For Love of the Prophet:

The inevitable Islamic State? The paradoxes of Sudanese politics and society

posted by Abdelwahab El-Affendi

For Love of the ProphetNoah Salomon’s recent book, For Love of the Prophet, is a lesson in academic creativity in the face of adversity. As the author details in his candid introduction, he went to Sudan in search of the “Islamic State,” only to discover that it was nowhere to be seen. Deprived of his object of study, he was able to conjure it by renaming it. What other researchers would call “civil society” was re-christened as an ubiquitous Islamic state that was found everywhere, from bus rides to mosques and mystical rituals. The enemies of this state, no less than its supporters, all became part of this amorphous phenomenon called the Islamic state. As he puts it, the opponents of Islamism vied with its constituencies (due to its “hegemony” and “magnetism”) in a contest to speak its language. This “discovery,” Salomon argues, compelled him to ask his questions in a new form. Rather than focus on the state as a despotic entity, the question was re-formulated in terms of what can be learned from examining “state power as productive and not solely repressive.”

This radical claim is supported by an even more radical rejection of the widely accepted separation between state and civil society and its enveloping public sphere. Both are deemed to have no autonomy from the state, and to be heavily penetrated, even shaped, by the state. In this regard, the many instances where dynamic civil action manifests itself as autonomous, even adversarial, are depicted not just as a creation of the state, but its very manifestation.

This counterintuitive (and highly problematic) claim is worthy of serious consideration in this post-Trump era, where we are witnessing certain popular trends propelling their representatives to leading positions in the state, and from there reinforcing new social currents. However, unless one pushes the point toward the positing of a totalitarian state, which Salomon does not do, the claim cannot stand. If all that the state was guilty of was the promotion of a certain discourse that becomes hegemonic, then the argument that civil activism responding to such a discourse is itself a form of state action becomes absurd.

The claim becomes less sustainable when we note that instances of social Islamic activism and hegemonic discourse precede the rise of the so-called “Islamic state” in Sudan, and have parallels in many ardently secular regimes, such as those in Egypt, Tunisia, Algeria, and even Turkey.

On the more concrete level, Salomon compares the religious policies for the current regime to those of the British colonial authorities at the dawn of the last century. In both cases, the regime attempted to manipulate religion to solidify its grip on power, thus problematizing another distinction: the secular-religious one. The British sought to impose “orthodoxy” and combat mysticism, which they blamed for Mahdism (the same way “Salafism” is being blamed for terrorism today). However, the British had to content themselves in the end with a pragmatic tolerance for any loyal trend. The current “Inqadh” (Salvation) regime, Salomon argues, had engaged in a similar “civilizational” project that aimed at transforming social and religious practices in the service of state consolidation. It also ended up adopting a pragmatic accommodationist approach, even espousing multiculturalism. In particular, the book focuses on the regime’s success in co-opting both the predominant Sufi trends and their Salafi rivals, and the way both groups also continue to produce oppositional and subversive discourses and practices that use the same rhetoric the regime promotes.

The narrative adopted in the book is interesting and rich in counterintuitive suggestions. However, the material it is based on is rather thin. The book focuses too much on marginal issues, such as Bashir’s exploitation of the Sinnar mythology about the genesis of the Sudanese Islamic state, something even Sudanese secularists use all the time. (The Mahdist state has also been appropriated by nationalists and Islamists alike and another “myth” of origin). While the focus on Sufi co-optation, and on Sheikh Al-Buraei in particular, is interesting and has some substance to it, it has nevertheless been overplayed. The fable about Buraei’s encounter with Turabi and the latter’s subsequent “illness,” apart from being completely false, is problematic at many levels. It does not have the religious significance ascribed to it (one can still pray if he had that illness). More significantly, Buraei’s popularity is parasitical on the type of modern Islamic revivalism promoted by the modern Islamist movement. As the book rightly reveals, traditional forms of religiosity were on the decline in recent decades, and were even a source of embarrassment in modern circles in the period prior to the current Islamic “revival.” Buraei’s success is also related to his own modernization efforts (he models his madih on the familiar tunes of popular songs).

