Darfur and the Middle East Media
By Steven Stalinsky
The Darfur region of Sudan first made headlines in February 2003 with news of massacres, rapes, mutilations, and other atrocities perpetrated by the Sudanese government and its allied armed Arab militia, the Janjaweed, against civilians in the black Arab and non-Arab south. Shortly thereafter, the Arab and Iranian media came out with reports explaining these events as the result of a conspiracy. The campaign was led by the most influential Arab and Iranian newspapers and TV channels, and was enhanced by leading Middle East religious figures, heads of state, members of academia, and other notable individuals.
According to these media reports, what was really happening in Darfur involved secret plans to create a Christian state in Sudan; a Jewish attempt to annex the African country to become part of Israel; a US government effort to control Sudanese oil, uranium and other natural resources; a US government attempt to deflect attention from its actions in Iraq; as well as schemes by Jews, Freemasons, the United Nations, and the African Union.
As the conspiracy theories expanded, a new phenomenon developed – namely, downplaying and even denying the atrocities taking place in Darfur. The deniers have included the Sudanese and Iranian leaderships and the Arab government-controlled media.
The Sudanese Leadership and the “Darfur Conspiracy”
The Sudanese government, military, and religious establishment who stand behind the Janjaweed militias have been extremely vocal in spreading conspiracy theories about Darfur. Within a month of the first Western media reports of killings in Darfur, in 2003, Sudan’s representative to the UN in Geneva, Ibrahim Mirghani Ibrahim, described these reports as a “total denial of reality.”
According to the Sudanese paper al-Sahafa, Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir said, during the opening session of the international “Mercy for All Creatures” conference in Khartoum in November 2007, that Western plots against Sudan have been ongoing since the land was occupied by the British, and that lust for Darfur’s treasures was feeding the current crisis. Al-Bashir was quoted by al-Sahafa as stating that the West was shoving its nose into Islam’s affairs and punishing those who doubted the Nazi Holocaust, while giving legitimacy to insulting Islam’s Prophet Muhammad at the same time. He added that the unholy alliance between the extreme Christian Right and global Judaism was setting the Darfur conflict on fire.
Sudanese presidential aide Majdhob al-Khalifa was quoted by the Sudanese Media Centre on Aug. 23, 2007 alleging a conspiracy in Darfur. Al-Khalifa’s statement focused on “US forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the UN, involvement in what al-Khalifa termed ‘sabotage’ and ‘indiscriminately killing civilians and usurping the oil wealth of the region [of Darfur].’ He cited as his evidence ‘the Bush Administration[’s]… plan to create [the] Greater Middle East by dividing large Muslim states into tiny entities, according to a map released by an official US army magazine.”
In a July 25, 2007 interview with the Saudi daily ‘Okaz, Sudan’s Defence Minister Abdul Rahim Muhammad Hussein al-Naqb replied, when asked about “the infiltration of Jewish organisations in Darfur,” that “over 24 Jewish organisations” were behind the international outrage about Darfur “through their control of the media and their influence over American and British circles…”
The secretary-general of Sudan’s ruling National Congress Party (NCP), Ibrahim Ahmad Omar, told the Egyptian al-Ahram Weekly in an interview published in the Feb. 22-28, 2007 edition that “the West wants to see Darfur divided. This is the scheme adopted by Western foreign policy.” He added, “The Americans cannot accept the fact that Sudan has large and very much unexploited oil reserves while it is not bowing to the will of Washington.”
On the Zionists’ “schemes” in Darfur, Omar commented: “Once Sudan is divided, Israel would get rid of this big Arab/Muslim country that is still calling it an enemy, and would have instead smaller entities [to contend with],” adding that “this is a good reason why the Israelis and Zionist groups all over the world, especially in the US, are dedicating much attention to the issue of Darfur.”
Al-Jazeera TV: America is Behind Darfur Atrocities
Since its inception, al-Jazeera TV has been influential in shaping the Arab world’s opinion about current events such as Darfur. Dr. Mamoun Fandy, one of the world’s leading scholars on Arab media, was highly critical of al-Jazeera’s reporting on Darfur in his authoritative new book (Un)Civil War of Words.
