Over greasy McDonald’s French fries and soda, a meal we could never have shared in his native Sudan due to international sanctions, I sit down with Nabeel Mohamed to hear the story of his descent into fanaticism, and his escape out of it. “See, I was tolerant, then I became fanatic, and now I’m tolerant again,” he says in measured tones as we eat lunch at the Voice of America office where he works. His story is not an action-packed thriller of terrorist networks and grandiose plots to change the world order, but a story of insidious forms of extremism that emerge from intellectual repression and social restriction.
Gentle-mannered and quick to laugh, Mohamed, 23, always has a book tucked under his arm as he moves through his temporary home of Washington, DC. Currently, he is reading a history of Eastern Europe, simply because he realized that he knew nothing about that part of the world. Mohamed carries on Sudan’s history of a vibrant intellectual life with his love of books. At a reading in Sudan in the 1960s, the late Syrian poet Nizar Qabbani paid homage to this tradition with the saying: “Cairo writes, Beirut publishes, and Khartoum reads.”
However, the generations who have come of age under the 24-year-long rule of autocratic President Omar al-Bashir, like Mohamed, are the “lost generations.” Their exposure to the outside world has been limited due to conscious self-restriction and circumstances resulting from growing up amid censorship; an onslaught of government propaganda; religious and social close-mindedness; and sanctions by the international community. Those who have struggled to find and keep Sudan’s intellectual tradition alive have done so out of sheer determination in the face of social and political obstacles.
“My father and his generation used to read all sorts of books – foreign ideologies, stories, all sorts of things. I don’t know if it’s from the government, but the west has been characterized in our minds as bad and evil – that they want us to abandon our culture, our religion, so we’re not even open to reading their books. Even the ones translated into Arabic, we put labels on that author – he’s a communist, he doesn’t believe in God, or he’s an agent, so why would we read that,” Mohamed says.
While much of Sudan, including Mohamed’s own family, follows a more mystical form of Islam, Sufism, Mohamed grew to follow an ultraorthodox version of Islam thorough the Salafist group, Ansar as-Sunnah, or “followers of the Prophet Mohammad,” during his teenage years in Khartoum. The group is known for its commitment to preserving the “authentic” ways of the Prophet, relying only on the religion’s doctrinal foundations: the Quran and hadith, or teachings of the Prophet.
Mohamed’s involvement with Ansar as-Sunnah was a drastic departure from his childhood life. He was born in the border town of Wau, a major trading post between northern and southern Sudan, where his extended family was made up of both Christians and Muslims. While he attended a Quranic school from the age of three onwards, he also sometimes attended church with his relatives.
In 1998, the civil war, which had been raging since 1982 between southern rebels and the northern government, came to Wau displacing the imaginary creatures of Mohamed’s childhood stories with dead bodies. The onset of government and rebel fighting in Wau sparked a campaign of indiscriminate violence by the government against the southerner population, many of whom had sided with the rebels.
Growing up, Mohamed avidly watched the ruling regime’s television shows of the epic heroism of northerner martyrs against the unruly, rebellious southerners, but the northern-southern divisions were more ambiguous in Mohamed’s own life. His father is a northerner, and his mother a southerner from Wau. While his paternal uncle left Wau to join the war on the government side, his father helped save a southern schoolteacher from possible death at the hands of the army. As the onslaught on Wau worsened, the family eventually fled to Sudan’s capital, Khartoum, which remained untouched by the fighting.
Early within the regime’s grasp, Khartoum had willingly caved to the Islamization and Arabization policies of the ruling National Congress Party (NCP), which was intent on building an Islamic state. Unlike the NCP, which fused religion and politics, Ansar as-Sunnah often shied away from politics. Instead, they were committed to gradual systemic reform through education and proselytizing. Entering his teenage years, Mohamed attended the Ansar as-Sunnah mosque at the invitation of a neighbor. The more he started paying attention to the preachers there, the more fanatic he became.
He started to view his father’s Sufi religious beliefs as wrong; he refused to greet female relatives with a handshake; speaking to women outside of the family was unthinkable; and Christians became categorized as “non-believers,” instead of family. Drawn to their fierce devotion and tradition of religious knowledge, Mohamed came to refuse everything outside of Ansar as-Sunnah’s narrow paradigm. His mentor at the mosque often spoke about the vitality of educating the people to eventually build a nation, and Mohamed became determined to fortify himself with the knowledge to defend his beliefs.
Insatiably curious, he mastered formal and Quranic Arabic, which differs significantly from spoken Arabic dialects. Mohamed learned that even speaking English, which was haphazardly taught as a second language in schools, was against Islam, since it was believed that knowing a foreign language might taint the purity of one’s Arabic.
However, as he entered his late teen years, a childhood best friend and competitor had started to study English and was excelling beyond Mohamed’s rudimentary grammar school knowledge. Egged on by his best friend, Mohamed, too, began attending English classes.
