Blogs > Cliopatria > Making Sense of Mahmood Mamdani's Saviors and Survivors

May 5, 2009 8:11 pm

Making Sense of Mahmood Mamdani's Saviors and Survivors

Over at Making Sense of Darfur, a SSRC blog edited by Alex De Waal, there's been a vigorous debate over Mahmood Mamdani's newest book, Saviors and Survivors: Darfur, Politics, and the War on Terror. It's worth checking out, especially now that Mamdani has joined the discussion:

Alex de Waal's Introduction which places the book in the context of Mamdani's larger work.

Sean O'Fahey offers both a useful introduction to the problem of ethnic identity in Darfur (and some criticisms of the theoretical approach Mamdani took), and offers some background on the importance of land issues in the conflict.

Bridget Conley-Zilkic writes about the conversation we are not having and asks if"historically and politically informed human rights advocacy in the context of (even in the aftermath of) extreme violence against civilian communities possible?"

Manuel Schwab argues that "Saviors and Survivors begins and ends making a case for what only a minority concerned with the conflict have been willing to say" and notes that"precious little literature coming from the activist community surrounding the Save Darfur coalition is sensitive to the complexities of what it might mean to think through a common Sudanese future, a dangerous side effect of the splitting of the conflict into clear victims and perpetrators."

Eric Reeves contends that"Mamdani does not know Sudan or Darfur well, has cooked his political narrative in advance, and in his inaccurate and over-generalizing attack on American Darfur advocacy largely ignores the enormously and deliberately destructive actions of Khartoum in Darfur"

Martin Daly finds Mamdani's argument to be persuasive, but bemoans (and carefully details) the"defects in his marshalling of evidence and the intemperance with which it proceeds."

Rebecca Marshall divides the book between the sections written by"Mamdani the Professor, and Mamdani the Provocateur."

Martin Daly, in writing about British administration in Darfur, argues that the book"misapprehend[s] or exaggerate[s] the role that Darfur played in British administrative thinking during the colonial period."

Alex De Waal's "Civilizing Projects, Tribal Administration and the Color Khaki" agrees with the letter of Daly's critique, but illustrates how that"the future of Sudan—and Darfur—was shaped by how colonial ideas of society were adopted by Sudanese rulers," and that it"was a reconstituted and sharpened version of the colonial trap, designed and built by the radical Islamists and their security chiefs which snared Darfur."

Semhar Araia has a round up of a debate at Columbia University between Mamdani and John Prendergast.

While G. Pascal Zachary applauds Mamdani's critique of the Save Darfur coalition's willingness to use African suffering as a product to sell to Western consumers, he worries that Mamdani also"subordinates Darfur to a broader set of stories he wants to tell about dysfunctional American power in the world, about misunderstood Muslims, about an Africa violated by Westerners from every point of the political spectrum."

Kevin Funk asks what Darfur has to do with the war on terror.

Arguing that"all those simple ordinary people weren’t just killed by the forces of history or the mistaken racial theories of some long-dead British colonialist," Abd al-Wahab Abdalla castigates "Mamdani’s lack of sensitivity to the suffering of the Darfuri people and his readiness to give the benefit of the doubt to their oppressors."

Alex de Waal writes about emancipatory American exceptionalism and the manner in which that"the ‘war on terror’ and the call for halting genocide by (principally American) military intervention possess a comparable moral logic."

Adam Branch draws out Mamdani's brief comparison between northern Uganda and Darfur to"argue that another, equally dangerous dimension of Western interventionism is on display in Uganda, where a militarized security state is not undermined, but promoted in the name of human rights, with detrimental consequences for democracy, self-determination, and peace."

Louisa Lombard situates Saviors within Mamdani’s larger oeuvre, noting that his emphasis on a"methodological shift away from area studies" makes his ambitious project one of locating"the horizon above and beyond 'the facts' of specific contexts...his methodology entails a process of instrumentalization and interpretation of facts through which the details that do not fit the argument tend to fall away." Criticisms of his factual errors, she suggests, are necessary but not ultimately as damning as they have been framed as being" they"turn a microscope on Mamdani’s binoculars."

Finally (and note that this debate is ongoing), Mamdani responds to his critics, in the first of three pieces:

"The first post – this one – will respond to questions regarding the scholarship in the book [and factual inaccuracies/typos identified by some readers]. The second posting will discuss questions about the ideas, practices and politics of the Save Darfur movement. The third and final posting will focus on the way ahead, including how to respond to the suffering of the people of Darfur, and to the politicization of key identities [victim, perpetrator, survivor]. I hope to do this in a way that may contribute to taking the discussion forward, rather than freezing it in a defensive posture."

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