“We will not halt our activities. The government’s decision to ban us is weak and has no legal ground ,” the Ansar al-Suna Association said at a press conference on Saturday, September 3, 2016.
Their statement followed the Sudanese government’s ban on the Muslim clerics from using public spaces and open air markets to talk to people about Islam, implemented to “ward off security unrest”. Abdulmonim Salih, the Secretary General of the group, warned that “the ban will lead the country to many problems”.
These talks humiliate the Quran and the Suna of the prophet.
The Minister of Guidance and Endowment, Amar Marghani, brought in the ban, justifying it as “part of the ministry’s attempts to organise the religious discourse and to prevent fighting between different rivals of Islam”, adding “these talks humiliate the Quran and the Suna of the prophet”.
In Sudan, Muslim clerics often use open air markets and public places to talk through microphones about Islam, life and, to a lesser extent, politics. They are usually surrounded by big circles of men who listen in silence and do not participate in the talk, a common scene in almost all Sudanese cities.
Most of the clerics belong to Ansar al-Suna Association, a Salafi group that originally came from Saudi Arabia and is funded by Saudi and Qatar clerics. Most Sudanese Muslims are Sufis, a moderate strand of Islam that has been mixed with African traditions, and who consider the Salafis as extremists.
Ansar al-Suna owns many businesses in Sudan, including agricultural schemes in Kassala and Gadarif states in eastern Sudan, as well as a radio station, a television channel and three private hospitals in Khartoum. “We get funds from some clerics in Saudi and Qatar and also from subscriptions of the members in Sudan,” said Abdulhafeez Hamad, a member of Ansar al-Suna, who has worked as a speaker at open air markets for half of his life.
He added “we will appeal to the President Omar al-Bashir if they refuse to reverse this move”. “The government’s ban is against God’s will and also against the constitution of the country which gives the basic rights of freedom of expression to everyone,” he said.
The Sudanese Interim Constitution of 2005 has granted basic human rights including freedom of speech and assembly. However, the Sudanese Criminal Code criminalises the use of public spaces without official permission. Since it started using public spaces in the 1970s, the Ansar al-Suna Association has never needed a permit.
“We have been using public spaces since the 1970s and nobody stopped us doing this,” said Mohamed Abdo, a member of the Media Secretary of Ansar al-Suna.
The public spaces have also been used by some opposition political parties and groups to talk about politics but they usually get harassed and arrested by the security services and the police.
The government’s move is viewed by some as a new crackdown on freedom of speech and activist Lemia Abu Bakar of the Journalists for Human Rights organisation said this decision will open the door to ban of other rival political groups campaigning in public spaces.
“People have the right to talk to people, if they humiliated anyone or incited violence they should take them to court instead of preventing them from talking,” she said.
Sudan ranks at 174 out of 180 countries according to this year’s Reporters Without Borders international freedom of speech ranking.
Mohamed Abdo viewed the ban as “a victory for the seculars” and said that the “ministry does not have the right to stop people from talking” and it “should only organise Hajj for pilgrims and make it easier for them".
Another cleric, Ahmed Andal, has been working as a speaker for more than 20 years and expressed his shock at the decision, saying, “it contradicts with the basics of Islam, and we do it in the public places because not everyone has access to the mosques”.
Sudan has been ruled by Sharia law since September 1983 except for three years, when a democratically elected government came to power and the laws were suspended, but the laws again were resumed when Omar al-Bashir seized power in 1989.
Muslims are the country’s majority group, making up more than 90 percent of the population following the secession of South Sudan, according to official figures.
The government of Sudan had hosted Osama Bin Laden for five years in the 1990s before he moved to Afghanistan. But Sudan has continued ties to extremists and terrorism, according the United States which has included Sudan on its list of states that sponsor terrorism.
Khartoum hosted the ‘Arab forum on combating terrorism’ last month and called for training Muslim clerics and a changed curriculum to tackle the issue of unemployment to prevent young people from joining ISIS.
“If the government is concerned about young people going to ISIS and being influenced by extremists who talk to people in markets, then they should address the essence of the issue not by dealing with it superficially, they should stop the institutions that support ISIS, and everyone knows them” said Abubakar
Al-Tayeb Zain al-Abdeen, a Professor of Political Science at the University of Khartoum said “the government does not like any criticism and apparently these groups criticise them […]. I expect there will be a step to prevent all political parties who use the public places and markets for their rallies.”
He said banning other parties would contradict the government which calls itself a “democratically elected body”. Omar al-Bashir, the President of Sudan declared in 2010 that the country would follow Sharia law: “We don’t want to hear anything about diversity, Sudan is an Islamic and Arabic country following the separation of South Sudan,” he said back then.
Earlier this year, a group of 25 Muslim men from Khartoum, narrowly escaped death row after they were accused of apostasy for following the wrong version of Islam.