When Sudan’s Vice-President Hassabo Abdul Rahman declared on 22nd March 2015 the “non-existence of any signs of extremism or [related] terrorism” in his country, the irony could not have been greater. Just a day earlier a group of nine Sudanese university students, four women and five men, had traveled in secret to Turkey and then into ISIS-controlled territory in Syria.
Most of the students, who are all in their early twenties, were born and raised in the UK and returned to Sudan to attend university. They all studied at, or recently graduated from, the University of Medical Studies and Technology (UMST) in the capital Khartoum.
UMST is the country’s top private university for rich kids. Political activities there are strictly prohibited. However, Ahmad Babikir, the dean of student affairs at UMST, acknowledged that some radical Sheikhs were allowed to give speeches and lectures at the university under the auspices of the Islamic Civilization Association (ICA), an extracurricular student body.
Regardless of whether these students went to Syria to fight with ISIS or not, the fact that UMST, which is owned by a member of the ruling party, Mamoun Hummidah, who is also the Khartoum State Minister of Health, allowed only an Islamist group to operate in the campus with little oversight while banning all other political groups, is a microcosm of a wider problem underlying the rise of radical Islam in Sudan. This problem is the internal contradiction of the country’s Islamist government which, on the one hand plays a role in the spreading of this ideology, while on the other tries to contain it.
To understand these contradictions and their effects, a little contextual background is required. Sudan, being a peripheral political entity in its relations to the Islamic World, has traditionally been a haven for religious ideologies with a tolerant version of Sufism being the dominant form. Religious ideologies ranging from the revolutionary style of Al-Mahhdiya to the reform-minded ideology of Mahmoud Mohammed Taha, functioned as a vehicle of attachment to the outside world and as a basis for political action.
In recent decades Sudan has witnessed the rise of fundamentalist and radical versions of political Islam. This was influenced by the mass migration of Sudanese to Gulf Countries, especially Saudi Arabia, which promotes a literalist interpretation of Islam known as “˜Salafism’.
Another factor in this change was the rise to power in 1989 of the current Islamist government which, in its early years, introduced its ambitious “˜civilizational project’ – a social re-engineering program aimed at transforming Sudanese society to bring it into line with their puritanical Islamist vision. A distinction should, however, be made between the Islamist government and Salafist and other fundamentalist groups in terms of organizational style. While the traditional Muslim Brotherhood of Sudan has historically been top-down in structure, Salafist groups preach a grassroots, bottom-up approach.
This bottom-up method to Islamisizing society lends itself to a variety of different positions and standpoints. Most Salafist groups in Sudan do not condone violence, claiming to focus exclusively on theology while preaching obedience to the government. At the same time, some radical offshoots have been responsible for the bulk of Islamist-related violence in the country.
The advent of violence committed by radical Islamists in Sudan can be traced back to the early 1990s, in the first decade of the current government. At that time, Sudan was effectively a pariah state that harbored exiled Islamists and jihadists, including Usama Bin Laden. Following a divisive internal split in the ruling party in 1999, the government sought to break its isolation by repairing its foreign relations.
In 1993 a group of ultra-extremists led by a Yemeni man named Abdullah al-Khulaifi stormed a mosque in Omdurman and opened fire on worshippers, killing twenty five. Seven years later, in 2000, a similar incident occurred when an Islamist extremist attacked a mosque in northern Omdurman killing 27 and injuring 10 others. Both incidents were labeled as acts of Takfiris (radical Salafist groups who brand other Muslims as infidels).
In 2007, the authorities discovered that an Islamist cell was planning to launch attacks on Westerners in Sudan when a bomb they were constructing exploded by mistake at their house in Al-Salama neighborhood in southern Khartoum. On the eve of 2008, a group of extremists assassinated John Granville, a US citizen and employee of USAID, and his driver Abdul Rahman Abbas in the heart of Khartoum.
Following a firefight, in November 2012, security authorities arrested thirty members of a radical Islamist cell which had set up a camp in the Al-Dinder forest in the central state of Sennar in order to train Jihadists and send them to join the war against French forces in Mali. Twenty three of them were released in June 2014 after they “renounced” their views.
The truth is that radical Islam in Sudan has been on the rise, and there’s a link between this phenomenon and the internal contradictions of a regime struggling to preserve its Islamism-based legitimacy in the face of the widespread domestic perception of its corruption.
The prevailing complaints about government corruption have allowed radical and Salafist groups to campaign successfully using the argument that the problem is not in Islam itself but in the government’s imperfect implementation of it. In recent years, these groups managed to attract an increasingly significant following in universities. One reason for this is the fact that the government has drastically eroded political life in universities, in particular by cracking down on the activities of the secular opposition.
When it comes to dealing with radical Islam, the government has found itself in a bind. Due to its Islamist nature, the government cannot afford to be seen cracking down on the groups that represent the extreme interpretations of the same ideology it adheres to for fear of being further viewed as compromising on the principles of political Islam.
But at the same time, the government cannot risk giving radical Islamists too much space, and so it seeks to contain them. Radical actions by islamists in Sudan would negatively affect the moderate image that the regime has been trying to project to the outside world and could even allow violent splinter groups to carry out further attacks inside the country.
The government may sometimes detain a radical Sheikh or two, for example if they were to go public about their support for ISIS or are seen to be encouraging violence. However, the relationship between the government and radical Islamist groups is also symbiotic – both sides being useful to each other’s agendas.
For the government, radical Islamist groups serve as a scaremongering tool to prevent the West from contemplating regime change in Sudan, for fear that it might produce a more Islamist replacement.
For radical and fundamentalist Islamist groups, the government’s Islamist nature allows them to advance their own agendas by exploiting its weakness such as corruption and the public discontent with worsening economic conditions. One example of this is how Islamist groups and individuals lobbied inside the parliament in 2009 to have an article banning female genital cutting dropped from the draft Child Protection Act.
More recently, Islamist groups and political parties forged a coalition called the Islamic Constitution Front with the single goal of making the government adopt an “˜Islamic’ Constitution to replace the current interim one which was adopted in 2005.
The ruling party may have concluded its farcical elections in April with the expected outcome of President Bashir being re-elected and its MPs winning a large majority in the parliament, but this does not change realities on the ground – including the compromises the government has to make in dealing with radical Islam.
Muhammad Osman is a Sudanese freelance journalist and researcher based in Khartoum. He can be reached at Muhammed.firstname.lastname@example.org and @Meltilib on Twitter.