by Eric Margolis
Sudan, Africa's largest nation, is the new, hot-button cause for conservative Christians. In fact, Sudan now inflames the religious right with the same instant moral indignation that Tibet inspires among Hollywood's trendy left: an heroic struggle of comic book simplicity between good and evil, set in a remote, exotic place no one has ever visited.
According to the Christian right, the fundamentalist Islamic regime in Khartoum is savagely persecuting southern Sudanese Christians, 10% of the nation's 33 million people, by trying to either eradicate them, or convert them to Islam.
Christian conservatives are calling for a crusade against Sudan. Interestingly, a century ago, fevered Britons cried for a similar crusade to rescue `Christian saint,' Gen. Charles Gordon, besieged in Khartoum by the Muslim Dervish Army of the dreaded Mahdi.
Washington has been busy stoking the anti-Sudanese furore. The US has attempted since 1990 to overthrow the regime in Khartoum, which is viewed as pro-Iranian and unaccomodating to US Mideast interests. Embarrassingly, recent US attempts to mount multi-front invasions of Sudan from Uganda, Eritrea, and Ethiopia have collapsed in yet another fiasco for America's bumbling spooks.
What is the truth about Sudan? Like most international conflicts, Sudan's civil war is far more complex, and morally shaded, than westerners understand - or care to understand.
The British Empire, father of many of Africa's current woes, created Sudan out of two disparate groups: northern Arabs and black African southerners. Today, Sudan is about 70% Muslim, 10% Christian, and 20% animist. Blacks, concentrated in the south, about equal Arab-Nubians of the north.
Sudan, half central African, half Mideastern, and wholly unstable, has been racked by internal conflicts over land, water, cattle, religion and politics for a century. In the 1960's, western Christian missionary groups began arming Stone Age southern Dinka tribesmen, encouraging them to rebel against Khartoum. Israel secretly armed and aided southern Christian rebels to destabilize Sudan, an ally of Egypt.
Since then, southern Sudan has been convulsed by civil and tribal war. Black Muslim tribes raided the south for cattle and women; black animists battled black Christians; the Arab Army fought rebels of the mainly Christian SPLA rebel army, which was armed and financed by British Christian `humanitarian groups,' Ethiopia, Israel, and, later, the US, Uganda, and Egypt. Alliances shifted overnight. Christians slaughtered Christians; Dinkas massacred Shilluks; Muslims fought Muslims.
The bush war and ensuing chaos created famine and a flood of refugees across southern Sudan. All sides in the multi- faceted struggle denied food to their foes. Hundreds of thousands of civilians have starved. Massacres, looting, the theft of children and cattle, became the rule in this primitive, typically African tribal conflict waged by local warlords. The Christian SPLA rebels split into battling factions, one of which sided with the Islamic government.
Off in distant Khartoum, 800 miles up the Nile, the government foolishly tried to impose Islamic religious law on the non-Muslim south, producing yet more conflict and unrest. Sudan's support of Iraq in the 1991 Gulf War brought a barrage of US condemnation. Washington proclaimed Sudan a `terrorist' or `rogue nation' and set about undermining the isolated Khartoum regime. British missionary groups, fearing southward expansion of Islam, unleashed a noisy propaganda blitz against Sudan, featuring false accusations of genocide and wild exaggerations of slavery.
Would-be western crusaders eager to smite Sudan's Saracens should do some homework. Sudan is a fiendishly complex tribal-religious-ethnic mess that defies easy resolution. If you can't tell a Bari from a Nuer, stay home. Leave Sudan alone to sort out its myriad problems the African way.
Militant Christians from Omaha or Blackpool should tend to their dispirited, shrinking flocks at home, rather than further aggravating Sudan's endless miseries. African souls don't need saving. The west has caused enough damage and suffering in Sudan.
[Eric Margolis is a syndicated foreign affairs columnist and broadcaster based in Toronto, Canada.]
Copyright © 1998 Eric Margolis - All Rights Reserved