The politics of religious freedom:

Freeing religion at the birth of South Sudan

posted by Noah Salomon

If you had the opportunity to start from scratch, without the burden of a permanent constitution or an entrenched legal system, if you were, in other words, a founding father/mother of a new-born nation, what relationship would you forge between religion and state? What creative ways might you devise to appease voices in the public sphere that call for separation of church and state as well as those that demand freedom of religion, both in the sense of freedom of conscience and in the sense of communal autonomy? How might you solve the challenge of offering ample space for the religious diversity extant in your populace while crafting a model of citizenship to which all can agree? While such a scenario of starting from the first hour might seem like a far-fetched fantasy, these were the very questions many South Sudanese were asking themselves in the summer of 2011, elated at the possibility of starting anew after a history of brutal civil war and colonial (African and European) occupation, that is, after a long history of decisions on governance being made by outsiders, never by South Sudanese. Yet while the excitement was palpable in those heady days following the declaration of independence on July 9, 2011, my interlocutors cautioned against imagining that South Sudan, despite its limited infrastructure, was in any sense being created ex nihilo. Suffering still from unhealed wounds of civil war (and debts yet unpaid to those who fought in it), as well as a series of unreconstructed models of governance adopted in consultation with international aid and development organizations, South Sudan was, of course, in reality not starting from scratch. The neighborhoods of its capital, Juba, with names like atlaa’ bara (get outside) and al-rujaal ma fi (the men are not here), were constant reminders, inscribed on the very geography of the place, that Juba was not long ago a garrison town of the Sudanese army, which had gone to these neighborhoods, violently clearing them of rebels, not the capital of an independent nation. And yet, the possibility of mixing these heirloom ingredients into a new stew was certainly present, and around tables in newly constructed (or more often trailer-housed) government offices, hotel verandas, tea circles, and private salons, everyone from South Sudanese intellectuals to the northern opposition exiled now in Juba to returnees from rural Minnesota (or urban Uganda or Khartoum) were imagining the possibilities for forging a new future.

And the possibilities, at least in those first days, were seemingly endless. Some stressed continuity with the past, riffing off the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM, the former southern rebel movement, then political party, and the current government of South Sudan) secretary general Pagan Amum’s comments at the independence ceremony when he lowered the old Sudanese flag for the last time—in preparation for the raising of the South Sudanese flag—telling the crowd that he would not be handing it over to Khartoum in a gesture of good riddance, but rather would hold on to it in the soon to be formed national archive, in memory of the shared history, the shared struggle, and indeed the shared future that northerners and southerners have and would continue to experience together. Others imagined a cleaner break. One bilingual sign held high at the independence ceremonies read, “From this day our identity is southern and African and not Arab and Islamic. We are not the worst of Arabs, but rather the best of Africans” (the sign was, I should note, in both Arabic, from which I translate, and choppy English, held up at an ceremony largely conducted in Arabic, still the de facto lingua franca of South Sudan despite official efforts to switch to English, and thus belying the difficulties inherent in making such a clean break overnight). The discursive historical reality of independence, of sharp bold-lines on the map, was matched in intensity by the sociological reality of entanglement (by choice and by force), of blurry lines. North and South could not be so easily disaggregated.

The tension between a model that stressed continuity with the past and one that proposed a break with what was certainly a painful history plagued Muslim South Sudanese perhaps most of all. Muslim South Sudanese, who make up a significant portion of the population, are individuals whose very identity challenges the distinct categories for which “clean break” models of partition strive. Islam came primarily from the North (from which the South was now separating), tying together families, trade routes, and pilgrimage networks, despite aggressive British colonial efforts to stop its spread. These links were not so easily sundered. While many non-Muslim South Sudanese had assumed that Islam was a political identity, somehow tied to the North, and imagined mass-apostasy coinciding with southern independence, South Sudanese Muslims insisted that to be southern and Muslim was not a contradiction in terms. Continuity with a past in which southern Muslims suffered discrimination in the North for being southerners and in the South for being Muslims at a time of rebellion against (at least in part) state-driven Islamization, did not seem like a good option. (I should note, though, that this latter discrimination was by no means universal: Muslims were part and parcel of the SPLM throughout the war.) Though the sentiment certainly was not universal, the vast majority of Muslims with whom I spoke in the summer of 2011 favored southern independence, a clean break from the North, and were actively debating how Muslim identity had changed under the new political arrangements they’d entered (South Sudanese Muslims had gone from being part of what demographers call a national majority, to being a “minority group” literally over night, and without traveling anywhere). The nature of “South Sudanese Islam” was being renegotiated, but most seemed to agree that the particular cultural stamp of the North would have to be transcended if the name of Islam was to wash out the stain of its bad reputation acquired during the war and flourish in the new state.

