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Seminal text orientalism


This chapter considers the relevance of Edward Said's seminal text Orientalism to the media's treatment of contemporary events in Darfur. It questions whether the press, under the guise of neutral scholarship, has promulgated a false and simplified version of Darfur in order to justify America's economic and military activity in the region. It is argued that whilst American journalists promoted an explicit agenda to provoke a military intervention in Darfur and downplayed the economic incentives of getting involved the crisis, they did not provide a pretext for an imperialist plundering of oil-rich Sudan. It is also claimed that Orientalism in the Said sense of the word is still clearly in operation today as evidenced by the New York Times' and the Washington Post's disparaging depiction of Sudanese ‘Arabs'.

This chapter also exposes the self-absorbed nature of much of the West's compassion for Darfur. It is argued that the humanitarian disaster in Sudan has allowed many journalists and Americans to put their feigned moral outrage into overdrive and flaunt their supposed generosity to those less fortunate. The self-serving nature of the American media's interest in Darfur is embodied in the words of David Richards who stated that ‘the representation of other cultures invariably entails the presentations of self-portraits, in that those people who are observed are overshadowed or eclipsed by the overseer.'

This chapter concludes by discussing the type of journalism embraced by the New York Times and the Washington Post in relation to Darfur. The level of reporting exhibited by these two newspapers is attributed to the ‘something must be done' school of journalism which dictates that a journalist adopt the position of heroic warrior for the oppressed rather than as an unprejudiced intermediary between issues and the audience. It is argued that the desperate desire to promote Western action in Darfur led many well-intentioned columnists to defy the traditional Western principles of journalism.

Darfur: The New Orientalism?

‘All academic knowledge about India', Edward Said writes in the introduction of Orientalism, is ‘tinged and impressed with, violated by, the gross political fact' of European imperialism. In his seminal 1978 postcolonial text, Said adopts Foucault's cynicism regarding knowledge for its own sake by claiming that Western interest in non-European cultures has never been driven by a scholarly search for truth but by a desire to justify European power. Far from being objective, Western artists, fiction writers and journalists were complicit in producing and promulgating a prevalent and negative image of Eastern cultures as uncivilized, inferior and stagnant to rationalize Europe's imperialist ambitions around the world. By persistently depicting the people of the East as barbaric, Orientalists allied with colonial regimes by contributing to the idea that foreign lands were in need of Western guidance and salvation in the form of colonial intervention.

Almost three decades after Said argued that all European discourses about the Orient were inherently tied to notions of power and Western superiority, a similar phenomenon emerged in the West's sudden interest and concern for Darfur. The United States simplified account of the violence in Sudan led many observers to speculate that strategic and not humanitarian impulses were behind their calls for action. Cumali Dunal insisted that the crisis in Western Sudan had given Western journalists and politicians the opportunity to justify military intervention in a major oil producing state that would otherwise be recognized as an imperialist venture. Libyan President Moammar Khadafy echoed similar claims by insisting that the crisis in Darfur was merely the latest crude campaign by Western powers to overthrow the government of Sudan under the veil of ‘humanitarianism' or ‘peacekeeping.'

Those who vigorously rejected the notion that Western interest and compassion for the humanitarian disaster in Darfur was anyway linked to access and control of Sudan's natural resources reasoned that oil was irreverent to the debate. Moral imperatives, Reeves insisted, demand that such economic issues be set aside in order to stop the tide of genocide. Whilst it is questionable whether the New York Times' and the Washington Post's sympathetic coverage of Darfur was a Judeo-Christian alliance against Islam in the pursuit of Sudan's oil, it is difficult to ignore the glaring fact the fundamental thrust of most articles in these two newspapers appear to be a campaign to trigger and build support for American intervention into Sudan.

The movement to brand Darfur as a victim of genocide when there was insurmountable evidence to contradict otherwise was inextricably linked to this pursuit of military action. The media's application of the term ‘genocide' in relation to Darfur is more than a declaration of truth; it is a serious label which has the purpose beyond that of protecting civilians in the Darfur region. Their use of ‘genocide' is a deliberate plea to the 1948 UN Convention, which states that the international community has a duty to intervene and punish those involved in such murderous acts. Mahmood Mamdani proposes that the widespread labelling of the internal fighting in Darfur as genocide was an attempt to legalize an external intervention.Describing what he sees as a public relations push to establish an ethical as opposed to an accurate understanding of the events in Darfur and Sudan, Mamdani explains that the incorrect naming of Darfur can be better understood within the context of international law. Whereas a ‘counter-insurgency' is deemed to be a legitimate and measured government reply to an ‘insurgency,' which is how the Sudanese authorities viewed their actions in Darfur, the practice of genocide is not. Military intervention in Darfur can only be legally defensible if the conflict is marked genocide. Under the label ‘counter-insurgency,' a Western intervention in Darfur becomes an illegal invasion hence the eagerness shown by the press and politicians to classify the violence a genocide.

