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Review Essays of Academic, Professional & Technical Books in the Humanities & Sciences



Sudan, Rwanda


The Second Message of Islam by Mahmud Muhammad Taha (Contemporary Issues in the Middle East : Syracuse University Press) A small but influential religious party in the early 1980s was the Republican Brothers. A Sufi shaykh, Mahmud Muhammad Taha, founded the Republican Brothers in the 1950s as an Islamic reform movement stressing the qualities of tolerance, justice, and mercy. Taha came to prominence in 1983 when he opposed Nimeiri's implementation of the sharia as being contrary to the essence of Islam. He was arrested and subsequently executed for heresy in January 1985. The execution of such a widely revered religious figure--Taha was seventy-six--aroused considerable revulsion in Sudan and was one of the factors that helped precipitate the coup against Nimeiri. Although the Republican Brothers survived the loss of its leader and participated in the political process during the parliamentary period, it has not been politically active since 1989.

However, here too we have a shining example of "the noblest jíhád" striking out against tyranny, regardless of the risk. Ustadh Mahmud Muhammad Taha was not only a saint, he also was the most outstanding Islamic theologian of this century. At the age of 77 he sacrificed himself while opposing this lack of humanity in Sudan , this distortion of Islam. For demanding an immediate end to the war and a peaceful solution to the conflict he was tried for sedition. A day later the accusation was changed: instead of sedition he was accused of heresy, then of apostasy - and publicly hanged on January 18, 1985 , the Black Friday of Islam, in Khartoum ’s Kobar Jail.

            Ustádh Mahmúd was given the chance to "recant," and thus he could still be alive. Like his wife and daughters he could be in the United States . His supreme sacrifice brought about the fall of a tyrannical government. A few years later this was followed by an even more tyrannical government and the war got worse.

            Nonetheless, the example of the "African Gandhi," as Ustádh Mahmúd was often called, remains a source of inspiration for tens of thousands of Sudanese, both Muslims and Christians. For Muslims he provides an identification, like the ulamá of sixteenth century Morocco . It is this kind of jihád that helps overcome ethnic conflict. It is a jihád akin in spirit to the emancipation struggle of American leaders such as Martin Luther King and Malcolm X.

The odd sectarian enterprise of Mahmud Muhammad Taha (d. 1985) of Sudan, which aimed at discarding the Medinan chapters and creating a Meccan reading of the Koran, is not likely ever to be more than a minor heresy in Islam. It is in any case perfectly possible to construct a moderate Islamic modernism that eschews aggression on the basis of the entire Koran, and this has been done over and over again in the modern Middle East by scholars from Muhammad Abduh (d. 1905) to Abdul Karim Soroush and Muhammad Sa`id `Ashmawi in the present. Indeed, violent radical Muslims can only make their case by neglecting to quote key Koranic verses (Bin Laden typically quotes only half a verse, completely skewing its meaning). Juan Cole


Moreover, Rahman rejected the notion that, “any significant interpretation of the Qur’an can be absolutely monolithic... the Prophet’s companions themselves sometimes understood certain Qur’anic verses differently, and this was within his knowledge.” Further, “It is obviously not necessary that a certain interpretation once accepted must continue to be accepted; there is always both room and necessity for new interpretation, for this is, in truth, an ongoing process.”


It is precisely this last point that was raised to the level of a critical hermeneutical methodological principle in dealing with the Qur’an by Ustaz Mahmud Muhammad Taha -from the Sudan . Taha was an engineer and a sufi mystic who worked tirelessly for the reform of Islam both inwardly and outwardly. He was tragically executed at age 75 in January of 1985 in a final outburst of violence by General Nimieri before his overthrow a number of weeks later. However, Taha’s thought continues in his followers, such as the jurist Abdullahi Ahmed An Na’im.


