Politics an underlying force in crisis in Darfur

Though warring Muslims question each other's faith, deeper issues are at play


FURBURANGA, Sudan - In the war-torn Darfur region of Sudan, the killers pray toward Mecca. The million displaced people do as well. Marauding men on horseback, the women raped by them, the rebels who incited the fighting, and the politicians, soldiers and police officers who have failed to control it - nearly all are Muslim.

A man from one of Darfur's African tribes walked into an empty field near the refugee camp that he now calls home and prayed - for life to return to normal, for his family's suffering to end, for his fear to dissipate. He stood, then knelt, then touched his forehead to a small mat, and the despair around him faded, he said, if only for a moment.

But at some of the burned-out villages that scar Darfur's landscape, there are signs of disregard for religion - charred pages from Qurans scattered in the rubble and makeshift mosques leveled.

Sudan has a history of Christian-Muslim frictions and war. A rebel movement in the south, dominated by Christians, has fought the Islamic government in Khartoum for decades, largely over religious freedom. That conflict now appears to be petering out, partly because of the involvement of the United States.

But instead of peace, Sudan is mired in a grievous conflict in Darfur. Political rivalries, ethnic strife and poverty have fueled the clashes - but that has not stopped combatants from invoking religion and challenging the devotion of their rivals.

In the long history of Muslims, "it is not uncommon for people to question each other's version of Islam," said Arif Shaikh, a representative of Islamic Relief USA who visited Darfur in April. "But this is really a political, not a religious, dispute. So much animosity has built up, and that's why it's gotten to this level."

While the Muslims fight, many Sudanese revert to their historic grudges, directed against Christians, the United States and foreigners in general.

In the mosques of Khartoum, which follow the Sunni branch of Islam, there has been plenty of discussion about Darfur but little success at finding a way to end the bloodshed. No religious leader has publicly chastised the combatants, either Arab or African.

But America-bashing, long a theme at Friday prayers, is as fierce as ever. "We caution our people in Sudan and our people in western Sudan against trusting the U.S.A., that it wants to help them," an imam, Abd-al-Jalil al-Nathir al-Karuri, said in a sermon broadcast on television early this month. "What is being done now is for the interests of one country - Israel."

Another imam, Isam Ahmad al-Bashir, in a sermon translated from Arabic by the British Broadcasting Corp., urged his followers at another Friday prayer service to resist foreign intervention.

"We must all say - irrespective of our different affiliations and leanings, races and groups - a resounding `no' to foreign intervention, which is lying in wait for our people," he said. "This is an issue that requires no bargaining. Divinity, morality and humanity is required in denouncing all forms of foreign intervention, or we will be committing treason against God, religion and country."

Sudan has much experience with religious war. The continuing conflict with the Christians began in 1983 after then-President Gaafar el Numairy began a campaign to make the country adhere more closely to Islamic law. His effort included amputations as punishments for theft and public lashings for alcohol consumption.

The current president, Omar Hassan Ahmed el-Bashir, took over in a coup six years later. He replaced non-Muslim judges in the south with Muslims and applied Shariah penalties to many non-Muslims in Khartoum and parts of the north. He also characterized the government's battle with southern rebels as a jihad.

The questions remain: Should Shariah, the Islamic legal code, apply to non-Muslim southerners? Or should the government, dominated by Muslims, accommodate varying faiths?

Peace negotiations for the south that have been under way in Kenya have reached compromises: Shariah would remain in effect in Khartoum, under the tentative deal the two sides have signed, but the south would have its own legal code. Another agreement would give southerners the ability to hold a referendum for self-rule.

Some trace the conflict in Darfur to a power struggle among top Muslim leaders in Khartoum.

In 1999, el-Bashir stripped his rival, Hassan el-Turabi, an Islamic hard-liner, of his positions as speaker of the Parliament and leader of the governing party. Two years later, el-Turabi was arrested and jailed for being a threat to national security for signing a peace deal with the southern rebels.

After his release, el-Turabi founded the Popular Congress Party and reached out to the Muslim black African populations of Darfur. Before being jailed again in March, he acknowledged supporting the rebels of Darfur.

Those rebels attacked the government, igniting the outburst of violence in Darfur. The government responded by unleashing militias, known as Janjaweed, on the rebels.

Here in Furburanga, a village just six miles from the Chad border, about a dozen sheiks gathered recently to explain their view of the Darfur violence. The Africans sat on one side, the Arabs on the other.

An Arab sheik spoke first, saying the conflict could be resolved without foreign involvement if everyone would simply follow the principles of Islam. "Prophet Muhammad says in the Quran that Muslims should talk and discuss and solve our problems," he said. "The Islamic religion has as its principle to love and be peaceful."

He then questioned the religious conviction of some combatants, particularly the black African rebels.

An African sheik spoke next. He questioned the devotion to Islam of those in the government-backed militias who attacked his people. He said he searched for a divine reason in all that had occurred.

"God has punished us," he said. "We just have to figure out why."

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