On the other hand, the notion of a clean break that sought to define South Sudan as explicitly non-Muslim (whether or not it was thereby “Christian” was a topic of debate, to which I will return below) and non-Arab made South Sudanese Muslims worry that the “New Sudan” imagined by John Garang, which was to embrace Sudanese of all religions and ethnicities, was quickly taking on an ethnically and religiously exclusive color. Muslim communities feared persecution in the new state after decades of civil war in which Islamization, if not Islam, was portrayed as a prime adversary to southern flourishing. The uneven (but active) banning of headscarfs in southern public schools after the signing of the 2005 peace agreement, which reverted control of the South to southerners, led to protests in at least one major Muslim center I visited (the city of Malakal) and the founding of a Muslim girls school there. The banning of religious political organizations forwarded by the new Advisor to the Presidency on Religious Affairs was taken by many Muslims to be directed at Islam, as Christian majority parties (under secular names) were certainly plentiful. Such incidents further raised suspicion that the equality and secularism that the new government was promising was a coded way of promoting “tyranny of the majority” and a state from which Muslim communities would be marginalized. The southern state’s resistance to a quota system (in which a certain amount of ministries or parliamentary seats would be given to Muslims qua Muslims), under the logic of blindness to religious identity, led to a short-lived but significant armed rebellion in Northern Bahr al-Ghazzal—active during the time I was in South Sudan, but now quelled—demanding 30 percent representation for Muslims in the new government.

The desire to “politically transform difference into sameness,” as Saba Mahmood has put it, has certainly been at the top of the state’s agenda in its quest to establish something called a South Sudanese citizen out of the dizzyingly diverse cultures, languages, and religions that make up the demographic landscape. What that “sameness” was to consist in, and what degree of diversity was still possible in spite of it, was a primary object of debate. My recent research—part of a multi-site project on religious minorities in Sudan and South Sudan following partition, conducted by Centre d’Ètudes et de Documentation Èconomique, Juridique et Sociale (CEDEJ) and the University of Khartoum—explores the mechanics of nation-building in South Sudan with particular attention to the fate of Muslim minorities following independence. Through field research in the national capital of Juba and the northern (South Sudanese) city of Malakal, I hope to understand what it means to be constituted as a religious minority under the regime of international religious freedom at the very moment in which this resignification—from “southerners” practicing Islam to a South Sudanese minority community of believers with a specific retinue of national rights and duties—takes place.

In a nation where neither tribes, nor regions, nor even individual families are traditionally divided on the basis of religion, how will South Sudan’s adoption of internationalist languages of religious freedom, and the concomitant constituting of Muslims as a distinct demographic, affect the existing social fabric in which it is easy to find households containing Muslims, Christians, and adherents of local traditions under the same roof? While there certainly have been Muslim communities across the South for some time, I was surprised to find that the vast majority of Muslim leaders did not emerge from those communities but were converts. Why have these “new Muslims” taken on such a prominent role in the organizational structures of the emergent Muslim minority? What makes them, rather than the entrenched Muslim communities, so much more suitable for the formation of a Muslim civil society that the state seems to both fear and demand?

Such individuals live in households that are extremely diverse (a father who follows the Prophet Ngundeng, a Christian Mother, and Muslim son is not at all uncommon) and one wonders how (or perhaps if) this status quo will be interrupted by the emergent notion of confessional community that is being forwarded by Muslim organizations and state demographers alike. I came to recognize early in my research that, though old established Muslim neighborhoods existed, the bulk of my work was being done not with Muslim communities, but rather with Muslim individuals and the associations they had joined. Most of these Muslims seemed to experience religion as a mode of being that did not necessitate the discarding of other modes of belonging (tribe, family, social class, etc.). Indeed, even the associational spaces themselves (Muslim councils and organizations, mosques, etc.) were not as restricted as one might assume. For example, at the Islamic Council for South Sudan office in Malakal, a good portion of the young men hanging out in the inner courtyard were in fact Christians and followers of traditional faiths: this space was by no means restricted as a Muslim gathering place. The modern state’s voracious appetite for categorization, and that of those who have been stamped by its logic, may have trouble coming to terms with the lack of neat lines demanded by international regimes of religious freedom in order to dole out their goods (protection from persecution, the development of networks with global “communities of faith,” etc.), neat lines drawn on a map wherein what constitutes religion and religious belonging are far more settled than they are on the ground.

