School of Politics and International Studies

Responsibility to Protect Student Journal

Understanding Identity in Darfur: How Western Media Has Impacted the Conflict

Casey Bush, Clark University, US

Casey studies History and Political Science, focusing on Holocaust and Genocide Studies. As Campaign Coordinator for STAND she looks forward to pursuing her passion for genocide prevention.

Since conflict erupted in Darfur in 2003, Western scholars have sought to explain the causes and consequences of what we now understand as one of the 21st century’s first instances of genocide. Julie Flint, Alex De Waal and John Prendergast have spent over a decade visiting Darfur and writing about the conflict’s causes and effects. Students read these articles, eyes wide and hearts heavy, in order to grasp a sliver of an understanding as to how neighbors can kill neighbors. In response to the tragedy, the Western world took up the “Save Darfur” movement, which united people from across the United States, including influential figures from Don Cheadle to George Clooney. As more and more people became involved in the movement, however, representations of the conflict were simplified. Students were taught that the conflict was between the Arabs and non-Arab black Africans in which nomadic Arabs were genocidally targeting non-Arab Darfuris. Perhaps this was because it was easier to explain the conflict in such a way or maybe because it was far too complex to understand fully. In fact, the conflict in Darfur is more nuanced than a simple black versus non-black war. However, after searching through article after article in the New York Times and the Washington Post, it has become clear that the Western media has a different understanding of ethnicity, blackness, and identity than that which is held in Sudan. Thus, in this piece I will address the faulty Western understanding of the Darfur conflict in terms of identity and attempt to understand how this understanding affects policy-making. To do this, I will outline a brief history of the conflict, analyse various news articles to determine how Western media understands the conflict, explain the ways that media has an effect on US policy, and then offer a final analysis and recommendations for students who aspire to be informed activists.

The Conflict in Darfur: A historical perspective

The beginning of the conflict in Darfur is generally attributed to a 2003 retaliation by Darfuris against the Sudanese government for many years of injustice and suppression. However, to fully comprehend the origins of the struggle, it is important to look back into the history of the peoples. The recorded history of Darfur begins in the 14th century, when the Daju dynasty was superseded by the Tunjur, who brought Islam to the region. At its peak, in the late 18th and early 19th century, Darfur was a well-organized, commercial empire under the Keira dynasty that traded extensively. In 1875, the Kiera dynasty was collapsed by colonists and was put under the rule of the Anglo-Egyptian co-domination. At this time, “Islamic ‘Mahdist’ forces fighting British colonial control of the region sought to incorporate Darfur into a much larger Islamic republic” (New Internationalist, 2007). Chaos and constant war followed until, in 1899, the Egyptians recognized Ali Dinar, the grandson of a Keira sultan, as Sultan of Darfur, thus marking a return to independence and fragile peace. Ali Dinar attempted to hold off the impending colonial domination as long as he could but was eventually defeated and absorbed into the British empire in 1917.

Britain at the time had its hands full with its various other colonies and decided to institute a “divide and rule” policy in Sudan in order to create distrust amongst the Sudanese and keep them weak and unable to rebel. Because of the lack of attention paid to Sudan as a whole and the laissez-faire attitude toward the east, Darfur faced a lack of investment and became severely underdeveloped. Practically nothing was done to advance the colony educationally or economically, or to build infrastructure systems. This undoubtedly caused tensions amongst neighbors that, as will be shown, led to conflict later. In addition, as Noah Salomon explains, “in the desire to establish a stable state structure, colonial authorities often prop up certain religious organizations that they feel are compatible with their goals, while marginalizing others” (Salomon, 2010, p.2). In Sudan, the British did so with orthodox Islam in an attempt to discredit the formerly popular Mahdiyya. It was not until 1956 that Britain reluctantly yet peacefully granted Sudan independence. However, the various policies of the British had a lasting effect on the way that Sudanese understood themselves and their identities.

Immediately following independence, the role of the head of state was filled by a five-member Sovereignty Council which was unable to agree on a candidate to lead the council. After various transfers of power the presidency was won by the current leader, Omar al-Bashir, in 1989. Throughout the entirety of this process, due to the British colonist’s system of keeping the North and the South largely separate and greatly favoring the North, conflict raged between northern and southern Sudan, dragging the people of Darfur into its struggle. This aggravated already-strained tensions caused by drought and lack of development in Darfur.

