VIEW: Salvaging Islam in Sudan — Saleem H Ali And Mahmoud El Zain
The Darfur crisis has been vexing for Muslim clerics such as Turabi. All sides in the conflict are Muslims of the same sect. Hence sectarian strife cannot be blamed either. There is not even a clear racial distinction to be drawn in the crisis since there have been Arab-African alliances during some phases of the conflict
Africa’s largest country has once again moved towards greater notoriety by being declared the most “failed” state in the world by Foreign Policy magazine in their latest ranking of nations in turmoil. The crisis in the Darfur region of the country is major reason for this latest epithet for the Sudanese regime. Hence the news of a peace agreement between the government and the largest rebel group in Darfur might be considered a promising sign of renewal, but we must hold the applause. The Sudanese government has equivocated on peace agreements before and the various factions are still not all on board.
There is, however, some reason for optimism in Sudan. The once obstinate religious leader of the Sudanese Muslim Brotherhood, Hassan Al Turabi is showing astonishing signs of moderation. In a recent interview to the London-based newspaper Al Sharq al Awsat, Dr Turabi spoke of allowing women to become imams, promoting greater allowances for inter-marriage between Muslims, Jews and Christians and even venturing to call for radical Muslims to seek penance for their indiscretions.
The Sorbonne-educated Turabi has been an enigmatic and somewhat chameleonic figure in Sudanese politics for the past 30 years. The 9/11 Commission report referred to him as “Sudan’s long time hard-line ideological leader” who gave sanctuary to Osama bin Laden. He was a spiritual leader of the current Sudanese government until 1999 when he fell out with President Al Bashir and was imprisoned in March 2004 for fomenting a coup plot. He was released in the summer of 2005 and continues to command considerable respect in many parts of the Muslim world.
Turabi’s newly found moderation has left many Islamic scholars aghast and several Sudanese clerics have branded him an apostate. However, the mere fact that such clear calls for moderation and reinterpretation of Islamic texts is coming from such an old ideologue such as Turabi is very promising indeed. Even if we discount these proclamations as opportunistic attempts to seek help from the West, the call for reform emanating from one of Al Qaeda’s oldest friends is a dramatic change to consider. It is equally significant that this call is coming from Sudan, which has been at the crossroads of conflict at multiple levels.
The fault lines in the civil war in southern Sudan had been about religion and race — Christians Africans versus mostly Muslim Arabs. The conflict was used in the West to highlight the most macabre face of Islamic and indigenous cultural extremism, from slave trades to forced conversions. Accuracy of these accounts was disputed and conspiracy theories about oil greed and imperialism raged on for years. Thankfully, most of these came to rest following the peace agreement between the government and the Sudanese People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM) in January 2005.
More than a year has passed and this agreement has withstood continuing turmoil in Darfur as well as the death of the SPLM leader John Garang in a helicopter crash in August 2005. Hence extremists who had repeatedly concluded the incompatibility of Muslims and Christians to live together in Sudan have thus far been proven wrong.
However, the Darfur crisis has been far more vexing for Muslim clerics such as Turabi to understand. All sides in the conflict are Muslims of the same sect. Hence sectarian strife such as is the case in Iraq or Pakistan cannot be blamed either. There is not even a clear racial distinction to be drawn in the crisis since there have been Arab-African alliances during some phases of the conflict. In fact, historically, inhabitants of the region had experienced changing identities, where a Baggara (Arab) tribesman through access to the means of production and settlement in a Fur (African) village could acquire the Fur ethnic identity.
The perpetuation of the Darfur crisis has thus led to some soul-searching on the part of ideologues such as Turabi who now conclude that a culture of violence in many Muslim states is to blame for such conflicts. Inequality of resource distribution and competing land use policies, sparked by a cultural acceptance of weapons to resolve disputes are the key ingredients of Sudan’s predicament.
If there is a silver lining to this tragic tale, it would be that extreme elements such as Turabi have been forced out of their martyring determinism. The dogmatic chapters, which such clerics still hold from their defunct political ideology, are maintained merely to calm the remnants of religious militias that have not yet been demobilised. Whether the peace agreement in Darfur holds or not, the West should pay close attention to the way this conflict is transforming the vanguards of Islam in Sudan.
Saleem H Ali is associate professor of environmental planning and conflict resolution at the University of Vermont. Mahmoud El Zain is a Sudanese scholar currently on the faculty of the United Nations-mandated University for Peace in Costa Rica