Dr. Fandy quoted one observer of the Arab media as stating: “Al-Jazeera, notwithstanding the courage shown by its employees on battlefields in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Palestine, did not send any of its correspondents to Darfur.” Fandy elaborated on this by asking: “Al-Jazeera aired the reports of Egyptian doctors returning from Darfur asserting there was no famine, rapes or murders. Why did the benevolent al-Jazeera fail to send any of its correspondents there, especially when its correspondents have gone into the heart of the battles of the murderers and transmitted their pictures as they hailed the Iraqi leader Saddam?”
Al-Jazeera’s role in spreading a distorted picture of Darfur was also evidenced by a program aired by the channel on Oct. 23, 2007. The program’s guests included Egyptian-American writer Magdi Khalil, who debated an Islamist sheikh on the situation in the Middle East. Khalil was highly critical of the program itself and of how the Arab media has reported on Darfur. The debate captured the essence of the overall issue of the “Darfur conspiracy” in the Arab media, with Khalil arguing that “the discourse coming out of the Arab and Islamic region is a disgrace. In Darfur and south Sudan, severe [human rights] violations occur – ethnic cleansing, the murder of millions, and rape – yet no one but the West exposes what is happening in south Sudan and Darfur. The New York Times was the first to raise this issue, and it is the West that is now defending the rights of the Muslims in Darfur… There is no justice at all in the Arab region. There is only criticism of any spark of hope for international justice… They are used to condemning everything, and doing nothing but supporting terrorism and extremism.”
The al-Jazeera interviewer responded to Khalil by asking: “With regard to Darfur, are you trying to convince the Arab world that the ‘American wolf,’ as Dr. al-Mubarak [the other guest] called him, is shedding a tear over what is happening in Darfur? It is the fragmentation of Sudan, the partitioning of Sudan… There is oil in Darfur, and they don’t care about all the Arabs and Muslims put together.”
In another al-Jazeera program, that aired on July 28, 2007, the leader of the Muslim Brotherhood in Sudan, Sheikh Sadeq Abadallah bin al-Majed, was asked by the al-Jazeera correspondent: “We are visiting you at a time when events in Darfur are casting a shadow on Sudan. I would like to ask you for your opinion about what is happening, and who is responsible for it…” Sheikh al-Majed answered: “The West, and the Americans in particular, have been planning this for years… The reason is that they studied this region extensively – the Darfur region in particular – and realised that it is full of treasures.”
A US Government Conspiracy to Gain Control of Sudan’s Oil
In another al-Jazeera TV report, one that covered a conference of Islamist leaders in Sudan and that aired July 3, 2007, Sudanese Muslim Brotherhood representative Dr. Hassan Al-’Audha told the audience, “America believes that it owns the oil discovered in Sudan. These are not my words. [Former US president Jimmy] Carter declared some two years ago: ‘We wanted the oil of Sudan to be used for the pleasure of the American people after 2005.”
Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi devoted much of his Oct. 22, 2007 speech to Cambridge University students via video link to the issue of Darfur, saying: “The clash of interests between these powers has internationalised what was barely a tribal dispute.” He added that what is really happening centres on “…superpowers who are interested in oil and other things.”
An editorial in the Egyptian al-Ahram Weekly of July 29-Aug. 4, 2004 stated: “The suspicion in the Arab world is that America’s eagerness to intervene in Darfur is an American conspiracy to gain control of Sudanese oil.”
“Oiling the Wheels of Greed” was the title of another article on Darfur, in the al-Ahram Weekly of May 31-June 6, 2007. Written by Gamal Nkrumah, the article discussed claims that what is really happening in Darfur is “part of America’s strategy to lay its hands on Sudanese oil.”
The leader of the Sudanese opposition Popular Congress Party, Sheikh Hassan al-Turabi, who is Sudan’s chief Islamist ideologue as well as an influential former parliamentary speaker, was quoted by the May 31-June 6, 2007 edition of al-Ahram Weekly as stating that he was “convinced” that the “CIA” was involved in Darfur, and, more explicitly, that “the Americans are only interested in [Darfur’s] oil.”
