Peace in Sudan – will a fourth way emerge?

Peace in Sudan – will a fourth way emerge?

A recent forum was held on October 14 2010, and hosted by the Council on Foreign Relations. It was titled The Prospect for Peace in Sudan: A View from Religious Leaders on the Ground. Senior Sudanese Christian leaders discussed prospects for peace in Sudan.  The Moderator was Linda E. Watt, Chief Operating Officer of the Episcopal Church. The delegation of leaders included Anglican Archbishop Daniel Deng Bul Yak, who made important comments in response to a question about how Americans should understand the role of Islam in the Sudanese conflict.  The question was put by the Revd Mark Edington, an Episcopalian minister from the Kennedy School at Harvard:


I’m curious to hear this group of religious leaders look at THIS country. Since the summer, here in this city and across this country, we’ve been having a debate, sometimes a bitter debate, about the role of Islam in our religiously pluralistic society. As I listen to the conversation we’ve had this morning, it’s really difficult for me to imagine how I would take it home to my parish community and not sound as though what I was saying was we have to adopt what is essentially an anti-Islamic stance.

How would you explain to a community in this country how to understand this? Because it’s going back to the reasons why this has been a 50-year-long struggle. The dimension of religion is a very important one. And it’s difficult to see how this does not come off being a struggle AGAINST Islam.

To which Archbishop Deng responded:

Thank you. First of all, I will start [by noting that]… I wrote a letter recently when somebody … in America wanted to burn the Quran. I think I was the only primate in the Anglican world who wrote against it. I hope you got that letter.

That is an indication that we have no problem with Islam as Islam, as a religion. We know [Islam] as a religion — we [have] live[d] with them for a 1,000 years. But we have to make [a distinction] when religion becomes a politic[al system].


In our case, religion has been used – the Shari’a law has been used – as a [political] system. I have been made a second-class citizen: which you don’t have in this country. You have put everybody the same. What will be your reaction if you are in my position?

So when we are saying “Islam,” we have been what they call al-dhimma. We are there to be protected by Islam. That is a [political] system. So when you are talking [about] a system mixed up with a religion, then this is where there is a problem.

So for me, I am very clear: We have no problem with the religion. But when you make Islam [into] a system of ruling, denying me, making me not to be a guide, not to be a headmaster of a school, not to be a president of a country: What [would] your people say here?

So these are the kind of things you need to [keep] separate when we are talking of Islam [as] a politic[al system], as [distinct] from Islam as a religion. So these are the two things. Don’t put them together.

We are not against the Islam as Islam. So when we are [saying] “We don’t want to be made second-class citizen[s],” we are not saying “We don’t want Islam.” We are saying: “Let us be equal.” If we [were made] equal in our country, southerners from Sudan [would] not be thinking of separation of the country.

If your country [could] have an influence in Khartoum to take away Shari’a law, we [would] accept the unity of Sudan: so that tomorrow I [could] become a president of Sudan; so that I become a judge in the country, in Sudan. Why should I not be given those rights?

So when you talk to your people, [tell them] these are our rights. And our rights are not the rights you have given to your people here.  Muslims [and] Christians are [equal] here, but we are not [equal] in our country. That is the reason.

So we need you people in America to understand you are dealing with a sophisticated people. And they use Islam as a way of suppressing your thinking. [So do not] think: “Oh, don’t touch Islam.”  No, let us respect Islam as a religion. But anybody using Islam as a tool of suppressing others, that’s what we are [talking about].

[This transcript has been cleaned up to make the English clearer.  Note that the transcript provided by the Council for Foreign Affairs is inaccurate at several points – I have retranscribed all the passages quoted here.]

Archbishop Deng is explaining that under sharia law – applied as a political system – non-Muslims do not have equal rights.  They are an inferior ‘protected’ people.  The foundation of this is found in the dhimma pact of surrender, which Sharia law understands non-Muslims to be subject to in an Islamic state.  The dhimma system requires that non-Muslims be kept in an inferior position.  They cannot, for example, occupy positions of authority in public life.  That is what Archbishop Deng refers to when he says he could not be a judge or a president in Sudan, or even a principal of a school.  Such positions of authority are reserved for Muslims, because the dhimma system demands, as part of sharia law, that non-Muslims must not have authority over Muslims.

So, Deng states that he has no objection to Islam as a faith, but he objects to be compelled to live as a second class citizen in his own country.  To the question of what an American pastor should tell his flock, Deng replies that Americans need to grasp that Islam, implemented as a political system, does not treat people equally. It treats Christians as inferiors. It treats Archbishop Deng himself as an inferior.  He says that if Americans could make Khartoum get rid of Sharia law – and by this he means those aspects of Sharia law that make non-Muslims inferior – there would be no support for dividing the country in two.  People want to divide the country in order to protect the rights of non-Muslims not to have to live as inferiors in their own country.

So Deng is saying that American Christian leaders should teach their people about political Islam, not in order to see Muslims as the enemy, but so they can make a distinction between the faith and the politics.  Please, he says, help us to oppose the discriminatory political system, without disrespecting the religion.  The problem, he is saying, is that by not making the distinction, and insisting on respecting the faith, Americans are at risk of overlooking the politics. In this Americans are, he says, being misled by sophisticated people, who say “Don’t touch Islam”, i.e. they would forbid criticism of Islam in any of its forms. So he is saying – “No – by all means respect the faith, but oppose people who use political Islam as a means of oppressing others.”

It is a remarkable thing that over two million people have lost their lives in Sudan in the name of the struggle not to live under Sharia law.  Archbishop Deng is saying that if Islam was practiced in Sudan only as a religion, and not as a political system, there would be no talk of separating the country, and by implication, no 50-year long struggle for independence.

Islamic jurists have taught since Muhammad’s time, and by his authority, of the requirement to offer non-Muslims three options:  conversion to Islam, the sword, or surrender.  The latter – which I have called ‘The Third Choice‘ – means living under Islamic rule in accordance with a dhimma pact of surrender.  For decades now the southern Sudanese have been refusing this third choice of the dhimma, because it denies their fundamental human rights.  As a result they have been subjected to the sword, and millions have paid for freedom with their blood.

With a vote for independence now looming in January 2011, there is emerging a fourth option for the south, a secular state in which people of all faiths will be equal.  For non-Muslims remaining in the Islamic north this could mean that the inferiority of the dhimma will continue, but in the south, for Muslims and non-Muslims alike it could mean equality and freedom.

If this fourth way is not forthcoming, then the three choices will remain, and as long as the southerners continue to refuse the third choice of surrender to sharia, then the sword could continue to oppress them, in accordance with the requirements of the Sharia as a military system.

One can only hope that not only the pastors, but also the people of America will heed Archbishop Deng’s call, which is backed by the witness of the millions of Sudanese who have given their lives as the price for freedom. His call is also, as the Archbishop explained, confirmed in Sudan by a thousand years of experience.

May the people of America educate themselves about political Islam and gain the confidence to reject its dominating claims. May they have the wisdom to give the Sudanese non-Muslims the support they need to claim the right to live as equals, and not in inferiority, in their own native lands.


Mark Durie is the founding director of the Institute for Spiritual Awareness, a Fellow at the Middle East Forum, and a Senior Research Fellow of the Arthur Jeffery Centre for the Study of Islam at the Melbourne School of Theology.

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