After the Referendum:Sudan Negotiates National and Religious Identity in the North

South Sudan President Salva Kiir (left) and Sudan President Omar al-Bashir after the secession vote.

By Alex Thurston

The secession of South Sudan in July 2011 posed an existential question for (North) Sudan: what will be the political and cultural basis of the nation, which is in some ways a new country itself?

In December 2010, shortly before the referendum on Southern secession, President Omar al Bashir gave his answer:

“We’ll change the Constitution,” he said in a televised speech. “Shariah and Islam will be the main source for the Constitution, Islam the official religion and Arabic the official language.”

Bashir reiterated this promise in October, adding, “Ninety eight percent of the people are Muslims and the new constitution will reflect this.”

Bashir’s call for a consolidation of the state’s Arab-Islamic identity is calculated to appeal to the base of Islamists who brought him to power in 1989, many of whom continue to support the ruling National Congress Party (NCP). But it sits poorly with a number of groups in the new Sudan, including many Muslims. Efforts to use Islam as the basis of political power have a long history in Sudan, but past attempts to impose Bashir’s brand of political Islam have also hit major resistance. The many forces opposed to his regime have their own ideas about the country’s future.

A History of Political Islam in Sudan

In 1989, General Omar al Bashir overthrew Sudan’s civilian leaders. Political backing for the coup came from the National Islamic Front (NIF), an outgrowth of Sudan’s branch of the Muslim Brotherhood. The coup responded to the perceived failures of civilian leaders, who had suspended the country’s shari’a codes and had also, in the eyes of the coup makers, failed to deal effectively with rebels in the country’s largely non-Muslim South.  The NIF was also frustrated with the attitudes of other major Muslim politicians toward Islamization. Those politicians had been content with a slow process of increasing the role of Islamic values in state policymaking, and they had doubts as to whether Sudan was ready for the implementation of shari’a. The NIF, in contrast, wanted an “Islamic state,” one that would explicitly translate Islamic principles into policy, with shari’a as the centerpiece of law.

Following the coup, the NIF worked to more fully “Islamize” Sudan. For example, the regime’s “Civilization Project” policed women’s behavior and challenged local customs in places like Darfur. Islam, the new rulers felt, provided the political platform necessary for building a strong state, one capable of restoring political order and national security.

The problem of civil war and the debate over the place of Islam in government began even before Sudan’s independence from Britain in 1956. For most of the colonial period, the British administered the North and the South separately. The British regarded the two areas as fundamentally different: the North was part of the Muslim world, and as such its religious structures had to be treated delicately so as not to stir up Islamic revolutions. The British therefore limited missionary activities in the North, used Arabic as a language of education and administration, and ruled largely through local Muslim leaders. In the legal arena, the British made use of existing shari’a courts. The British saw the South, meanwhile, as closer culturally to East Africa, and felt that it should be protected from Northern Muslim influences – use of Arabic was discouraged, and Northern traders’ movements in the South were restricted. Some colonial administrators hoped that Christianity would spread in the South as a form of “balance” against the North. In the economically and politically isolated South, Christian missionaries shaped the education system and undertook much of the limited development that did occur. When strong nationalist mobilization began in the 1940s in Sudan, it was Northern Arab graduates of British institutions of higher education in Khartoum who led the movement. The North thus got a head start in the development of political parties and administrative structures.

After the British conjoined the South and the North under one administration in 1946, Northerners dominated the state bureaucracy. Arabic became Sudan’s official language, which effectively excluded those Southerners who had advanced educational credentials. The two main political parties drew support from the two largest Northern Muslim organizations, the Khatmiyyah Sufi brotherhood and the Mahdiyya, a successor organization to the Islamic state that existed in Sudan from 1885-1898. Many Southerners despised Northern dominance of the political system and believed that Southern underdevelopment (the South remains one of the poorest areas in the world to the present day) would not be addressed in good faith by Arab Northern Muslim rulers. The country’s first civil war began in 1955, and lasted until 1972.

In the North, politics between the 1950s and the 1980s had several recurring features: infighting and paralysis among civilian leaders, military coups, and periodic popular outcry against military rule (for example, mass demonstrations toppled the first military regime in 1964). Throughout this period, the rising Islamist movement insisted that Sudan’s political problems – including the civil war – required religious solutions, particularly the strict implementation of shari’a. Islamist organizations, in contrast to political parties based on Muslim sectarian identities, attracted students, laborers, and professionals. Some Islamist leaders were Western-educated elites: Hassan Turabi, the most famous Sudanese Islamist, holds an MA from the University of London (1957) and a PhD from the Sorbonne (1964).

Both Islamists and the sectarian parties envisioned a serious role for Islam in politics, but Turabi saw Islamists’ authority as coming not through inherited spiritual positions, but through a class of new Islamic leaders. These leaders, especially professionals like lawyers, doctors, and scientists, would use their knowledge in different fields to help revive and apply Islam in every area of modern life. Islamists, in contrast to the broad Islamic values espoused by the sectarian parties, were more eager to explicitly ground every policy decision, particularly in law, in terms of Islam. By the 1980s, Islamists were a formidable political force. They played a role in the government’s decision to introduce shari’a in 1983, took third place in the elections of 1986, and helped bring Bashir to power in 1989.

