June 6, 2003
Can Khartoum function as the national capital of a unified Sudan if the National Islamic Front regime continues to insist on maintaining shari’a (Islamic law) in the city? The question has gained considerable urgency in recent weeks, though it has always been a key concern in the larger issue of power-sharing as addressed in the Machakos peace talks. Indeed, there are increasingly ominous signs that the National Islamic Front (NIF) is intent on maintaining shari’a at all costs, even if it is at the expense of creating a representative government in a capital city that accommodates Muslims and non-Muslims alike. Evidence continues to mount that this may be the issue on which the NIF regime will choose to collapse the Machakos peace talks.
The role of shari’a in Sudan’s politics and tyranny must be seen in its historic context—as a means of savagely persecuting and marginalizing non-Muslims, and as a viciously expedient means of inciting religious hatred in ways that curry favor for the NIF regime among Muslim communities outside of Sudan. Khartoum has long counted on this religious hatred as inspiration for the revenue stream to the capital that helps maintain a bankrupt economy (even with very substantial new oil revenues, Khartoum’s external debt stands at over $22 billion, a level of indebtedness that has few international peers).
Moreover, in seeking to understand the historical causes of war and the true prospects for peace in Sudan, we should also remember that it was the imposition of the infamous “September [shari’a] Laws” in 1983, by military dictator Jaafer Nimeiri, that was a major cause of this most recent, twenty-year phase of Sudan’s civil war.
Most Sudanese, Muslim and non-Muslim alike, clearly reject the NIF regime’s insistence on maintaining shari’a in the national capital. During a very recent meeting in Cairo of the various main opposition groups, the Umma Party and Democratic Unionist Party (DUP)—long the two major sectarian opposition parities—as well as the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement/Army (SPLM/A) issued what has been called the “Cairo Declaration” (May 24, 2003 text treating the issue of the National Capital is attached below). This Declaration represents overwhelming northern opposition as well as southern opposition to a national capital in which shari’a governs all—Muslims and non-Muslims alike. But this important Declaration has been pointedly and emphatically rejected by the unelected NIF regime.
Of course “representative government” has never been of concern to the NIF, which has maintained its grip on political and military power in Sudan only by virtue of a ruthless survivalism. The last “elections” in Sudan had no more legitimacy than the absurd exercises of Saddam Hussein’s Baath Party in Iraq. In truth, NIF insistence upon shari’a in Khartoum (the only candidate for the national capital that the regime seems willing to consider) is both a means for maintaining power and a device for collapsing the Machakos talks. Nonetheless, the NIF claims to speak for all of Sudan in rejecting the Cairo Declaration, and insists on maintaining shari’a in the national political capital. This is the framework within which the NIF conceives of “national unity.”
The international community, as ever, seems to be seeking ways to accommodate this wholly unreasonable NIF demand. Such an effort reflects, first of all, a lack of understanding of how passionately the issue is perceived from the standpoint of the people of southern Sudan: they will not enter a union with the north based on the national presumption of an Islamic state, precisely what is represented by shari’a as determining the character of the national capital.
From the standpoint of a working national system, those who argue for a “two-tiered system” or a “two-law system” have already bought into NIF premises about the nature of a post-war Sudan. A “two-law system” not only reflects the terrible injustice that has defined Muslim on non-Muslim tyranny for decades, but would institute a system all too similar to the hateful apartheid system of South Africa. The international community, having worked so hard to dismantle apartheid, should not permit a peace agreement that institutes state-sponsored discrimination in another form. Nor can the international community afford to ignore the way in which compulsory Islamicization in Sudan has been deeply informed by a brutal racism on the part of the Arabized populations of the north.
Those who speak of “exemptions” for southerners or non-Muslims similarly miss the point: if the Machakos peace agreement is predicated on a new national unity for Sudan, what does it say that the long-marginalized people of the south would require “exemption” to live their lives in the “national” capital? There is a fundamental contradiction between the putative aims of those in the international community who would impose peace at any price upon the aggrieved party—the people of the south—and the realities that would ensue from leaving in place a system that discriminates against southerners and non-Muslims. For this would serve to perpetuate the very Islamic-based tyranny that has defined the National Islamic Front from the day it seized power by military coup on June 30, 1989, deposing an elected government in the process and aborting the previous best chance for peace.
The Islamist project remains, despite the hesitancy on the part of the international community in acknowledging as much, the raison d’tre of the National Islamic Front—its guiding means of ideological self-identification and preservation of power. The regime’s intransigent opposition to a state that truly recognizes the rights of non-Muslims is not an accidental feature of policy—it is the essence of all political calculations and the defining feature of a savage grip on political and military power (which have become virtually indistinguishable). Shari’a in the capital city of Sudan is not a “side issue,” one that can be finessed or dismissed or seen as unimportant. It both symbolizes and embodies NIF tyranny.
