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.

In a coup d'état by middle-rank military officers in 1989, Islam rode to power, leaving Turabi, though holding no official post, in charge of Sudan's redesign. He says he turned to Islam because without it, "Sudan has no identity, no direction." He calls his regime an "Islamic experiment" and says it is leading toward a new national consensus. But in many ways it is a traditionally repressive military dictatorship. The U.S. State Department has placed Sudan on its list of countries abetting terrorism, which has provoked Turabi's indignation. Still, by the standards of other Arab societies, Turabi's concept of Islam is open-minded and tolerant. Though he sees no reason to emulate Western liberalism, few would contradict his assertion that "we do not advocate a very strict form of Islam." For Turabi, there is no contradiction in pursuing a policy of lenient Islam with unmitigated zealotry.

The signs are plentiful, in a visit to Sudan, that the Islam practiced there is less strict than that of Egypt, to say nothing of Saudi Arabia. One scarcely sees the hijab, the head-covering that makes many women in Egypt appear so forbidding, much less the Saudi veil. Sudanese women are more likely to render homage to Islamic modesty in a "taupe," a brightly colored gown with a filmy wrap that partially covers the hair and is actually quite alluring. Granted, the nightlife and the drinking that I recalled from a visit a decade or so ago are gone; the coup has imposed a grim nighttime silence on the streets of Khartoum and its more religious sister city, Omdurman. But the Sudanese seem more relaxed than other Arabs, and when they talk they do not seem much inhibited by the muscular piety of the military regime.

Some Sudanese, of course, dislike the clement Islam preached by Turabi. Sheikh el-Hibr Youssef el-Daim, a traditionalist who heads the Muslim Brothers, told me Turabi is mistaken in claiming the right to reinterpret Islamic scriptures. "Sudan is not his preserve to do what he likes about Islam," el-Hibr said. Sheikh Muhammad Hashem el-Hadiya, leader of the strict, Saudi-oriented Ansar Sunna sect, told me he objected to Turabi's heterodox line on democracy and the status of women, and particularly on the limits Turabi would impose on the powers of the ulama, the body of jurists and clerics who traditionally interpret Islamic law. Yet their words proved the exception among those I met. Most Sudanese reflected Turabi's preference for a genial, non-rigorous Islam, more in keeping with Sudan's special experience within the flow of Islamic history.


The key to this history is that the Sudanese are not ethnically Arab, even though the country is within the realm of Arab civilization. As their dark skin attests, the Sudanese are Africans of diverse ethnic stock. Many Egyptians make a similar disclaimer of Arabism, insisting they are Africans of Pharaonic descent, a distinction that the eye confirms. But the Arab conquest of Egypt, which was then Christian, took place less than a decade after the death of the Prophet Muhammad, meaning that Egyptian society has been Arabized for more than thirteen hundred years. Sudan's fate was quite different. On reaching the Nile, the commanders of the prophet's armies turned westward rather than upriver to spread Islam across Africa's northern rim and then into Spain. Sudan was apparently too inaccessible or too poor to justify a major campaign.

In the centuries after Egypt's Islamization, Sudan was ignored by Arab forces, save for occasional raids, none of which achieved decisive results. Sudan succumbed to the Arabs a thousand years after Egypt, an interval that left it psychologically as well as geographically at the margin of Islam. Turabi himself calls his people "frontier Arabs." The power that finally won the victory for Arab civilization, moreover, was not Arab soldiers but Arab merchants and particularly Arab holy men who infiltrated the region, displacing the native Christianity and disrupting the established tribal order.

The holy men were missionaries who brought with them the Koran and the sharia, Islam's legal code, along with the Arabic language, the key to understanding the sacred scriptures. They came not just from Egypt but from Baghdad, Arabia, and North Africa. Some set up schools that taught both religion and literacy, the pillars of Arabic culture. A few acquired considerable political influence and were rewarded by tribal leaders with great wealth in livestock and land. It was these holy men who planted the seeds that, over several generations, Arabized Sudan -- though Islam is still the religion of only two-thirds of the people and Arabic the mother tongue of only half. Overwhelmingly, these men transmitted the version of Islam known as Sufism, a dissidence dating back to Islam's earliest days. The more charismatic of them bonded with their followers into societies called tariqas, which are the heart of Sufi religious practice.

