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Is Sudan’s government transforming it into a secular state?

People wave Sudanese national flags as they rally at a mass demonstration near the presidential palace in the capital Khartoum on 12 September, 2019 [EBRAHIM HAMID/AFP via Getty Images]
People wave Sudanese national flags as they rally at a mass demonstration near the presidential palace in the capital Khartoum on 12 September, 2019 [EBRAHIM HAMID/AFP via Getty Images]

The abolition of the apostasy laws and the relaxation of rules allowing non-Muslims to drink alcohol is unlikely to have any real impact on the day to day life of most of Sudan’s citizens. The move by the government in Khartoum has been welcomed by many human rights groups, but others argue that the changes make no substantive difference to the policies adopted by the previous regime.

In a bid to avoid repealing Sudan’s Islamic laws, which would no doubt anger the Sudanese public and religious scholars, Muslims will still not be allowed to drink alcohol and non-Muslims will not be able to sell alcoholic beverages to the public. Instead, non-Muslims will not be criminalised for manufacturing local alcoholic products known as “merrissa” and “aaraagy”. The reality is that, although it was illegal on the statutes to distil alcohol, southern Sudanese communities, in particular, have for years made these traditional beverages unimpeded and have consumed them in private. The new law means that they will no longer face the threat of prosecution.

Under the regime of ousted President Omar Al-Bashir, a thriving black market supplied illegal alcoholic drinks to diplomats who were not prevented from drinking them at private functions and embassies. To this day, the black market also operates for wealthy Sudanese businessmen who are able to use their connections in diplomatic circles to import international brands of alcoholic drinks.

The punishments for drinking alcohol will remain unchanged for Muslims who have traditionally been flogged for breaking the law. Such floggings were never done in public but were administered within the confines of police stations and the courts. However, the new laws will outlaw corporal punishment or flogging of non-Muslims. Observers have pointed out, quite seriously, that under the new laws Muslims who want to drink alcohol can use the new apostasy law to renounce Islam, have their drink and return to the fold, all with the threat of legal action lifted.

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Islamic laws prohibiting the drinking of alcohol were introduced in 1983 when the government led by Jaafar Nimeiry symbolically poured alcohol into the River Nile. Nevertheless, bars — run mainly by non-Muslims — were still open under the Sadiq Al-Mahdi and Al-Bashir governments, although restaurants and hotels were forced to remove alcoholic beverages from their menus. However, the illicit trade continued in well-known establishments in central Khartoum, which were often ignored by security officers during Al-Bashir’s regime.

The new law on apostasy overturns Sudan’s 1991 Criminal Code which was at the centre of a controversy which engulfed the former regime. In May 2014, 27-year-old, Meriam Ibrahim was sentenced to death after claiming to have followed her mother’s Christian beliefs rather than her father’s Muslim faith. She was found guilty of the crime of apostasy and was also due to be flogged for being married to a Christian man. International pressure and media coverage highlighted her case and the Sudanese authorities allowed her to fly to the United States to be reunited with her husband.

Sudan’s new government is under pressure to make sweeping changes in order to please donors who have pledged US1.8 billion over the next year to boost its ailing economy. Nasredeen Abdelbari, the Minister of Justice in the Provisional Government, said on state television that reform of the country’s legal system is underway and all laws violating human rights in the country will be repealed.

Other laws such as criminalising female genital mutilation (FGM) have also been put in place. Those who circumcise girls will be sentenced to up to three years in prison and a fine. Hospitals or other institutions will also be at risk of closure if this is done on their premises. Over 85 per cent of Sudanese girls have undergone the most severe forms of the operation which many believe, wrongly, is advocated by Islam, while others regard it as a means of cleanliness and protecting chastity. Laws prohibiting FGM have, in fact, been on the statute books since 1946, although they were widely ignored. The National Child Act of 2009 also attempted to curb the practice and Islamic scholars attempted to advocate a less severe form of circumcision.

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Nevertheless, Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok hailed the decision on Twitter as “…an important step on the way to judicial reform and in order to achieve the slogan of the revolution — freedom, peace and justice.” UNICEF has also welcomed the move. “This practice is not only a violation of every girl child’s rights, it is harmful and has serious consequences for a girl’s physical and mental health,” said Abdullah Fadil, the Fund’s representative in Khartoum.

The new laws are the first indication that the transitional government is unwilling, for the moment, to move to a completely secular approach and abandon Islamic law. Although such a move is being called for by many left-wing parties, including the armed groups negotiating peace with the government, a transformation into a secular state is not on the cards just yet. Moreover, with the exception of the change to the apostasy law, which some religious groups regard as a breach of sacred law, public opinion in Sudan appears to have welcomed the changes as sensible and reasonable.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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