Reflections on Sudan

I grew up in Kenya, an African nation that borders on Sudan.

I’m a Canadian now; a university professor and a writer. Since my arrival twenty-two years ago, I’ve been interested in how people relate to and treat others who are in a minority. I’m also interested in the stories a culture tells itself. My recent book, Islamic Peril: Media and Global Violence, discusses how media create heroes, villains and victims in the coverage of conflicts.

The war in Sudan isn’t simply a case of good against evil. One of its major causes is the way in which the African continent was colonized.

When European politicians drew the artificial lines that mapped nineteenth-century Africa, they created a continent full of countries. In this “Scramble for Africa,” as it came to be known, the people who actually lived there were not consulted.

A century later, African states gained independence. These countries overlapped in language, culture and religion. Few of them had the constitutional means to deal with inter-group conflicts. The tragedies in Rwanda, Burundi, Angola, Sudan and other places are a result of this problem.

As a boy, I used to travel during school holidays from Kenya to stay with my grandparents in Tanzania. The Maasai people, whose extended families lived on both sides of the border, were ruled by separate governments and laws.

In the last years before I came to Canada, I could no longer cross the border. It was closed due to a dispute between the two governments. And my grandparents and I could only have a brief picnic in the no-man’s land between border posts. Of course, the Maasai suffered much greater woes than just a spoiled vacation.

As a Muslim whose great-grandparents had come from India, my welfare depended on the protection offered to me by the government of the predominantly African Christian population. This has helped me appreciate profoundly the importance of human rights for all people. I am very keen to see majority Muslim countries in Africa and elsewhere safeguard all religions present within their borders.

The role of Islam in the Sudanese conflict appears confusing to many Canadians. It might appear as yet another example of how Islam oppresses those who follow other faiths — how some Muslims in Sudan are trampling the rights of Christians and the followers of traditional African religions.

Muslim rulers have traditionally protected religious minorities. Contrary to the Western stereotype of conversion by the sword, some of the oldest Christian communities in the Middle East, including Jerusalem, were protected over the centuries by Muslim sultans and caliphs. When Jews were threatened by the Spanish Inquisition in the fifteenth century, they found refuge in the Muslim lands of North Africa.

But it seems that some groups of Muslims have forgotten these historical facts of Islam. Appreciation for the traditionally inclusive community that enabled non-Muslims to practice their religion and even their communal law appears to be lacking in some quarters.

Religion is often used by self-serving politicians. Rather than coping with the difficult issues of faith in today’s world they prefer to cloak their political actions with religious slogans and symbols. Instead of confronting the challenge of making a thousand-year-old legal system relevant in the present, the most punitive parts of the shariah are turned into national laws.

Sudan and most other Muslim majority countries have Christian and other religious minorities. As they modernize, they face the challenge of developing legal structures that draw from their history but are also relevant in the 21st century.

In my opinion, what happens in countries like Sudan is globally important because it involves followers of the two largest religions in the world, Christianity and Islam.

Sudan is the largest African country in terms of size; it borders nine countries and looks out into the Red Sea at the Middle East. It is a place where Arab meets Black African, and where Muslim meets Christian. The river Nile coming from African Uganda in the south runs through its length and pours out into Arab Egypt in the north.

There are no “good guys” in the Sudanese conflict. It’s a dirty war and almost everyone has blood on their  hands. All parties to the conflict have been cited by international human rights agencies as carrying out abuses in the pursuit of military goals. Human Rights Watch has also reported that the warring parties have interfered in the work of relief organizations and Amnesty International has accused them of recruiting child soldiers.

Religion is only one part of the web of factors that underlie this war. Historical conflicts between tribes are exploited, as is the rivalry between Arabs and Africans. While groups among Christians and Muslims have long attempted to convert followers of traditional African religions, it’s also true that colonial administrators permitted only Christian churches to proselytize in southern Sudan.

Foreign intervention did not stop at independence in 1956. American military support turned a blind eye to increasing Islamization by Sudanese governments as long as they remained anti-Soviet. At the same time, some conservative Muslim groups received financial help from the Saudis, while foreign-based church organizations supported  Christian groups in the south.

And now, there is a new scramble by foreign interests, including Canadian, to benefit from the newly discovered oil reserves.

Sudan is not as far removed from Canada as it would seem. In the nineteenth century, Canadians participated in the British expeditionary forces that fought the Mahdi, played by Lawrence Olivier in the Hollywood classic “Khartoum.”

Today, Alberta oil interests are out drilling in the same country. A few Canadian missionaries are at work in the south. And a number of Canadian immigrants have family ties in Sudan.

Reports of the Sudanese conflict often simplify it as a war between the Arab-Muslim north and the African- Christian south. This deceptively neat and polarized picture would seem to reflect a larger global conflict between Muslims and Christians in the minds of some. The reality in Sudan, as elsewhere, is much more complex.

There has been all kinds of jostling between various players during this long war. At times, Christian southerners and Muslim opposition parties in the north have joined forces against the central government. Leaders from the south have also served in the national government. On the other hand, fighting has occasionally broken out between African groups in the south.

So why does the war in Sudan continue?

The central problem is a constitutional one, says professor Abdullahi An-Na’im, whose list of distinctions includes holding the human rights chair at the University of Saskatchewan. He suggests that his country can develop a modern constitutional order by drawing on the Qur’an’s universal principles of justice, equality and liberty. This, he says, would uphold the rights of all citizens and reconcile them with the aspirations of the Muslim majority.

But whether such a constitutional path would resolve Sudan’s civil war is not clear to me. As often happens in these troubling kinds of cases, the long-standing conflict has created its own economy and those who benefit from it may be loath to make peace.

But it’s interesting to me that the southern Sudanese do not speak about wanting to create a separate country. Both sides will need to demonstrate genuine goodwill and show to the world that indigenous Muslims and Christians can live together in the largest country in Africa.

In Ottawa, I’m…

Karim H. Karim.

Karim H. Karim is an Assistant Professor in Carleton University’s School of Journalism and Communication.