Amir Idris, Ph.D., left the Republic of Sudan in 1990 and has no plans to return; at least not while the current government remains in power.
“It is a political regime I do not subscribe to,” said Idris, assistant professor of African and African-American studies at Fordham. “Being in exile provides me with an opportunity to conduct research, write and publish, and expose what is going on in the Sudan … and influence the way people perceive the crisis in Sudan.”
The conflict, which broke out in the western region of Darfur in 2003, has displaced nearly 2 million people and resulted in 200,000 to 400,000 deaths, according to the United Nations. In addition to fighting between scores of rebel groups, the Sudanese government has been accused of trying to “cleanse” black Africans from large swaths of territory by supporting a militia called the Janjaweed.
The trouble in Darfur is the latest carnage in a nation that has endured multiple civil wars since gaining independence from the United Kingdom in 1956.
Idris’ experiences growing up in Central Sudan have inspired his scholarship. He has written two books on the subject, the latest of which isConflict and Politics of Identity in Sudan(Palgrave Macmillan, 2005), as well as dozens of articles. His research examines the historical complexities and causes of the day-to-day horrors that are common throughout Sudan and the Darfur region.
But his work does not end there. Idris, who came to Fordham in 2002, has what he calls a “personal academic mission” to divest people living outside Africa from their misperceptions about the African continent.
“My goal is to destabilize the preconceived notions about Africa, and I find there are so many,” Idris said. “For example, there is the perception that African societies are essentially tribal societies, or the idea that Africa is one place. Africa is not a country, it’s a continent with diverse histories, identities and languages.”
Idris maintains that the media’s lack of prominent reporting about world events and the scant history lessons about Africa taught in American and European primary and secondary schools have allowed misperceptions of his home continent to flourish.
“The danger of this line of thinking is that it creates an idea of Africa as an unchangeable place, a place with no sense of history or culture,” he said.
For instance, many people think that problems on the African continent result from fighting between tribes, and that peace will not occur until tribalism is put to an end. But Idris believes that to understand the nature of African conflict, the proper questions must be asked.
“What is the relationship between the rise of these tribal or ethnic sentiments and competition over scarce resources?” Idris said.
He continued: “How did African people come to define themselves in tribal terms? How did colonialism fit into the process of the formation of tribes in Africa? How did African political elites use tribalism to advance their own political interests?”
Idris hopes his research moves not only students, but policymakers behind humanitarian organizations and non-governmental organizations (NGOs), which instead of helping the situation in Africa, Idris said, sometimes offer only short-term solutions.
“Because of the lack or partial knowledge about Africa and its people, these organizations often fail to address underlying problems,” he said. “Instead, a lot of people put in a lot of effort to help Africans move away from asserting some of their perceived hurtful traditional orientations. Some people think there is something wrong with African traditions. They carry with them Western ideas as a way to deal with African culture.”
While their ideas and motives may be noble, Idris said, what is missing is how African people see the value of their own traditions and social practices.
“Without understanding the history, meaning and context of the cultural orientation of these societies, we will not be in a better position to help provide a way out of conflict for these people,” he said. “Solutions cannot be imported, but ideas can be incorporated by taking into account the realities of the context of these societies.”
Take, for instance, the HIV and AIDS epidemic that is plaguing much of the African continent. NGOs and humanitarian agencies run education programs year after year to teach Africans how to protect themselves from the disease.
“Any society has its problems, but these problems should not be associated with the way people act and behave,” Idris said. “This demonizes the entire society. It is not just education that is needed.”
Idris said poverty, migrant laborer/seasonal workers who leave their families for long periods of time and the quality of healthcare are underlying factors that contribute to the spread of HIV and AIDS.
“These are essential elements that have to be considered in any discussions of HIV in Africa,” he said.
Idris said his role is not just to sit in his office conducting research or to stand at the front of a classroom giving lectures. He might say his role is to take a stand and set an example.
“I have a moral and political responsibility to fight for social justice and enable my own people to understand what is wrong with their political systems and to offer an alternative path to peace and prosperity,” he said. “By writing and creating awareness, I can educate members of the public and, hopefully, my views can influence some policymakers.”