Beyond this, however, one must address the larger political programme that was being promoted through the media's constant deployment of such problematic and misleading labels. Said was right to suggest that a keystone of colonialism's success was that the imperialist powers downplayed the riches that they were to gain from their conquests in favour of emphasizing the ‘benefits' that they would bestow upon the colonized. Philippa Atkinson has made a similar point about the Western media's contemporary handling of Africa, arguing that the ‘analyses of the causes of conflict and crisis in Africa rarely make more than a passing reference to the political roles of Western countries or to the importance of Africa's economic resources in the world economy.' In this sense, the New York Times' and the Washington Post's blend of humanitarian compassion and militant power was highly problematic as it neglected to mention the very real economic profits that the American superpower could gain from entering into the conflict in Darfur.

Contrary to Dr. Reeve's protestations, economics is extremely relevant to any analysis of Darfur. Economic considerations go some way to explaining the U.S government's benevolence towards the tragic plight of Darfuris. For several decades, violent confrontations have claimed the lives of millions on the African continent, yet the American government has only occasionally expressed outrage. The Clinton administration most infamously remained silent during the Rwandan genocide. The presence of oil, the second largest on the continent, and China's strong influence within the country as Sudan's largest trading partner, a nation that the American government views as a strategic opponent, may explain why the United States has refused to be passive spectator in the Darfur saga.

With the Bush administration looking to ease its dependence on oil from the Middle East, it increasingly turned its attention to Africa's natural resources with the US Secretary of State for Africa Walter Kansteiner declaring that ‘Africa's oil has become of national strategic interest to us.' Washington's unabashed interest in Sudan's oilfields was made even more apparent in 2006 when President Bush stated that ‘the pervasive role played by the government of Sudan in Sudan's petroleum and petrochemical industries threatens U.S. national security and foreign policy interests.'

Such public sentiments were in part shaped by the long-standing demands of the major oil companies in America who wanted a share of Sudan's lucrative oil contracts. Huliaras Asteris points out that along with the Christian evangelicals, the U.S oil companies were decisive in forming Washington's policies towards Sudan and Darfur. With China dominating the oil market in Sudan, American oil corporations lobbied the Bush administration to partially lift economic sanctions against the East African nation. Despite their brazen promotion of the interests of mammoth U.S corporations, the American government continued its threats of unilateral action against the Sudanese government.

Yet, there is deafening silence about any of these issues in both American newspapers. Unlike the pronounced lack of diversity in the American press, the Guardian directly tackled America's corporate ambitions in Sudan. Under the headline Enough imperial crusades, Peter Hallward concludes that the U.S government had planned in a fairly Machiavellian way to employ moral rhetoric as a means of disguising their true economic intentions in Sudan. Whether the U.S media outlets were complicit in this agenda is debatable but it has undoubtedly overlooked vital facts in its push for intervention. Ultimately, the majority of media organizations who demanded action on Darfur did so with good intentions. After all, it was a catastrophic disaster and the victims were overwhelmingly civilians. At the same time, however, it is difficult not to suspect the motivation and question the credibility of those media organizations who consciously omitted such pertinent information.

Although it is unlikely that American journalists covering the armed conflict in Darfur were providing their government with a pretext for an imperialist plundering of an oil-rich African nation, they undoubtedly succumbed to Edward Said's central thesis in another manner. The broad truth of Said's overall argument is evident in the demonisation of the ‘Arabs' of Sudan in the U.S newspapers. The binary divisions that Said observed in Orientalism are also clearly evident in the coverage of Darfur in the Washington Post and the New York Times. In this tense historical moment, Arabs, even if in they are black, have once again become the ‘other' with values opposed to Western civilization and its supposed freedoms. The terrorist attacks of September 11 and the subsequent ‘global war on terror' has generated the same racist and condescending representation of Arabs and Islam in Darfur that Said discussed in 1978.

One needs little education in the politics of fear and anti-Arab racism in the post-9/11 world to understand why the narrative of Darfur as created by the press was tempting to many Americans. There was nothing benign about Western interest in Darfur as fed into the anti-Arab prejudice of contemporary Western society. With an already keen awareness of Arabs as the ‘other,' the U.S press merely simplified and fetishized Darfur for the consumption of American readers. Despite no Christian participants, Darfur was made into another front in the West's fight against terrorism and Islamic extremism.

It is for this precise reason that many articles regarding the Darfur conflict did not appear to shed light on what was happening in the region. The mainstream media failed to present a nuanced picture of the crisis primarily because the interest in Darfur was not in actual fact about Sudan itself. Rather, the saturated media attention on Darfur was inextricably linked to two issues that were wholly unconnected to Sudan itself. Lingering guilt over the international media's inattentiveness to the Rwandan genocide in 1994 prompted the Western media's engagement in Darfur. More importantly, the press interest in Darfur functioned to indulge the Western reader's sense of moral outrage. In much the same way as many European colonialists undertook the study of Eastern cultures and languages as ‘an overall campaign of self-affirmation,' many American media organizations sought to turn another nation's serious problems into an outlet for their own moral self-indulgence. In the midst of international controversies in Iraq and Guantanamo Bay, Darfur was a topic that Americans could securely assume the moral high ground.