When pushed about why he pursued English, he simply responds, “I felt the need.”
At the mosque, Mohamed’s best friend, who loved to practice, would push him to converse in English. “We caused a big scene the first time, people were very curious, people would come around and keep staring. But he didn’t care, and with time I learned not to care,” Mohamed recalls.
Starting to learn English unleashed a torrent of irreconcilable confusions for Mohamed. Contrary to the idea that learning English caused demise, he realized, “It’s just a language. People communicate ideas with it, what’s wrong with that?” On the one hand, Mohamed felt plagued that he was doing something wrong by learning English, especially as it was starting to undercut his religious beliefs. On the other hand, he could not understand how he could be dismissive of something he knew nothing about.
Initially, Mohamed was condescending when he read through his English-language coursework, which focused significantly on the western lifestyle. “At first I would think I know for sure that our lifestyle is better, that they don’t know what they’re doing. But I started to be challenged when I would be struck by a statement or have an epiphany, and something would make sense, but it’s not supposed to make sense, but it does.”
Reflectively he adds, “It was thought provoking for me. I started thinking and thinking. People are free, they travel, they do this and that. We’re not free. We’re not even free to express ourselves. Intellectually we weren’t free. Socially we weren’t free. Growing up, I had always wondered about the existence of God, and I always feared that deep down inside, I was a nonbeliever. But shaitan, the devil, was always to be blamed for sowing the seeds of doubt.”
Pursuing his study of English, Mohamed became involved in an English language book club and open microphone nights at the German Goethe Institute. There were few places for Mohamed to feel he could discuss and think freely without a filter for social and political reasons. Khartoum’s youth have almost no cultural gathering places, and those that do exist are on the National Intelligence’s radar as possible hubs of political dissent.
All of these gatherings and discussions challenged Mohamed’s thinking far beyond what his religious books had taught him. He describes the transformation from “fanatic to tolerant again” as gradual. An event he would react to in real time could provoke weeks of contemplation. “When I thought about my life, I realized how unfulfilled I was, how closed off, and how there was an entire world that I pretended I didn’t care about, and without being conscious of it, I started slipping out of it,” he adds.
Mohamed now finds himself in the bureaucratic center of the Western world where is he is on a fellowship dedicated to a year of building non-profit leadership skills. Although the freedoms and opportunities of D.C. are coveted, Mohamed finds it difficult to not be preoccupied with recent events in Sudan.
On September 22, President Bashir mandated the removal of fuel subsidies, a measure supported by the International Monetary Fund as part of its austerity plan for Sudan. The cutting of subsidies has caused the prices of fuel and food to almost double, and an already beleaguered population from the worsening economic hardship has taken to the streets in the latest round of anti-government demonstrations.
Far from Khartoum’s dusty, broad avenues, Mohamed works to verify the death tolls in the anti-government protests rocking the streets in Khartoum. Amnesty International has reported more than 200 killed and 800 arrested since the protests started on September 23, but the actual numbers are believed to be higher.
The protests are a continuation of previous demonstrations, which erupted in January 2011 as the Arab Spring swept through the region, and then later during the “Sudanese Summer” of 2012. The root frustration for many, including Mohamed, is with the ruling Islamist regime of the NCP, which took power in 1989 after overthrowing a democratically elected transitional government. Marginalization, war, growing inequality, and a sophisticated brutality have marked the regime’s decades-long rule.
“It’s weird,” Mohamed says, “to be covering the protests. I struggle to stay professional and not get carried away. It’s one thing to watch on the news, Egypt or Syria, but when it’s happening to your people, and you’re making sure that your younger brother wasn’t out, you feel the weight of it.”
When asked if he will go back to Sudan, Mohamed, goes quiet for a minute, “I might not be able to live comfortably in Sudan, or with the mentality in Sudan. It’s just the way people are. Having to repress yourself, your thoughts, your views, is just not something I can live with.” His family, who he speaks with regularly, still does not know fully about his reformed views out of his desire to maintain a harmonious relationship. While they are relatively open in their religious views, Mohamed’s growing distance, if not altogether departure, from religion, may not be taken well.
As we click through pictures of bloodied-bodied protestors on Flickr, Mohamed expresses hope, if not belief, that just maybe, these protests might lead to something different. “After these protests, I want to be part of rebuilding Sudan, regardless of whether or not they’re successful. If Bashir goes, then it’s more important. If he doesn’t, then we’ll keep doing what we’ve always been doing.”
Due in part to his frustration with Sudan’s politicians, and in part to his training under Ansar as-Sunnah, he prefers an unassuming, subversive form of rebellion.
“For me that means becoming a teacher, to have a chance to give students what I didn’t have in many ways. Through education, you’re giving them the tools to see for themselves.”
A shorter version of this article was originally published by Al-Monitor on October 24, 2013.