The controversial, divisive issue of the relationship between state and religion is back to the fore. And this time to be placed in the center of the country’s drive to repair its foreign relations, particularly those with the United States.
John Sullivan, the Deputy US Secretary of State, was not only the highest American official to visit Khartoum in years, but also is the only one who spent considerable time in the capital instead of the typical practice of his predecessors who make rounds of few hours before leaving the country.
He made a good use of his stay in Khartoum including visiting the Holy Quran University, meeting with leading religious figures and more important delivering a clear message of what Washington expects from Khartoum in the religious arena in particular.
High on his list is religious freedom and the need to amend the famous apostasy article, which has been incorporated in the country’s penal code though it has been around for more than 50 years, but with the intensification of the political divide in the country, apostasy ruling that has been viewed mainly as a mere abstract issue, took a dramatic turn when former President Ja’afar Nimeiry brought it back to life and use it to execute late politician-thinker Mahmoud Mohamed Taha in 1985.
Despite the collapse of Nimeiry’s regime months later, its replacement with the third parliamentary one, then later the CPA that was supposed to pave the way for a more democratic transformation, but all attempts to scrap that article failed.
Reactions to Sullivan’s call varied, though the government is yet to spell its position. The head of the Muslim Scholars Prof. Mohamed Osman Salih came out publicly denouncing Sullivan’s request adding that Islamic sharia is a red line, which raises the critical question who decides what sharia is and what is not.
It is very easy to cite quotations from Quran favoring religious freedom as well. For instance verses (256) of Surat Al-Bagara (the Cow) said, “There shall be no compulsion in [acceptance of] the religion. The right course has become clear from the wrong. So whoever disbelieves in Taghut and believes in Allah has grasped the most trustworthy handhold with no break in it. And Allah is Hearing and Knowing”; and verse (99) of Surat Younis, “And if your Lord had willed, all those who are in the earth would have believed together. Will you, then force people until they become Muslims?” or verse (29) of Surat Al-Kahf (Cave), “And say, "The truth is from your Lord, so whoever wills - let him believe; and whoever wills - let him disbelieve."
However, the head of Ansar group Abdel Mahmoud Abo, was all welcoming to Sullivan remarks. After summarizing them, he pointed out that these points fall well in line with his group’s approach to dealing with the others and their call to respect human dignity and promote peaceful coexistence between religions.
And that shows clearly the issue is not an intellectual debate on whether to apply punishment on apostasy or not, but in effect a political struggle. Ironically enough the 2005 constitution contains many clauses that have a good margin of various forms of freedom, it is the failure to amend the penal code that reflects the constitution, which in itself is a reflection of the political inflight that used religion as a pretext.
In the closing days of the CPA senior figures within the National Congress Party and in attempt to lure the SPLM to support the call for the unity of the country offered to look positively into any changes short of scrapping the Islamic Sharia all together. Clearly then as now there is a room to maneuver to achieve political gains. And that is where the focus should be.
The current political set up represented by the government is the product of the long National Dialogue, where the issue of religious freedom among other issues was discussed, but nothing concrete came out of it, despite the push by even some Islamists like the Popular Congress Party to the contrary.
Now with these issues becoming part of the agenda for the country’s drive to re-engage with the world political and economic set-up, the burden falls on the domestic forces, including some segments even within the government to play a more active role.
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