As America recently celebrated her independence of nearly 250 years, today on July 9, 2011, exactly thirteen years ago, South Sudan finally broke away after decades of civil war. The history of the conflict had religion and politics at its core: a series of authoritarian governments, all trying to force the idea of Islamic Sharia law on the people. It was an idea antithetical to the spirit of democracy. You might well add that it ran against the injunctions of the Quran. Flying in the face of our own conception of separation of church and state, it proved to be catastrophic. Eventually, Sudan came to her senses and abolished her apostasy laws, but this came only after decades of trying to make an inherently bad idea work.

Colonel Jaafar Nimeiry came to power in the Sudanese coup of 1969, thinking that it might be possible to rule Sudan according to sharia law. Any criticism or deviance from the spirit of Islam was to carry a severe penalty, including death. Nimeiry was toppled from power in 1985, and between 1986 to 1989 Sadiq Al-Mahdi attempted to lead a coalition government, including the National Islamic Front of Hassan al-Turabi. At that time the rebel Anyanya movement, which would later morph into the Sudanese People’s Liberation Army or SPLA, dissented from his theocratic political program. It would be led by military leader John Garang, who received a Ph.D. from University of Iowa in Agricultural Science. While leading the opposition to the Islamist theocracy, Garang was tragically killed in a helicopter crash in 2005.

Sadiq al-Mahdi was soon ousted by Omar al-Bashir in the coup of 1989, but Bashir was still intent on imposing their Islamic theocracy on a country that did not want it, especially in the Christian South. Bashir had the dubious honor of giving sanctuary to the infamous Osama bin Laden, from 1991 to 1996, when Bin Laden was persona-non-grata with the Saudi government. But then, politics makes interesting bedfellows. Bashir’s sheltering of Bin Laden is a testimony to his own very regressive views on Islam. It was remarkable that none of these men had apparently absorbed Quran’s most succinct verse “There shall be no compulsion in religion” (Surah 2:256). Had they read their Quran a little more diligently, and exercised political imagination a bit more vigilantly, Sudan might have remained one country and avoided tremendous bloodshed. Perhaps they might also have taken a page from Benazir Bhutto, the Pakistani PPP leader who dared to write that Islam and democracy were compatible. Bhutto was assassinated in 2007 for her endeavors, while in Sudan matters went from awful to worse.

Jok Madut Jok’s book Sudan: Race Religion, and Violence gives a personal example of the horrible toll this conflict took. Before South Sudan became independent, he cited one man who declared before the South’s independence:

If you really want to bring peace and you have the support of people from other countries in this mission, my suggestion to you is that you treat this country like a piece of cloth, have John Garang grab one end of it, and Omar al-Bashir the other, and you take a knife and cut it in the middle. I assure you; the Arabs are not people we want to share anything with, and history speaks for us. We have never been one, we will never be one … They have done terrible things to us. We are not one race.

Divisions of race and religion were rife in Sudan, such that the nation really lacked a common political identity and was invariably doomed. These are the consequences of trying to impose theocracy on an unwilling people. Before he died in 2005, Garang aptly characterized the division himself. In the U.S. diplomat Donald Petterson’s book Inside Sudan, he quotes Garang:

The Central Problems in the Sudanese war are the dominance of One Nationality; the Sectarian and Religious Bigotry that dominated the Sudanese political scene since Independence; and the unequal development in the country … unless the Nationality Question is solved correctly, the Religious bigotry is destroyed and a balanced development for all the regions of the Sudan is struck, war is the only invited option in the Sudan.

Many Americans may be unfamiliar with the Sudanese conflict and its aftermath, but they serve as a reminder of the need to cherish freedom and respect the autonomy of religious identity. Actor Gerard Butler played the character of Sam Childers in the film Machine Gun Preacher, a screen adaptation of Childers’ book Another Man’s War. In the film, even John Garang makes a cameo appearance in conversation with Childers about the merits of peace talks. The main villain in Machine Gun Preacher was the infamous Joseph Kony, leader of the LRA or “Lord’s Resistance Army,” who believes murder, torture, rapine, and dismemberment are reconciliable with Christian scripture. This, of course, is further evidence that a grotesquely misunderstood religion, whether it is on the part of Kony, Bashir, or bin Laden, is one of the greatest cancers in politics, no less evil than the attempt to stifle or impose a religious view itself.

If only the radical Islamists had absorbed the Quranic injunction against compelled religion and if only Kony had the commonsense idea that killing and torture are not consonant with the spirit of love advocated by Christ, then all this adversity would have been avoided. Yet, for fully five decades or more, this conflict has been protracted by bad views of religion and politics. Bashir too was ousted from power in 2019, but rival military factions of Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, and rival RSF leader Mohamad Hamdan Dagalo (aka Hemedti) have again threatened the peace. Evidently, the violence of Darfur and the strife of religion and politics has still not taught a lesson, and the zealous thirst for Sudan’s resources only exacerbated the conflict. When the variable spirit of human justice stands against the relative constant of greed and power, sadly it is the latter that often wins.

Once I had a Sudanese student who was a refugee from this war-torn country. As a Muslim, he had a sublimely simple and benevolent view of Islam as a religion of peace and love. Tragically, as a victim of the politics of Sudan, such benign views are often cast aside in a thirst for power and a false sense of self-righteousness. Instead of a genuine heart-felt Islam, we had a false aberration imposed on Sudan. It is sincerely hoped, as both America and South Sudan embark on another year of independence, that these lessons are not lost in the rump remainder of the northern Sudanese government, nor indeed, that we become anesthetized to them here. There is hope from this lesson of history, that we take our religions and our freedoms seriously, but much of this depends upon our own policies and vigilance.