Arab Genocide, Arab Silence

By Joseph Britt
Wednesday, July 13, 2005

What responsibility do Arabs have to stop genocide being committed by Arabs?

Genocide in the Darfur region of western Sudan, inflicted on mostly Muslim African tribespeople by the nomadic Arab militias called janjaweed with the enthusiastic assistance of the Arab-dominated Sudanese government, has been going on for over two years now. In response, nations from western and central Africa have sent peacekeeping troops; various Western countries, including the United States, have pledged many millions of dollars in aid. Western diplomats led by Deputy Secretary of State Robert Zoellick have worked feverishly to stop the massacres, rapes and forced relocations that the Sudanese government has employed as its weapons of choice.

Absent from the picture have been the other Arab states. This is exceedingly strange, and not just because most of Darfur's victims are Muslims. Darfur is thousands of miles away from any of the Western countries trying to stop the genocide there; even the African nations sending peacekeepers are remote. Meanwhile, Egypt, with a huge army, a modern air force and more contacts within Sudan than every Western country combined, has looked on while as many as 400,000 people have been slaughtered just beyond its southern border and has, in effect, done nothing.

It's true that Egypt has put on a show of hosting peace conferences. Perhaps because Egypt is determined to take no action to which Sudan might object, these have produced no results (a separate conference sponsored by Nigeria has made some limited progress). Other Arab countries have not done even this much. Saudi Arabia and the Persian Gulf states could pay for more aid out of petty cash than Darfur could use, but Canada, by itself, has pledged more aid than all the Arab countries combined. The number of Saudi, Kuwaiti or Syrian relief workers in Darfur is, as best one can tell, precisely zero. Arab press references to Darfur consist mostly of reprints from Western news services about official government statements, many of them from the Sudanese government itself.

One might think this would be a subject worthy of comment or at least curiosity by the U.S. government and the Western media. One would be wrong. Virtually without exception, the Western reaction to Arab silence about genocide being committed by Arabs has been -- silence. The American government has said nothing about it; Western newspapers can write months of news stories and editorials about Darfur without mentioning Egypt or other Arab countries except in passing.

It is as if Egypt and Sudan occupied different planets instead of sharing a common border. The Egyptian government acting alone could have, at any time during the past two years, forced Sudan to ground its air force and cease all other support to the janjaweed. While it was not doing this, and was not thinking of doing this, Western governments have made diplomatic efforts, plowing through one forum after another; have conducted aid campaigns; and have even talked earnestly about whether the United States and Canada should send troops. And no one appears to think there is anything odd about this discrepancy. It is a great mystery.

Do we really expect indifference, or worse, from Arabs in the face of mass murder? Surely the contradictions between that indifference and President Bush's promotion of democracy and human rights in the Arab world speak for themselves. More important than what we think, though, is what Arabs think.

We've heard a lot since Sept. 11, 2001, about how Arabs feel humiliated, ashamed, resentful at being regarded by the West as inferior in some way. Sometimes we ignore these feelings; sometimes we try to appease them. Perhaps it is time to say plainly that the way to earn respect is through deeds worthy of respect.

The shameful course of indifference to the slaughter of the African Muslims of Darfur out of solidarity with their murderers is not the only one open to Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the other Arab states. In spite of their support for Sudan's government, diplomacy led by Nigeria and an aid effort led by the United States have reduced the level of violence and starvation in Darfur. Building on this real but exceedingly fragile achievement, and preventing genocide by Arabs in Darfur from resuming, is a task for the civilized world, one in which the Arab countries need to join.

Joseph Britt is a writer in Kennesaw, Ga.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company