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  • Noah Salomon (a1)


This article examines South Sudan's experiment in creating a secular state out of the ashes of the professedly Islamic republic from which it seceded in 2011. South Sudanese political actors presented secularism as a means of redeeming the nation from decades of religious excess in which the government conflated political imperative with theological ambition, claiming to save the nation from its woes through the unifying force of Islam. However, secularism as an alternative soteriology—one that contended that it is only through political nonalignment in regards to religion that the public could be saved from the problems that plagued its predecessor—quickly became an object of contention itself, read by many South Sudanese to be anything but neutral. This article interrogates the secular promise of mediating religious diversity through exploring the tensions that have arisen in its fulfillment at the birth of the world's newest republic.



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1 Casanova, José, Public Religions in the Modern World (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994).

2 Ali Agrama, Hussein, Questioning Secularism: Islam, Sovereignty and the Rule of Law in Modern Egypt (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2012), 71. My thanks to Mayanthi Fernando whose comments on a version of this article presented at the American Academy of Religion Annual Meeting in 2013 inspired me to flesh out the way I might scale-up the case I observed in South Sudan to the broader problem of secular governance. Indeed, while the contours of South Sudan's “local secularism” (see Jakobsen, Janet and Pellegrini, Ann, eds., Secularisms [Durham: Duke University Press, 2008]) and the problems I saw in its unfolding are crucial, they are but an example of a pervasive logic central to secularism across its temporal and geographic spread, representing not merely a locally produced tension but a paradox at the heart of the secular project writ large; see also Agrama, Questioning Secularism, 122. Fernando's comments on my essay also pointed to a gap in my analysis that I am afraid I am unable to fill in the space of this essay, but to which I want to gesture, if simply to open up space for future research. She writes: “while it's necessary to provincialize the secular and think about how the categories and configurations of secularism are not universally translatable, we also need simultaneously to attend to the attempts to make them so, and to the way in which traditions are transformed according to the requirements of those universalizing categories and configurations.” Mayanthi Fernando, “Producing Secularism in Public Spaces” (panel comments, American Academy of Religion, Baltimore, MD, 2013). Fernando discusses these points at greater length in her forthcoming book, The Republic Unsettled: Muslim French and the Contradictions of Secularism (Durham: Duke University Press, 2014). For related points see also Mahmood, Saba's “Can Secularism be Other-wise,” in Varieties of Secularism in a Secular Age, Warner, Michael, VanAntwerpen, Jonathan, and Calhoun, Craig, eds. (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2013) 292–93, and Agrama, Questioning Secularism, 255. The way in which the secular is imbedded in a global discourse of religious pluralism and religious freedom to which South Sudan is directly subject through the means of international (and foreign-national) aid and development organizations—assisting in nation-building, democracy, human rights and “good governance”—is a subject worthy of significant study, but about which I do not have sufficient space to elaborate here.

3 A particularly lucid articulation of this question is found in Sullivan's, Winnifred FallersThe Impossibility of Religious Freedom (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005), emerging out of her study of a legal contest concerning religious expression in the United States.

4 Taylor, Charles, A Secular Age (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2007).

5 Asad, Talal, Formations of the Secular: Christianity, Islam, Modernity (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2003).

6 For recent essays that theorize and historicize the secular, see, for example, Calhoun, Craig, Jurgensmeyer, Mark, and VanAntwerpen, Jonathan, eds., Rethinking Secularism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011); Cady, Linell and Hurd, Elizabeth Shakman, Comparative Secularisms in a Global Age (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010).

7 See, for example, SPLM founder Garang, John's comments on religion and state in The Call for Democracy in Sudan, ed. Khalid, Mansour (London: Kegan Paul International, 1992), 249–51. Though Garang speaks passionately here of “freedom of religion,” what counts for him as properly religious remains outside of the sphere of politics or social reform (“religious faith is a relationship between the believer and his God”) and thus the focus of his comments here are instead on the limits that must be imposed on religion in its interactions with the state.

