Wednesday, 2 November 2011

Khartoum’s jihad ghosts

Recently Sudan Television resumed airing its notorious propaganda programme fi sahat al-fida, sloppily translated ‘in the fields of sacrifice’. The weekly thirty minutes programme accompanied the jihad campaign of the 1990s against the insurgency of the Sudan People’s Liberation Army/Movement (SPLA/M) and went off air in 2005 to mark the respite of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA). Throughout that period the programme provided the audience of Sudan TV with a visual experience of the war effort of the Sudan Armed Forces (SAF) and the paramilitary Popular Defence Forces (PDF). On a weekly basis viewers were bombarded with video footage of the fallen martyrs and their fellow combatants, brandishing their AK-47s, reciting the Quran, shooting at the enemy through the bush, and celebrating jihad in song and verse.
Once the death toll in the riverain heartland crossed a critical threshold the programme lost its initial allure. An entire generation of the Islamic Movement’s student cadres had bled their lives away on the sacrifice fields of those years. To replace this committed vanguard, the voluntary pioneers of the PDF, and maintain the thrust of its war effort the government initiated a compulsory military service, al-khidma al-ilzamiya, targeting primarily school leaving youngsters. Military service was made a condition for university admission, and coercion replaced voluntarism.
The doctrine of jihad was seriously tested when the Islamic Movement split into two camps, the ruling National Congress Party headed by President Bashir and the opposition Popular Congress Party (PCP) led by Hassan al-Turabi, the veteran chief of the Movement. In the initial phases of the split it was not necessarily evident that President Bashir would eventually win the round, but win it he did. Hassan al-Turabi, revered by the mujahideen as the sheikh of the Islamic Movement in both a religious and a political sense, declared the jihad he once championed a non-jihad and the esteemed martyrs merely dead. How could he otherwise? John Garang, whom sahat al-fida repeatedly condemned as a communist atheist racist conspirator on a crusade to defeat Islam, became virtually overnight an ally of the old sheikh when the SPLA/M and the PCP inked a memorandum of understanding in 2001. A year later the NCP and the SPLA/M signed the Machakos Protocol. When the implementation of the CPA took off in 2005 the PCP refused to take part in the process arguing that the 14 per cent allotted to the opposition parties in the national legislature was unsatisfactory. Turabi, now a victim of the regime, shed off his jihadist credentials and became the ‘sheikh of freedoms’. The believers of the Islamic Movement were shocked twice, once when Bashir humiliated Turabi out of power and gaoled him time and time again, and twice when Turabi ridiculed the jihad years as a mistaken adventure.
Stained by a dirty power struggle that compromised the jihad legitimacy of the 1990s both the NCP and the PCP were obliged to reframe their shared working ideology. The PCP refashioned itself a liberal force with the face of Islam and the NCP nourished the chauvinism of the riverain heartland highlighting Islam as the defining component of a distinct (North) Sudanese identity.
I watched a single episode of the 2011 sahat al-fida. The martyrs on display were borrowed from the 1990s and the message was embarrassingly particular with no universal Islamic reference to support it. Instead of the jihad chants the soldiers of the SAF plagiarized a slogan of the rebel Justice and Equality Movement (JEM). The Defence Minister visiting the troops in al-Damazin shouted ‘crush them’ and they replied ‘kul al-guwa al-Kurmuk juwa’ (all the force into al-Kurmuk) a rephrase of the JEM’s ‘kul al-guwa Khartoum juwa’ (all the force into Khartoum). Officially, Khartoum has not declared jihad in the Blue Nile and South Kordofan, and the term was conspicuously absent from the commentary. This time around it’s bombing pure and simple, counterinsurgency with no added value, no collaborating angels and no heavenly breezes to lure the martyrs. Actually, only First Vice President Taha used the term jihad to depict the SAF campaign against the forces of the SPLM in North Sudan, possibly enacting his role as the successor sheikh of the Islamic Movement within the NCP. Otherwise, President Bashir and the top officials of the ruling party have largely refrained from legitimizing the military drive in religious terms.
The notion is too explosive I suppose; a precarious terrain to re-probe unshielded. Internally the NCP’s religious authenticity is challenged by the more doctrinaire fringe movements in the field. Some of these forces even consider the NCP regime itself a legitimate target of jihad considering its subcontractor role in the US war on terror. This October Khartoum set free members of a jihad cell led by a certain Osama Ahmed Abd al-Salam, a biochemist, who were arrested in August 2007. Abd al-Salam and his accomplices reportedly established a domestic workshop to develop explosives in al-Salama, Khartoum. Their activities were uncovered when an accidental blast aroused the attention of their neighbours. They allegedly repented their radical views after an extensive counsel with team members of the prominent Wahhabi circle, the Sharia Clerics League, featuring the media-savvy Abd al-Hai Yusif and Ala al-Din al-Zaki. These gentlemen supply the government with fatwas on demand and function as the NCP’s extended arm to its fuzzy right flank so to speak. The Clerics League declared members of the SPLM and the Communist Party infidels and instructed Allah-fearing Moslems to refrain from dealing with them in any form whatsoever. In fact, it is Abd al-Hai Yusif and his fellow sheikhs who have usurped the Islamic authority of the NCP in client mode. This bond of convenience notwithstanding the Clerics League recently diverged from the declared position of the NCP government regarding the situation in Syria. The League together with the Just Peace Forum (JPF) organized a demonstration in Khartoum in support of the Syrian opposition on the grounds of Islamic solidarity, effectively defying the pro-Assad stance expressed by President Bashir.
Although Bashir repeatedly affirms his commitment to shari’a this claim is increasingly being questioned not only from the secular opposition but within the wider Islamic camp. The proposed constitution of the JPF and allies is an attest to this shari’a thirst as it were. For Abd al-Hai Yusif and fellows, let alone Abd al-Salam and partners, there can never be enough shari’a. 

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This work by Magdi El Gizouli is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.