Grassroots Interview With Qutbi Al-Mahdi
From an early age Qutbi al-Mahdi has been involved in the Islamic movement in Sudan. While studying for his PhD in Islamic Studies at McGill University (Canada), Qutbi was active with MSA and then ISNA, where he served as President from 1984-1986. Immediately after receiving his PhD in 1989 he served as Director General of Muslim World League in NY for two years. Returning to Sudan, Qutbi became involved with the newly formed Islamic government. He has served in many posts since the early 1990s: Ambassador to Tehran, Director General of Political Affairs in the ministry of Foreign Relations, Minister of Hajj, and Minister of Social Planning. Presently he is Political Advisor to the President.
G: Is Sudan an Islamic state?
M: In the West when you talk about religious state, you have the idea of a state, which is ruled by a religious hierarchy. In our government we do not have a religious hierarchy. Our leaders are elected by the people. Leaders are simply citizens. The state must reflect the views of the majority people. Other peoples must have secure rights. Our Constitution states that minorities have certain rights such as full citizenship (the concept of citizenship is not based on religion), the right to worship and other fundamental rights. We have a federal system that people of every region have the right to rule themselves. They have the right to legislate for themselves. They can use their own custom to make law. They have the right to express their cultural identity. We have a multi-cultural society.
G: Why is it considered an Islamic state?
M: The Constitution does not say that Sudan is an Islamic state. The constitituion says that the sources of legislation are the religious custom and concerns of the Sudanese people. Because the majority of people are Muslim, then the source of law is Islam. The Shari’ah laws are being instituted, such that, for example, the economy is Islamic. No interest is allowed in the economic system. Actually, since 1983 there has been no-interest-based banking in Sudan. No bank in Sudan uses interest. No insurance company uses interest. All laws were revised in light of the Shari’ah. In education and mass media you see the reflection of Islam. All curriculums have been revised and anti-Islamic material purged. Zakah is being collected and distributed. The government is taking part in promoting Islamic values. In non-Muslim areas we encourage people to be religious— if you are Christian then follow the ways of Christ
G: Why is America against Sudan?
M: The United States became disenchanted with Numeiri when be started talking about Islam. But Sudan was an ally of the United States, so they couldn’t do much. With the downfall of Numeiri the US supported anti- Islamic trends in Sudanese politics during the rule of Sadiq al-Mahdi. Al-Mahdi was there for four years and he was struggling with tremendous pressure against Islam. When the National Salvation Revolution took place, American increased its activities. Those who are influencing American Sudanese relations are enemies of Islamization. There are two interest groups that are leading the way—the Jewish lobby and some Christian fundamentalists. The Jewish lobby realized that Sudan is a part of Islamic politics and that Sudan is a threat to the Israeli strategy in the region. The Christian fundamentalists want Southern Sudan to become de-Islamized and developed into a Christian state and hopefully have influence in the central government. These special interests groups are against the character of Sudan. We are not dealing with American national interest as such, but with special interest groups that are influencing policy. The rest of America is not interested in Sudan. We have no problem with America. America does not have a colonial history in Sudan. There are a lot of shared interests.
G. What about the complaints against the Sudanese government? Human rights abuses in particular?
M: America uses a double standard. When America allied with Numeiri, Sudan was a military government that executed many people—it was a brutal dictatorship. People were jailed and disappeared. America said nothing. One American official said to me, “In those days we knew he is a bastard, but he is our bastard.” The military revolution in 1989 was initially supported by America. They thought that the military was going to stop applying Shairi’ah laws, and make a deal with Garang (leader of the Southern Sudanese forces). America gave them military funds even though a law forbade funds for governments established by a coup d’etat. When America learned of the Islamic nature of the government, it started sanctions and they started crying about human rights abuses and democracy. In the beginning of the revolution people were arrested because there were individuals who would work to overthrow the government. This is natural. But people have been released and there are few political prisoners. If people are arrested it is done by the law. The complaints of human rights abuses are political propaganda. Sudan has the least number of political prisoners. In terms of democracy Sudan is now a multi-party Democracy, but American hostility has not changed.
G: What about slavery?
M: The complaints about slavery in Sudan started with the Christian Solidarity International. The situation is that tribal conflicts in the South between nomadic tribes leads to kidnapping from each side and those kidnapped will not be released until they are rewarded. Usually these conflicts are solved by negotiators between the tribes. Christian groups claim that the government is practicing it, but it is completely untrue. There have been campaigns staged by the Christian Solidarity to buy back slaves. It was proven later to be a hoax and people involved admitted that they had been paid to appear on television and say what they did. In the Sudanese Constitution slavery is a crime and it is a criminal offense. One writer said that there are slave markets in Umm Durman. All naked lies even according to the United Nations. The problem is tribal conflicts.
G: Do you think a strong relationship can be developed between Sudan and American Muslims?
M: Yes. Sudan welcomes a brotherly relationship with American Muslims. Sudan is a resourceful place to study Islam and Africa. You can pursue African studies such as anthropology and you can pursue Islamic Studies. Sudan is a Muslim society, an African milieu, and English speaking. There are three universities—University of Qur’an Karim, the University of Umm Durman and African International University. All three are full universities, but their orientation is Islam.