In addition to being entangled in South Sudan’s struggle for recognition and eventually independence, Darfur faced its own, regional problems. In the 1980s, Colonel Qhadafi of Libya used Darfur as a military base for his Islamist wars in Chad. This invasion “promoted Arab supremacism, inflamed ethnic tensions, flooded the region with weaponry and sparked the Arab-Fur war (1987-89), in which thousands were killed and hundreds of Fur villages burned” (New Internationalist, 2007). It was in this war, Julie Flint describes in her article, “The Other War: Inter-Arab Conflict in Darfur”, that those who identified as non-Arab were given the name zurga (blacks). “By the time non-Arab groups led by the Fur, Zaghawa, and Masalit declared themselves in rebellion against the government in 2003, Darfur’s complex identities had been simplified to an ‘African’ versus ‘Arab’ dichotomy that itself became a driver of conflict” (Flint, 2010, p.9).

Encroaching desertification and drought exacerbated already high tensions between various tribal groups in Darfur. In order to address their marginalization, discriminations, and the neglect of their communities, two predominately non-Arab rebel movements, the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM) and the Sudanese Liberation Army (SLA) attacked government installations in Darfur. The government under Omar al-Bashir retaliated by siding with and promoting the Arab peoples and the Janjaweed, or the “devils on horseback”. These militias were—and still are—armed by the government in order to destroy villages, kill Darfuris (specifically of the three main ethnic groups Fur, Masalit, and Zaghawa), and systematically rape the women.

The conflict in Sudan is, therefore, a nuanced interaction of many diverse actors with intersecting histories. To erase the nuance of the conflict to accommodate a Western understanding of ethnicity and identity limits the degree to which Western leaders can understand and respond to the conflict, and may explain why it is continuing into its 14th year. As I will explain in the following sections, the popular portrayal of the conflict in Western media is different to the perception of those embroiled in the conflict.

The West Understanding the Rest

Elements of the Western media are frequently condemned for their simplification of issues, disproportionate focus on particular issues, and misleading use of language and graphics. This came to a climax recently with the trending hashtag on Twitter #IfTheyGunnedMeDown in which young, often black and Hispanic, people would show two radically different pictures of themselves—i.e. one of them graduating college and the other of them holding a bottle of alcohol—in order to bring attention to the pattern of news outlets choosing incriminating photos of innocent minorities. This too applies to the coverage of the conflict in Darfur as the media generally resorted to stereotypical and inflammatory language. As Joel Gruley points out in his article, “The evolving narrative of the Darfur conflict as represented in The New York Times and The Washington Post, 2003–2009,” media outlets tended to portray the conflict as “tribal,” “a trope that erases geographic and historical context, and discourages actions that could prevent or reduce violent conflict” (Gruley, 2010, p.29).

Gruley’s study of various New York Times (NYT) and Washington Post (WP) articles throughout the early stages of the conflict finds various examples of the continuation of the idea that Sudan, and Darfur in particular, is an underdeveloped desert full of violent tribal wars. His study, which I worked with extensively, included 1,200 NYT and WP articles that came out between 2003 and 2009. Of these articles, 20% described the conflict using the term “tribe” and just 7% named any specific cultural group (if any group was mentioned it was usually in regard to the naming of Darfur) (Gruley, 2010, p.34). Both newspapers tended to identify individuals and groups of Darfuris as unambiguously ‘Arab’ on one hand and ‘African,’ or ‘non-Arab’ on the other as in the 2009 news article headline “Are ‘Arabs’ Killing ‘Black Africans’ in Darfur?”

One paragraph from a New York Times article entitled “Scorched-Earth Strategy Returns to Darfur” reads:

“It was five years ago last week that an attack by rebels from non-Arab tribes like the Fur, Masalit and Zaghawa, seeking greater wealth and autonomy for the neglected and impoverished region of Darfur, prompted the Arab-dominated government to marshal Arab militias in the region that ultimately evicted millions from their homes, burning, looting and raping along the way. The campaign effectively pushed many non-Arab people off their land and into vast, squalid camps across Darfur and Chad” (Polgreen 2008).

