Just 18 months ago in Sudan, a young Muslim woman named Alaa Salah stood on a car roof dressed in a white robe and recited a poem to masses of pro-democracy protesters. She sang about leaders who “imprisoned us in the name of religion.” A video of her singing went viral. Days later, as a result of such grassroots protests, the Islamist dictatorship of Omar al-Bashir fell after 30 years in power.
Since then, a transitional government has reversed the imposition of Islamic law on women and religious minorities. Last month it agreed to separate religion from the state and respect the right to self-determination. Finally on Oct. 19, the United States announced plans to lift its 27-year designation of Sudan as a state sponsor of terrorism. A largely Muslim country that once hosted Osama bin Laden as a guest has begun to put bigoted violence “in the name of religion” to rest. And people like Alaa Salah started it.
These events in Sudan are worth noting as the French government launches a top-down campaign against the fires of religious zealotry. The campaign is in response to the Oct. 16 beheading of a schoolteacher by a radicalized young Muslim in retribution for showing cartoons of the prophet Muhammad during a class on freedom of expression.
Following the barbaric killing, France seems less patient to work with its large Muslim minority to counter violent radicalism. The public fear is understandable. Since 2015, more than 240 people in France have died by Islamist violence. Yet acting on such fear can also lead to the stigmatizing of Muslims – many of whom desire peace among religions under a secular constitution.
Since the beheading, Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin has ordered a probe of dozens of associations, including Islamic schools and mosques, on suspicion of condoning extremist acts. Hundreds of foreign citizens identified for their radicalism are being expelled. “There is no reconciliation possible with radical Islam,” he said.
President Emmanuel Macron also plans to ban associations that indoctrinate children. He wants Islamic organizations that receive public funding to sign a “charter” in support of secular governance.
Such harsh measures could end attempts to engage French Muslims and to persuade them to lead efforts against violence in the name of religion. Three years ago, Mr. Macron asked people to stop discrimination and open opportunities for Muslims to eliminate the “fertile soil” for terrorism. Now he wants to ban home schooling to prevent any teaching of radical Islam.
Even though it is still in transition to democracy, Sudan sets a better example for how to change hearts about the role of Islam in a pluralistic society. Reform must come from below, sung out from car tops by people who love their religion and also see it as a source for loving others of different faiths. Civic equality and civil discourse are becoming a norm in Sudan.
By engaging with the country’s Muslims out of care and concern, French leaders can supplant the very hate that lies behind the recent violent attacks of a few.