From this viewpoint, the crisis in Darfur afforded Americans a certain sense of catharsis. Readers of the Washington Post and the New York Times were led to believe they were participating in something historically significant to stop another Nazi-style massacre in Africa. By paying attention to Darfur, they were helping wage a campaign similar to the grass-roots movement against South African apartheid. Americans were in essence the liberators of the Darfuri people. The cynical use of Darfur was explicit in the Washington Post's boastful declaration that ‘the United States has done more to help Darfur than any other country.' Another notable editorial in the same conservative paper bemoaned the reluctance of wealthy European states to share in helping solve the ‘world's burdens.'

Critics have labelled this approach to reporting as ‘something must be done' journalism. In the haste to provoke Western action in foreign conflicts, reporters practicing this school of journalism actively participate in the stories in which they are reporting. The journalistic practice of neutrality is discarded as reporters distinguish between ‘right' and ‘wrong' and appoint themselves as arbiters who cast the ‘good' and ‘evil' roles of the story. Once they have established the culpable party, the journalist's duty to report on all the details frequently ‘come[s] a poor second place to broadcasting what is considered to be the morally correct line.'

This movement to redefine the journalist as a moral witness as opposed to a neutral observer overlooks the specific responsibility of the journalist as a secondary witness to an event. There is something extremely disconcerting about journalists acting as moral judges in complicated foreign conflicts such as Darfur. As Greg McLaughlin has rightly pointed out, ‘something must be done' journalism promotes an unacceptable level of smugness and judgement amongst reporters. Ominously, Howard Tumber and Marina Prentoulis have argued that September 11 2001 has hastened ‘a trend in which attachment and emotion eventually become fully embraced into the culture of journalism.'

As illustrated above, the groundswell of compassion for Darfur in the mass media and the general public can be accredited to three main factors. Audience participation in a perceived historical event, guilt over Western inaction in April 1994 and Arab racism in Western society as a consequence of September 11 explain the American people's receptivity to the humanitarian disaster in Western Sudan.

David Richards, Masks of difference: cultural representations in literature, anthropology, and art (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1997), 289.

Greg McLaughlin, The War Correspondent (London: Pluto Press, 2002), 182.

Edward Said, Orientalism (New York: Pantheon Books, 1978), 2.

Ibid, 11

Cumali Onal, “Oil Underlies Darfur Tragedy,” Today's Zaman Daily; available from http://www.todayszaman.com/tz-web/?hn=10130; [July 6 2004].

Eric Reeves, “Darfur tragedy isn't linked to an oil-exploration effort,” Daily Hampshire Gazette, December 26, 2006.

Mahmood Mamdani, ‘The Politics of Naming: Genocide, Civil War, Insurgency; available from http://www.lrb.co.uk/v29/n05/mamd01_.html; [8 March 2007]


Philippa Atkinson, “Deconstructing media mythologies of ethnic war in Liberia” in War reporting and representations of ethnic violence, eds. Tim Allen & Jean Seaton (London: Zed Books), 214.

Jared Cohen, One Hundred Days of Silence: America and the Rwanda Genocide, (Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2006), 158.

Clarence Lusane, Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice: foreign policy, race, and the new American century (Westport: Praeger Publishers, 2006), 137.

Kevin Funk, Scramble for Africa: Darfur-intervention and the USA (New York: (Black Rose Books, 2009), 57.

Huliaras Asteris, “Evangelists, Oil Companies, and Terrorists: The Bush Administration's Policy towards Sudan,” Orbis 50 (2006): 714-717.

Peter Hallward, “Enough Imperial Crusades,” The Guardian, August 18, 2004, 16.

Edward Said, Orientalism (New York: Pantheon Books, 1978), xix.

Tom Malinowski, “Repeating Clinton's Mistakes,” The Washington Post, May 3, 2005.

“The Stakes in Darfur” The Washington Times, 22 July 2004, A20.

Greg McLaughlin, The War Correspondent (London: Pluto Press, 2002), 182.

Mick Hume, Whose war is it anyway? The dangers of the Journalism of Attachment (London: LM, 1997), 4.

Greg McLaughlin, The War Correspondent (London: Pluto Press, 2002), 198.

Howard Tumber and Marina Prentoulis, “Journalists Under Fire: Subcultures, Objectivity and Emotional Literacy,” in War and the Media: Reporting Conflict 24/7, eds. Daya Kishan Thussu and Des Freedman (London: Sage, 2003), 228.

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