The Region: A 'civil war' born of Islamism

When thinking of the Middle East, Sudan may not immediately come to mind.

barry rubin 88 (photo credit: )
barry rubin 88
(photo credit: )
Quick! Name all the Islamist regimes in the Middle East. Most likely you said Iran and the Palestinian Authority. But there's a third country that should also be on this list: Sudan. Sudan has been in the news lately due to the massacres carried out by government-backed militias in the Darfur region, followed by an internationally encouraged cease-fire between the regime and the main opposition group. For many years in the past, fighting also raged between the central government and rebels in the southern part of the country. Due to the remoteness of these areas and the lack of wider political interests, such issues have never received much attention. A key factor here has been that these conflicts were, in effect, imperialist campaigns that did not fit too neatly into the Arab nationalist or Islamist perspectives, as well as being outside the ideology of their Western sympathizers. The wars were launched by the central government to repress black Africans - in Darfur's case, non-Arab Muslims; in the south, non-Arab Christians or followers of traditional religions. Arab nationalism and Islamism have been used by various Sudanese regimes as tools to promote the centralization of a country whose diversity made it hard to cohere. Arabs form about 40 percent of the population while Muslims total roughly 60 percent. The rest are a variety of tribal groups with about 15 percent of the total being Christian. This is in a country which is the size of Western Europe - Darfur alone is as big as France - with little transport or other modern infrastructure. THE ALLIANCES and antagonisms which have grown up in Sudan are nothing short of bewildering. But Harvey Glickman, an expert on the country who is a political science professor at Haverford College, concludes: "The Islamist nationalism advocated by Sudan's rulers has long been at the heart of the ongoing civil war. For the black peasants and herders in the south, the state's campaign to establish an explicitly Islamic Sudanese identity bears the earmarks of a religious crusade." In 1989, General Omar Bashir staged a coup and has remained in power ever since. While officers in many Arab countries took over in partnership with Arab nationalist parties, in Sudan the army did so through an alliance with Islamists, namely the National Islamic Front of Hassan Turabi, a group in the multinational Muslim Brotherhood network. Islamic law was made the basis of the country's governance, with only a few exceptions made for non-Muslims, and a jihad was declared against the south. Between 1996 and 2004, Turabi was the speaker of parliament. More recently, he had a falling out with the government and spent a year during 2004-2005 in prison. Foreign Christians were expelled and domestic Christian groups harassed and closed down. Even Islamic-oriented independent groups were made illegal and their leaders went into exile. No wonder this government was the willing host of Osama bin Laden, during the 1990-1996 period when he was Turabi's personal guest, until international pressure finally forced him out. The US claims Sudan also worked with Iraq, helping it in its efforts to develop weapons of mass destruction during those same years. After Lebanon ceased to be healthy for terrorists in the early 1980s and until the time the Taliban of Afghanistan took up that role in the late 1990s, Sudan filled the gap as the world's number-one safe haven for terrorists. According to the US government's September 11 commission, for example, "In late 1991 or 1992, discussions in Sudan between al-Qaida and Iranian operatives led to an informal agreement to cooperate in providing support - even if only training - for actions carried out primarily against Israel and the United States." Despite having some oil, Sudan has long been a deeply-indebted financial mess. Even the pretense of development is beyond its capabilities. While the country is fully accepted as an Arab state by its counterparts, neither Islamic nor Arab solidarity has brought it any significant aid. And, of course, the violations of human rights or the mass murders of minority groups have inspired no protests from Arab or Islamic quarters, even when the victims, as happened recently in Darfur, were themselves Muslims. THE PROBLEM is that the groups in Darfur took up arms because, they claimed, the government discriminated against non-Arabs. The recent Arab summit held in Khartoum merely endorsed the Sudanese government's stance and the estimated two million refugees are supported, if they get any aid at all, by Western governments. Even UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, a man not given to overstatement, called the human rights situation "appalling" and the Darfur situation an "inexcusable tragedy." On May 4, a peace agreement was signed by the Sudanese Liberation Army, the main rebel force in Darfur, and the government to end three years of fighting. Two other factions refused to sign. A peacekeeping force from the African Union, which formally sponsored the talks, will try to stop violence in the region, though its likely success cannot optimistically be predicted. A similar agreement in April 2004 did not last. According to the UN, more than 180,000 people, almost all of them civilians, have died in Darfur during the last three years; a number that dwarfs by far other more publicized conflicts in the Middle East. There are several lessons in Sudan worth noting. First, it shows how far an Islamist government will go in repressing others - more moderate Muslims as well as non-Muslims. It shows the hypocrisy of claims that Arab or Muslim solidarity are the doctrines that motivate regimes in this part of the world. And it illustrates how doctrines of Islamism and Arab nationalism are the true imperialists. Naturally, these inconvenient points ensure that few in the region pay attention to the situation there. The writer is director of the Global Research in International Affairs Center and editor of Middle East Review of International Affairs.