In spite of blaming others for taking the Inqadh rhetoric at face value, Salomon does that too often. The problem is compounded by citing marginal texts and individuals in support of major arguments. The odd Sufi or radical Salafi individual, and even many of the purported regime “intellectuals,” are all marginal and insignificant in the ongoing debate. It is also to be recalled that Inqadh had presented itself exclusively as a nationalist, rather than Islamist, regime in its early years and continued to do so, especially after the Comprehensive Peace Agreement. Its rhetoric is thus often a mélange of nationalism, patriotism, and Islamism. In the latter, it liberally appeals to all sorts of traditions and trends. However, its main concern remained one for regime survival. It thus concealed its Islamism when necessary and overplayed it when deemed helpful.

In this context, its orientation can be regarded more as an authoritarian “Northern Sudanese nationalist” one, as I explain elsewhere. It was more concerned with defending that identity above all else. If it had any “moral” project it was sacrificed early in the interest of regime survival. Its enduring legacy, if any, would be linking Islamism with corruption and brutality.

However, this relates to another central, and apparently self-contradictory, point the author raised but was too timid to pursue to its logical conclusion: the apparent incompatibility of the portrayal of Sudanese society as a lively arena of coexistence and contestation, as well as an arena of conflict and limitless brutality. The solution to this paradox is simple: Sudan remains one of the most civil countries
in the world, in spite of the regime’s determination to undermine this civility. In fact, the regime was forced to make major concessions to this civility. For example, many of the war-displaced people live within government controlled cities, and they feel relatively safe there. More remarkably, close relatives of rebel commanders live and work in Khartoum. The wife and children of the Darfur rebel leader who raided Khartoum in May 2008 continued to live safely near the capital, and have not been molested before or after the attack. The sister of another rebel commander in Blue Nile was a senior police officer, also in Khartoum. This is remarkable by any standard, and is unique to Sudan. While conflict can be fierce and brutal at the margins, with occasional spillage towards the center, when the protagonists meet at negotiating venues or at social occasions, they behave like old friends. Some may call this schizophrenia, but there is definitely a good side to this age-old civility, and it has to be acknowledged and studied, and not just glossed over in favor of an arbitrary foregrounding of the savage image of Sudan as the default one for fear of antagonizing the fiercely dogmatic global civil activists. Salomon inadvertently reproduces the one-sided perspective of these groups when he glosses over the Sudan People’s Liberation Army’s fierce crackdown on religious diversity (and in particular Muslim rights) in its domain, even while Sudan was still united, while even a milder version of such policies targeting Christians in the North would have occasioned a deafening uproar.1

I cannot encompass in this short intervention the many rich and thought-provoking aspects of this book, but I will conclude with a central point the author raises: that of the apparent inescapability of the “Islamic state.” Citing the many aspects in which sections of Sudanese society rebelled against the “Islamic state” the Inqadh wanted to impose, including secession by Southerners and radical rebellion by sundry Islamist factions (including a few who joined ISIS or threatened to do so), Salomon concludes that the concept is so attractive that it would be impossible to escape. This claim (the opposite of Wael Hallaq’s thesis about the impossibility of the Islamic state), is premised on the central assumption that Inqadh has been preoccupied with establishing an Islamic state model that is now so deeply rooted as to make it impossible to dislodge without a huge amount of brutality. The model is also so attractive as to enable models like ISIS to thrive and act as a magnet for disaffected youth.

Most of these assumptions remain questionable. The current framework for Islamic statehood in Sudan has been laid down by former President Jaafar Nimeiri, not regarded by many as a model “Islamic” leader. He was toppled in a popular uprising in 1985, barely two years after launching his radical Islamic project. However, none of the political leaders who succeeded him dared to scrap his laws, and in fact the current regime had toned them down considerably, doing away with many of the more controversial provisions. While the current regime made some noises about Islamic morality, its preoccupation remained with survival and with averting the threat from the “African margins” to Northern Sudanese “Arab-Islamic” identity. The majority of “Islamists” who rebelled against it were not calling for a stricter implementation of Islamic provisions (like the radical Salafis cited), but in fact for a more accountable, less repressive, and more transparent system. Many have become “post-Islamists” in fact if not in name. By giving Islam and Islamism such a bad name, the regime may have contributed to an atmosphere in which secularism looks rather attractive, thus providing an escape from the “Islamic state.”

  1. Note from the editors: Though Salomon does not focus on SPLA/M throughout the book, the Epilogue does discuss the SPLA/M in detail, in its incarnation as the government of South Sudan, focusing particularly on its treatment of Muslims.

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