Secularism and Diversity in Sudan


While speaking with reporters in Addis Ababa during the 50th Anniversary of the African Union, Secretary of State John Kerry said this about the ongoing conflict in Sudan’s Southern Kordofan and Blue Nile states: “In South Kordofan and Blue Nile you have people who for a long time have felt that they want their secular governance and their identity respected.”

This is true, but not limited to just the south.

Debates over secular or Islamic government have troubled the entire country of Sudan since its independence in 1956. For almost thirty years thereafter, a diverse coalition of movements resisted efforts to turn Sudan into an Islamic state, including South Sudanese, secular political parties, and other Muslims. These groups fought for democracy and equality of all citizens, regardless of religion.

In September 1983, in an effort to remain in power, then-dictator Jafar al Numeri strengthened his ties with the growing Islamic movement and officially implemented sharia. Within months, sharia courts and judges were installed; hudood punishments were implemented for murder, thefts, and adultery, and for violating behavioral norms related to dress and alcohol; and apostasy became a capital offense.

While Islamists welcomed the introduction of sharia, it helped fuel Sudan’s twenty-year north-south civil war when southern Christians and animists, as well other Sudanese nationwide, rebelled against the Islamization and Arabization of the country. The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom where I work documented these abuses and has continued to monitor the decline in rights in Sudan.

Sudan's President Omar Hassan al-Bashir (2nd R) meets officials from the Government of South Sudan (GOSS) near his South Sudan counterpart Salva Kiir (C) upon his arrival at the Juba Airport in South Sudan April 12, 2013. (Andreea Campeanu/Courtesy Reuters)

[Sudan’s President Omar Hassan al-Bashir (2nd R) meets officials from the Government of South Sudan (GOSS) near his South Sudan counterpart Salva Kiir (C) upon his arrival at the Juba Airport in South Sudan April 12, 2013. (Andreea Campeanu/Courtesy Reuters) ]

The debate over secular or Islamic government continues to divide the country, even after the secession of the south. In anticipation of South Sudan’s 2011 secession (and a dramatic decline in the number of Christians living in Sudan), the ruling National Congress Party (NCP) thought this debate would be finished. In December 2010, President al-Bashir stated that Sudan’s new constitution would be based on sharia law and will not include specific provisions recognizing Sudan’s religious, ethnic, and linguistic diversity.

This and subsequent similar statements by al-Bashir and other NCP officials continuously draw robust criticism from Sudanese opposition parties and women’s and other human rights groups who want a constitution with strong religious freedom protections. In January, more than thirty Sudanese political parties and civil society groups signed the “New Dawn” charter, which calls for separation of religion and state and full equality of all citizens regardless of religion.

While some of the Islamic parties who signed the charter have since distanced themselves due to NCP pressure, the charter demonstrates how central the debate between Islamic versus secular governance is to Sudan’s future. And this debate will continue to dominate Sudanese politics as a new constitution is drafted. Who drafts that constitution and by what process will determine the role of sharia in Sudanese governance and the future of religious freedom.

***

Tiffany Lynch is a senior policy analyst at the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom. The views expressed are her own.

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