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Qatar’s Righteous Gentile

Judeo-Arabic American Joseph Braude sends us his fourth dispatch from the Middle East.

Doha, Qatar If blame for domestic violence rests in part with neighbors who sit idly by, then the slaughter of 400,000-and-counting Darfuri African Muslims in Sudan is a pan-Arab disgrace. Governments throughout this region have turned a blind eye to atrocities perpetrated by Janjaweed Arab horseback raiders, Sudan’s Ku Klux Klan. Two Arab states in particular, Egypt and the Gulf emirate of Qatar, have done even worse: They have provided diplomatic cover for the genocidal junta in Khartoum that arms and equips the Janjaweed.

When, by contrast, a man stands up in either country and struggles against the deafening Arab silence on Darfur, he follows in the tradition of Gentiles who rescued Jews from the Holocaust—the “righteous among the nations.” He deserves to be recognized.

I meet Khartoum native Abu Bakr al-Qadi by chance in an air-conditioned office at Qatar’s Ministry of Justice in downtown Doha. He’s hard to miss: In sub-Saharan-spiced Arabic dialect and an operatic tenor voice reminiscent of Roy Orbison, he’s chewing out two Qatari officials at the top of his lungs.

“You’re hypocrites!” he cries. “The blood of Muslims isn’t cheaper because they happen to be African!”

One of the turbaned Qataris appears taken aback. An unwritten rule in this oil-rich sheikhdom calls for guest workers to show deference and decorum when addressing the native population. “Are you talking to me?” he asks.

“You and all the rest of you!” Qadi replies. “And why am I the only one? Why isn’t there a single Qatari raising his voice about Darfur in this whole country?”

The tension mounts as the two argue whether mass murder in Darfur is even taking place. The Qatari maintains that Western journalists are exaggerating or fabricating reports of carnage. It’s an “American-Zionist” propaganda tactic, he asserts, to destabilize Sudan and draw attention away from the real genocide in Palestine. “Just go downstairs to the street and anyone here will tell you where the true tragedy is,” he says. “Even the African on the street could tell you!”

Even the African,” Qadi seethes. The two men look as if they’re about ready to take their dispute outside.

“Forgive our Sudanese brother his passion,” the other Qatari cuts in. “He’s speaking from his gut.” A deep breath thaws the irate African’s icy stare, and he excuses himself.

As Qadi leaves the room, I tag along on the pretext of bumming a ride in his SUV. He turns on the ignition, and car speakers pipe in a vaguely familiar African choral chant, which stokes my curiosity. It’s a CD recording of listen-and-repeat religious hymns by a legendary Sudanese Muslim mystic, Mahmoud Muhammad Taha, who espoused the oneness of humankind and a radical reinterpretation of Islamic law before his execution in Khartoum in the mid-’80s. His egalitarian movement, the Republican Brothers, reportedly survives in Sudan—but only barely, and only in secret. Qadi, it turns out, was one of Taha’s disciples. And though Qadi has now spent eighteen years in Doha, where he works for a Western company, Taha’s philosophies still shape his worldview.

“Mahmoud Muhammad Taha had the answer to our problems in Sudan,” he tells me. “He foresaw this disease of ethnic cleansing, this lethal chauvinism; and his prescription was love, justice, and equality.”

Qadi moonlights as a weekly op-ed columnist for the liberal Qatari daily Al-Watan. Over t
he past months, he has used the column as a platform from which to raise alarm bells about the Darfur genocide. His writing takes Arab élites to task for tacitly endorsing what he calls a “violent campaign of Arabization” that targets Sudan’s non-Arab “marginalized peoples.” In one unpublished Arabic lecture, which he gives me to read, Qadi envisions a transnational “coalition of the marginalized,” including Africans, Kurds, and Jews in the Middle East. Coming from a Sudanese Arab living in the heart of the Gulf, these heretical ideas require off-the-charts chutzpah.

Over the next few days, I gradually learn that Qadi is no crank. To the contrary, his activism is sustained and fairly broad-based. Once a month, he holds a political salon in the living room of his house, where he brings together Sudanese intellectuals from the Arab north, the African south, and the beleaguered Darfur region in-between. I attend one, joining the local journalists and photographers who show up to write about the evening’s discussions. The two most popular Sudanese online discussion forums, including one that’s hosted in Khartoum, heatedly debate the published reports.

Qadi serves as a point of contact for Darfuri dissidents who pass through the Gulf, often in search of philanthropic capital and logistical help from well-heeled Sudanese exiles. These activities have earned him a personal warning to cease and desist from the Sudanese ambassador in Doha. It speaks well of the relatively permissive political environment here in Qatar that Qadi feels comfortable thumbing his nose at the ambassador.

All these efforts by a lone man in the Arabian Gulf may do little, in the grand scheme of things, to remedy the destruction and suffering in Darfur and beyond. But we celebrate the “righteous among the nations” precisely because their individual acts of courage are so rare. Here in Qatar, I pray that Qadi’s bravery and chutzpah inspires countless others to take action.

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