Taha argued that the shift from the earlier revelation of principles in Mecca to the later one in Medina is essentially reversible. The Mecca principles are fundamentally open, liberal, liberating principles, whereas the Medina principles are specific and restrictive. The shift was made because in the concrete circumstances-both the external ones and the then internal capabilities of the Muslims-the Mecca principles could not yet be implemented in all their openness. They were the ideal, on the way to which Medina was but a way station; it is now time for the Muslims to leave the Medina way station and move forward toward fulfilling the liberating Mecca ideal. This in brief is the heart of the teaching of Taha, filled out with Qur’anic citations and argumentation of course.


Mohammed Talbi of the University of Tunisia at Tunis has for years been active both nationally and internationally in dialogue with Christians, receiving the Lukas Prize for his contributions to interreligious dialogue from the Protestant Theological Faculty of the University of Tübingen in May, 1985 (the funding for the Lukas Prize comes from the son of Rabbi Lukas, who had been a student at Tübingen). Representative of Talbi’s self-critical, yet Islamically-committed, thought are his reflections on “Religious Liberty: A Muslim Perspective”:

In short, from the Muslim perspective that is mine, our duty is simply to bear witness in the most courteous way that is most respectful of the inner liberty of our neighbors and their sacredness. We must also be ready at the same time to listen to them in truthfulness. We have to remember, as Muslims, that a hadith of our Prophet states: “The believer is unceasingly in search of wisdom; wherever he finds it he grasps it.” Another saying adds: “Look for knowledge everywhere, even as far as in China .” And finally, it is up to God to judge, for we, as limited human beings, know only in part. Let me quote: “To each among you We prescribed a Law and an Open Way . And if God had enforced His Will, He would have made of you all one people. But His plan is to test you in what He hath given you. So strive as in a race in all virtues. The goal of you all is to God. Then will He inform you of that wherein you differed” (Qur’an, V, 51)....  

At the heart of this problem we meet the ticklish subject of apostasy ... the Qur’an argues, warns and advises, but never resorts to the argument of the sword. That is because that argument is meaningless in the matter of faith. In our pluralistic world our modern theologians must take that into account.

We can never stress too much that religious liberty is not an act of charity or a tolerant concession towards misled persons. It is a fundamental right of everyone. To claim it for myself implies ipso facto that I am disposed to claim it for my neighbor too.
Mahmud Muhammad Taha, a Sudanese theologian, attempted to reform the Islamic laws of his country. Religious authorities prosecuted Taha, finding him guilty of apostasy - punishable by death. Taha temporarily escaped that death sentence long enough to see his works destroyed the state. In 1985 his sentence was finally carried out when he was publicly hanged in Khartoum . Taha was seventy-six.

Historically, the Sudanese Islamist movement started as an integral part of the ideological space created by the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood. The Sudanese movement did not produce its own thinkers and formulations and relied entirely on the Egyptian movement. It was Hasan al-Turabi who, almost single-handedly, changed the movement's nature and course of action. On the eve of Ja'far Nimeiri's coup d'état of May 1969, the movement was on the brink of a major split between a faction that wanted to stress its religious and educational nature and another faction, led by Turabi, that wished to lay more emphasis on its political and activist nature. Official Islamist renderings of the history of this period overstress the victimization of their movement at the hands of the Nimeiri regime, but it is important to bear in mind the overall complex context within which the Islamist movement played a significant indirect role in generating the chain reaction leading to the 1969 coup. The Islamists' aggressive drive leading to the dissolution of the Sudanese Communist Party in 1965 and the expulsion of its representatives from the constituent assembly and their relentless pressure on the traditional parties to adopt an "Islamic constitution" helped create the ferment that led to Nimeiri's coup. Neither the Left nor the Islamists were committed to democracy and pluralism but the new and alarming development in the period 1964-1969 was that the commitment of traditional parties to democracy was breaking down under the pressure of the exclusivist vision and program of the Islamists; they allowed themselves to be pulled into the welter of Islamism and Islamization.