One wonders what particular iteration “religious freedom” will take in South Sudan. The Transitional Constitution of South Sudan nowhere mentions “Freedom of Religion” but rather offers a very specific retinue of “religious rights” (Article 23). On the ground, the new government has not been shy about managing and taxonomizing religions, minority and majority—policing the line that divides religion and state, and even religious orthodoxy itself. Government offices registered “Faith Based Organizations” and often rejected applications of, for example, “Christian” organizations “if the constitution of a particular group is not lining up with the Biblical chapters or verses,” as one Inspector in the Bureau of Religious Affairs put it to me. This effort formed part of a program to protect the nation from what he called “cults,” although which groups would qualify as Christian and Muslim and which as “cults” was still in flux during the time I was there. One wonders if these inspectors’ interest in doctrinal purity might indeed be a coming to life of Beth Hurd’s notion that the prevailing “foreclosure on religion without belief” by international regimes of religious freedom “leave little room for dissenters and doubters on the margins of or just outside…‘faith communities’….[for] it endows hierarchical authorities with the power to represent and pronounce on what is or is not religious belief deserving of special protection or sanction.”

I do not wish to come to premature conclusions about what form “religious freedom” will take in South Sudan. I was there in the early days of the formation of this new state and the situation was still very much in flux. The intelligence and good will of the government servants I met—who had often left comfortable lives abroad to suffer much risk and hardship in service of building a new Sudan—suggests to me that a bright future is certainly not out of reach. The new state of South Sudan promised (and in its early days certainly has achieved) a very different approach to the relationship between religion and politics from that of the Sudan southerners had lived under until July 9, in which the central government in Khartoum had attempted to craft an “Islamic state.” However, the variety of secularism to be instantiated in the new state, particularly in a context in which voices calling for a Christian nation were still very loud, was still up in the air. As I walked the streets of Juba, listening to the new national anthem played over and over (“Oh God, we praise and glorify you, for your grace on South Sudan”), I wondered not only where Muslims would figure into the imaginings of this new nation, but where all the “African traditional religions” (or “ATRs,” as government officials called the variety of ancestor veneration, spirit, and divination practices extent in South Sudan) would figure into the national image. While there was an explicit attempt to give time to Muslim and Christian prayer in official fora, such as at the independence ceremony when a Christian benediction as well as verses from the Qur’an were recited, symbols of these traditional practices were not present at the podium. The official party line seems to be that ATRs should be represented within the state, constituted as distinct faith communities (“diin”s, as expressed in my Arabic-language interviews with government officials), minorities on the same footing as Islam and under the shadow of the dominant Christian faith. However, scholars of South Sudan (affirmed by a personal communication with Dr. Cherry Leonardi) point out that to think of such “traditional” practices as distinct confessions does not represent the reality of South Sudanese who may identify as Christians and at the same time see no contradiction in maintaining these rites and rituals. One wonders, then, what the state’s attempt to constitute such practices as discrete “religions” (and distinctly not part of what it means to be Christian) will have on those engaged in such practices, and whether it will make this kind of lived hybridity between Christianity and other modes of approaching the divine less sustainable, thus rendering Christianity and ATRs as much more polar forms of identity than they are currently. Nevertheless, it is unclear whether an official Council of Traditional Religions, constructed to represent ATRs, will indeed be forthcoming, as some officials promised me it would, for indeed others assured me that traditional religions had no place in South Sudan’s future, being relics of a past that Christianity had superseded.

The seal of the new Bureau of Religious Affairs (at right) expresses graphically what the national ideal may come to be: a large cross at the center, with a smaller hilaal (representing Islam) and a spear (representing “traditional religions”) at either side, indicating, it seems, a Christian-majority state in which other “religions,” safely construed and confined as minorities, would be protected. What exactly will have been freed through this arrangement, and what this freedom will entail for the newfound minorities and majorities, is yet to be determined.

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