringe benefits.”

    Maybe it’s time for a new background in our
    masthead [I gently suggest] ?
    Perhaps we can entreat Noble V to offer us
    his services in this regard ?

  6. lefalcon

     /  September 12, 2007

    Hey: I just posted a long comment here!
    Where is it????????????

  7. lefalcon

     /  September 12, 2007

    Jesus Christ:
    I just typed a bunch of stuff,
    hit “submit comment”…
    and everything disappeared
    w/out being posted.
    FUCK THIS SHIT!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  8. acilius

     /  September 13, 2007

    Sorry we lost your comment, F. Could you summarize it?

  9. lefalcon

     /  September 19, 2007

    I like the way I exploded in anger in my earlier comment. It’s just the way these trousers get caught up my ass-crack all the time: Makes me want to scream!!!! Argh!!!!

    Well let’s see: I’ve already quoted Mark Twain AND talked about my ass-crack.

    I can’t quite remember what that long post of mine was all about: Lost forever in the cracks of some forgotten cyber-dimension.

    A has really been working hard on the blog. Great work! Sorry I haven’t been more active…It’s for the reasons I mentioned in email. But I’ll try to get on here with some regularity…if only to bar intruders!!

  10. acilius

     /  September 20, 2007

    Oh, I haven’t been working so hard on it, just slapping a lot of random stuff up to show that the blog is still alive.

    Anyway, as I said in email I absolutely understand the difficulties you and VThunderlad face in making regular contributions. I’m confident the three of us will bounce back to more frequent communication. Whether this blog is part of that and how big a part remains to be seen.

  11. acilius

     /  September 26, 2007

    i don’t mind the current masthead, though a rotating set of taglines might be nice. instead of “Los Thunderlads are Laying Down Some Cable” as a stationary tag, wouldn’t it be possible to have a series of tags alternate automatically? if so, i’d suggest adding lefalcon’s:

    Los Thunderlads are here to save the world- or at least to talk a lot about it!

  12. lefalcon

     /  September 27, 2007

    I hate to be too controlling as regards the “mast-head.” What’s been bothering
    me is the way one of the cables makes it
    hard to read the word “thunder,” clearly
    disastrous for the site’s “core aesthetic.”

    But the background is perfect the way it
    dovetails seamlessly with the concept of
    “cable.” Heck, even microbes have to take
    a crap from time to time!

    I suppose suggestions would have to include
    “Los Thunder Lads Are On The Scene, And About
    To Fuck Your Sister, Moron!” That makes us
    sound like good-natured jokesters. Or:
    “Los Thunder Lads Are Gonna Drill A Hole In
    The Side Of Your Goddam House And Stick Their
    Dicks In It!” Makes us look like Melmouth
    the Wanderer fans.

  13. acilius

     /  September 28, 2007

    Perhaps you should put up a new post on this topic- I doubt V is reading this thread.

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