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Sudan's Uncertain Future

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When the Sudan became independent in 1956, some of the outgoing British expressed fears for the southern people, whose border with the north they had closed mainly to protect them from the worst practices of Islam, such as slavery. Unfortunately, after sixty years many southern people took the security they enjoyed for granted. They expected economic development and political representation to be brought by independence, which they assisted northern Sudanese to achieve.

That what southern Sudanese got instead was an entirely different scenario is now history, and for many of the two generations born since independence the only history of their country they are aware of. In all the chaos and confusion of the last fifty-five years, when southern rebel armies were formed and themselves committed atrocities against their own people, exacerbated already profound tribal rivalries and recruited children as soldiers, it has often been forgotten exactly what the cause of the war was. 

 A whipping incident not long ago in Sudan's northern capital of Khartoum has brought about a clarification of and focus on the role of Islam and its relation to discrimination against women, but also to the question of the war, which has ended, with the necessary assistance of outsiders and after a five-year period of transition, in a referendum which will in all probability result in the creation of the new African country of Southern Sudan.

A short film of a screaming Sudanese woman being whipped in the street, for an unknown “crime”, by two policemen with a long, camel-hide whip has been seen all over the world. The film, it was widely assumed, may well be the tip of the iceberg of what goes on in the Sudan but would hopefully embarrass the government into making changes in its penal code.

But a government and a president unembarrassed by its very publicly known-about atrocities in Darfur is unlikely to be much perturbed by a mere whipping, and President Bashir has not seen fit to call for an enquiry or at least express dismay at the severity of the whipping, the fact that even the woman's face was not spared, the amusement clearly shown on the faces of the policemen and some onlookers, or the public spectacle aspect of the whipping.

Instead he has used this incident to remind everyone that Islamic sharia law “has always stipulated that one must whip, cut or kill,” that “those who say they are ashamed of this [punishment], they should wash up, pray twice and revert back to Islam.” In other words, disapproval of the punishment is akin to apostasy. And it came as an illustration of what the Sudanese people of the Islamic north can expect if the five-year period of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement ends with the division of the country. There have been moves recently to intensify sharia law in the north, with government commitment to lowering the marriage age, promoting polygamy and enforcing stoning as a punishment, while in 2009 Sudan removed prohibition of female genital mutilation from Sudanese law (not that the law was ever enforced, as more than 80% of Sudanese Muslim women undergo the procedure.)

President Bashir's landslide victory in the 2010 elections (before which he was reported as threatening to cut off the fingers, noses and necks of antagonistic election observers in Port Sudan), and the failure of the International Criminal Court to bring him to justice for crimes committed in Darfur, might well have increased his confidence in recent months. The terms of the CPA stipulated his government’s responsibility to make unity attractive, and it is possible that he thinks he did his best by tolerating diversity in the capital and holding back on sharia law.

But now that it is clear the south almost unanimously rejects unity with the north, preferring the risks of going it alone, Bashir has warned that should the south secede, the Constitution will be changed, full sharia implemented and “at that time there will be no time to speak of diversity of culture and ethnicity." Southern people living in Khartoum, who number between 1.5 and 2 millions, have been told that they will no longer have access to civil rights such as admission to hospitals, should they vote for secession. Plausible claims of intimidation have been made to deter southerners from voting against unity.

Such encouragement to return to the south, despite, for many, up to two decades of life in the north, has proved irresistible, and the southern government has provided free transport in trucks for these people to leave the Khartoum area for an uncertain future in the south, which many young people have never been to. Other groups of non-Muslims in Khartoum such as Coptic Christians are worried about their future, and the position of long-term residents such as Greeks cannot fail to be affected by the impositions of sharia law.

Meanwhile, ordinary northern Muslims await with trepidation the end of the CPA period which brought them the benefits of relative freedom, thanks largely to the struggles of the southern people who fought for so long and forced the agreement that Muslims, virtually helpless due to apostasy laws, cannot achieve by their own efforts: a reality they are loath to admit, many indulging themselves instead in hopeless dreams of Sudanese Communism.

This five-year period may be looked back on as a “golden era” in Sudan’s post-independence history, a time when it seemed possible that Sudan’s people might find common ground and achieve some cultural consensus; they mixed, after all, like never before. Although far from idyllic, this time played itself out in the aftermath of the death of the popular southern leader John Garang, whose vision of a united, secular Sudan was shared not only by his own people but by many Muslims as well, from marginalized poor to academic freethinkers who wanted an end to the dominance of religion in their lives.