A US Government/Zionist Conspiracy to Deflect Attention from Iraq
An April 20, 2007 editorial in the Egyptian government daily al-Gomhouriya stated that the depiction of events in Darfur as a humanitarian tragedy was aimed at cloaking the West’s campaign to redraw the map of the Arab world in accordance with its own interests as well as attempts to avert attention from Iraq and Palestine: “[A]t a time when, in Iraq, there are hundreds of Iraqis being killed every day under the nightmare of the American occupation, which has turned Baghdad into the capital of death… the issue of Darfur, which the West has described as a humanitarian tragedy, has become a cover for what is really being planned and carried out by the Western forces of hegemony and control in our Arab world. They aim to redraw the map [of the Arab world] in accordance with their interests and with the interests of Israel.”
A Muslim Brotherhood spiritual leader, Sheikh Yousef al-Qaradawi, who also heads the European Council for Fatwa and Research and the International Council of Muslim Scholars, said in an interview published on Sept. 10, 2004 in the Qatar daily a-Sharq, “Look for the Zionists behind every disaster. We have found their fingers in Darfur.” In a Sept. 1, 2007 interview with IslamOnline, al-Qaradawi said, in reference to Darfur, that the Western media “often make too much fuss about nothing,” and added, “The Western media also wanted to drift attention away from the situations in Palestine [and] Iraq.”
The Feb. 8-14, 2007, edition of al-Ahram Weekly featured a cartoon of a blindfolded Sudanese man speaking into multiple microphones as behind him Uncle Sam carves up a bleeding map of Sudan, which hangs from a meat hook, as two dogs representing Israel and Britain lick their chops. Under the cartoon was an article titled “The Real Conspiracy,” in which the author, Ayman al-Amir, states that “it is safe to assume conspiracy is at work” in all conflicts in the Middle East that are perpetrated by Israel. He wrote: “Westerners have often scoffed at Arabs as conspiracy theory addicts. Throughout the 20th century, everything Arab nationalists suspected as a scheme by colonial powers against their interests and aspirations was dismissed as a figment of Arab imagination… Yet after decades of secrecy, declassified documents of confidential meetings, agreements, diplomatic correspondence, and reports, from the early years of the last century to the mid-1990s, reveal that the stretch of Arab imagination is much narrower than the scope of the conspiracy.”
The influential former editor of the London Arabic daily al-Hayat, Jihad al-Khazen, wrote on April 13, 2007, that while killing in the Darfur region was indeed taking place, “the Israel lobby” was to blame for making the situation out to be worse than it actually is. According to al-Khazen, “the lobby to save Darfur is just the Israel lobby renamed. The goal is to divert attention from Israel’s crimes, or [from] the catastrophe of the war in Iraq.”
The Iranian press has also spread conspiracy theories about Darfur. An Islamic Republic News Agency (IRNA) article titled “Zionist Regime Uses ‘Darfur Crisis’ as Distraction” focused on how the Zionists are using the events in Darfur to deflect attention away from their own activities against the Palestinians. It reported that “the powerful American Jewish lobby which tightly controls the American Congress” was behind “a high-profile propaganda campaign” about Darfur.
A Christian-Zionist Conspiracy
In a Feb. 3, 2005 interview on Saudi government Channel 1 TV, Saudi journalist Suheila Hammad discussed how Darfur is a Christian conspiracy: “By Allah, this is a conspiracy… Sudan is being divided so that Darfur will become a secular state, independent from Sudan, [and] the south will become a Christian state…”
In the Teheran Times of July 13, 2005, Hassan Hanzadeh wrote: “The war in southern Sudan and the Darfur crisis have caused serious economic and political problems… In the region, neighbouring countries [have], with the help of the Zionist regime which is trying to weaken African Muslim countries by triggering civil wars, tried to dismember the great African Islamic country of Sudan by arming the Sudanese rebels. Their main objective is to create a Christian country on the banks of the Nile.”
As conspiracy theories about Darfur within the Arab and Iranian media have expanded, a new phenomenon has developed – downplaying and even denying the killings, rapes, and displacements taking place.
Reports from the Iranian press on Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s March 2007 meeting in Sudan with the Sudanese leadership quoted him as expressing pleasure at the country’s “tranquility.” Referring to Darfur, he said: “There is no place in the world that suffers from divisions and wars unless America or the Zionists’ fingerprints are seen there.” According to the Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting news network, Ahmadinejad urged Islamic states to thwart such “conspiracies.”
