Sudan Abolishes Apostasy Laws

07.14.20

The death penalty for apostasy has been abolished in Sudan, announced recently-appointed Minister of Justice this week. The new rule comes alongside many other reforms which are heralded by human rights groups as a generous step forward for the African country.

WIDE REFORMS

Following a series of decisions made Friday aimed at bringing Sudan laws in line with its latest constitution, the country will:

  • Criminalize Takfir, or excommunication (the act of accusing someone of apostasy)
  • Move forward with criminalizing FGM
  • Overturn a guardianship law that previously restricted mothers’ ability to travel abroad with their children
  • Abolish the punishment of flogging for most crimes
  • Reduce limitations on the meeting of unrelated females and males
  • Grant non-Muslims the right to drink alcohol

“We are thrilled about these new reforms,” said Sarah Haider, the Executive Director of Ex-Muslims of North America. “They are a highly encouraging step in the right direction for Sudan and its women and religious minorities. ”

 

PUSHBACK FROM CONSERVATIVES 

The reforms are being met with harsh condemnations and calls for demonstrations by some religious authorities.

Conservative clerics called for the overthrow of Sudan’s transitional government, accusing it of being a “foreign project” that “came as a war against virtues, and aggression against the nation’s religion and identity” and that “betrayed God and his messenger.”

Another prominent Sudanese cleric has called for demonstrations next Friday to push back against these reform that – in the words of another Islamist cleric – seek “to fight God and his Messenger” whilst aiding “anti-Islam secularists and communists”.

The Association of Sudanese Scholars (Hay’ah ‘Ulama al-Sudan) has confirmed the basic message of these independent voices with its condemnation of the reforms “because compromising in the law of God is not permissible”.

Political parties in opposition to the transitional government have similarly denounced the reforms as being in “contradiction with the Sharia”. Other,  less conservative entities have called either for the cessation of concessions to the “liberal, globalist world order”, favoring instead civilian rule (which may lead to the reversal of the reforms made). Still others are calling for the complete disregard of popular concerns in favor of competent bureaucrats.

Online Sudanese forums, meanwhile, are chock-full of steaming vitriol, with some labeling those in support of the reforms as nothing less than a “third intifada [whose] goals are pornographic freedoms, debauchery, immorality, and moral decay.”

 

A HISTORY OF INSTABILITY 

These reforms come at an already tumultuous time in Sudan’s history.  Since gaining independence in 1956, Sudan has suffered from almost uninterrupted instability, with “vastly more years at war with itself than at peace”. Following the imposition of the Sharia in 1983 under the rule of Jaafar Nimeiry, Sudan’s fate as a totalitarian theocracy was cemented for another 30 years after a military coup in 1989 led by Omar al-Bashir and his National Islamic Front.

In his time, Bashir, in addition to maintaining a fatal death-grip at home and playing host to Osama bin Laden in the 1990s, was responsible for the Darfur genocide, which saw the “systematic rape and murder” of an estimated 300,000-400,000 non-Arabs. Bashir’s Sharia-inspired policies proved especially oppressive against religious minorities, which make up the majority of South Sudan, and ultimately resulted in the nation’s secession in 2011 – today, South Sudan ranks as the saddest nation on Earth.

The tyrant’s reign came to crashing halt early last year following economic collapse, nationwide protests, a military coup, and his arrest.

Justice Minister Dr. Abdulbari came into the picture following the coup in 2019, “his path paved by ordinary Sudanese”. Following intense protests that took place after the 2019 coup, a civilian-led coalition group – the Forces of Freedom and Change, or FFC – managed to secure six of the twelve seats on the interim Sovereignty Council.

Dr. Abdulbari was one of the six individuals appointed by the FFC, and, as happens to be the case, his family was one of the hundreds of thousands displaced by the Darfur genocide in 2003. Dr. Abdulbari has since completed graduate studies at both Harvard and Georgetown University.

Dr. Abdulbari’s example and recent reforms represent a long-sought glimmer of hope in Sudan’s future and ongoing struggle to properly enter the 21st century. Unfortunately, though unsurprisingly, Dr. Abdulbari has been repeatedly charged with having “an anti-Islam bias” by Sudanese Islamists.

A LONG WAY TO GO 

While the latest reforms are welcomed with great relief – excitement, even – much remains to be done in bringing Sudan and other Muslim-majority countries’ practices to par with international standards of human rights.

Foremost among these hurdles, following the violation of the most basic human needs of physical security, is the persistence of apostasy laws in 21 countries worldwide, 12 of which prosecute the crime with a death sentence (all of these being Muslim-majority), as well as the persistence of blasphemy laws in no less than 69 countries.

Sudan itself still has a number of large steps to take if it hopes to one day count itself among other than the most repressive nations on earth. Among other things, the recent set of reforms are by no means set in stone – Dr. Abdulbari rightfully admitted that these new amendments could be “withdrawn later”, if the Sudanese people desired as much, once the transitional government had run its course. And even if the reforms hold, one worries the public court may, through its many avenues of vigilante justice (including lynch-mobs and social death-sentencing), continue the imposition of past laws.

Women’s rights advocates have pointed out that “these amendments remain insufficient because the guardianship [law still restricts] things such as passports, immigration and the issuance of official documents and even the record of deaths and births”. Still others are concerned that policies discriminating based on religious identity, such as the new alcohol laws, will restore government-sanctioned religious profiling – another violation of international law that Sudan only recently overcame.

Whether these reforms, Dr. Abdulbari’s efforts, and the elections to follow will bring genuine and lasting change or join the growing list of failed Middle Eastern and African revolutions, remains to be seen.

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