Because of the essentially anti-democratic nature of the Islamist movement it did not have the slightest scruples about making its peace with the Nimeiri regime and aligning itself with its institutions and policies in the late 1970s. By this time, the struggle for the soul of the Islamist movement was resolved in favor of Turabi's line - indeed, the entire movement came to be molded in his image assuming a pragmatic, calculating, and ruthless character. However, it is important to bear in mind that the reconciliation the movement forged with Nimeiri's regime did not mean that it renounced its independent Islamist agenda. The calculation was simple: to infiltrate the regime's institutions and to push it more and more toward Islamization. Another crucial aspect of this invasive and gradualist strategy was the development of a formidable economic foundation based on the Islamist formula of Islamic banking and investment. Thus, the movement was gradually laying the foundations of breaking through the boundaries of its hitherto elitist position. The goal toward which it worked was to acquire a broader social base. The most conspicuous symbols of Islamism during the late 1970s of Nimeiri's regime were the ever-increasing branches of the Feisal Islamic Bank and the growing numbers of young women donning the hijab or the Islamist dress code.

Finally, the Islamists' gradualist strategy of infiltration paid off. The culmination came in September 1983 when Nimeiri's regime adopted the most salient feature of the Islamist program, i.e. the promulgation and immediate implementation of the sharia. Public and private spaces were declared to be under Divine jurisdiction and the nation was whipped into a frenzied state of sharia hysteria. The only thing is that the whipping was not metaphorical in this case but agonizingly corpo-real. Scores of citizens, mostly from the underclasses and the marginalized groups who lived in an abject state of urban destitution, lost their limbs and were reduced to lifelong disability and stigmatization. Hundreds were subjected to the cruel humiliation of public flogging. And one citizen, Ustadh Mahmud Muhammad Taha, was publicly executed, convicted of apostasy. His disciples were to be subjected, under threat of death, to a most humiliating ritual of public recanting. This sharia frenzy reached its crescendo with the imposition of emergency in 1984 and the execution of Ustadh Mahmud Muhammad Taha symbolized the drive's ultimate bankruptcy. The memories of Sudanese citizens of this period are extremely traumatic and bleak. Since then, the word sharia no longer conjures up emotive Islamist images of a political community living in the bosom of Divine order and favor but rather generates images of extreme brutality and humiliation. When Nimeiri realized that the implementation of the sharia could not provide his regime with a new lease of life and that, on the contrary, it led to adverse unpopularity at home and abroad, he decisively embarked on his first move of distancing himself from the sharia, paving the way toward its abolition: he accused the Islamists of conspiring to topple his regime and locked them up before his fateful trip to Washington in March 1985.

The period from 1985 to 1989 was dominated by the escalation of the civil war and the debate on the sharia. The sharia in its hudud or penal expression became the most divisive issue. The Islamists, in their new NIF incarnation, staked their political fortunes on the defense of the sharia as an irreversible gain. This was a time when Sadiq al-Mahdi's mandate provided him with a golden opportunity to repeal the sharia but he opted not to do so. This is commonly attributed to what has been perceived as al-Mahdi's typical indecisiveness but I do not think this applies in this particular case. Al-Mahdi was and still is committed to an Islamist program, Islamization, and the implementation of the sharia in its penal and other expressions. What al-Mahdi promised his electorate were what he described as "alternative laws". These "alternative laws" were eventually drafted by Turabi, a joint venture between the Umma Party and the NIF, offering a version that was embedded in a more traditional and conservative interpretation of the sharia.

It is important to note that the two major gains of the Islamist movement, namely the creation of an economic base and the imposition of the sharia were realized under an undemocratic regime. The subsequent democratic context of 1985-1989 posed a potentially serious threat to both gains. The coup d'état of June 1989 was the NIF's response to the challenge of democracy. According to the regime's official position their seizure of power marks the end of democracy in Sudan and may surely be read as the end of history in Sudan and the rest of the world as far as the Islamist vision is concerned.

