For Love of the Prophet: An Ethnography of Sudan’s Islamic State

  • Book Title:
 For Love Of The Prophet
  • Book Author:
Noah Salomon
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In Search of the Islamic State – FOR LOVE OF THE PROPHET

Year after year, Sudan has placed among the top three countries on Foreign Policy’s annual Failed State Index.1 Scoring a perfect ten for internally dis-placed persons, external intervention, group grievances, and factionalized elites, Sudan serves as a near archetype of the nonfunctioning state. Media portrayals of rampant interethnic violence, famine, and displacement re-inforce this perception.

Yet, even with the loss of territory following the secession of South Sudan in 2011, the persistent civil war in Darfur and the “new South” (those regions of Sudan that once were in the center of the country and now are in its southern reaches, following partition), and great economic uncertainty, the Sudanese state somehow continues to func-tion, the National Congress (née National Islamic Front) party sitting firmly in power for over twenty- five years, despite persistent internal divisions.

While the events of the Arab Spring and their reversal have made scholars of the region know better than to predict continuing stability, the itinerary of the longest- standing government in Sudan’s postcolonial history and its experiment with establishing what its intellectuals called “the Islamic state” is in need of study, no matter what tomorrow may bring.

This is particularly true now as a variety of regimes across the region are experiment-ing with their own Islamization projects or are seeking to unravel them. Indeed, while Foreign Policy looks at formal indicators such as “uneven de-velopment,” “economic decline,” and “external intervention” as evidence of a state’s health (or, more precisely, the lack thereof), it overlooks a series of factors that make states like Sudan endure, despite their failure to meet the journal’s indices of full-sovereignty and economic well- being. What would a study of Sudan look like that did not take its lacks and lacunas, its under- development and instability, as a starting point?

What do we learn if we examine state power as productive and not solely repressive,2 and if we explore the Sudanese public as made up of agents of its modernity and not merely victims of power struggles from on high? This book attempts to answer these questions.

My first foray into studying the Sudanese state was beset by a paradox not unrelated to that which confronts the Failed State Index. I initially went to Sudan in the summer of 2003 with the idea of studying how the state reproduced its Islamist ideology through an examination of the Sudanese national secondary school curriculum.

At that point in time, Sudan was the only country in the Arabic- speaking world where an Islamist organization, so common as political opposition, had taken the reins of power.3 While Islamist notions of government could be studied as a theoretical framework across the Arabic- speaking world, Sudan seemed to me then (and it still does now) the perfect place to find out what modern Islamic governance looks like in practice, when it is forced to confront the complexity of the modern nation- state and the diverse publics to which it must cater.

Sudan was the first country in the Arabic- speaking world where a modern Islamist movement (in this case, an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood) had the chance to apply its elaborate theories, so often faulted for their vagueness on specifics.4

 The researcher had the added benefit in Sudan that its Islamic movement had been in power for a considerable time, enabling a diachronic view of policies as they responded to the complexities of governance, and as the governed responded to them.

Yet, when I arrived in Sudan, I made the rather unsettling discovery that I could not find the state in the places where I had expected it to be. I traveled to my field sites, to the Ministry of Education and to the curriculum- building

center at Bakht al- Ridda on the White Nile, only to find that the curriculum that was now being discussed was one that had been developed by the United Nations.5 This curriculum focused on peace- building and multicultural edu-cation, preparing for the “period of national unity” that the expected signing of the peace agreement with the restive South in 2005 would bring about.

There was no discernible program of Islamic state- building. At first it seemed to me that the Islamic state was nowhere to be found, that the Sudanese state indeed was a failed project, existing in a position of international guardian-ship, in which, as in the case of the remnants of the colonial projects that had preceded it, some of the bureaucracy was nevertheless left intact.

Frantically, I wrote my funders, asking if it would be acceptable if I spent my grants on another sort of project (intrareligious controversy? religious reform movements? Sufi revivalism?), since the Sudanese Islamic state project that I had come to study seemed to have vanished before I even arrived.

It was in this moment of crisis, however, ironically just when I began to contemplate abandoning the state as an object of inquiry, that I began to encounter the state in unexpected places. In my rather dejected travels on public transport from ministry to ministry, government office to government office—t hat is, in my quest to find the Islamic state in the places one would expect it to be— I began actually to listen to what was going on around me.

So sure of the models of governance that I’d brought with me into the field, models that prepared me to find the state lodged in institutions that projected power downwards onto “society,” I had deafened myself to the resonances of the state that emerged in other places. It was when I took out my virtual earplugs that the presence of the Islamic state, so elu-sive in those government offices, came blaring to the surface, and I began to find what I had come to study, though in very different places from where I had expected to find it.

The Sudanese soundscape was staffed with notes of this elusive state. It was on those bus rides across town that I began to hear them most clearly: bus radios constantly blasting popified madīḥ (Islamic praise poetry), which my fellow passengers informed me were enjoying a renaissance under the current regime that supported their resurgence through radio projects and state television; the cacophony of sounds emerging from new mosques built with state funds and broadcasting not only the call to prayer but myriad

other pious activities going on under their roofs; debates over whose hands could touch whose as the young kumsārī (fare collector) returned riders’ change, citing state-e nforced norms on dress and public comportment, while reworking and reappraising them.

While the integrity of the state seemed to be disintegrating in government offices, occupied as they were by international powers, on those bus rides the state seemed alive and vibrant all around me.

 Far from the ministries of central Khartoum, the state had become “a social subject in everyday life” (Aretxaga 2003: 395), reproduced in the discourses, the practices, and the very bodies of the subjects who lived in its midst.

The state may have failed according to the criteria of Foreign Policy’s index, yet by producing and sustaining novel publics, it has in fact endured. The state seemed absent in my visits to the ministries, but on my bus rides across town I nevertheless seemed to find it everywhere.

Clearly we are in need of not only new frameworks for understanding the state (a task I leave, for the most part, to political scientists), but also empirical research that can substantiate the life of the state from which such theorizing might proceed. Taking off from this challenge, this book is a study of the experiment with the Islamic state in Sudan.

It looks primarily not at state institutions, but rather at the daily life that goes on in their shadows, examining the last-ing effects of state Islamization on Sudanese society through a study of the individuals and organizations that function in its midst.6 As such, it takes as its interlocutors Sudanese working within the conditions of possibility pro-vided by the state and its Islamist project. For whether a critic or a champion of state Islamism, no one in Sudan could ignore its pull. This situation was partly a result of the power of the ruling Islamist elite and its dominance over political, legal, and economic realms, which shaped a bureaucracy in

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