The Sufis converted the Sudanese to a faith that was more personal, more emotional, and more attached to the love than the fear of God than the orthodoxy that was practiced in most of the Arab world. They imparted to Sudan a highly popular faith that retained the richness of pre-Islamic folk customs. Today, Sufi dancers who whirl themselves into a dizzying personal communion with God on Friday afternoons in a field in Omdurman are a major tourist attraction. Late in the eighteenth century, which was a revivalist era throughout Islam, a fresh wave of holy men descended upon Sudan and fanned out from the banks of the Nile deep into the countryside to proselytize. Several founded Sufi dynasties, two of which, the Ansar and the Khatmiyyah, have become the hub of the country's principal political parties. To this day, Sufism exercises a strong influence not just on the religious spirit but on the politics of Sudan.


Sudan acquired its present configuration -- it is the largest nation in Africa, nearly a third the size of the continental United States -- during the 60 years of Egypt's occupation, which was ended by the uprising of the Mahdi in 1885. In taking over Sudan, Egypt's interest had been in the provinces adjacent to its borders, where the culture, like its own, was Arab, Islamic, and shaped by the Nile and the desert. Sudan's south, to which Egypt was politically indifferent, had none of those characteristics. Its culture was that of black Africa, its terrain savanna, and its climate rainy. It practiced African religions and spoke African languages. Egypt had only one objective in taking over Sudan's south: slaves.

Slave traders, mostly Muslims, had for centuries operated out of the land that is now Sudan, conducting raids into the African heartland, transporting thousands of captives annually to buyers throughout the Arab world. The Koran, though critical of slavery, does not ban it. The slave trade plagued the south even after slavery was outlawed in the 1860s; reports of its resurgence, vigorously denied by the government, periodically recur. True or not, the horrors of slavery remain ineradicably fixed in the historical memory of the southern Sudanese.

As colonial administrators, at the turn of the century, the British established a special status for Sudan's three southern provinces, with a view to attaching them to their own east African colonies. Known as the Closed Door policy, it replaced Arab officials with blacks and barred virtually all northerners from entering the region. Britain turned over authority for education and social services to Christian missionaries and left the day-to-day operation of government to tribal chiefs. While doing little to promote economic development, it encouraged the use of English and a revitalization of African tribal culture. Northern Sudanese rightly decried the policy as divisive, discriminatory, and anti-Islamic; indeed, a fourth of all southerners were converted from their native religions to Christianity. But when the British empire began to disintegrate after World War II, it was to the more powerful northerners that Britain turned in the negotiations over decolonization.

The northerners readily persuaded Britain to renege on its promise to protect the special character of the south. Rejecting a federal constitution, northerners designated Arabic as the state's official language and sent Arabs to seize administrative posts in the south. By declaring themselves in favor of Islamic rule, the Ansar and the Khatmiyyah, the major Sufi political orders, brought back visions of the slave trade to the southerners. As southerners saw it, benevolent British colonialism was being replaced by Arab tyranny. By the time of independence in 1956, an insurgency was already under way, and within months it grew into full-scale civil war.

When Colonel Jaafar Nimeiri seized power from a weak parliamentary regime in 1969 with support from the communists, he negotiated the agreement for southern autonomy that gave regional relations a decade of peace. His secular despotism kept Turabi in detention for seven years. But with his secular support wavering in the early 1980s, Nimeiri turned to the Islamists and named Turabi attorney general. Reversing his earlier policy of tolerance, in 1983 he decreed the September laws, which reimposed the sharia, including the notorious hudud, the amputation of the hand for theft. By then, the discovery of oil in the south had raised the stakes for both sides. Southern army units mutinied over the decree, and the fighting, at a cost so far of more than a million lives, still continues.


Sudanese from the north say that the war is not between Islam and Christianity, and they are largely correct. It is a clash of incompatible cultures, which historical mischance has placed under the same flag. The south and north have totally different perceptions of the federal system administered by Sudan's present government. Northerners proclaim that the government's plan for the south, which on paper looks like a radical devolution of power, could scarcely be more benign, based as it is on an Islamic tradition of religious tolerance. Southerners are convinced that they have their backs to the wall and are defending their culture against forced Islamization. "The government is working for the Islamization and Arabization of the entire country," said Ezekiel Kutjok, president of the Sudan Council of Churches, which criticizes what Kutjok calls the government's calculated anti-Christian policies.

