Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Talk by a visitor to Sudan

Recently, went to a talk on Sudan by an Australian woman who has visited the country three times in the last few years.

She likes—often admires—many of the Muslims she has met, there and elsewhere. She has a much lower opinion of Islam. I liked her description of ‘Islamophobia’:
A made-up word to put critics of Islam on the back foot.
She found that the manners of the people to be beautiful, that they move and live with a great sense of dignity, that the children are very polite. They like visitors particularly if, as she was, you are self-financed and not there for your career.

British rule is remembered very positively, as a sort of golden age. (Given the murder and mayhem since, not so surprising.)

She was struck by how much ignorance there was, including of Islam itself.

North and South Sudan are very different places with very different attitudes. For example, Northerners generally like Obama, Southerners generally do not—not despite being black African, but to a significant degree precisely because they are: they read him much more sceptically.

The northern media had a daily drip-feed of anti-Americanism. Southerners tended to be pro-American and strongly pro-Israel. (American Christian groups and Israelis do a lot of aid work in the South.)

Northern women have education levels comparable to the men. When she was in the military hospital (the best hospital) for her arthritis, the doctors were women and the nurses were men. Leading Sudanese Islamist Hasan al Turabi has been in favour of educating women and allowing to be employed. Her take was this was, in part, calculation—a way of getting women “in” so that they are a path for spreading Islam.

In the few years she has been visiting, she could see that romantic marriage is increasing, arranged marriage is decreasing. She met a very feisty teenaged wife who hated the restrictions she was under as a Muslim woman. At one stage, when the teenager was holding the Australian woman’s hand, she said of some others:
They are jealous of you and of me because I am holding the hand of free woman.
The Australian woman found, talking to Sudanese men undergoing religious training, that it clearly made them much more bothered by the bodily presence of a woman. (Centuries of having only men interpret religious law, coupled with monotheism’s inherently problematic interaction with eros, will do that: particularly when that law is inherently somewhat misogynist.)
She also noted that Sudanese women had a way of walking very suggestively under all that covering.

The speaker explained that, if you wanted to reject Islamic strictures, atheism was not an option because there was no support structure. (By which, it became clear, she meant support for escape.) One of her female acquaintances said, quite matter-of-factly that:
Any man who leaves Islam is found in the streets with his throat cut.
She talked to a man who was in hospital because he was a convert to Christianity and a Bible had been found in his luggage at the airport. The airport security guards beat him savagely, then castrated him.

Christian conversion essentially requires movement to a safe place, which Christian groups try to facilitate. Talking to Christian missionaries and aid workers working in Sudan, she said they pitied Muslims, seeing them as being caught in a horrible trap.

In Europe, she met a Pakistani man who had spent years dodging assassins sent by his family because he converted from Islam.

When back in Australia, she attended a wedding of Australian residents who were Muslims from Khartoum who had entered Australia as refugees, which rather surprised her. She stated flatly that there was no such thing as a Muslim from Khartoum who was a genuine refugee. She attributed the success in such Muslims coming to Australia as refugees to probably showing naivety about circumstances in Sudan by the Australian embassy in Cairo.

Sudan is a stronghold of Sufism, which is pervasive in Islamic Sudan. She described some of their prayer rituals and practices, and passed around photographs of the same. (One could see why Herodotus thought “Ethiopians” to be “the most beautiful people in the world”.) She pointed out Sufism is still very much part of Islam—once you join Sufism, you are not allowed to leave Islam.

She noted that a longstanding pattern—blacks converting to Islam then being oppressed by Arabised Muslims—clearly continued. In Moscow, she knew a black Sudanese Muslim who was very proud of his religion and that his family had converted lots of the local people to Islam. Yet he lives in Russia, being careful not to incite the strong anti-black racism among Russian men, because he is a second-class citizen back in Sudan.

She described the “creeping Islamisation” that was occurring in the South. Some of it was a simple as providing food in return for conversion to Islam. (She mentioned the “rice Christians” of Asia: the difference is that Christianity does not have a death penalty for apostasy.) Some was more subtle, such as having certain university courses offered on in the South, so Northern (Muslim) students would come South. Or encouraging Northern (Muslim) traders to set up operations in the South. The view was that, after so much bloodshed, open jihad was not seen as effective. Instead, there was the “stealth jihad” of the creeping Islamisation of migration, trade, education, conditional food aid, etc.

While, in broad, there was nothing in her talk which was surprising—if one has been paying attention—nevertheless, it brought issues alive, making them more vivid, more “real” because they had a very human dimension.

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