Although this article, unlike many others, does name the three major groups being persecuted, it falls into the trap of categorizing the conflict into an Arab-non-Arab struggle, begun by tribes, with a small role attributed to the government.

Another article from The Guardian entitled “The Darfur Crisis” simplifies the conflict even further stating:

“The conflict in Darfur, a name that translates as the land of the Fur – the largest tribe in the region – erupted in 2003 when Darfurians rebelled against the central government in the capital, Khartoum, over its alleged favouritism [sic] to Arabs over Africans” (Tran, 2008).

Not only does this reduce the conflict to an Arab-African war, it also minimizes the struggles faced by Darfur natives to simply “favoritism to Arabs over Africans” when the reality is that the Fur, Masalit, and Zaghawa peoples are facing drought, desertification, discrimination and lack of education, economy, and infrastructure. This severe oversimplification of the facts erases much of the victim’s narrative and skews the truth.

One significant aspect that Gruley noted was that the NYT and WP articles tended to marginalize the role of the state in the conflict (Gruley, 2010, p.42). Rather than address Bashir as a lead actor in much of the crimes against humanity being committed, he was often described as simply aiding or supporting a binary tribal conflict. This rhetoric encouraged the idea that the conflict in Darfur was a result of deep-seated ethnic hatred or that it was “fueled by old ethnic divides.” This language as well as the dozens of other examples given in Gruley’s research is reminiscent of Samuel Huntington’s Clash of Civilizations which predicted that the major source of conflict following the Cold War would be along ethnic and cultural boundaries or “fault lines.” In his book, Huntington directly points to Sudan as an “on-going civil war…between Arabs and blacks,” once again simplifying the conflict to fit his thesis (Huntington, 1993, p.33). “The historical and political factors,” claims Gruley, “that have only recently caused ‘Arab’ and ‘African’ identities to become salient in Darfur were mostly overlooked in NYT and WP coverage” (Gruley, 2010, p.38). This oversight becomes frighteningly obvious in the Washington Post article “In Sudan, No Clear Differences Between Arab and African” which claims:

“What may have surprised everyone in Sudan was that as soon as the rebellion in Darfur began, divisions were drawn. By and large it was Arab tribes in Darfur that rallied to the government’s side (some say in exchange for promises of land and power), while the government’s political opponents raised the African banner and declared allegiance with the rebels…Those lines could harden even more” (Sengupta, 2004).

This ominous and blatant simplification of the facts describes a strict division between the two groups that, unlike as claimed by most articles, were not long-standing and historical features of Sudan, but rather a spur-of-the-moment decision.

Another major point that Gruley found throughout his research was that both news sources implied that the “Arab-African chasm corresponds to obvious physical differences between people” (Gruley, 2010, p.39). Who, then, are these so-called “Arabs” and “black Africans” and what is characteristically different about them? Both the WP and the NYT used language to differentiate the two groups by appearance. The New York Times article, “Grim New Turn Likely to Harden Darfur Conflict” considers “an aquiline nose, fair complexion or fine, straight hair… telltale Arab features” whereas non-Arab Africans had darker skin (Polgreen, 2006). This clear differentiation between the two peoples is not only misleading but completely incorrect. The dividing line between Arabs and black Africans is much more permeable than these Western journalists have made it out to be.

The misrepresentation of the conflict does not only apply to the supposedly strict binary of Sudanese peoples, there is also a distorted perception of the international community’s role in the conflict. In his article “A Dissenting Voice” on the topic of genocide prevention, genocide scholar, Mark Levene, reminds readers that the international community is “actually a shorthand for the values, aspirations and legal instruments of the post-Enlightenment West” (Levene, 2004, p.155). The evidence of this becomes obvious when reading news coverage of the Darfur conflict. According to Ammina Kothari’s “A Study of The New York Times Coverage of The Darfur, Sudan Conflict, July 2003 – July 2006,” “of the 25 public event/action type stories, 92% or 23 of them portrayed the U.S. as a savior and aid giver and the West as being compassionate towards the sufferings of Africans” (Kothari, 2008, p.53). Often, these public event-type stories were created by governmental agencies and were more interested in making known their contributions to the conflict than in describing the conflict itself. The Western-savior complex contributes to the infantilization of the Sudanese and trivializes their agency in the matter. This too changes the way that people, including policymakers and world leaders view the conflict and decide the ways to make changes.