Ghazi Salahuddin al-Atabani, who is considered Turabi's man in the presidential palace, dismisses Kutjok's contention as silly. "The charge of forcible Islamization is smear propaganda," he said. "Our government's constitutional decrees treat all citizens equally, without reference to religion, color, or ethnicity. Sharia is a source of our legislation because the majority Muslim population perceives it to be absolutely necessary. But certain sharia provisions are not applicable in non-Muslim areas, and we have also included 'custom' as another source of legislation to cater to non-Muslim legal precepts."

The statements of Kutjok and Atabani reflect the sharp, some say irreconcilable, differences that exist over the nature of the Sudanese state. The mainstream southern leadership accepts federalism in principle but holds that the north's political structure must be transformed to eliminate the virtual monopoly of Islamic parties. An influential minority in the south recently claimed to have given up on the prospect of political restructuring altogether, and it argues that only through secession can both regions have the freedom they seek. The Muslims of the north, who reject restructuring as secularism and secession as treason, are themselves locked in disagreement over the range of political and religious concessions to be made in the interests of regional peace.

Southerners remain unconvinced that much has changed under the new federal plan. They note that the government now calls the war a jihad, a holy war, which raises the ideological stakes. Perhaps most destructive is the level of mutual mistrust, the product of years of brutality and bloodshed, which impairs rational negotiation. The talks that have taken place have been marked by dissembling, posturing, and abrupt stops and starts. Neither side has made much effort to win the confidence of the other. Meanwhile, the war goes on.

In an interview, Colonel Umar Hassan Ahmad al-Bashir, leader of the 1989 coup and now head of state, contended that peace was the country's first priority. But he declined to say that Sudan under his leadership would achieve it. Although clearly more than a figurehead, he defers in many ways to Turabi. Bashir blamed Sudanese dissidents exiled in Cairo and supported by Arab and African countries for creating obstacles. He also stated that if the United States and Great Britain stopped meddling, the warring Sudanese would work out their differences on their own. Bashir gave no hint that he recognized his government's Islamic policies as an obstacle to peace. Known for his personal piety, he emphasized, furthermore, that whatever the complaints of his foes at home or abroad, Sudan would persevere in fulfilling its Islamic objectives.

"We're now in the process of writing a constitution for the country," Bashir said, "based on the bedrock principles of Islam. The fundamental characteristics are already beginning to show up in our constitutional decrees, and they will be completed into a political system that will be ratified by an elected body.

"Not all groups agree on how we are interpreting the sharia, but we believe there is wide latitude. We have chosen a moderate way, like the Koran itself, and so the sharia in Sudan will be moderate. The dispute over what it requires lies not in the area of private but of public affairs. Unfortunately, there is no model in history for Islamic government. Fourteen centuries have gone by since the prophet, and everyone now has his own image of an Islamic state. Some countries confuse traditions -- like the suppression of women -- with religion, but tradition is not Islam. We don't claim that we will implement Islam perfectly, but we're serious about rising to the challenge."


Hassan al-Turabi is a man of winning ways. Slim and small, he has handsome, dark features and delicate hands, which move gracefully when he speaks. His voice is soft, and he smiles easily. His presentation, though self-assured, is not pompous. Students of Turabi say that for foreign audiences he changes his tone, if not his arguments. Sudanese joke that there is a Turabi for domestic consumption and a "Turabi export." But the ideas he articulates are often daring and occasionally deep. If his statements are sometimes shocking in relation to known reality, it is surely by design. Turabi has the verbal skills of a snake-oil salesman. In his presence, it is hard not to find him likable.

"What would an Islamic government mean?" Turabi asks. "The model is very clear; the scope of government is limited. Law is not the only agency of social control. Moral norms, individual conscience, all these are very important, and they are autonomous. Intellectual attitudes toward Islam are not going to be regulated or codified at all. The presumption is that people are free. The religious freedom not just of non-Muslims, but even of Muslims who have different views, is going to be guaranteed. I personally have views that run against all the orthodox schools of law on the status of women, on the court testimony of non-Muslims, on the law of apostasy. Some people say that I have been influenced by the West and that I border on apostasy myself. But I don't accept the condemnation of Salman Rushdie. If a Muslim wakes up in the morning and says he doesn't believe any more, that's his business. There has never been any question of inhibiting people's freedom to express any understanding of Islam. The function of government is not total.

