For centuries, religion has played a crucial role in the shaping and operation of the human society. Over the years, politics and religion have, in various parts of the world, been seen to go hand in hand. Religion has been known to provide a moral standard by which people must live in a society, while politics on the other hand is meant to regulate social behaviour through the creation of rules and laws, in order for people to live peacefully with one another. The effects of politicising religion have proved to be futile in numerous countries as is to be discussed with particular interest on Sudan.
According to a report from the United Nations, religion plays a very important role in both the North and South regions of Sudan, because approximately 97% of the entire population adheres to Islam. For many years, national identity and the socio-political role of Islam has been the major reason for conflict in Sudan. According to Haynes (2006), Sudan has long since been associated with a poor human rights regime, where certain non-Arabic ethnic groups have been victimised by the Islamic-Arabic regimes. The extensive campaign by Sudan’s government to enforce Islam as the national religious affiliation has proved to be one form of political Islam in Africa. This has challenged the presence of other religions such as Christianity and has been a primary cause of the conflict in Sudan.
Sudan has experienced two major civil wars: the first was from 1955 to 1972 and the second from 1983 to 2005, both on the basis of religion. These conflicts have been between the dominant Arab-Muslim North and the less developed, Christian and tra¬ditional African South. From its independence in the year 1955, the war in Sudan has greatly devastated the entire region and led to immense human suffering (Ruay 1994). The second war alone is responsible for millions of deaths, abduction for slavery, widespread violence, destruction and displacement which stretched state, social, and economic structures to breaking point. Both wars combined, have proven to be among some of the worst humanitarian disasters of the world (Ibid.).
While religious affiliation served as a principal indication of national identity during the two civil wars, neither conflict can be defined exclusively as a reli¬gious conflict because the southern Sudanese were also con¬cerned with political freedom, African identity, and economic opportunity. Deng (1995) explains that religious affairs became a more serious issue in 1983 when President Gaafar Nimeiry decreed Sharia Law as the national law of the land. This was served as an example of how religion was being used as a tool for political interests.
In justifying the new enforcement of this Sharia Law, President Nimeiry gave various practical reasons. The crime rate in Sudan had escalated to such a level that all previous measures had proven ineffective. In the year prior to the implementation of the Hudud (the Islamic term for punishment under Sharia Law, which are mandated and fixed by God), nearly 12,500 murders and attempted murders had been committed, while the number of thefts had risen to nearly 130,000. The Hudud served as the nation al justice system In addition, the new penal code, the Code of Criminal Procedure, the Civil Procedure Act, and the Civil Transaction Act were enacted to facilitate the “just and fast execution” of the newly implemented Hudud (Zein 1989). With its implementation, the crime rate had dropped by more than 40% in one year. These astonishing results served as proof that Sudan would in time be free of crime. Therefore the essence of the implementation of Sharia Law was to ensure that the citizens followed a righteous path as prescribed by Islam.
Considering the economic welfare of the country, Sharia Law prescribed Zakat (an annual payment on all kinds of property, which was used for charitable and religious purposes). This was more of a taxation act. It being one of the five pillars of Islam meant that it became the core of the economy as it helped the needy receive their share of the national income (Rondinelli 1981). The presence of this taxation act made Sudan attractive to foreign investors as well as local investors.
The implementation of the Sharia Law however did not accommodate the views of other religions, specifically Christianity in the South of Sudan. It instead implied an inferior status for all non-Muslims. The armed forces of Sudan later become an Islamic army, fighting all the enemies of Islam. Although outnumbered, it is for this reason that conflict arose between the Islamic North and the non-Islamic South.
In 2011, after many years of civil wars, Sudan finally split into two separate countries which are known today as North and South Sudan. This occurred on the basis of ethnic, cultural and religious differences. Both sides of the country still rely on each other in terms of resource distribution, because the North has refineries and the port, while the South has oil fields.
In today’s society, the politicisation of religion has seemed to become a mode of governance and way of life. The invocation of religion in the political discourse could perhaps be the root cause of the politicisation of religion. In the Muslim societies, the solution could start with a paradigm shift about the very concept of the caliphate (Isurmona 2005). By so doing, the principles that create the general essence of religion will not be mixed with politics and used to manipulate the minds of the people, as well as obtain support. This will also give room for the people to see the politicisation of religion as an unnatural phenomenon.
In every society or country, the role of the leaders is to set an example for the people. In order to deal with religious based conflict leaders could disassociate themselves from violence; this will help reduce divisions among the numerous religions in a country (Olaoba 2005). Instead of sticking to one religion, the governance system can enable the people to associate freely with the religion of their choice, and embrace all religions (Theresa and Oluwafemi 2014). This means that a national culture which accommodates the different norms, values of various cultures, ethnicities can be designed, one which does not fragment society. By so doing there will be no reason for one religion to feel superior to another hence reducing the prevalence of conflict among religions.
Therefore, it can be observed that dealing with religious conflict is not always as easy it seems. In many countries religion has been used as a tool by which political parties gain popularity among the citizens, because it is believed that religion provides the moral standards by which people must live. Politicians tend to manipulate people through the use of religion in order to achieve their own selfish interests. However over time, if extensive measures are put in pace, hopefully religious conflict will be phenomenon of the past.