8 Hutchinson, Sharon, “Spiritual Fragments of an Unfinished War,” in Religion and African Civil Wars, ed. Kastfelt, Niels (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005), 3941.

9 The Sultan was engaged in a short-lived armed rebellion around the date of independence demanding thirty percent Muslim representation in the new government.

10 For examples of the Islamic framing of the war see de Waal, Alex, ed., Islamism and Its Enemies in the Horn of Africa (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2004), particularly chapter 3.

11 Hutchinson, “Spiritual Fragments of an Unfinished War.” Hutchinson also discusses in this article how indigenous prophetic traditions were mobilized to offer a religious interpretation of both anti-government and South on South violence, particularly among Reik Machar's SPLM-Nasir faction. For a more recent discussion of the relationship between Nuer prophecy and modern conflict, see the work of Eri Hashimoto, for example, Hashimoto, , “Reviving Powers of the Past with Modern Technology: Aspects of Armed Youth and the Prophet in Jonglei State,The Journal of Sophia Asian Studies 31 (2013): 161–73.

12 See Melani McAlister, Our God in the World: The Global Visions of American Evangelicals (manuscript in preparation), for a discussion of how US evangelical groups framed the Sudanese Civil War as one instance in a larger global trend involving the Muslim oppression of Christians.

13 See Hutchinson, Sharon, Nuer Dilemmas: Coping with Money, War, and the State (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996), 345–48.

14 Garang's “New Sudan” had a unified nation as its ideal, approaching diversity as a resource on which to build that nation rather than a problem to be solved through partition. For an elaboration of Garang's thesis, see the collected articles in New Sudan in the Making? Essays on a Nation in Painful Search of Itself, ed. Deng, Francis (Trenton, NJ: Red Sea Press, 2010).

15 See footnote 2.

16 See, for example, Sullivan, Winnifred Fallers, Yelle, Robert A., and Taussig-Rubbo, Mateo, eds., After Secular Law (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2011).

17 This toxicity is illustrated by the fact that I was picked up and detained by security agents during my last visit to the branch of the Council in Malakal, seemingly out of fear that I was documenting the tensions I describe here as well as the tensions between Muslims and the state. Moreover, a vicious exchange between its secretary general and some Muslims in Juba over the former's letter to the security services (a copy of which I obtained, though I was unable to verify its authenticity) accusing some members of the Muslim community of planning terrorist activities “with the coordination of Islamic extremist groups from Iran, al-Qaʿida, and the Sudanese Islamic Movement” further exhibits how this Council has become the site of considerable struggle.

18 See also Mahmood, Saba, “Religious Freedom, the Minority Question, and Geopolitics in the Middle East,Comparative Studies in Society and History 15 (2012), where Mahmood argues that the political category of “religious minority” is not an object for but rather a product of the international discourse of religious freedom, thus upending the logic that sees religious freedom as merely a palliative to already existing religious division. See especially ibid., 419 (“Viewed from this perspective, ‘religious minorities’ do not just signify a demographic entity that are accorded a space of freedom and immunity by the institutionalization of religious liberty, but are also produced through the process of the legal codification of this principle. One of the key questions that guides this essay is that of how the discourse on religious liberty has participated in the production of ‘the minority problem’ in international law, and how this ‘problem’ has unfolded in the history of the modern Middle East.”).

19 South Sudan TV broadcast, July 12, 2012 (recording on file with author).

20 See footnote 17.

21 Of course, South Sudan is not alone among states in seeing some version of religious establishment as a means of managing religious diversity and promoting state secularism. See for example: Markus Dressler, “The Religio-Secular Continuum: Reflections on the Religious Dimension of Turkish Secularism,” in After Secular Law; Fernando, Mayanthi, “The Republic's Second Religion,Middle East Report 235 (2005); Zeghal, Malika, “The Implicit Sharia: Established Religion and Varieties of Secularism in Tunisia,” in Varieties of Religious Establishment, eds. Sullivan, Winnifred Fallers and Beaman, Lori G. (Burlington, VT: Ashgate 2013).

