Fundamentalism in Power: Sudan's Islamic Experiment
Milton Viorst, who has covered the Middle East for The New Yorker and other publications for more than 20 years, is the author of Sandcastles: The Arabs in Search of the Modern World. This article, based on his recent visit to Sudan, is excerpted from a manuscript of his work in progress on political Islam.See more by this author
Within the Arab world, Sudan is unique. Other Arab countries appear to be slipping inexorably into fundamentalism. Sudan, by contrast, is the only state in our age that has formally opted for Islam as its system of government. By its own admission, it has not yet crafted the institutions needed to realize an Islamic regime. But its rulers, having made the choice, have left no doubt that Islam will not be disestablished, whatever the opposition and consequences, including civil war.
Sudan, it has been said, is a nation-state but not a nation. Its twenty-six million inhabitants speak one hundred different languages. They are divided into a multiplicity of ethnic groups, none more than a fraction of the total population. They are separated by regional and tribal loyalties. Most divisive of all, the population in the north of the country, where the majority resides, is culturally Arab, while the south shares the civilization of black Africa. Faced with this diversity, the majority has decided -- or at least those who speak for the majority have decided -- that the only unifying element in Sudan is Islam. And so, to create a nation, Sudan has embarked on a course of Islamization.
The architect of this course is Hassan al-Turabi, a man of brilliant intellect and ineffable charm. Turabi is admired by many, and even more feared by some. He is at ease in both tie and turban, articulate in English and Arabic, and highly educated, with law degrees from universities in Khartoum, London, and Paris. As a lecturer at the University of Khartoum in the mid-1960s, he founded the Sudanese chapter of the Muslim Brotherhood, currently known as the National Islamic Front. Since then he has used the NIF single-mindedly in a quest to establish an Islamic state in Sudan.