But as they say goodbye to the southerners who have lived among them and who share their ancestry – or half of it – they instead have the prospect of what has been already called the “Talibanization” of northern Sudan, as well as a probable loss of oil revenue which had given rise to a certain level of prosperity, even Arab-style triumphalism, in the north.

Bashir wanted Sudan to be ruled by sharia law so much that the loss of the territory and riches of the south was secondary to its importance. Whether that obsession stems from competitiveness in the fast-regressing Muslim world, his pride in perceived hereditary links to “the Prophet” Mohammed, racism against the blacks of south Sudan (and Darfurians; he allegedly said that raped Darfurian women were being done “a favour” by their Arab rapists), distaste for the ethnic, religious and cultural pluralism he was obliged to tolerate, is difficult to judge – but presumably he thinks he honoured the terms of the CPA, to create conditions favourable to unity, by allowing southern Sudanese IDPs to live relatively unmolested in the capital, albeit in often appalling conditions, for these few years.

Now, however, they are to go, if they don’t want officially regulated dhimmi status and possible local manifestations of revenge for their refusal to vote for unity, a unity which itself would probably not have brought them any rewards unless it came with the secularization which is anathema to the president. But what awaits them in south Sudan is also uncertain, to them if not to aid organization personnel who are bracing themselves for dealing with food shortages.

Although President Bashir is talking up separation, putting on a good show of graciously conceding defeat and wishing the southern people well, sceptics are asking if any plans have been laid to manipulate the counting of votes, or to later destabilize the south as a form of revenge or to create conditions in which reunification becomes desirable or, indeed, the only option for a desperately divided state. Already, accusations that the south is harbouring Darfur rebels is putting the Government of south Sudan (GosS) on the defensive, while the status of the border area of Abyei, a key requirement of the CPA which was supposed to be finalized prior to the referendum, has still not been confirmed. This area is populated by people who identify as southern Sudanese, and also by Arab nomads, whose eligibility to vote is disputed. Northern, non-Arab Muslims such as the Nuba, who have supported the south and themselves been subjected to persecution, will find themselves in a vulnerable position with Bashir’s insistence on an enforced Arabic identity, and may be forced back into war. Furthermore, the Lord’s Resistance Army has been armed by the north before, and the GosS is aware of the possibility of renewed incursions into southern areas.

Riek Machar, Vice-President of south Sudan, says south and north Sudan will necessarily have “soft borders”. Elements of sharia law in the north may well drive fresh numbers of disgruntled Muslims over the border to enjoy the freedoms of the secular, democratic state the southern politicians are committed to establishing – or simply for the possible availability of a wife, a commodity which will be in shorter supply if Bashir persuades his co-religionists to expand their polygamous families. Already the south has a sizeable Muslim population which is said to be about 5% of the total (although some Muslims claim the percentage is much higher – up to 25%); not all are Sudanese but some are from other African countries such as Somalia – and for obscure reasons the UN chose to send Muslim (Bangladeshi) peacekeepers to southern Sudan, where they have been stationed for several years.

Not all the Muslims with an interest or residence in the south are supporters of secularization and tolerance, or are there merely to conduct trade and practice their religion in a non-political fashion.

Hizb ut-Tahrir – the Sudanese version – are highly exercised about the loss of south Sudan, land which was “opened by the Muslim soldiers” and which “Allah gave as booty”. As, to such Muslims, kuffar cannot rule over Muslims, separation means that “the Muslims of the north have
abandoned their brethren in the south and handed them over to the kuffar”. While this arrangement might suit southern Muslims well, they will be subjected to pressure from such north-based groups as Hizb ut-Tahrir or others of foreign origin to regain control of land which was, however briefly, under sharia law. Sudan, although at the margin of the Arab world, is important strategically as the centre of da’wa efforts towards the spread of Islam and its culture into Africa. And as much as Hizb ut-Tahrir are scoffed at everywhere, their candour is instructive – and their stated aims not too far removed from those of the Sudanese president.

However, if I have heard once from southern Sudanese, including members of the clergy, that they have “no problem” with Islam, only with it being “used” to control people, I have heard it a thousand times. Apparently Muslims in the south are not much trouble, especially as they tend to be sufis. Apparently they are peaceful. Apparently, after all those years of war, southern people are not too worried about the existence of a growing number of Muslims in their incipient state, as they are presently well-behaved, and the sharia rules they observe are largely confined to themselves, with mildly annoying exceptions such as praying in the street in Ramadan and the noisy call to prayer. A writer for the Sudan Vision says “There is great respect for Islam in the south.” Muslims are seen as united and disciplined within their community, and free of the tribalism which bedevils the south. The President of south Sudan, Salva Kiir, even encourages Muslims to immigrate to the south and spread their religion. While this message was not received well by non-Muslim southern Sudanese, its significance lies in its delivery from those charged with state security, a point which might be noted by Australians and other Westerners whose governments are welcoming disruptive elements into their countries.

