Blasphemy law in Sudan is enshrined in Article 125 of the Sudanese Penal Code of 1991. This law states:
“Whoever, by any means, publicly abuses or insults any of the religions, their rites, or beliefs, or sanctities or seeks to excite feelings of contempt and disrespect against the believers thereof, shall be punished with imprisonment for a term not exceeding one year, or with a fine, or with whipping which may not exceed forty lashes.”
During the thirty-year rule of the Islamic regime from 1989 to 2019, Article 125 was used to suppress any dissent against the Islamic regime and most of those who were put on trial for blasphemy were political opponents of the regime.
The Oxford English Dictionary defines blasphemy as the “profane speaking of God or sacred things; impious irreverence”. In Sudan, the concept is used to protect Islam, the religion of the majority of the population, from any criticism of its beliefs or laws. In practice, there is confusion between the concept of blasphemy and that of apostasy or the complete abandonment of one’s religion. The blasphemy charge is often elevated to the greater charge of apostasy. The apostasy law itself was made more stringent in an amendment introduced in 2015 to include four acts of blasphemy that would now also be considered as acts of apostasy:
- Blaspheming against Muhammad;
- Blaspheming against the Qur’an;
- Blaspheming against Muhammad’s companions;
- Blaspheming against A’isha (one of Muhammad’s wives).
Besides making the offences of apostasy and blasphemy into a single offence, the 2015 amendment shows a greater degree of harshness. The 1991 article states that if the offender recants, the case shall be dropped. In contrast, the amended article does not allow such a person to go free — he (or she) shall be flogged and put behind bars for a maximum period of five years.
Though the measure’s language is not specific to any particular religion, it is enforced exclusively against those who are charged with blaspheming against Islam. However, while in some ways the blasphemy law could be used as an instrument of repression, some specific cases tend to deal with relatively trivial matters. A case in point was what happened to Mohammed Taha Mohammed Ahmed. Ahmed, editor-in-chief of a daily newspaper was arrested in May 2005 and charged with violating Article 125. The paper had published an article citing a medieval source that says the real name of Muhammad’s father was not Abd Allah but Abd al-Lat, servant of al-Lat, an idol of the pre-Islamic era. The court acquitted Ahmed after imposing a hefty fine on him and deciding to close the paper down for three months. In September 2006, Ahmed’s body was found decapitated.
The Sudanese apostasy law treats any conversion to a religion other than Islam as an act of apostasy, an offence punishable by death. The law gives the person who converts out of Islam an opportunity to recant. Whilst the law does not explicitly ban proselytizing, the vaguely worded apostasy law criminalizes both apostasy and acts that encourage apostasy, which could be understood to include proselytization and blasphemy. This is an aspect of the law that has impinged on my personal freedom of thought and expression. In May 2017, I submitted a petition to a court of law in the city of Omdurman, asking for a change in my religious status in the National Record from “Muslim” to “Nonreligious”. The next day, I was arrested and charged with the criminal offence of apostasy in accordance with article 126 of the 1991 Penal Code. Article 126 criminalizes the act of abandoning or renouncing Islam on the part of any Sudanese citizen who grew up as Muslim. I faced the possibility of a death conviction, which would only be overturned if I disowned my “apostasy” and re-embraced Islam. I was fortunate in that I succeeded in getting out of the country. Now I am back in Sudan with a degree of security brought about by the popular revolution of December 2018, which overthrew the Islamic regime.
The history of modern Sudan since its independence in January 1956 has been a long and painful vicious circle of elected governments being removed by military coups that were in turn overthrown by popular uprisings (1956-1958, elected government; 1958-1964, military dictatorship; 1964-1969, elected government; 1969-1985, military dictatorship; 1985-1989, elected government; 1989-2019, Islamic-military dictatorship; 2019 – present, transitional civilian government).
The removal of al-Bashir was a significant change, but the Sudanese revolution still remains an unfinished project. Despite its revolutionary composition, the transitional government of Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok is crippled by the unfavourable balance of power within which it is operating. This is due to the fact that the Deep State created and embedded by the Islamic military regime over three decades remains yet to be fully dismantled.The popular uprisings of October 1964 and of March-April of 1985 were successful in overthrowing the first and second military dictatorships in a matter of days. However, the third uprising was different in that it took almost five months of continuous and gradually expanding peaceful protests and demonstrations to achieve the partial success of removing General Omar al-Bashir, the head of the regime, in 2019.
This Deep State has a publicly active face represented by the well-funded political, religious, and propaganda bodies and institutions created by the Islamic military regime. At the forefront of the propaganda of the defenders of the defunct regime is the most incendiary and divisive issue of sharia (Islamic law, particularly its penal aspect). This has so far worked as an effective weapon of intimidation in that the revolution’s government has flinched from the task of carrying out the much needed legal reform to abolish all sharia laws that violate basic human rights such as the right to freedom of thought and expression.
Freedom of thought and expression is a fundamental right for individuals. It is also vital for all societies to enable a plurality of opinions. It is protected by all major international human rights instruments (including Article 19 of both the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights). The vast majority of countries are signed up to these conventions, and there is a strong claim even on the countries that are not signed up, namely that the right to speak freely is a basic moral right which states should uphold and protect.
The overthrow of the Islamic military regime in Sudan puts the country on the path of a new era of radical changes. The new era requires that the Sudanese move towards a wider space of democracy and freedom and that the revolution’s transitional government work to promote freedom of thought and expression and abolish all laws that stand in the way of this freedom, such as the laws of blasphemy and apostasy.
Mohamed Salih is a Sudanese human rights activist and an ex-Muslim atheist.