The African-American Divide Over Sudan

The upcoming referendum on Southern independence from Sudan has divided black Americans interested in affairs on the African continent, pitting African-American Muslims against black Christians. Call it Louis Farrakhan vs. the Rev. Al Sharpton.

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This Sunday, about 4 million Sudanese in the war-torn Southern part of the country will go to the polls to cast their ballots in a referendum to decide if they should remain a part of Africa's largest country or become the continent's newest nation.

The debate over maintaining Sudan as a unitary state or separating the nation into two is an old one. It is the result of two civil wars that have raged between the North and South for all but 15 of Sudan's 55 years of independence from Egypt and the U.K. It is, perhaps, the most contentious foreign policy question among black Americans since the Angolan Civil War.

Sudan's upcoming referendum has sharply divided African Americans interested in affairs on the continent. And it has called into question past African-American support of African governments, from Idi Amin's Uganda to Robert Mugabe's Zimbabwe.

For black Americans, there are two conflicting currents in the issue of Southern Sudan. There is a strong religious affinity on one side; on the other, a strong sense of racial unity.

On the religious side are many African-American Muslims, including the largest faction of the original Nation of Islam, led by Louis Farrakhan. They espouse a religious solidarity with the Sudanese government of Lt. Gen. Omar Hassan al-Bashir, who has held power in Khartoum since he staged a military coup in 1989. Western forces, they argue, are conspiring to undermine Islam. On the opposite side arguing for racial unity are mainly black Christian leaders like the Rev. Al Sharpton and talk-show host Joe Madison, who insist that Southern Sudan is experiencing "genocide by attrition."

Farrakhan has visited Sudan several times and has vigorously rejected charges of slavery there. "While I stand here in the Sudan, there is a war going on, and that war is against Islam," Farrakhan said at a Khartoum press conference in 1994. "And it is headed by the government of the United States of America and the powers of the West. They know that only the unity of Islam will prevent Western hegemony over the world. There is no other force in existence to stop that but Islam." His stand has not wavered since. In recent years, Farrakhan has claimed that there is a Western campaign against Sudan, as well as Iran, based on oil and Zionism.

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Much African-American Muslim support for the Sudanese government has not diminished, even though Bashir has been indicted by the International Criminal Court for his role in prosecuting the government's campaign against dark-skinned, non-Arab Muslims in Darfur.

Hodari Abdul-Ali, an African-American Orthodox Muslim and former consultant to the Sudanese ambassador, is the executive director of the Give Peace a Chance Coalition in Washington, D.C. The group has sponsored several fact-finding trips by African Americans to Sudan. "The impending breakup of the Sudan is nothing but a disaster for Africa, for the African Diaspora and for Sudan," Abdul-Ali asserts.

Many of the same charges have been leveled at the Bashir regime, long regarded by some foreign policy experts as one of Africa's most brutal, repressive and corrupt.

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