22 Leonardi, Cherry, “Paying ‘Buckets of Blood’ for the Land: Moral Debates over Economy, War and State in Southern Sudan,Journal of Modern African Studies 49, no. 2 (2011): 235.

23 Although I spent nearly three years living in and researching Sudan prior to partition (the results of which are found in my publications on the topic), the research on which this article is based consisted of only three short stays in the new state of South Sudan: a little over three weeks in July of 2011, a little over two weeks in July of 2012, and a one week trip to present my research at the University of Juba in November of 2012. My research took place in Juba and Malakal. My basic knowledge of South Sudanese affairs gathered in my time in Sudan, my connections with South Sudanese made during that time, as well as my proficiency in Arabic, greatly helped to facilitate my research in South Sudan but cannot replace what a longer engagement might have provided. Nevertheless, I managed to meet a wide spectrum of interlocutors in my time in South Sudan. During my research trips I conducted 51 recorded interviews, 21 unrecorded interviews/meetings, as well as countless hours of participant-observation in government offices and among Muslim communities. Of course, only a small part of this research has made it into this article; I hope to find time in the near future to publish more of it.

24min al-yawm huwiyatna janubiyya ifriqiyya wa laysa [sic] ʿarabiyya islamiyya. lisna aswaʾ al-ʿarab bal afdal al-afariqa.

25 This remains very much an open question for South Sudanese Muslims. On the one hand, sentiments such as those of the above-pictured sign are very much widespread among the public and officials alike; on the other hand, the public presence of Islam at official events (Muslims offering benediction alongside Christian leaders, for example) and on state television (shaykhs discussing AIDS prevention campaigns or offering Ramadan sermons) indicates that a Muslim identity will continue to have a place in the public sphere. On a visit to the Ministry of Culture, however, which is embarking on an ambitious project to create “a sense of national unity and shared identity among its diverse population” through “celebrat[ing] all of South Sudan's cultural diversity,” Jok, Jok Madut, “South Sudan: Building a Diverse Nation,” in Sudan after Separation: New Approaches to a New Region, eds. Foundation, Heinrich-Boll and Weis, Toni (Berlin: Heinrich-Boll Stiftung, 2012): 58, 62, I was interested to hear that Islamic culture had absolutely no place in the vision of South Sudanese diversity the state was celebrating. The vision was based instead on an ideal of “traditional” cultures and the ethnic groups that held them, with Islam clearly pictured as a foreign accretion.

26 This observation was confirmed the night after independence, when, at the Juba Bridge Hotel, the famous northern Sudanese singer Mohammad Wardi (d. 2012) was scheduled to play a concert. That a party celebrating South Sudanese independence from the north, and held on the first night of independence from the north, was to be headlined by a singer from the north was not understood to be surprising by anyone except me is clear evidence that the links that bind north and south could not be severed by national independence and the new forms of national identity that came with it. Though, due to illness, Wardi never actually took the stage, and instead the Ethiopian warm-up band played Wardi's songs while the people joyfully sang along, it was clear that many of South Sudan's cultural references (at least those of the elite, recently returned from Khartoum) are inseparable from those of the north, despite the years of bitterness. Many of the Juba elite who have recently returned to South Sudan are culturally very much part of the North, despite their minority status there (and the returnee-versus-those-who-stayed dynamic is another fault line present in South Sudan). This event at the Juba Bridge Hotel—coupled with a fascinating public debate over the sound system between a South Sudanese man praising Sudanese president ʿUmar al-Bashir for his courage in signing the peace agreement that led to Southern independence and a northern Sudanese opposition member shouting that al-Bashir was a criminal and should receive no credit for Southern independence—further cemented in my mind the difficulty of thinking about my research solely using the historical referent of independence, of north versus south. As John Garang noted when he called not for southern independence, but for a new Sudan (“from Wadi Halfa in the North to Nimule in the South, from Junayna in the West to Port Sudan in the East”) that took into account shared history, migrations, and indeterminate social, ethnic, and religious boundaries: South and North Sudan cannot so easily be disaggregated.

