The notion of the Arab and Muslim world as a cauldron of perpetual religious strife – and thus a place to avoid – has been a difficult rap to beat. Yet many countries keep defying the myth. The latest may be Sudan. On Sept. 3, its prime minister, Abdalla Hamdok, signed an agreement to enshrine the principle of “separation of religion and state” in the constitution. In addition, political parties would not be established on a religious basis.
Sudan joins Tunisia, Iraq, Lebanon, and a few other Muslim-majority countries that are trying to curb their sectarian divisions or the strict imposition of sharia, or Islamic law, on civic and private life. Notions of political equality are rising up, led mostly by youthful protesters who rely on the Arabic term for citizens: muwatinun.
Sudan’s move toward secular governance comes out of pro-democracy protests that felled a dictator, Omar al-Bashir, in April 2019. His three-decade legacy of Islam as the de facto state religion is slowly being overturned in favor of a unifying “civilian state.” An interim constitution makes no mention of sharia. The transitional government has abolished the apostasy laws as well as corporal punishment or flogging of non-Muslims. It allows non-Muslims to drink alcohol. It has banned female genital mutilation, a practice tied to certain religious views of women.