In 1989 a group of Army officers led by General Omar al-Bashir seized power in Sudan. At first some thought this was yet another in a long string of military coups - hardly news in one of Africa's poorest and most unstable countries. They soon discovered this was no ordinary coup. Behind Bashir was a shadowy group called the Islamic Liberation Front, and its mastermind, a lawyer and Islamic scholar named Hassan al-Turabi. Fluent in English, French and Arabic, and conversant in German, Turabi had studied in London and received a doctorate from Paris's Sorbonne… yet sought to rid Africa of the western influences which he saw as vestigial colonialism, in favor of a pure Islamic state.
While Sudan had experimented with Islamic law before, implementing amputations and hangings under the rule of Jafa'ar Nimeri, they had never been able to impose it upon the largely Christian and animist south: after implementing Sharia in 1983, Nimeri found himself voted out of power in 1985. Turabi had been his attorney general… and took several lessons to heart from the experience. Under his direction, Bashir and company implemented extensive purges of the civil service. Those who were not deemed devout enough, or who were seen as a threat to the Islamic Liberation Front's vision, were arrested. Citizens who cooperated with UN observers, or who questioned the government's implementation of Sharia, were arrested alongside them. Many were taken to "ghost houses" where they were subjected to beatings, electric shocks, cigarette burns and sexual assault. Others simply disappeared. This was justified in the name of a "State of Emergency" which has remained in force to this day.
Many Islamic scholars believe that Sharia should only apply to a country's Islamic citizens. They cite Muhammed's command that "people of the Book" like Christians and Jews should be guaranteed religious freedom, and the Ottoman tradition of leaving non-Moslem populations under the control of their religious leaders. The Islamic Liberation Front felt otherwise. The Sudan Council of Churches' efforts to deliver humanitarian relief have regularly been impeded. Christian missionaries have been expelled from the country, and mass arrests and torture of local priests and catechists have occurred regularly. The south, largely home to Christian and Animist Blacks, has regularly been victimized by Moslems plying the traditional slave trade. The men are rounded up and murdered, while the women and children are raped and sold as concubines and farm laborers. Despite evidence of complicity on the part of high government officials, the Sudanese government has blamed these incidents on "feuding tribes." It has also referred to "propaganda" about Sudanese slavery and has deported foreigners who report on slave markets or slaver atrocities.
Turabi's vision of an Islamic state extended beyond Sudan's borders; under his watch, the Popular Arab Islamic conference (PAIC) was formed in 1990. Intended as an umbrella organization which opposed American involvement in the Gulf War, it became an umbrella organization for Islamic radicals of all stripes. Under Turabi's guidance, the Sudan government created an open-door policy for Arabs. A close friend of Turabi's, Osama bin Laden, made his base in Sudan from 1990 to 1996. This led to Sudan being declared a terrorist haven, and to the Clinton Administration's bombing of a Sudanese aspirin factory: ultimately, world pressure, in the form of UN and American sanctions, would lead the government to disband PAIC. Despite this, numerous terrorist organizations continue to have a presence in Sudan, including Hizballah, Hamas, Palestinian Islamic Jihad, Egyptian Islamic Jihad, Algeria's Armed Islamic Group, and regional Islamic and non-Islamic opposition and insurgent groups in Ethiopia, Eritrea, Uganda and Tunisia. (In the Sudanese government's defense, it is unclear how much control they have over this vast and largely wild desert country; most of the southern half of Sudan is currently ruled by various rebel warlords, while the north faces strife from Islamic groups seeking an even more rigid implementation of Sharia. Since 1983, civil strife between various factions in Sudan has killed over 2 million people.
Of late terrorism has become particularly unfashionable, and Sudan has attracted particular scrutiny. Faced with a collapsing economy and with the threat of a U.S. invasion, the government has made some cosmetic changes. Once considered a puppet of Turabi, in 2001 Bashir sent his onetime friend to prison and since that time has kept him under house arrest. The excuse for Turabi's arrest was his attempt to make peace with the Sudan People's Liberation Army, one of the largest rebel groups in southern Sudan. A few months later Bashir would begin negotiations with this group; at present a tenuous cease-fire exists as the parties attempt to hammer out their differences. Still, it is unclear how much reform will actually take place. Efforts to end sexual segregation, punitive amputations, and executions by stoning for "apostates" (those who convert from Islam) have repeatedly been rejected.