27 For the former, see Noah Salomon, “The Ruse of Law: Legal Equality and the Problem of Citizenship in a Multi-Religious Sudan,” in After Secular Law. For the latter, see Dau, Isaiah Majok, Free at Last: South Sudan Independence and the Role of the Church (Nairobi: Kijabe Printing Press, 2011); Wheeler, Andrew, ed., Land of Promise: Church Growth in a Sudan at War (Nairobi: Paulines Publications Africa, 1997).

28 See, for example, footnotes 6 and 16.

29 Interestingly, while the Transitional Constitution of the Republic of South Sudan guarantees the neutrality of the state in regards to religion (Article 8.1), it nowhere mentions the phrase “freedom of religion,” despite the statements by government officials I met that the principle of religious freedom (hurriyat al-adyan) is a founding principle of the state. Perhaps fearing the Pandora's Box that might be opened by juxtaposing the words freedom and religion (and not just Islam), the constitution instead speaks of carefully delimited “religious rights” (Article 23).

30 It should be pointed out that this dispute about names was not only about Islam but intertwined with larger tensions about who had rights to lay claim to South Sudanese identity. Returnees versus those who stayed, those who fought in the liberation struggle versus those who collaborated with the occupying forces: these were some of the fault lines along which such claims were fought. Though Muslims were well represented in each one of these categories, and across ethnic groups (not constituting an ethnic group themselves), the perception was often that an Arab name signified either a collaborator, a Khartoum returnee, or an Arabized national and thus someone who could not make authentic claims to the land or the citizenship that emerged from it. For an excellent description of fault lines between various groups who remained in or were returning to Juba as they played out in land disputes see Baidey, Naseem, “The Strategic Instrumentalization of Land Tenure in State-Building: The Case of Juba, South SudanAfrica 83, no. 1 (2013): 5777.

31 ʿAbdallah Deng Nhial (whom I interviewed in July 2011), an important Muslim South Sudanese politician—and once a ranking member of the National Islamic Front ruling party in Sudan, the first minister of spiritual instruction and guidance (wazir al-irshad wa-l-tawjih) after the inqadh revolution of 1989, governor of White Nile State, and most recently Hasan al-Turabi's nominee for the national presidential elections of 2010 for the Popular Congress Party ticket—was appointed minister of environment for South Sudan in late 2013, after the reshuffle of the government that precipitated the current crisis. However, he served very briefly in this capacity and was dismissed after getting into a fist fight with a parliamentarian, “Salva Kir Dismisses Environment Minister after Fight,” Sudan Tribune, November 26, 2013, It is also worth mentioning that the mayor of Juba, Muhammad al-Haj Bab Allah, is Muslim, though he has not been involved in Islamic civic or political organizations.

32 For a more in-depth discussion of this history, see Wani, Abdalla Keri, Islam in Southern Sudan: Its Impact: Past, Present and Future (Khartoum: University of Khartoum Press, 2006), particularly chapters 2, 3, and 4. Wani's comprehensively researched book should be a first stop for anyone who is interested in researching the history and lived texture of Islam in what was then southern Sudan. For a more recent study of Islamic organizations in contemporary South Sudan (researched just prior to independence), see the volume of essays edited by the Al-Mesbar Studies and Research Centre, islam fi dawlat janub al-sudan: al-judhur, al-waqiʿ, al-mustaqbal [Islam in the State of South Sudan: Its Roots, Its Contemporary Instantiation, Its Future] (Dubai: markaz al-misbar li-l-dirasat wa-l-buhuth, 2011).

33 For example, ʿAbd al-Rahman Sule, one of the founders of one of southern Sudan's first political parties. These leaders’ history is scattered in works on southern Sudan, the evidence showing that the marginalization of Muslims from political life in South Sudan is likely of recent provenance, a result of political events of the last few decades, rather than long-standing antipathy. (I thank Cherry Leonardi for bringing some of these mid-twentieth-century Muslim leaders to my attention.)

