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Why is the Arab League silent about Darfur?

Arab and Muslim nations condemn Israel but remain mute in the face of ongoing ethnic cleansing in Sudan.

A Sudanese displaced boy looks at a Union-United Nations Mission in Darfur soldier standing guard. Photograph: Getty Images.

This week, the Arab League met for its annual ministerial summit and issued a condemnation of Israel for bombing a weapons factory in Sudan. Israel has not admitted destroying the Yarmouk facility on 23 October, because it never confirms or denies such military operations. However, it is accepted by the international community that Israel is the perpetrator. It is also widely believed both inside Sudan and beyond that Yarmouk was making weapons both for and on behalf of Iran, and smuggling them to Hamas in Gaza.

Arab and Muslim countries have responded swiftly and with a united voice, expressing outrage at Israel’s actions. Yet, for almost ten years the same organisations have been mute in the face of the ongoing ethnic cleansing and murder of Muslims in Sudan’s remote western region, Darfur.

It surprises friends in Britain when I explain that Sudan’s avowedly Islamist regime has been ruthlessly ethnically cleansing their fellow Muslims. People assume the deaths of an estimated 300,000 Darfuris have religious roots, Muslim against non-Muslim.

This misapprehension is understandable: for decades Sudan’s rulers tried to ‘Arabise’ and impose their version of Islam on the non-Arab and non-Muslim inhabitants of southern Sudan, resulting in more than two million deaths, and leading to South Sudan’s eventual secession last year.

No one disputes that Muslims around the world stand in solidarity with the long-suffering Palestinian people. Equally they are rightly horrified by attacks on European Muslims by far-right racist groups, and by the recent violence against the Muslim minority in Burma. One of the Koran’s central messages is that Muslims must care for each other, showing each other hospitality, charity, protection and solidarity.

Yet, the plight of their fellow Muslims in Darfur has been of little concern for a decade. If any opinion is expressed, it is usually to blame Israel for funding Darfur’s rebels. Khartoum has succeeded in convincing most Arab, Muslim, and even African countries that the bloodshed in Darfur is due to a foreign plot against Khartoum. Depending on their audience, representatives of the regime will frame this conspiracy as colonialist, imperialist or Zionist.

This shameful silence is compounded by commentators and academics in the west who are afraid they will be seen as racist or Zionist for criticising Sudan, a Muslim nation. They therefore explain the violence in Darfur as a consequence of ancient tribal rivalries, and scant economic development, coupled with desertification due to climate change. What they avoid at all costs is suggesting what millions of black Africans know from bitter experience: that in many parts of the Muslim world, black people are regarded as racial inferior.

Racial prejudice is the motive that few dare mention, knowing they will instantly be branded as Zionists or Islamophobic. For many, Darfuris are simply the wrong kind of Muslims because they are black and African. How else can one explain the lack of outrage at the Sudanese regime’s systematic destruction of black African villages in Darfur? The violence in Darfur continues to rage, with the Sudanese armed forces bombing villages while arming its disgruntled local Arab proxies to ethnically cleanse the black African tribes with whom they existed for centuries.

When the Sudanese security forces prevent UNAMID, the international peacekeeping force, from investigating such attacks, those who fund UNAMID, including the British government, remain silent, becoming complicit in the atrocities taking place against Sudanese citizens by its own government. 

Back in July 2004 the UN Security Council passed a resolution giving Khartoum 30 days to bring the Arab militia under control, or to face international action. There have been no consequences for the Sudan regime, and all these years later several similar UN resolutions remain unenforced. Why? Because Sudan can always count on the support of its business partners, Russia and China, and the unquestioning backing of Arab and Muslim nations.

Arab and Muslim nations show legitimate concern for the plight of the Palestinians. It is time for voices in the region to hold Khartoum to account for its years of massive human rights abuses. It tarnishes the reputation of Islam everywhere and makes a mockery of the Koran’s fundamental message.