"Islamic government is not total because it is Islam that is a total way of life, and if you reduce it to government, then government would be omnipotent, and that is not Islamic. Government has no business interfering with one's worship, for example, or prayer or fasting; except, of course, someone's public challenge to fasting. We don't confuse what is moral with what is legal. The prophet himself used strong words against those who didn't come to the prayers but he did nothing about it. Things like dress, for example, there are moral injunctions of how women and men should dress, but that is not part of the law."

Though admitting that women had not yet achieved full parity, he insisted that in Sudan the principle of their equality was now a settled issue. Turabi also defended the principles that his government intends to use as the basis of a settlement with the non-Muslim south, particularly in the controversial area of criminal law. The government rejected a dual legal system, with different rules for Muslims and non-Muslims, he said, because it would require that the police, before bringing a charge, determine the religion of the accused. That, he said, would make a mockery of the law. Instead, it chose regionalization, waiving for the non-Muslim south not only laws against drinking alcohol but also the imposition of Islamic penalties, particularly maiming, for crimes. Under this system, he said, non-Muslims were guaranteed their rights, while Muslims were assured of the full practice of their religion.

When I pointed out to Turabi that the government's punitive practices hardly constituted minimalism, much less liberalism, and that Sudan's indifference to human rights has been widely publicized and condemned, he replied, with no sign of defensiveness, "In many respects, Sudan recognizes that it has not achieved the model it has set for itself. Sudan is going through a transition, and in times like these, of course, we haven't the capacity to observe normal procedures. How can you expect a complex country like ours, which is economically in very bad shape and politically in a state of civil war, to maintain a constitutional system without some limitations on liberty? We admit we've tipped too far toward government control; we need more freedom. But we haven't forgotten the model, and we are working actively to attain it.

"In other countries, nationalism might be the alternative to Islam. But the only nationalism that is available to us, if we want to assert indigenous values, originality, and independence of the West, is Islam. Islam is the only modernity. It is the only doctrine that can serve as the national doctrine of today."

Asked whether he thought the rest of the Islamic world would follow the lead set by Sudan, Turabi did not give the categorical response I expected. His tentativeness surprised me.

"I am quite sure," he said, "that every single Muslim country is now moving, slowly perhaps, swiftly perhaps, in that direction. But I don't believe in historical determinism, and this is not final history, because movements can be reversed. I know most of the Muslim countries. I know most of the Islamic movements. I've been every place and spoken to most government figures, as well as to many observers, not only Islamists but nationalists and leftists. It may be what I distill from all this wisdom is wishful thinking since, after all, I am committed to Islam. But I see the same process happening everywhere, and I believe that Islam will ultimately prevail. Still, I confess that I might be thinking wishfully."


Most Sudanese I met agree that both Bashir's and Turabi's talk is moderate, but few categorize the government's practices as moderate. They generally conceded that the brutality with which dissent was suppressed in the regime's first year or two had softened. Now political life, it was said, was no harsher in Sudan than in other Arab countries, and certainly far less brutal than in Iraq.

Yet I often heard Sudan compared to Iraq. Both states had ruling parties -- the religious NIF in Sudan, the secular Baath in Iraq -- that had shrewdly calculated how to attain total power, had pursued it ruthlessly, and now stop at nothing to retain it. Observers said that, well before the coup, the NIF infiltrated both the state bureaucracy and civil institutions, thereby painlessly capturing the society's administrative levers. After the coup, the NIF replaced thousands of key jobholders with its own supporters, assuring its supremacy in the judiciary, security services, armed forces, trade unions, professional societies, and education and communications systems. It extended its dominion over the economy by taking control of banks, foreign trade, and much of farm and industrial production. Moreover, it has penetrated the entire culture with a program of Islamic indoctrination.

Sudanese have not forgotten that the regime, mercilessly suppressing dissent, executed 28 army officers after a failed counter-coup in April 1990. It confiscated the property of the Sufi opposition, arrested the leaders of striking labor unions, and made pawns of the professional societies, including the Sudan Human Rights Organization. It put down protests at Khartoum University with armed riot police who shot and killed students. It also fired dozens of professors and instituted periodic police sweeps to arrest campus troublemakers.