34 My research focused on Muslims from ethnic groups that identify themselves as South Sudanese and thus make claims to Southern citizenship. There is also a large population of Muslims resident in South Sudan who originate from the North (whether the riverian center of the country or Darfur), who are involved in commerce but who make no discernable claims on the identity of the state.

35 Though a common refrain of some non-Muslims during my time in South Sudan is that conversion to Islam was either a political choice or somehow coerced (in other words, that it was somehow insincere), and though it is important to point out that successive post-independence regimes in the north engaged in campaigns to encourage conversion in which religious identity was directly linked to material consequences, the actual stories of conversion that I gathered in my interviews described extremely diverse causes and circumstances. This is a point corroborated in Wani, Islam in Southern Sudan, chap. 9, who records stories that discuss conversion contexts such as cultural assimilation in the north, schooling in north or south, state broadcasts of the South African preacher Ahmed Deedat and the Egyptian Muhammad Shaʿarawi (the former's mission was directly aimed at converting Christians), as well as dream visions and miracles.

36 The agenda of establishing a new “South Sudanese Islam” was clear in the writings of Dr. Jaafar Karim Juma, which he generously shared with me. Dr. Jaafar is a professor of statistics and demography at the University of Juba, a South Sudanese Muslim activist, and, at the time I was in South Sudan, the head of the University of Juba's South Sudanese Muslim Staff Association. Dr. Jaafar argues forcefully that South Sudanese Muslims need to untangle the history of Islamic politics in the north and Arabism from the religion of Islam in its spiritual dimensions so that South Sudanese in general do not label South Sudanese Muslims as a foreign import from the north, or their religion as one of intolerance and chauvinism. To do this, he proposes more work on building a distinctly South Sudanese Islam, constructed, for example, by appointing a South Sudanese Muslim Mufti who might develop a fiqh that is sensitive to the circumstances of the local Muslim community. Since I do not have explicit permission to quote from his unpublished work in this article, I only paraphrase his ideas here, but I look forward to engaging his writings further in future publications.

37 The topic of the nature of Islamic law in the context of non-Muslim societies has become a major point of debate in contemporary Muslim literatures. See for example al-Qaradawi, Yusuf, fi fiqh al-aqalliyyat al-muslima: hayat al-muslimin wast al-mujtamaʿat al-ukhra [On the Jurisprudence of Muslim Minorities: Muslim Life in the Midst of Other Societies] (Cairo: dar al-shuruq, 2001). Also see the discussion of the topic in March, Andrew, Islam and Liberal Citizenship: The Search for Overlapping Consensus (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), as well as the sources he cites.

38 See Leonardi, “Moral Debates.”

39 For a critique of the framing of the conflict within an ethnic paradigm, see Peter Greste, “Thinking outside the Ethnic Box in South Sudan,” Africa (blog), Al-Jazeera, December 28, 2013,; Nesrine Malik, “South Sudan's Tangled Crisis,” New York Times, January 5, 2014. Indeed, the current South Sudanese conflict, like the conflict in Darfur that began in 2003, should be understood not as a war between ethnic groups (an analysis that is both empirically incorrect and misidentifies a symptom of the conflict with its cause), but rather as a result of the Machakos Protocol (2002) logic, whose flowering we see in the Comprehensive Peace Agreement of 2005 that lay the groundwork for the independence of South Sudan. These agreements sought to solve Sudan's problems by dividing power between two parties rather than devolving power to the people. Thus, although the current crisis began as palace intrigue within the ruling party, the unfulfilled promises of independence—that it would lead to a better life for South Sudanese citizens at large—is what seems to have motivated those who have become active in the rebellion against Salva Kir's government, each side relying on ethnic loyalties to rally fighters despite both sides’ public attempts to frame the conflict in universal language. For a nuanced take on how ethnicity has and has not figured into the current conflict, see Andreas Hirblinger and Sara de Simone's, “What is ‘Tribalism’ and Why Does It Matter in South Sudan,” African Argument, December 24, 2013,

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