And what does the embodiment of the NIF version of shari’a look like in practice in Sudan? We have all too many answers recently.
The Sudan Organization Against Torture (SOAT) reports in a June 5, 2003 press release the following example of the penal code (hudud) that is part of Sudan’s shari’a:
“On 1 June 2003, 15 year-old Aziza Salih Adam (f) was sentenced to 30 lashes of the whip by the District Court (Mahkamat Al-Muhafiza, formerly known as the Public Order Court, (Al-Nizam Al-‘Aam) in Nyala, Western Darfur. Aziza, who works as an assistant to street—vendor selling tea in the Wehda district of Nyala, received this sentence for not wearing socks to cover her feet. The punishment was carried out on the same day as the sentencing.”
Another recent incident reported by SOAT (May 20, 2003) is equally revealing of the meaning of shari’a in Sudan. Again in Nyala, a 14-year old girl, nine months pregnant, was arrested by the al-Shorta al-Sha’abiya (“Public Police Force”) and sentenced in an Islamic court to 100 lashes of the whip—for “adultery.” The conviction was under Article 146 of Khartoum’s 1991 Penal Code. (A 25-year old businessman, Alsir Sabeel Nour Aldeen, was charged in connection with the incident, but was found not guilty and freed “for the lack of evidence.”)
Another example of what shari’a means in Sudan is reflected in the now widely circulated image of four men from troubled Darfur Province who have been photographed after having endured the sentence of “cross-amputation,” i.e., their right hands and left feet have been amputated (this gruesome photograph is available, upon request, in JPEG format).
In January 2002 the Sudanese Victims of Torture Group (SVTG) reported on the fate of Abok Alfa Akok—an eighteen-year-old Dinka woman of Christian faith who the previous month had been sentenced by the Islamic “criminal court” in Nyala to be stoned to death as punishment for the crime of “adultery.” Adverse publicity appears to have “reduced” her sentences to 100 lashes, a punishment that nonetheless can easily be fatal. The young woman was tried and sentenced in an Islamic trial conducted entirely in Arabic, little of which she could understand.
There are countless other such examples—most, of course, never reported.
The crime of apostasy, i.e., the renouncing of one’s Islamic faith, is a capital crime in Sudan under the NIF version of shari’a. In other words, if a Muslim changes his or her mind about fundamental spiritual convictions, he or she may be sentenced to death (in a most brutal fashion). This law is not simply “on the books,” but has been used very recently in Khartoum.
Newspapers in Khartoum have been harassed or shut down for publishing articles bearing on issues of Islam in ways that offend the NIF authorities. Churches in Khartoum have been destroyed with impunity; Christians in Khartoum are often treated brutally, some times murderously. There is no real religious tolerance in Khartoum, only the small-scale illusions that the regime manufactures for those willing to accept a very small part for the deeply repressive whole.
Given the size and diversity of Sudan, it is virtually impossible to imagine a unified, centralized government representing all the people of the country. Only the most genuine effort at accommodating non-Islamic realities—legal, political, and spiritual—has any chance of bringing together this savagely torn country.
But the NIF insistence on shari’a in the national capital moves in exactly the opposite direction and hence directly compromises the chances for success in the Machakos peace process. If the northern Muslim and Arabic tyranny, as perversely embodied in the NIF, believes that southerners and the people of other marginalized areas in Sudan (the Nuba Mountains, Southern Blue Nile, Abyei, Darfur) must be made to accept shari’a as defining of national political life, then there is no hope for peace.
Either the peace that emerges from the Machakos process is genuinely pluralistic, reflecting the character of Sudan itself, or we will have nothing more than the spectacle of the NIF attempting to secure its power through an agreement that is at bottom nothing more than a token gesture toward international discomfort at the ongoing destruction of the people of southern Sudan and the marginalized areas.
The various opposition parties of Sudan, northern and southern, have spoken clearly and unambiguously; so, too, has the NIF. The choice at this decisive juncture in the peace process is now that of the international community and the Machakos mediators.
Northampton, MA 01063
Sudanese Opposition “Cairo Declaration”
24 May 2003
The leaders of the Democratic Unionist Party, (DUP), The Umma Party and the Sudan Peoples Liberation Movement (SPLM), have met in Egypt, a land whose people have shared with us history, destiny and geography since the dawn of history. This meeting comes at a time when our country is passing through a delicate and important phase of its contemporary history.
Unity of Sudan on a New Basis
[The leaders of the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement/Army, the Democratic Unionist Party, and the Umma Party] deem that an agreement on a Capital city, which is National and that treats all religions and beliefs as equal, is an indispensable necessity for the preservation of our country’s unity on a new basis.
Sayed Mohamed Osman Al Mirghani
Leader of the Democratic Unionist
Dr. John Garang De Mabior
Chairman of the Sudan Peoples Liberation Movement (SPLM)
Sayed Sadiq Al Mahdi
Leader of the Umma Party