Kothari also takes into consideration the views of specific journalists who are sent to write such articles. In an interview with Brian Johnson, a diplomatic correspondent at the NYT, she recorded him saying:

“I cannot offer my opinions in The Times, but any rational person covering the story would have to conclude that the Sudanese government officials involved in this are bandits and liars. As for the Americans, the United States has been doing more to end this crisis than any other country. Not enough, in many people’s view, but still more. There’s not a lot to gain for the US by settling an African dispute. This is not like Iraq, say, where lots of people believe the war is being fought over oil. I came to know the American players — and in some cases respect them” (Kothari, 2008, p.67).

To know the journalist’s views on a specific topic can change the meaning of the story. Additionally, it is important to know who they’re writing for, and for what reason.

As evidenced through various examples, the Western media’s understanding of the Darfur conflict is one that is quite simplistic and binary, one that infantilises and somewhat villainises the Sudanese as tribal savages. Although it may seem trivial, the media has a large impact on the way that the general population understands foreign policy and, therefore, how members of Congress and policymakers are moved to act.

Media and Policy

Mass media—whether it be newspaper articles, social media posts, billboards, or radio broadcasts, influence the way we, as humans, think and act. Authors in “Mass Media and Policymaking” explain the affect that media has on the way legislation is thought about, shaped, and executed:

“Media can draw and sustain public attention to particular issues. They can change the discourse around a policy debate by framing or defining an issue using dialogue or rhetoric to persuade or dissuade the public. Media can establish the nature, sources, and consequences of policy issues in ways that fundamentally change not just the attention paid to those issues, but the different types of policy solutions sought” (Soroka, 2012, p.1).

This is made no clearer than in the case of the media surrounding the conflict in Darfur. The infantilization of Darfur by much of the media mentioned earlier deeply affected the way that policymakers viewed the issues and responded to them. In Maria Jumbert’s article, “How Sudan’s ‘rogue’ state label shaped US responses to the Darfur conflict: what’s the problem and who’s in charge?” she explains that, although Sudan was classified as a “fragile” state at the time of the Darfur conflict, it was treated as a “failed” or sometimes even a “rouge” state (Jumbert, 2014). Though seemingly an innocent case of confused rhetoric, the connotation of Darfur being a “failed” state greatly changed the policy attributed to it. As opposed to the official title of state fragility—which means that it is a country with a weak state that leaves citizens vulnerable— Sudan as a failed state implies that it is a state whose political or economic system has become so weak that the government is no longer in control. Therefore, the United States has taken the necessary steps to treat it as such.

The perception of Sudan as a failed state could be attributed to the wide-spread media attention given to the “chaotic tribes” and the neglect of the role of the government. As mentioned above, the characterization of the government as a marginal actor has greatly focused the media coverage on the tribes of Darfur. In this sense, the general public has been steered to believe that Sudan is indeed a failed state. Undoubtedly, the policy attributed to failed states is much different than that attributed to fragile states. For example, because of the mislabeling, US foreign policy focused particularly on UNAMID’s peacekeeping efforts rather than engaging Bashir and the state as a partner in negotiations. (Jumbert, 2014). In this sense, the rhetoric used by the media greatly affects the actions that the US, and international community in general, takes.

Another way that the media influenced the way that foreign policy towards Darfur is shaped, is the strict binary between the Arabs and non-Arabs. The fact that the media mainly focused on the Darfur conflict as a form of Arab aggression coincided perfectly with the already-imposed US global war on terror. This war on terror was encouraged by the US attention on the possible genocide in Darfur. The portrayal of the perpetrators as solely Arab tribes confirmed American fears that those from the Middle East and parts of Africa were terrorists that needed to be stopped, thus simplifying the good versus evil narrative both in Darfur and in the US outlook as a whole.

