Following Friday prayer on July 6, 2012, hundreds of men and women of all ages gathered outside Sayed Abdelrahman Mosque in the Wad Nubawi district of Omdurman in Sudan to exercise their constitutional right to demonstrate. Within minutes of its commencement, the peaceful protest was met with a flurry of tear gas grenades and rubber bullets that quickly forced people to rush back and seek refuge within the mosque grounds. Blood could be seen on the ground and cries sounded of someone who had been shot. It only took a few moments to discover whose blood had been spilt: it was Quteyba the Ansari**, a victim of a live bullet fired to his leg from a NISS*** gun.
We quickly learned that retreating to mosque grounds would not be as safe as we assumed. Regime authorities advanced to each of the mosque’s exits and released canister after canister of tear gas into the area. The barrage continued for hours as we chanted, with officers alternating between shooting tear gas and rubber bullets and injuring dozens more in the process.
Unable to continue unharmed, we sought refuge within the walls of the mosque itself, shutting doors and windows behind us. We knew that the confined space could be suffocating, but we were in dire need of respite. To our disbelief, the surrounding security forces then redirected the tear gas canisters at the doors and windows of the mosque. Fleeting moments of panic passed as we suddenly began to realize that the police and NISS meant to flush us out, making us choose between asphyxiation or escape and imminent capture.
Left with no recourse, a cry for help went out through the mosque’s loudspeaker system to the locals of Wad Nubawi, who were trapped in their homes by armed NISS and police vehicles stationed every few houses inside the district. Nonetheless the
residents responded to our pleas, climbing onto their roof tops and pelting the authorities with stones.
Despite this window of opportunity, very few attempted escape from the moque. With the smell of tear gas steadily intensifying, the mosque began to resemble a battlefield. Yet worship continued as normal. Refusing to leave one another behind, people took turns manning the fort to allow others to pray Asr, using water to put out incoming tear gas canisters or hurling them back out to the police. The Mahdi’s Rattib**** resounded as usual and afterwards revolutionary chants filled the air as protesters cleaned the mosque, which by then was littered with debris from the day’s events. Around Maghreb prayer, police forces finally retreated, allowing protesters to safely leave the mosque.
While these events were shocking as they unfolded, in retrospect the most lasting effect was witnessing such unabashed hypocrisy from the ruling NCP regime. Sudan’s Presidential Assistant, Nafie Ali Nafie, accused anti-regime protesters of seeking to “eradicate” Islamic Shari’a law in order to make way for a secular state. Real Shari’a is the emulation of the Prophet Mohamed’s establishment of the first Islamic state in Medina. In his great wisdom, the Prophet Mohamed demonstrated a democratic spirit; he drew up a historically specific constitution based on the (religious/Islamic) principles revealed to him, in the process seeking consensus from all who would be affected by its implementation. This first Islamic state was constitutional in character and the ruler governed with the explicit written consent of all the state’s citizens. Freedom of religion was guaranteed for all within the Islamic state. The Prophet Mohamed’s interpretation of the Qur’an promoted harmony; it was democratic, tolerant and compassionate.
The atmosphere and actions of those in the Wad Nubawi mosque on Friday are what I believe to be reminiscent of the tenets of governance taught by the Prophet: devotion, loyalty, compassion, harmony, resilience. The NCP regime, on the other hand, claiming to govern under the banner of Shari’a law, has effectively desecrated the image of Islam for the past 23 years. The regime has forged civil wars, driving our brethren in the South away, and has fostered the kind of divisive religious incitement that leads to churches being burned in Khartoum. Even in predominately Muslim peripheries such as Darfur, the Nuba Mountains and Southern Blue Nile, the government has systematically marginalized and oppressed – raping, pillaging and attempting to eradicate whole tribes – in direct contradiction to basic Islamic tenets and attributes of peaceful co-existence. Sudanese women – our mothers, sisters and daughters, once pioneers admired across the Muslim world – have been stunted, demonized and ridiculously portrayed as sinful jezebels due to our rulers’ insecurities. The
NCP’s Islam has overseen a socioeconomic disintegration that has pauperized the population in favour of the “superior” few. Those corrupt few now ask that the Sudanese people, who they have described as “bats”, “vagabonds” and “outcasts”, accept their impoverishment as “the will of God”.
Far from a moral and legal compass, Shari’a has been nothing but a political tool used by the NCP to consolidate its hold on power. While some have naively believed the rhetoric and rallied around ‘the Islamic State’, the majority knows that the regime’s founding ideology has long been perverted by power and greed. In the past, the NCP made an effort, however
minimal, to mask their religious merchandizing, if only as a courtesy. However, when CS tear gas is fired into a house of worship on specific orders, it seems evident that we are no longer dealing with a regime that can be bothered with even insincere courtesies.
CS gas, known to cause severe pulmonary damage and other serious complications, was outlawed for use during times of war by the 1997 UN Chemical Weapons Convention. Under international law, CS gas can only be used by police forces as a temporary incapacitant to subdue attackers or persons who are violently aggressive. The label on the canister itself cautions against indoor use and warns of serious injury or death if aimed directly at individuals. The widowed wife and orphaned children of Amir Bayoumi, who was killed by the effects of CS inhaled during a similar protest in Omdurman a week earlier, can attest to this reality. While those exposed to CS gas should seek immediate medical attention, this is a ‘luxury’ not afforded to injured protestors, who know that security forces wait at hospitals to intercept and arrest them. At the same time, the Sudanese government has given directives to hospitals to deny demonstrators treatment of any kind.
Many Sudanese have been confused by President Bashir’s recent speech stating that from here on out, Shari’a law would be fully implemented. They mused, “if this was the case, what have the last 23 years been about?” The threatening tone of Bashir’s statement is even more puzzling when considering the true participatory nature of Shari’a law. But to those who have been present in Wad Nubawi the past two Fridays the message is clear: with its power threatened, the devil has removed its mask and shown its true face!
*This article was written with contributions and editing from Sara Elhassan and Mohamed Abdel-Razig.
*** The NISS is the Sudan state intelligence agency.
****A compilation of the Mahdi’s prayers (du’aas) and sermons that is recited daily after Fajr and Asr prayers by Ansar (both in their homes and mosques).