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Sudan’s struggling government offers to go ‘100 percent Islamic’

The government faces new pressures from the loss of territory and oil revenue to South Sudan, but the push for an Islamic constitution has much older roots.

After 23 years at the helm in SudanPresident Omar Hassan al-Bashir is sending up a new rallying cry for a “100 percent Islamic” constitution to shift public attention away from Sudan’s crippling problems.

“We want to present a constitution that serves as a template to those around us,” Mr. Bashir told religious leaders in early July. “And our template is clear, a 100 percent Islamic constitution, without communism or secularism or Western [influences].”

Even by Sudan’s standard of chronic crises, Bashir’s rule is facing problems that individually could have buried a less resilient regime.

The secession of South Sudan a year ago deprived Sudan of vast swaths of territory and wealth, and 75 percent of its income. Strict austerity measures announced in June by the president — who is charged with genocide by theInternational Criminal Court (ICC) – have sparked modest Arab Spring-style antiregime street protests. Inflation has hit an annual rate of 37 percent, the value of the currency has fallen, and wars and tension continue on multiple fronts to the south and west.

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For many, the “new” push for an Islamic constitution is not new at all, only an opportunistic retrenchment of the Islamic militarism that first brought Bashir to power in a coup in 1989, with roots in Sudan that date from the late 1960s.

The interim constitution agreed to in 2005 to end the north-south civil war was an inclusive reflection of Sudan’s religious and ethnic diversity. But the breaking off of South Sudan, the economic crisis, and conflicts opened the way for a return of Islamic rhetoric.

“So Omar al-Bashir looked to his left, and to his right, and saw he had no way to bring people around to him except with Islam,” says Adil Abdelghani, a legal expert in Khartoum, the capital. “[Bashir] forgot that all these years he called on people to die in the south for an Islamic state, a jihad,” Mr. Abdelghani says. “Unfortunately, he started with Islam 23 years ago. And [for] all these years he says, ‘We apply Islam; we are Islamic.’ So what Islam does he mean now?”

A Quran and an AK

For years in the 1990s, the government’s war against the Christian and animist southern rebels was portrayed in Khartoum as a religious jihad, a holy war for God against infidels, with its martyrs venerated.

Soon after taking power, Bashir held a rally in Khartoum, where he held aloft a Quran and an AK-47 assault rifle – the proverbial “book and the sword” that has so defined his decades of rule.

“I vow here before you to purge from our ranks the renegades, the hirelings, enemies of the people and enemies of the armed forces,” Bashir declared. “Anyone who betrays this nation does not deserve the honor of living….”

Soon after, a religious fatwa declared a jihad against southern Sudan. The war had been incited by “Zionists, crusaders, and arrogant persons,” the fatwa read. It concluded that “those Muslims who deal with dissidents and rebels and raise doubts about the legality of jihad are hypocrites and dissenters and apostates for the Islamic religion.”

Sharia (Islamic) laws were also made more sweeping, with maximum sentences including “death and crucifixion,” the punishment for armed robbery, and execution by stoning for adultery — a sentence handed down twice in the last two months, though not likely to be carried out. Flogging is a more typical sentence these days.

“It is about politics, about trading in people’s emotions and beliefs, and using them as an instrument of politics, so Islam is a commodity in the political market,” lawyer Abdelghani says.

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There is another motive behind the Islamic push, he adds. “When things deteriorate, we will have a constitution shaped by the president’s view, but not by what Islam is,” Abdelghani adds. “When he feels he needs a tool to suppress his opponents, or sees a use for religion, then he will [use] it.”

Reassurances to minorities

When Bashir spoke earlier this month, he sought to reassure the public and said the new Islamic constitution would protect the rights of all and be formed with wide input.

“And we tell non-Muslims, nothing will preserve your rights except for Islamic sharia because it is just,” the Sudanese president said. A drafting committee would include “all parties, religious sects, and Sufis.”

Despite those words, Sudanese politicians know the way the political wind is blowing. The head of parliament’s legislation, justice, and human rights committee, Al-Fadil Haj Suleiman, was quoted in the local media saying that “any constitution outside of values and religious conventions will be met with fierce resistance from the society.”

He added that an Islamic constitution “may not apply Islamic laws,” but was taken to task by the editor of the Sudan Vision newspaper who noted wryly in print that Sudanese citizens already had “experience in the past Islamic laws and how they were implemented.”

Among the most aware of the progress — and drawbacks — of Sudan’s perpetual Islamist project is Hassan al-Turabi, the erudite Islamist leader who is widely seen as the man who engineered Bashir’s rise to power but has since fallen out and spent years in prison as a staunch opponent of the regime.

“This is just another slogan … all dictators have slogans to dupe the common, innocent people,” says Mr. Turabi about the push for an Islamic constitution. “If [Bashir] really now returns to Islam, [if] he is a reborn Muslim, then (a) he should go to the [ICC] immediately, because he killed not one person but thousands, and raped thousands; (b) he should immediately drop out because we don’t have dictators at all,” he says during an interview at his Khartoum home, which is closely monitored by security forces.

As attorney general in 1983, Turabi, a Sorbonne- and Oxford-educated lawyer, was the architect of President Jaafar Nimeiri’s embrace of Islamic law in the 1980s.

Turabi was the éminence grise of Sudan’s Islamic transformation starting in 1989 with Bashir, and told this reporter 20 years ago how happy he was because his “work of all these years is finally coming true.”

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“Yes, we’re fighting a jihad, and we’ve always been fighting a jihad in the Sudan,” Turabi said at the time. He cited the French Revolution to justify bloodshed and asked if the West had developed democracy “without violence.” Religion, he conceded to this reporter at another meeting in 1998, was also useful “just to sell your cause.”

That was also the conclusion of the family of Al-Fateh Omar Hussein, who was determined to die a martyr in 1993. His family was proud, they told this reporter that year in Khartoum, that God had chosen him. “[God] selects who He wants near Him,” said Mr. Hussein’s mother, Zeinab.

“The aim is not to bring Islam to the people of the south, but to use religion [to fight] the war,” acknowledged Hussein’s sister, Amel. Before the Islamic regime had reenergized the war, generals ordered to the south would take off their epaulets and refuse to go.

But in the first years of the Bashir regime, officials volunteered to take part themselves, to boost their careers with a stint in the militia at the front. Bashir’s brother, a medical doctor, was seen in action on state television. Turabi’s youngest brother — a recent college graduate — was killed in the war.

“Religion in this war is not the core subject,” said Amel Hussein in 1993. “But when they say it is a jihad to defend your family, your government, and your people, fighters will be motivated by the religious reward.”

‘A bad dictatorship’

Thus the regime is trying to reinvigorate such sentiment today with talk of an Islamic constitution, Turabi says. But it will be harder this time. “[Bashir] set a very bad example. Islam has produced a most corrupt government,” he says. “It’s a bad dictatorship, most cruel, no freedom of the press [or] of political parties; no equality for women or non-Muslims, [which] breaks up the country and disunites people.”

Sudan’s “Islamic” transformation was the first of its kind, meant to be a model in the Sunni Arab word, discounting the 1979 Islamic revolution in Shiite Iran, Turabi says. Yet it has failed, he says — and no amount of repackaging can change that.

Turabi’s current opposition has failed to persuade many of Sudan’s antiregime activists that he is really with them. They blame him for using Islam to justify violence in the first years of Bashir’s reign, including torture.

Turabi knows it.

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“When you walk on a path that has never been walked before,” he says, “you come to problems that nobody knows, that nobody told you, ‘Watch out!’ “