In response to reports of genocide by Secretary of State Colin Powell and numerous human rights groups, including STAND and Save Darfur, President Bush continued to ensure that the administration’s priority was to protect civilians and assist with humanitarian aid. In typical War on Terror fashion, President Bush called for targeted sanctions as well as a policy of enforcing existing sanctions more aggressively (Bush, 2007). However, unlike Iraq, he was unable to come to a consensus on just how confrontational to be and in what ways. For example, in November of 2006, Special Envoy to Sudan, Andrew Natsios, claimed that if negotiations were not complete by January 1st, they would have to move on to “Plan B.” When asked what exactly this Plan B was, he refused to elaborate instead simply claiming “Plan B is a different approach to this” (Archive, 2006). Ultimately, US foreign policy in Darfur stagnated at simply supporting rebel movements, continuing economic sanctions, and deploying a more robust peacekeeping force in the area.

Media also becomes a mobilizing force in the discussion surrounding Darfur’s agency (or their supposed inability to act). Because the United States is so often considered the “savior” of Africa, and in this case particularly Darfur, the agency of people on the ground is minimized. This is most blatantly seen in the largest organization committed to advocating better policies for Darfur, Save Darfur. The title alone implies that Sudanese themselves cannot help better their own country, instead, the West must “save” them. Of course, there is nothing wrong with the US taking action to help people around the world, be it with humanitarian aid or well-researched legislation, but to insinuate that Sudan needs to be rescued is to belittle Sudanese agency, ultimately infantilizing them.

The media has been a source of public education since it emerged in its modern form. To educate people through current events and keep up-to-date is indisputably important if one is to stay informed and make a positive difference in the world. However, for various reasons—be it personal gain, explaining in a way that people are more likely to understand, or not fully understanding the culture of the society one is reporting on—journalists and the media in general have tended to simplify the conflict in Darfur. Although it is easy to brush these reports off as simple mistakes or a form of rhetoric, they contribute to popular understanding, popular sentiments toward Darfur and its people, and to policy. The fact that the conflict in Darfur has been characterized as a genocide in which the Arab people are to blame has contributed to anti-Arab sentiments in the US and amplifies the voices that are proponents of the War on Terror.

Final Analysis

Over all, there is a gap in the understanding between those actually impacted by the conflict in Darfur and those reporting on it. To be certain, journalists have a very difficult job to report on thousands of years of history leading up to a current event using only approximately 500 words. Additionally, they are tasked with making the conflict easy enough so that the general population is able to comprehend the events. Still, the impression that the media has given to the West about the conflict in Darfur paints a completely different picture than that explained by Darfuris themselves.

Ultimately, the issues can be divided into three misunderstanding, or misportrayals, by the media. First, the simplification of the conflict into a strict Arab/non-Arab binary. Second, the marginalization of the role of the government as a major actor in the conflict. Finally, the depiction of the international community, arguably the West, as a savior, the only participant strong enough to “Save Darfur.” As mentioned above, these factors play a large part in educating society at large and, therefore, influencing policy. To better respond to conflict, in Darfur and elsewhere, we must shift the narrative of the conflict. In the following section, I explain possible ways that we, as activists, as consumers, and as political constituents, can use the truth to help those suffering from the conflict in Darfur.


Recommendations for Consumers

As consumers, we are being bombarded with news every day of our lives. News is so easily accessible—whether it is on the car radio on our way to work, on Facebook on your phones, or on the television in the break-room. Oftentimes, the news we are hearing are short 3-minute news clips or even just headlines that we scroll past on Twitter. This is a completely normal phenomenon but it does affect the way that we see and understand certain groups of people and events. Thus, as consumers and readers of the news, it is important that we do the following:

Be sure that you are using reliable sources. In the age of “fake news,” we are told over and over again to be aware of which news site we are reading from and addressing. The more transparent the source, the better chance there is of the news being up-to-date and responsibly reported. Additionally, don’t take what you read lightly. Feel free to critique not only the journalist’s point of view but also the way in which certain phrases are written. This is especially true for events that take place in non-Western countries. Reading with a critical eye can bring attention to a pattern of misportrayals and misinformation. Finally, do your research! You cannot accumulate all the information you need from a single NYT article. Instead, do some digging. Ask your professors, read up on the historical factors that led to the event, and read from a number of different sources. In this way, you are able to see the issue from various angles and can make a more informed opinion about the event and the people affected by it.