For Islamism possesses its own version of the end of history. Islamism sees history in terms of salvation, as an opposition between the sacred and the anti-sacred, as a ceaseless battle between God and Satan. This imagery has to be taken extremely seriously for it is at the ideological root of very serious acts such as the genocidal war waged by Sudan's Islamists, the hideous crimes perpetrated by Algeria's Islamists, or the banishing of women from public space decreed by Afghanistan's Islamists.

The June 1989 coup was a turning point for the Islamists. When they took power by force, the Islamists did not just institute a regime lacking in legitimacy, but also committed themselves to a continued use of force that kept on intensifying and expanding. This led to a radical change in the nature of the movement from a civilian one to a militarized one. When Turabi says that the NIF has been dissolved after the coup, he is on one level accurate for the NIF has vanished as a civilian, political party to be re-constituted as the Popular Defense Forces, the regime's parallel army and trusted power base. But it would of course be naive to accept Turabi's implicit claim - that the Islamists are not there at the heart of the current regime determining its orientation and shaping its policies.

As there are diverse aspects of Islamization under the current regime I would like to focus on two key issues: the war in the South and the sharia. In justifying its existence and trying to invest itself with legitimacy , the regime made the conflict in the South its rallying cry. The conflict was immediately "Islamized" and thrust upon the Northern public imagination as a "jihad". Among Islamist images, this is the one that has to be taken most seriously for it can lead to devastating results. In the case of post-1989 Sudan , this image has actually led to the most tragic cycle of suffering and misery. Jihad, whether in its classical or modern form is not only a war of self-defense but can also be an aggression against others for the cause of expanding the realm of Islam. In its aggressive form, Jihad is a negation of the "other", a negation that can ultimately lead to annihilation, at best subjugation.

A corollary image the regime constructed was that of the "shahid" (martyr). Those who died in the South on the regime's side attained instant martyrdom. The regime went on and produced its own brand of eschatology - these martyrs go straight to paradise and their weddings to waiting houris or paradise women (seventy women to each martyr) are formally announced and celebrated by jubilant Islamists who descend on the martyr's family and overwhelm them with the ecstatic news. But eschatology aside, let me concentrate on the more immediate and pressing issue of prisoners of war in a jihad war. According to the classical formulations of the sharia and to Islamic practice, prisoners of war were either released unconditionally, ransomed, enslaved, or killed. The particular course of action to be taken is entirely left to the discretion of those in charge. Islamic sources tell us that within the same batch of prisoners of war different measures could be applied. As we know, the war in the South has on the whole been a war without prisoners as far as successive governments were concerned. The army has systematically committed gross human rights violations against civilians and prisoners of war. The legal implications of proclaiming this war as jihad are very serious indeed, for the government can enslave its prisoners of war or kill them as sharia-sanctioned options. These aspects of the sharia run counter to international human rights norms and no government should be allowed to revive them. It is true that the current regime has not gone on record as condoning these aspects of sharia but it is equally true that it has not dissociated itself from them. It is in the light of jihad and its legal implications that one has to take the reports about the revival of slavery practices very seriously.

When we turn to the sharia we note that the current March 1991 Penal Code is based on a former code drafted by Turabi in 1988 in his capacity as Attorney General. The main features of the 1991 penal code are: (1) placing limitations on the status of women who are treated as legal minors such as in the case of giving evidence in court, (2) placing limitations on the status of non-Muslims who are reduced to second class citizens, (3) the implementation of hudud penalties, such as stoning for adultery, amputation or cross-amputation for certain types of theft, and flogging for a wide variety of offenses, (4) the institution of apostasy as a capital offense, and (5) the institution of the principle of retaliation, "an eye for an eye."

