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The Question of Identity: Ethnicity, Language, Religion, and Gender

Islamic Period:  The Concept of Ethnicity

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Framing the Issues

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Ethnic violence flared in Darfur, a region in Western Sudan, in 2003. The conflict continues: the 2005 peace agreement and the efforts of the UN/African Union peace keeping forces have not, to date, been successful. Journalists continue to present the conflict as one between ‘Arabs’ and ‘Africans’; a violent ethnic struggle, in other words, which was also apparently a struggle between a Muslim fundamentalist government and a province demanding autonomy. Those watching American media would have had reason to be confused: it is difficult for an outsider to see exactly what it is, in this context, that separates ‘Arabs’ and ‘Africans’: Language? Religion? Skin color? In fact, as anthropologist Gunnar Haaland pointed out in the 1960s, people have been moving across ‘ethnic’ boundaries in the region for a long time. When he was researching the area, Fur agriculturalists (i.e. settled cultivators) and Baggara pastoralists (i.e. mobile herders) were struggling for control of ecological resources in this harsh environment. These categories distinguished modes of production, not necessarily religion, language, or race, and people often moved between them, as ecological and political circumstances dictated. An ethnic distinction between ‘Arabs’ and ‘Africans’ was projected onto this region and its struggles for autonomy, later and for political reasons. It has suited the Sudanese government’s interests to understand the rebels as uncivilized outsiders (‘Africans’ as opposed to Sudanese Arab Muslims). It has suited many western governments, in their struggle against a ‘rogue state’, to understand the Darfur crisis as a racially motivated genocide. Though many outside forces are now involved, the Darfur crisis illustrates the ways in which a complex and fluid set of local distinctions have been ‘ethnicized.’

Supporting Links:

“Assessment for Darfur Black Muslims in Sudan.” Minorities at Risk Data Report. Link to resourcenew window (accessed May 7, 2010).

Hasbani, Nadim. "About The Arab Stance Vis-à-vis Darfur." International Crisis Group. Link to resourcenew window (accessed May 7, 2010).

“Sudan, Darfur, and Foreign Policy: A Resource Guide.” African Studies Center, Michigan State University. Link to resourcenew window (accessed May 7, 2010).

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