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So Says

Abdullahi A. An-Na'im

December 08, 1985|KATHLEEN HENDRIX | Kathleen Hendrix is a Times staff writer

Tuesday is U.N. Human Rights Day. Lawyer Abdullahi A. An-Na'im, 39, a Sudanese Muslim, was imprisoned for 20 months in Sudan without charges or trial. He was released last December. He now teaches international human rights and Islamic law at the UCLA School of Law, but plans to return next year to Sudan, where he is branded an apostate to Islam, a capital crime. Q: When did your troubles begin? A: Around May of 1983, when my group issued a pamphlet critical of government policy. I belong to the Republican Brothers, which works to reform Islamic law, making it consistent with modern international standards of human rights. We criticized President Jaafar Numeiri's imposition of the medieval code of Islamic law, the Sharia, on the country, lightly brushing aside the Constitution of 1973. They started to round us up. It was a mass detention. I was picked up from the street, just in front of the University of Khartoum, where I taught law. A man approached me and said that the chief of security wanted to see me. I went in good faith. We were shipped to the central prison in Khartoum, where I was kept without an interview, without an explanation. Q: Did you have any access have to the outside world? A: We were not officially allowed any contact, but the warden and guards applied the rules leniently. We managed to get information from the outside. We also had irregular visits from our families. Q: What happened to your wife and children while you were in prison? A: The common sense and compassion of ordinary people, colleagues and friends overcame the hardship that could have been the case. The university continued to pay my salary because my colleagues did not officially report me as being absent. I was known to be detained, but there never was a formal statement submitted saying so. Nobody filled out the proper form. Q: When were you first afraid? A: Only after I was released. Throughout our detention I didn't experience fear, because at first I was shocked and dazed--and then optimistic that Numeiri's policies would land him in trouble and that this wasn't going to last. But within a month of our release, our leader, Mahmoud Mohammed Taha, was arrested and tried. He was convicted of sedition and apostasy, as were his followers "by implication." Despite the pleas of 21 Western nations, within two weeks ( Jan. 18, 1985) he was executed. . . . I felt completely vulnerable to lose not only my liberty but my life. For the first time I felt what it was like to be considered an apostate, a person who is a traitor to the nation of Islam. . . . I felt cold. I was really terrified. Q: What sort of danger were you in after your release? A: Under the laws in force at the time, I was open to any fundamentalist fanatic taking me before a court and demanding that I recant and denounce Mahmoud publicly or suffer the consequences of apostasy. An apostate--how do I say it--his blood is available for anyone to take. The sanctity of his life is lost. Q: There are the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights and other documents that we can refer to for a definition, but from your personal experience, how do you define human rights? A: I see in these documents the standards of life itself. . . . But I also appreciate the need to have people behind them, because our experience has shown that laws don't work. It is people who make laws work. Groups such as Amnesty International, which adopted me as a prisoner of conscience and made appeals on my behalf, and civil liberties groups within the United States--those are the people who make governments responsible. Q: You mentioned 21 Western countries. Did no Muslim nations appeal on your behalf? A: The Arab and Muslim countries remained silent. I find the record of Muslim governments in condoning the acts of Iran and Saudi Arabia is part of the problem for Muslims in general. There is no commitment to human rights, no commitment even to Islam itself, which objects to all this. Muslims who are aware of the violations of Islamic law being committed in the name of political expediency remain silent. There are certain committed Muslims who have a religious duty to stand up and say, "This is wrong." . . . As people who live in the region, they stand to suffer personally from the way Islam is being distorted and subverted for political ends. Q: How did you come to the United States? A: I had a Ford Foundation grant to do research at Columbia during the University of Khartoum's summer holiday, but I didn't know if I'd be allowed to leave. Numeiri was overthrown on April 6 (1985), and 10 days later I was given permission to leave the country. Once at Columbia, a colleague at UCLA helped arrange an invitation to teach. Q: What do you think of human rights in the United States? A: Americans enjoy a very high degree of respect for their civil and political rights in the domestic context, but there is something to be desired on the economic and social side. The general affluence of the country puts those problems in the background. But if you develop economic problems, they may create problems and tension affecting even the civil and political rights that you do enjoy. Also, today, your country is threatened by fundamentalism.

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