Recommendations for Activists

Activism is an incredible tool that we are all equipped to take part in. One criticism that activists often receive, however, is their passion outweighs their knowledge. Students and people looking to make a difference get involved with movements such as “Save Darfur” but are not entirely knowledgeable on what exactly they are acting on. In this way, it is important to encourage and inspire informed activism by educating those willing to join your cause. While doing a fundraiser at a restaurant may be a good way to engage new participants, it is essential that the initial interest is followed up with educational tools and research on the topic.

Activists also need to make a greater effort to include the voices of those affected by the particular issue of concern. As explained in this essay, the way we in the West tend to understand conflict or identity is much different than those in Darfur. Therefore, it is much more effective to lift the voices of those who know what is best—those actually being affected. Similarly, it is important that we inspire those on-the-ground in the conflict area. Whereas Western media exaggerates the importance of the role of the international community in helping Darfuris, the people with the best chance of making a difference are the Sudanese themselves. Thus, by taking part in projects to raise money for families in Darfur or by supporting legislation that gives aid to civilian Darfuris, the conflict is more likely to be solved without increased interference by the international community. Still, activists need to find the balance between supporting Darfuris and taking advantage of their voice. By forcing them to speak about their country’s pain and hardship, we are not helping them succeed. Instead, activists need to inspire those who are willing to speak and give them a comfortable environment in which to do so.

Recommendations for Constituents

As constituents to our Members of Congress, we hold a great deal of power. Making our voice known on issues we care about is one way that we are able to get involved with politics. Though it may not always seem true, Members of Congress care about what their constituents think and, perhaps more importantly, care about being re-elected. Therefore, it is important to find and research issues you care about and look into related legislation on the issue. This can be as easy as a quick Google search. Additionally, do some research on your representatives and senators. Find out what issues they really care about and appeal to that. By staying up to date on policy and proving that you know a thing or two about your Member of Congress, they are more willing to trust that you know what you are talking about. Therefore, when legislation is close to being voted on, you are able to call-in and urge them to vote on the bill one way or the other. This is one way to greatly influence policy on issues that you care about, such as foreign policy in Darfur.


As the conflict in Sudan continues into its 14th year, the international community must try to better understand its origins and causes. To simplify the complex narrative of Darfur to a strictly Arab versus non-Arab conflict, to minimize the (prominent) role of the government, and to marginalize the agency of the Sudanese is to misunderstand the causes themselves, underestimate the Sudanese peoples, and ultimately result in a longer and more difficult conflict to end. We, as activists, constituents, and consumers of the media must do our part to better understand the truth as well as lift the voices of the Sudanese.


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Gruley, J. and Duvall, C.S. 2010. “The evolving narrative of the Darfur conflict as represented in The New York Times and The Washington Post, 2003–2009” GeoJournal 77(1); 29-46.

Huntington, S. (1993). The Clash of Civilizations? Foreign Affairs, 72(3), 33.

Jumbert, M.G. 2014. “How Sudan’s ‘rogue’ state label shaped US responses to the Darfur conflict: what’s the problem and who’s in charge?” Third World Quarterly; 284-299.

Kothari, A. 2008. “A Study of The New York Times Coverage of The Darfur, Sudan Conflict, July 2003 – July 2006.” University of Oregon; 1-109

Levene, M. 2004. “A Dissenting Voice.” Journal of Genocide Research 6(2); 155.

New Internationalist Magazine. Accessed April 19, 2017.

Polgreen, L. 2006. “Grim New Turn Likely to Harden Darfur Conflict,” New York Times.

Polgreen, L. 2008. “Scorched-Earth Strategy Returns to Darfur,” New York Times.

Saloman, N. 2010. “Undoing the Mahdiyya: British Colonialism as Religious Reform in the Anglo-Egyptian Sudan, 1898-19141.” University of Chicago Divinity School; 2.

Sengupta, S. 2004. “In Sudan, No Clear Differences Between Arab and African,” Washington Post.

Soroka, S.; Lawlor, A.; Farnsworth, S.; Young, L. 2012. “Mass Media and Policy Making.” Routledge Handbook of the Policy Process; 1.

The White House. 2007. “President Bush Discusses Genocide in Darfur, Implements Sanctions.” May 29, 2007. Accessed May 8, 2017.

Tran, M. 2008. “The Darfur Crisis,” The Guardian.

2001-2009 Archive for the U.S. Department of State. Accessed April 24, 2017.

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