US-Islamic World Forum Fails to Address Darfur
Mohamed A. Yahya
Damanga Coalition for Freedom and Democracy
February 28, 2007
I was recently a guest at the US-Islamic World Forum, which was held from February 17th to the 19th in Doha, Qatar. This annual conference is organized by the Brookings Institution’s Saban Center for Middle East Policy, with support from Sheikh Hamad Bin Khalifa Al-Thani and the government of Qatar. Each year the event is attended by more than 200 participants, including high-ranking government officials and heads of state, ambassadors, religious leaders, NGO representatives and other notables. The ostensible goal is to foster dialogue between United States and Muslim world leaders on issues of shared and central importance in the world today.
I must say that I was extremely disappointed that an issue of extreme urgency, which should be a primary concern of Muslim leaders around the world, as well as the government of the United States, was sorely neglected during this three-day event. The genocide in Darfur, which is ongoing even as I write this, barely received any mention at all.
Perhaps it is not surprising that the topic that received the most attention at this meeting between American and Islamic notables was the war in Iraq, along with the conflicts in Afghanistan, Israel, Palestine and Lebanon. But shouldn’t it come as a surprise that on the agenda of a conference whose tagline was “Confronting What Divides Us,” nowhere was there included a conflict which has claimed the lives of at least 400,000 Muslims in a few short years?
In his opening remarks, Sheikh Al-Thani failed to mention Darfur. Likewise, during the opening plenary session, Darfur went unaddressed by Amre Moussa, Secretary-General of the League of Arab States, as well as Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi of Qatar. Mr. Moussa asserted that the primary problem America should be concerned with is its involvement with Israel and Palestine. He cited the negative impacts American involvement has had over the years on Palestinian Arabs. Likewise, Sheikh al-Qaradawi gave his “advice” to the United States: to play a positive role in the Muslim world, he said, you must stop supporting Israel, and you must end the war in Iraq. Both men seem to think that the Muslim world starts and ends with Arabs. Neither would be willing to consider the role that United States has played in attempting to end the genocide in Darfur, a role that is still found wanting, but is positive nonetheless.
The closest thing to a forum provided for discussion of Darfur was the leaders’ roundtable entitled “Injustice Within: Holding Up a Mirror to Own Societies.” It was during this session that Darfur was mentioned by former Ambassador Martin Indyk, a co-convener of the conference. But no one else in the room was willing to engage in a discussion of Darfur.
On the final day on the conference, when the floor was opened for comments from attendees, I finally had a chance to express the frustration that had been building inside me. I thanked the organizers of the event, but expressed my extreme disappointment over the fact that Darfur was not included on the agenda. How could the first genocide of the 21st century be ignored at such a conference, I asked, when the perpetrators of the genocide are Arabs and Muslims? One must concede this fact, even if one denies (wrongly) that the Sudanese government has been complicit in attacks on Darfurian civilians. If the intent of this conference was to discuss the issues between the United States and the Arab World, then the Forum was misnamed, I told the crowd. But if the goal was truly to consider the key issues concerning the United States and the Islamic World, then Darfur must surely be addressed. I closed by saying that Arab leaders direct plenty of blame at the United States for killing Muslims in Iraq and Afghanistan, and at the state of Israel for their oppression of Arabs in Palestine and Lebanon. But these same leaders are unwilling to look within their own community, at fellow Arab leaders in the government of Sudan, who are killing innocent Muslims within their own lands. In fact, I told the crowd, it is the United States and members of the Jewish community across the world who have done more to help Darfur than anyone else. This is beyond shameful— it is a crime for the leaders of the Arab nations to turn a blind eye to Darfur at such a critical time, while they claim to represent the interests of the entire Islamic World.
My comments received applause, and many people came up to me after the session concluded to shake my hand and offer words of support. These gestures were greatly appreciated, but they are not enough. Responsible leaders of Muslim nations and leaders of conscience from the United States and other Western nations must be willing to speak openly and publicly about Darfur. Such discussion is essential, not just for the sake of the people of Darfur, whose needs must be immediately addressed. Ultimately, the rifts between the United States and the Islamic World will only be widened by denial and silent complicity on issues such as Darfur. In the 20/20 hindsight of history, it will only be remembered that innocent people died while people with the power to change their fates ignored them.
Related Link: Interview with Mohamed Yahya in Qatar's The Peninsula