Political science professor Adlan al-Hardallu called the university a bellwether of Sudanese politics. "Student elections are considered a major indicator of where the country is going," he said. "Since the mid-1970s, the student government has been under the control of the Muslim Brothers, but in the last few years students seem to be backing away from Islam. Part of the reason is the government's withdrawal of economic assistance; students are having a hard time staying in school. But there is also disillusion with Islamic rule, which is no better than the rule that it replaced.

"The new student opposition calls itself nonaligned, which means it is not Islamic but is not anything else either. It may even be a majority, but it is not yet a real alternative to Turabi's National Islamic Front. The generation seems to have lost faith, as its fathers did with communism and Nasserism, but parliamentary democracy and the old leaders have no attraction. The students talk of a new leadership, free of racism, tribalism, and sectarianism, but their ideas have not coalesced. These signs suggest that the NIF may be in trouble, but there is still no discernible alternative."

Among Turabi's most vocal critics is Sadiq al-Mahdi, who, as head of the Umma Party, which his grandfather founded during the fight for independence against Britain, is Sudan's second-most-influential political figure. Known to all Sudanese as Sadiq, he derives his influence from being the great-grandson of the Mahdi_the Sufi holy man Muhammad Ahmad al-Azhar, who liberated Sudan from Egyptian occupation. The Mahdi established a 13-year regime based on the sharia, which in practice was evangelical, puritanical, and autocratic. Sadiq, a self-proclaimed democrat who was twice prime minister, stands more for the family's political tradition, based on a liberal Sufism, than for the austere religious legacy that is also intrinsic to its history.

"The Mahdiyya [the Mahdi's regime] provided the missing link between Sufi Islam and the state," Sadiq said when I asked about the ongoing influence of his family on Sudan. "Sufism was for hundreds of years seen as `Islam minus the state.' The Mahdi restored the presence of the state to it, assuring to Islam a permanent place in the body politic of Sudan. The British, always fearful of reigniting the Mahdiyya, never tampered with Islam during the occupation, and, on independence, the mass political parties, except for the communists, were all Islamic. Once Islam was in, it never came out. It is impossible to imagine Sudanese politics today without the Islamic component."

Sadiq spoke sharply of the critics of the Mahdiyya within Turabi's camp. They are the heirs, he said, of those people who in the last century faulted the Mahdi for unifying the country by force. Now, he said, they claim to rule the country better than the Mahdi did. But times are different, he said. Today's government does not face the foreign threat that the Mahdiyya faced. "Brazen imperialism is no more," he said, "the so-called scramble for Africa is over," and the challenge is to finish uniting the Sudanese. Begun by the Mahdi, he said, the task of unification has been mishandled by the heavy-handed Turabi regime.

Sudanese say that Sadiq's problem as an officeholder was that he was too intellectual and too indecisive. He also suffered from limited political support, which he was unable to extend beyond the Sufi clans loyal to his family. Sadiq said his government sought to forge a modern state with the help of independent citizens' organizations. Though he recognized that Sudan's political parties were based on religious and tribal loyalties, he said he had done his best to give the Umma Party a national identity for the first time, just as Sudan itself was evolving from a tribal to a national identity. Turabi's NIF, by contrast, has not only been oppressive, he said, but in seeking to Islamize the society, it is as totalitarian as the Mahdiyya once was.

"I can't prophesy, but I'm confident that Sudan will get out of this," Sadiq said. "The opposition benefits from the government's unpopularity. Sudanese now recall my years in power with nostalgia, and I'm popular again, though I can't imagine that I'll want to return to politics. The problem is that Turabi's party has all of the institutions of the society in its hands, and the opposition is totally disorganized. The government promises free elections, but I doubt that it will have them. Free elections would change their nature. The only way it can survive is if the elections are cooked, which is what I suppose will happen. Without fraud and coercion, I think their game is up."

The government has spoken often of elections to legitimize its rule, and experimentation with the process has taken place in a few localities. But the NIF has never won more than 20 percent of the vote in past elections, and it is unlikely to do better today. Turabi, who was himself defeated when he stood for parliament in 1986, has by no means persuaded the Sudanese of the sincerity of his democratic commitment. Elections results are sure to be rigged, they say, because the NIF will never put its rule in jeopardy. Clearly, popular dissatisfaction with the Islamic state runs deep, but Turabi and his followers have entrenched themselves so skillfully -- far more than any previous regime -- that it may be impossible to get them out.

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  • 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.
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