Posted by: Titus Presler | February 11, 2011

Inter-religious failure is downside of southern Sudan independence

Amid the widespread relief that the referendum on the independence of southern Sudan yielded such an unequivocally affirmative result and that the Khartoulm leadership appears ready to abide by it, I felt a nagging concern that I couldn’t quite identify.

Then it came to me: The breakup of Sudan signals the failure of two populations representing the world’s two most populous religions to live together in peace.  This failure is yet another sign of inter-religious conflict proving to be irresolvable in a century where such conflict is distressingly common.

Yes, through its policies of violent suppression the Muslim north long ago forfeited its right to rule over a united country.  Yes, the Christian south long ago earned the right to self-determination in a situation of intolerable oppression that has shown no sign of being eased.  Yes, the boundaries of Sudan established by colonial domination were always artificial and the new country will signify an instance of Africans taking charge of their own boundaries.  Yes, the north-south conflict in Sudan is not entirely religious, for it has economic, ethnic and cultural dimensions as well.  And, as news reports constantly remind us, the south is not simply Christian but “Christian and animist,” though I suspect the north could similarly be termed “Muslim and animist.”

All those arguments are true, and they rightly have carried the day.

Yet all who yearn and work for greater inter-religious understanding should be sobered that the decades-long conflict in Sudan is leading not to reconciliation and community-building, and not even to power-sharing, but to a breakup where the boundary will be determined at least partly along religious lines.

We live in an era where we need signs that populations that differ religiously can live together not only peaceably but in reconciled community.  Instead, we see and experience increasing alienation between religious groups. Protestant-Roman Catholic tension in Northern Ireland has recently seen an upsurge, despite the peace accords, and Muslim-Christian tension is intensifying in Nigeria, Pakistan and Indonesia.  Relationships are far from resolved in the Balkans.

It is tempting to think that establishing a new nation will decrease religious tension: “Well, if the southern Sudanese are secure within a new international border, and likewise the northern Sudanese, maybe both sides will feel secure enough to live as neighbors at a much lower level of conflict.”  Unfortunately this hope has not been fulfilled in the relationship between Pakistan and India or in the relationship between Israel and its neighbors, both of these being instances where religious identity was the foundation for national identity.

It is important in this regard to stress again that recognition that a conflict between peoples has religious dimensions does not signify a myopic view that the conflict is exclusively religious, for inevitably there are social, economic and ethnic factors alongside the religious.  Sidelining the religious aspect as minor, however, rarely fits the facts and generally expresses only the secular bias of the analyst.  “Communal” is a term commonly used in India to describe multi-dimensional conflicts between communities of different religious loyalties.  The term is appropriate for conflicts not only in south Asia but in Israel-Palestine, Nigeria, Ireland, the Balkans – and Sudan.

A radio report today predicted a movement of 800,000 people from northern Sudan to the south prior to independence, and there is likely to be some such movement northward as well.  This recalls the terrifying migrations in both directions between India and Pakistan prior to Partition in 1947 as Hindus fled the future Pakistan and Muslims fled toward it – and the mutual animosity resulted in massacres of upwards of a million people on roads and trains and in villages.  May the birth of Africa’s newest nation be spared such horror.

Southern Sudan will signify refuge, victory and self-determination.  It will also signify a failure we all must ponder in this polarized century.  



  1. […] world history: Pakistan from India, Israel from Palestine, and now South Sudan from Sudan.  As I noted at the time, the creation of South Sudan, apparently necessary given the intractability of the […]

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