Islamists have defended the implementation of the sharia as a matter of religious or cultural self-determination. Two points may be raised in connection with this. The first is that religious or cultural self-determination should not violate the self-determination of others such as women or non-Muslims. The second point is that the sharia as a penal code has been imposed in 1983 and re-imposed in 1991 by unrepresentative military regimes and there is no evidence that the vast majority of Muslims in the North are attached to its stipulations more than the secular code that had prevailed before. It is important to note in this connection that that part of the sharia which had been in place before the Penal Code, namely the Personal Status Law, was increasingly coming under pressure to be reformed in a manner that was less discriminatory against women. What should further be underlined is that the story of the sharia since September 1983 has not been one of success. Social ills have not disappeared because the sharia is in place and the utopian Islamist conviction that the introduction of the sharia would shower the Sudanese with Divine favor and turn the country into a model paradise has not been borne out. The failure of the sharia is part of a broader failure, namely the failure of the Islamist model of an Islamic revival. Whether in power or not, Islamism is going through an extremely acute crisis. When Islamists are in power the crisis is more evident, but unfortunately the costs their nations have to pay are horrendous.

The end of the current regime would most likely be followed by the separation of the South. If that event takes place it would be the most saddening and tormenting symbol of the failure of the Sudanese to live up to the challenge of their nationhood. Whether Sudan remains a united country or divides, or even fragments, it would be unrealistic to assume that the end of the current regime would automatically mean the end of Islamism as a political or social force in Northern Sudan . Islamism is likely to be around for some time and Sudanese democracy has to find peaceful ways of negotiating its presence. The most potent forces within Northern Sudan which can effectively counter Islamism and liberate ordinary Muslims from its exclusivist discourse are the vibrancy of pluralism and the inherent tolerance of Sudanese Islam. Social changes within Sudan , the spread of education, and the impact of the pervasive forces of secularization and globalization are among the most powerful dynamics that are likely to shrink Islamist space.

Some Islamists who were realistic enough to realize that the days of this regime are numbered have suggested an Islamist alternative whereby the sharia is recognized as a matter of national consensus and all political forces operate within an Islamic framework. However, this model has not worked in Iran and it is unlikely to work in Sudan . The sharia cannot be at the heart of national consensus because of the discriminatory measures it establishes and because it is subject to conflicting interpretations by citizens who claim to be equally committed to Islam. The only conceivable point of national consensus is democracy. Democracy can provide the framework within which Sudanese citizens, irrespective of their religions, gender, or social or regional background, can engage in peaceful and meaningful negotiation. Islamists have always insisted that "Islam is the solution" ("al-Islam huwa 'l-hall") . This has not worked and the Islamist adventure has led the country into its most frightful disasters since Independence . I believe that for the vast majority of citizens in the North and the South the solution lies in the direction of democracy.  


Origins of Rwandan Genocide by Josias Semujanga (Humanity Books) By some estimates more than a million and a half people were killed in Rwanda during just two weeks in April 1994. In this penetrating analysis, Canadian scholar Josias Semujanga, a Rwandan by birth, examines the social mechanisms, the historical factors, and the "discourse of hate" that culminated in this mind-boggling act of genocide.

Semujanga focuses on the ideology of Hutu power that motivated a powerful circle around President Juvenal Habyarimana to develop and then execute a well-planned conspiracy to exterminate the Tutsi. After independence, the bitter memories of colonialism resulted in the stereotyping of Tutsis as "nostalgic for power," and suspicions about "the enemy in our midst" lingered for decades.

As Semujanga shows, by the early 1990s this culture of hatred was being well cultivated by a radio-television network and a newspaper in the national language, which made it clear to the Hutu population that "the enemy within" must be gotten rid of. At the same time, the headquarters of the Rwandan Armed Forces supplied the local administrations with lists of enemies and appointed persons to be in charge of implementing the extermination plan. All of this was carefully drawn up two years before the genocide took place.

Semujanga questions whether such elaborate preparations could have remained unknown to the international community, yet he notes the many factors that complicated the situation: the presence of UN forces in Kigali , the naive assumption that these troops could protect the people, and the belief that President Habyarimana would never commit political suicide by unleashing a killing spree. No one had foreseen his airplane "accident," which then precipitated the massacres.

Semujanga's brilliant analysis offers many insights into both the Rwandan tragedy and the mechanisms of ideology, language, and political system that can contribute to genocide anywhere.



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