In an earlier meeting between top Iranian and Sudanese officials, on Jan. 15, 2007, Sudanese Defence Minister Abdul Rahim Muhammed Hussein claimed during a visit to Teheran that what was happening in Darfur was really a “satanic plot” by “the US and Israeli regimes, [which] are working hard to incite the conflict.”
In a Sept. 20, 2007 IRNA story headlined “Bashir Reveals Zionist Plot in Darfur,” Sudanese President al-Bashir lambasted “a Zionist plot to dismember his country and plunder its resources… particularly its oil reserves, and then place it under a de facto UN trusteeship…” He said: “Humanitarian agencies are exaggerating the extent of the suffering of Darfur civilians to secure increased funding.”
On Feb. 24, 2007, President al-Bashir told conferees at the Nation of Islam conference in Detroit, via satellite link, that America is “exaggerating troubles in Darfur” so that it can control the country as it has Iraq. His comments were broadcast live on Sudanese state television.
Arab Intellectuals Criticise Darfur Conspiracies
While the conspiracies surrounding Darfur within the Arab and Iranian media continue unabated, many leading Arab intellectuals have strongly denounced those who spread them, as well as those who are denying the atrocities taking place.
On June 24, 2004, the former editor of the London Arabic daily a-Sharq al-Awsat, and presently al-Arabiya TV director Abd al-Rahman al-Rashed, published an op-ed about the Arab press’s indifference to Darfur: “They are not the victims of Israeli or American aggression; therefore, they are not an issue for concern… Is the life of 1,000 people in western Sudan less valuable, or is a single killed Palestinian or Iraqi of greater importance, merely because the enemy is Israeli or American?… As for Arab intellectuals… who consider any blood not spilled in conflicts with foreigners to be cheap and its spilling to be justifiable – they are intellectual accomplices in the crime…”
In a May 2006 article that appeared on multiple websites titled “Why Are We Muslims So Silent on Darfur?”, Muslim Canadian Congress Communications director Tarek Fatah wrote: “This line of thinking – that Jews have somehow stolen the issue of Darfur’s genocide by actively campaigning against it – has been making the rounds in cyberspace and needs a rebuttal. The fact that more than 200,000 Darfurians, almost all of them Muslim, have been killed in an ongoing genocide [and] the fact that more than a million Muslim Darfurians are displaced refugees living in squalor and fear appears not to have registered with the leadership of traditional Muslim organisations and mosques…”
An Oct. 5, 2006, article in the Sudan Tribune on Darfur, titled “Pathological Delusions”, by Sudanese human rights activist and writer Ahmad Elzobeir, criticised the political culture in the Middle East that, he said, has “created an atmosphere that encourages conspiracy theories to thrive.” In the Middle East, Elzobeir stated, “fiction [is] transformed into a reality; illusions become facts, lies become truth, people, elites and media [have] accepted the endless set of conspirac[y] theories that explain miraculously everything. In such [a] political climate, where Islamic fundamentalist[s] dominate the political and theological agenda of the whole region, political dogma and terror [have] replaced any meaningful dialogue between competing ideas.”
Elzobier was particularly critical of the accusation that the “Jews are behind everything,” including “the case of Darfur”: “To consolidate the Jewish conspiracy theory claims, the infamous document of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion [has been] adopted as a gospel truth, although after World War II and the Holocaust most of the world has generally rejected claims that these protocols could represent factual evidence of a real Jewish conspiracy. The exception to this is the Middle East, where large numbers of Arabs and Muslims regimes and leaders have endorsed them as authentic.”
Elzobeir’s conclusion put the entire issue of the Darfur conspiracy in context: “The reality remains that [those who are] suffering in Darfur [have] moved the conscience of the world and troubled their humanity; [people] are protesting simply because they care… If there is a conspiracy [that] needs to be figured out, I guess the nasty mindset that compels this government to commit such horrible crimes [against] its own people will be an obvious candidate.”
Dr. Steven Stalinsky is Executive Director of the Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI). © Middle East Media Research Institute (www.memri.org), reprinted by permission, all rights reserved.