Yet Islamization brought neither unity nor peace to Sudan. A second civil war raged from 1983 until 2005, when the US-brokered Comprehensive Peace Agreement provided the legal framework for Sudan’s eventual split. Meanwhile, recurring conflicts in Darfur began in the 1980s, pitting Muslims against Muslims and challenging the Northern government’s rule over another sizeable territory. Opposition to Bashir’s rule continued from the sectarian Muslim parties, and splits occurred within the Islamist coalition itself – Turabi has been a bitter enemy of the president since they fell out in 1999. The Islamist regime faces enemies on multiple sides.

What Future for North Sudanese Politics?

Bashir, despite his many adversaries, is a political survivor. Yet his plans to further Islamize the North will face tough resistance from several corners, and Sudan’s interlocking crises will place severe strains on Khartoum’s limited resources.

Political borders of the new nations.

Resistance to further Islamization has, in a way, already begun along the new border between North and South Sudan. In states like Blue Nile and South Kordofan, which remained part of the North, thousands have taken up arms against the government in Khartoum. Fighting in the border areas stems partly from anger over government attempts to disarm residents who fought with the South during the civil war. The conflict also results from suspicions among the Nuba and other peoples that they will be politically marginalized in the new North. In gubernatorial elections in South Kordofan in May, the ruling party’s candidate defeated an opposition candidate whom the Nuba had expected to win. Many of the losers took the outcome as a symbol of the central government’s rigidity.

Resistance to Khartoum’s brand of Islamization will also come from Darfur, whose Muslim rebels feel politically excluded and persecuted by Khartoum. In Darfur, perceived racial differences between those who consider themselves Arabs and those who do not has meant that the central (Arab) government’s Islamization initiatives took on a sinister cast for non-Arab Darfuris. Rebellions in Darfur have complex causes, but one cause is certainly non-Arabs’ resistance to central government control, even if that control is portrayed as Islamization.

Violence in Darfur, after ticking upward last December, has reportedly fallen recently, but both the central government and the rebels are taking a hard line on the conflict. The regime recently passed death sentences on seven captured rebels over the protests of Darfuris, while rebels are seeking to form new alliances with the fighters in the southern border areas. In this climate of tension, rebels will likely see Khartoum’s push for Islamization not as a platform for pan-ethnic Muslim unity, but as yet another attempt at central government domination.

Closer to home for Bashir, the Arab uprisings have touched Khartoum; university students protested in January and February, and demonstrations have occurred intermittently this fall. Some Sudan analysts believe more protests may soon pose a real threat to the government. Most young activists want greater transparency and democracy, not stronger shari’a.

Multiparty politics may also threaten Islamization initiatives. While the major northern opposition parties will have some representation in a new “national unity” government, Turabi will remain in the opposition. At the same time, a branch of the South’s ruling party, the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM), is still found in the North, where it is known as SPLM-N. The SPLM-N was banned in the wake of the border conflicts, but its call for a politically, ethnically, and religiously plural North Sudan continues to resonate in some quarters, and the SPLM-N’s dream of uniting the “peripheral” regions of North Sudan (the border areas, Darfur, and regions in the east) against Khartoum has not been forgotten. Islamization from above will not silence this multitude of critics. Indeed, it may exacerbate the two armed rebellions Khartoum faces.

Khartoum may also find its hands too full to devote much energy to Islamization. In addition to the country’s political and security crises, the Northern economy is suffering due to loss of revenues from the oil-rich South. Inflation hovers around 20%. Economic grievances fuel political anger against the central government: high food prices have already caused demonstrations. The economic remedies Khartoum is pursuing – an austerity budget, an increase in exports, and greater reliance on Chinese aid, among other measures – will consume much of the government’s time. Finally, Khartoum still nurses hopes, however faint, of one day securing removal from Washington’s State Sponsors of Terrorism list. This desire did not stop Khartoum from cracking down in Blue Nile and South Kordofan this summer, but it could lead the government to moderate the drive for Islamization.

On the regional and international stage, moreover, Bashir’s circle of friends may be shrinking. Bashir remains under indictment by the International Criminal Court (ICC) for charges of crimes against humanity in Darfur. A recent ruling by a Kenyan judge that Kenyan officials should arrest Bashir if he enters the country has sparked a major diplomatic row, and may foreshadow future limitations on Bashir’s travel. The new country to Sudan’s south is also a potentially bitter foe; the two nations remain economically interdependent, but months of frustration in final status negotiations keep memories alive of their decades of tension and conflict. A war between North and South Sudan does not seem likely in the near future, but neither does complete peace.

That Bashir has invoked the rhetoric of Islamization at this delicate moment in Sudanese politics is not surprising. But Sudan’s contested past and present, in addition to its current problems, suggest that policies of deeper Islamization will face a number of obstacles and opponents. Calls for stronger shari’a may stir the emotions of Bashir’s Islamist base, but if Bashir does not deliver solutions to the problems of rebellion, recession, and resentment, Sudan’s identity crisis will only become more acute.

Alex Thurston is a Ph.D. candidate in Religious Studies at Northwestern University. For 2011-2012, he is conducting dissertation fieldwork in Northern Nigeria. He blogs at

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