Religion Feeds Sudan's Fire
Published: August 22, 2004
FURBURANGA, Sudan - In the war-torn Darfur region of Sudan, the killers pray toward Mecca. The million displaced people do as well. Marauding men on horseback, the women raped by them, the rebels who incited the fighting and the politicians, soldiers and police officers who have failed to control it, nearly all are Muslim.
There was the man from one of Darfur's African tribes who walked into an empty field near the refugee camp he now calls home and prayed - for life to return to normal, for his family's suffering to end, for his fear to dissipate. He stood, then knelt, then touched his forehead to a small mat, and the despair around him faded, he said, if only for a moment.
But at some of the burned-out villages that now scar Darfur's landscape there are signs of disregard for religion - charred pages from Korans scattered in the rubble, makeshift mosques leveled.
Sudan has a history of Christian-Muslim frictions and war. A rebel movement in the south, dominated by Christians, has fought the Islamic government in Khartoum for decades, largely over religious freedom.
That conflict now appears to be petering out, partly because of involvement of the United States. But instead of peace, Sudan is now mired in a grievous conflict in Darfur. Political rivalries, ethnic strife and poverty have fueled the clashes - but that has not stopped combatants from invoking religion and challenging the devotion of their rivals. In the long history of the Muslims, "it is not uncommon for people to question each other's version of Islam," said Arif Shaikh, a representative of Islamic Relief U.S.A. who visited Darfur in April. "But this is really a political, not a religious, dispute. So much animosity has built up, and that's why it's gotten to this level."
While the Muslims fight, many Sudanese revert to their historic grudges, directed against Christians, the United States and foreigners in general. Inside the mosques of Khartoum, which follow the Sunni branch of Islam, there has been plenty of discussion about Darfur but little success at finding a way to end the bloodshed. No religious leader has yet publicly chastised the combatants, either Arab or African. But America-bashing, long a theme at Friday Prayer, is as fierce as ever.
"We caution our people in Sudan and our people in western Sudan against trusting the U.S.A., that it wants to help them," an imam, Abd-al-Jalil al-Nathir al-Karuri, said in a sermon broadcast on television in early August.
"What is being done now is for the interests of one country - Israel."
Another imam, Isam Ahmad al-Bashir, in a sermon translated from Arabic by the BBC, urged his followers at another Friday Prayer service to resist foreign intervention. "We must all say, irrespective of our different affiliations and leanings, races and groups, a resounding 'no' to foreign intervention, which is lying in wait for our people," he said.
"This is an issue that requires no bargaining. Divinity, morality and humanity is required in denouncing all forms of foreign intervention or we will be committing treason against God, religion and country."
The continuing conflict with the Christians began in 1983 after the president at the time, Gaafar al-Nimeiry, began a campaign to make the country adhere more closely to Islamic law; his effort included amputations as punishments for theft and public lashings for alcohol consumption. He replaced non-Muslim judges in the south with Muslims and applied Shariah penalties to many non-Muslims in Khartoum and parts of the north.