The Dinka writer Francis Mading Deng, a native of Abyei, has written many books about Sudan and its identity issues. He believes that the instability which is of current concern could be exacerbated by separation. Northern regional liberation movements will be likely to look to the liberated south for support, which in turn might lead to the NCP manipulating tribal rivalry – already a problem – in the south. He believes political separation will not solve Sudan’s problems.

But Deng’s concern is with reconciling self-determination of the south with unity of the whole of Sudan, and he has suggested without irony that, in the cause of harmony, non-Muslims might consider eating halal food with their Muslim neighbours. Of course, this approach pleases Muslims; he did not suggest the reverse, that Muslims relax their halal rules to get along better with their non-Muslim neighbours.

If Sudan is divided, and the south is, after the initial flush of elation from legally removing themselves from Islamic oppression, subject to strife coming from northern machinations which result in a renewed push for sharia law from resident southern Muslims who simply cannot help themselves – already Islamic organizations in the south are flourishing and being supported by the GosS, the north, and external influences, and some Islamic rules, naturally, hold sway – what does it mean to us in Australia? Of what concern is it to us, far removed as we are and home to only a small number of Sudanese expatriates?

To my mind, it is of great concern that even after a history of brutal slavery, betrayal and jihad: classical jihad, just as Mohammed would have approved, so many non-Muslim Sudanese just don’t “get it” about Islam. One of the key principles operating in the new state will be “freedom of religion”, an as-yet unofficial – and probably unenforceable - proviso being that religion not be “used” to gain political control. A nice idea, which sidesteps the reality that Islam is as much, or more, about politics than religion. (The Muslim Brotherhood, due to these laudable religious rights, has a branch in south Sudan, and like Hizb ut-Tahrir actively rejects separation of the south, believing south Sudan to be an indissoluble part of the Islamic world.)

Is that what the south fought for, for so long? Soft borders, freedom of religion and the supremacy of naivety? It sounds too much like the now-embattled West, and one can only hope that behind the scenes, south Sudanese politicians have some clever strategies in place which will give their new constitution some safeguards against Islamization: otherwise it might look as if they are interested only in power and not in protecting their people from injustice. This may entail, regrettably, increased politicization of Christianity. But it could also be achieved with anti-sharia laws of the kind recently rejected in Oklahoma, or other piecemeal laws to discourage the practice of Islam, such as a ban on Islamic schools and preferential treatment in workplaces (which is already in place in the south where Muslims are able to only employ other Muslims), and assistance for non-Muslim locals, especially ex-soldiers, in starting businesses. The possibilities are vast, but are not in keeping with the mood of the moment in the south, which is very much about self-government, and more about rejection of the northern government than rejection of Islam. The presence of Muslims in the southern army and government make such rejection presently unlikely, especially as odds are that those Muslims will be of the firm conviction that the “true” Islam is about peace and reconciliation, a conviction which shrewd Islamic organizations in the south are eager to disseminate. 

Australians are generally reluctant to see or acknowledge the reality of Islam and to take steps to prevent its influence. But the Sudan story shows us that even direct involvement in the worst aspects of Islam has not convinced enough people that Islam should be locked out of the country, or even curtailed within it. If the southern Sudanese, after all they have suffered, allow the immigration of Muslims to their country, hoping that secular democracy will create conditions conducive to harmony and obviate sharia yearnings, and settle for feeling grateful for the “peaceful” nature of “their” Muslims - thus demonstrating the power Muslims have to appear harmless - then we have a big problem in Australia which has had no experience of sharia and has barely a clue about jihad or Islamic slavery. We have an uphill battle.


To the southern Sudanese I would like to say: I wish you all the best and hope that freedom brings all you want for yourselves, your families, and your country; that your leaders put your welfare first, that your many tribes can live in harmony and your relations with neighbouring states be cordial. There is so much I hope for, for the southern Sudanese; and also for the northern Sudanese who have always treated me with kindness and courtesy and who have taken it well when their attempts to persuade me to convert to Islam I have rather rudely laughed at, and who now might be coming into closer contact with the Islam of Turabi and Bashir, which so many believe to be a distortion of their beloved “peaceful” Islam.

And to all the Sudanese I will say: remember the words of President Bashir. When he said that whipping, cutting and killing are part of Islam, he was not joking. Don’t be frightened of the truth, because it is only by facing the truth that reconciliation can occur and Sudan can be one country again, which I believe you all secretly want.

Last Updated on Monday, 10 January 2011 21:01  

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