by Mahmoud Ahmed Shaikh (Occupied Arab World, Crescent International Vol. 27, No. 1, Dhu al-Qa'dah, 1418)
Sudan has been dogged in the past eight years by Christian and western inspired propaganda that the Islamically-oriented regime of president Omar Hasan-al-Bashir sponsors not only international terrorism but also slavery - a sinister ploy designed to provide a semblance of legal and moral justification for the US-led conspiracy to break up Africa’s largest country. But recent events have led to a substantial improvement in Khartoum’s fortunes and image - a development that has panicked Christian fundamentalist groups and western media vultures into making even more lurid accusations of slavery.
At the forefront of the current phase of the propaganda war is the Swiss-based Christian Solidarity International (CSI), which also played a central role in the old campaign of vilification. And leading the media pack is the BBC World Service, the self-appointed champion of objective journalism whose budget is incidentally funded by the British foreign office (ministry of foreign affairs).
CSI is a Christian fundamentalist group active in any standoff between Christians and Muslims but conspicuously absent from battle-grounds where Christians face non-Muslim adversaries. It is, for instance, heavily involved in the war between Azerbaijan and Armenia but expresses no solidarity with the Christian Palestinians being oppressed in their own country by the Israeli occupiers.
But, in a transparent effort to conceal its political and religious agenda, it claims to be a charity or a humanitarian organization. And the western media ride to the rescue, variously describing it as a ‘charity’, a ‘humanitarian organization’ or a ‘rights group’.
The group has been claiming since 1995 that it has evidence of government sponsored slavery, occasionally publishing a picture or two of ‘an African child’ it alleges to have bought back from the northern ‘Arab slave merchants.’ Such is the absurdity of the claim that this ‘evidence’ is offered as proof of the group’s sensational allegations that tens of thousands of black slaves are owned by Arabs in northern Sudan. And the western media - from the BBC to the American Baltimore Sun - have felt no qualms in taking on board this absurd propaganda drive.
But this unholy alliance to subvert the truth was not confined to the CSI and the media. Church leaders, such as archbishop George Carey and Pope John Paul II, have lent their weight to the conspiracy. Both men have visited Southern Sudan, with Carey actually calling on southern Christians to revolt against their northern ‘oppressors’. The campaign of villification against Khartoum, however, suffered a setback in November, when a British peer published a well-documented report showing that it is indeed the Christian warlord, John Garang, leader of the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement, and not the government, that is responsible for the trade in children.
Lord McNair, a British member of the House of Lords, travelled extensively in the areas of the country where slavery had been alleged to exist before publishing his report. He was accompanied during his travels by Reverend Adi Ambrose, a southern Protestant clergyman, and the vice-chairman of the human rights committee of the Sudanese parliament.
Clearly, the McNair study could not be rubbished but the propaganda warlords have an answer apart from the old discredited ploy of making even more sensational claims of slavery. CIS has stepped up its claims of rescuing more enslaved Christian children - allegedly numbering 80 since 1995 - and the media have lapped it up.
The Christian group claimed on February 10 that it had rescued 132 children by paying an Arab northerner ú8,000. It published a picture of a man who could be a northern Sudanese, an Ethiopian or Eritrean, leading a group of semi-naked teenagers allegedly to be delivered to CSI representatives. The faces of the man and the teenagers could not be clearly seen. None of those children was identified.
The CSI also published a picture of a young girl introduced as Akuac Malong who was embraced by a woman said to be her mother. The mother was re-united with her daughter, who was allegedly saved by the group after several years of supposed enslavement. And how did the apparently delighted mother recognize her daughter, whose features admittedly changed beyond recognition? Absurdly, the mother recognized the girl’s ‘straight teeth.’ The teeth of the girl in the CSI picture are the normal teeth of a young and fit teenager without any special characteristic that jog a mother’s memory.
The British media gave an unrestricted platform to these ludicrous allegations. The Times of London published the pictures on February 10 with the caption: ‘Sudan’s radical Islamic leaders encourage unpaid soldiers to take young girls in lieu of wages.’ The London-based Guardian newspaper on February 19 ran an article by one of its senior contributors under the headline: ‘Sudan’s refugees struggle under the yoke of Islam.’ Jonathan Steele’s article, date-lined Khartoum, claimed that Christian refugees fleeing the civil war in the south are denied jobs or otherwise oppressed unless they convert to Islam.
The supposedly agnostic and ‘liberal’ newspaper made no mention of the fact that because of the war and economic sanctions backed by the Christian west both Muslims and Christians in Sudan are in dire economic circumstances, and that there are no job opportunities for anyone in north or south of the country. But the ‘position of pride’ must be yielded to the BBC World Service which, on February 12, gave an unfettered platform to CSI representatives during its Outlook programme, which it regards as the flagship of its magazine programmes.
The programme introduced CSI as ‘a human rights organization’ and described it and its representatives as ‘working to end slavery in the Sudan’. The representative was given almost 20 minutes of airtime to describe how CSI rescued 800 children. He was even allowed to get away with the outrageous and irresponsible allegation that Arabs are enslaving black Africans in Sudan.
These fresh frantic efforts have come after Khartoum defused its confrontation with Egypt - a development that has taken the northern Sudanese opposition groups and the country’s hostile neighbours by surprise. The peace agreement Khartoum signed in April 1997 with several southern rebel groups also shows no sign of getting unstuck. And a draft constitution recently published introduces the principle of multi-party politics.
The answer of the unholy alliance against Khartoum is more lies.
Muslimedia: March 1-15, 1998