Before there was Sudan, in the region south of Egypt, there was Kush, a legitimate geo-political force in the last millennium before the birth of Christ. Around 715 B.C., the kingdom conquered Egypt and began its regional dominance of lands stretching from the Mediterranean Sea to the southern Nile River for around 90 years. Two decades before Christ’s birth, Kush battled Rome for several years and forced the superpower into a ceasefire. Pyramids and other architectural wonders remind the world of its once influence and prestige. Its successor state, however, possesses neither.
Even so, this little-noticed country did something in 2020 that no other country has done since, at least, the end of World War I: Sudan repealed its law prohibiting apostasy. The repeal was championed as a decisive victory for its religious minorities by religious freedom advocates worldwide. But it was only heralded in the press for a New York minute. A careful look at this religio-civil transformation reveals the impact of three distinct groups who worked both independently and collectively for the law’s repeal: Muslims, women, and Christians.
A pivotal change in the country’s leadership preceded and enabled the repeal. In late 2018, displeasure with President Omar al-Bashir was at an apex after his nearly 30 years of brutal governance. There had been attempts by the Sudanese people to force change. Protests occurred in 2009, 2012, 2013, and 2015, but proved futile. His tyrannical rule, however, began to unravel in 2018. 20 years of U.S. sanctions had debilitated Sudan’s economy and Mr. Bashir’s failure to root out Islamists caused Saudi Arabia and the UAE to turn off the financial aid spigot. Fuel, food, and hard currency became scarce. The Sudanese people had had enough and returned to the streets with more vigor and more voices.
The protests were comprised mainly of women of all ages. From remote villages to the front steps of Sudan’s military headquarters, estimates indicate 70% of all protestors were female and many were younger. According to Rabah Alsadig, a Sudanese human rights activist, this younger generation was motivated due to the “continuous sacrifices and sufferings” of their parents.
Female power and influence are deeply etched into Sudan’s annals. Multiple women led Kush for almost 600 years beginning in the latter period of the Iron Age (c. 1200 BC-100 AD), including Queen Amanirenas who led the aforementioned successful defense of her people against Rome. Another case in point is a 19th-century poet who rode onto the battlefield and rallied her reticent king and his soldiers to fight on.
The Sudanese women of today possess the same spirit of resolve that resided in their ancestral sisters. Despite many having suffered sexual abuse, harassment, and marginalization in Sudanese society, their determination and courage have not been quenched or even diminished. During the protests leading up to Mr. Bashir’s ouster, they “were visible leaders on the frontlines of the protest … They provided food, shelter, and necessary resources for other protesters. They were also victims of physical brutality, tear gas, and death,” the United Nations reported. Their importance is summed up perfectly in a mural of a Sudanese woman encircled with the statement, “A woman’s place is in the resistance.”
On April 5, 2019, an estimated 800,000 people congregated on the doorstep of the Headquarters of the Armed Forces in Khartoum. Unlike past instances, security forces allowed them to remain and the protest grew over the next six days to almost two million people, per the BBC. On April 11th, the military arrested Mr. Bashir and his rule ended. Over the next five months, protests continued and more blood was shed before the Transitional Military Council acquiesced to an interim government comprised of both military and civilian officials.
One of the key appointments in the new government was its justice minister, Nasredeen Abdulbari. Prior to the ouster of Mr. Bashir, he and other Islamic leaders and thinkers had been discussing the importance of religious freedom, specifically removing Article 126 from the penal code which prohibits Muslims from apostatizing. He understands Islam to be an advocate for religious freedom in light of the Quranic verse, “Let there be no compulsion in religion” (Al-Baqarah v. 256). In addition, a number of Muslim families, whose loved ones had converted to another religion, were desirous they be protected and supported a repeal of the apostasy law, according to multiple sources.
Apostasy is typically defined as leaving one’s religion (Islam in this instance), but, in Sudan, apostasy is also characterized as any “objection to any of the [Islamic] laws,” according to Kamal Fahmi, a Sudanese-born religious freedom advocate. It is a deft method to ensure a country’s leadership is not confronted with religious objections to its laws and policies. Mahmoud Mohamed Taha, an Islamic leader and thinker, was one who did challenge the prevailing interpretation of Islam in Sudan. He paid for it with his life. He was executed in 1985 for apostasy because he taught true Islam afforded people of all faiths equality.
This belief in religious freedom was included in the country’s new constitution. Consequentially, Article 126 was a glaring violation that had to be amended. The barbarism of the law was exemplified in 2014 when a pregnant woman was charged, convicted, and sentenced to death for committing apostasy. Imprisoned and in shackles, awaiting her execution date, Meriam Yahia Ibrahim Ishag delivered her daughter in horrific conditions. Public outcry from the international community was great and the diplomacy of the U.S. and Italian governments eventually secured her release.
Mrs. Ibrahim’s case spurred more women and men to demonstrate for freedom of religion. Specifically, a large advocacy campaign on her behalf was organized by women. It also motivated Sudan’s small Christian population who had been calling for Article 126’s repeal since 1983.
Raafat Samir, chairman of the Sudan Evangelical Community Council, said Christians fought the law earnestly and partnered with Muslims, underground atheists, international organizations, and with embassies for the law’s repeal. But Mr. Samir stressed it was not done for the sake of just Christians. “We did it as a type of belief for everyone,” he said.
Ms. Alsadig, a Muslim, also believes anyone should have the option to change his or her religion if the person so chooses. “Article 126 is the outcome of a reactionary interpretation of Islam and the situation of executing Meriam [Ibrahim] or anyone else just because she [or] he changed her religion is absurd,” she said. Numerous Sudanese with Muslim backgrounds believe the same as many were already attending Christian churches before the repeal. That number has only increased since the repeal, Mr. Samir said.
Ms. Alsadig and fellow activists were determined to push for its repeal even before Mr. Bashir was toppled. “In February 2018, the Democracy First organization initiated the formation of an advisory council for the initiative to combat violent extremism. The issue of apostasy punishment was one of its high concerns. … Hadia Hassaballa and I [were two] of its founders along with some other women,” she said.
In the eyes of Muslim extremists, Sudan being transformed into a country with guaranteed human rights is not welcome. “Sharia, sharia or we die … this is Khartoum not New York,” protestors chanted [shortly after the repeal was announced]. “No to secularism,” they continued. Other extremists are forthright about their displeasure and state they do not want Muslims leaving Islam for Christianity.
Presently, the Sudanese people’s “noble goal of a peaceful, free, and democratic state” is stalled due to two military factions battling to remain relevant and dominant in the post-Bashir era. As a result, the civilian population is suffering significantly. According to the United Nations, over 675 people are dead and over 5,500 have been injured as the two sides strive to maintain their previous roles of power and influence. Hence, it is uncertain whether Sudan will be able to get back on track and become a functioning democracy or if it will slide back into its totalitarian past. What is certain is Muslims, women, and Christians have exemplified the beauty of democracy. They have demonstrated to their fellow countrymen and the world great difference in belief or position in life is no obstacle to protecting and empowering the religiously marginalized.