In a year of bad news, an important positive development in East Africa risks being overlooked. Sudan, once one of the world’s worst violators of religious freedom, is struggling toward a freer society following an extraordinary and unforeseen 2019 revolution that deposed the country’s Islamist autocrat, Omar al-Bashir. The transitional government now guiding the country is unwinding the worst elements of Bashir’s regime, and though the progress is fragile and reversible, it still gives reason to cheer.
From the moment of independence in 1956, Sudan was a country of entrenched religious oppression so severe that it fueled multiple conflicts. The first civil war erupted in the mid-1950s when the Anyanya Movement rebelled against Khartoum’s increasing oppression that included trying to force Islam upon the Christian and animist south. After a short, uneasy peace, a second civil war began in 1983 after President Jafaar Nimeiri decided to reimpose Shariah law on the entire country. The new criminal code included barbarities such as hand-choppings, flogging women for selling beer, and executions on the slightest pretext.
A 2005 peace agreement ended the second civil war and led to what is now the country of South Sudan achieving independence, but the crushing of religious freedom inside Sudan never stopped. A coup in 1989 had elevated the dictator Omar al-Bashir, who for years allied with the National Islamic Front, an Islamist political party led by a notorious fundamentalist, Hassan al-Turabi. Bashir allowed Osama bin Laden to shelter in Sudan, where al-Qaeda planned the 1998 US embassy bombings in Tanzania and Kenya that killed more than two hundred people, including a dozen Americans. Sudan became a hub for the propagation of fundamentalist Islam throughout Africa during Bashir’s rule, and the authorities razed churches and banned the building of new ones.
Sudan experienced periodic protests throughout its history, but those that began in 2018 over the country’s economic woes evolved into an unprecedented mass movement. It created such pressure that the security services, fearing their many prerogatives were endangered, removed Bashir in a coup in April 2019. A transitional government split between civilians and members of the security services formed and currently runs the country.
The government’s action on religious freedom since then is one clue to the sincerity of its reforms. Even before its eventual success, the protest movement made overtures to Christians and acknowledged their sufferings. The 2019 interim constitution conspicuously lacks any mention of Islam as a source of legislation, unlike other Sudanese constitutions. Earlier this year, parliament decriminalized apostasy—the charge on which a Christian woman, Meriam Ibrahim, was in 2014 sentenced to death, though her conviction was overturned after an international outcry—public floggings, and the consumption of alcohol by non-Muslims. Khartoum also normalized relations with Israel that, though it required a hefty American aid package, would have been unthinkable a few short years ago.
As heartening as all this is, the dysfunction inherited by the transitional government threatens the progress. The civilian and military factions sharing the transitional government are locked in a rivalry that could derail the entire experiment. Sudan is in an economic crisis, and some of the country’s armed rebel groups remain unplacated. A burgeoning civil war in neighboring Ethiopia could be a significant, long-term pressure. Sudan’s Islamists want their country back and still threaten and attack Christians. The US Committee on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) praises Sudan’s reforms, but has enough remaining concerns to recommend that the country be listed on the State Department’s “Special Watch List.” There is a silver lining even here, however, as it is the first time since USCIRF’s inaugural recommendations in 2000 that it has called for Sudan to be cataloged as anything other than the worst-of-the-worst “country of particular concern.”
The US has wisely thrown its support behind the transition, and recently delivered a much-needed boost to the government when it lifted Sudan from the State Sponsor of Terror List. Helping Sudan is a rare bipartisan issue in Washington, and a Biden administration is, happily, likely to continue American backing for Khartoum. That support should include trying to buttress the civilian faction of the government against the security services faction, supporting mediation efforts between the government and the remaining dissatisfied armed groups, and establishing relations with non-Islamist members of the security services who are also untainted by corruption and human rights violations.
Sudan’s history is a vivid reminder that religious freedom is a bellwether of the general state of a country’s stability and freedom. If a regime is willing to so intrude upon a person’s humanity by restricting his ability to obey his conscience, no violation is beyond the pale for that government. Scholarship, and the tragic experience of countries like Sudan, demonstrates as well that trampling religious freedom correlates with higher levels of violence. Despite the many challenges Sudan faces, its government’s defense of religious freedom gives reason for optimism that it is on the path to a more prosperous and more peaceful future. That is some desperately needed good news.