Editors Note: This is the first of a series produced in collaboration with the Council On Foreign Relations Religion And Foreign Policy Initiative
By Rev. Mark Edington
If you look closely to the southeast, you can see the outlines of a humanitarian crisis looming just after the turn of the New Year for the Obama administration. And unlike past examples -- Rwanda, Bosnia -- that often seem tragic yet ultimately distant, this one promises to have echoes across sectarian lines here at home, as well.
Imagine the following situation: One of the largest families you know in a neighborhood across town is going through a bitter divorce. It's a mixed marriage. Five years ago you got involved to try to help them patch things up -- things were so bad their kids were dying -- but all you managed to achieve was an agreement that they would work on it for five years.
The five years are up in January. One party still wants out of the marriage; she plans to demand her independence. And it just turns out she has 80 percent of the net wealth in the marriage. But a lot of her children -- something like 2.5 million of them -- are in his custody. And there's no chance he's going to let all that wealth go without making those kids suffer.
Oh, and remember that I said it was a mixed marriage? He's Muslim, and she comes from a generally Christian family. He's always wanted all the kids raised Muslim. She hasn't.
That's Sudan, in a nutshell. In 2005, the Bush Administration hoped it had finally negotiated an end to 45 years of near-constant bloodletting by bringing about a Comprehensive Peace Agreement, a highly ramified and interlocking network of eight separate agreements, each of which brought momentary respite in some dimension of the conflict that has claimed literally millions of lives.
Underlying the agreement was the notion that over the subsequent five years, a Government of National Unity would provide a framework within which Northern and Southern Sudan would try to find a way past two devastating civil wars by either living together peaceably or going their separate ways.
It's hard to make the marriage work when you have a divorce court date already planned. By setting a precise date -- Jan. 9, 2011 -- as the date for a referendum for Southern Sudan to choose between unity with the North or independence, the structure of the agreement itself virtually assured disaster.
For over a decade, the North, which possesses the capital city and control over the military, has been embarked on a steadily intensifying program of Islamization. Nothing about the implementation of the agreement provided any incentive for the government of Omar al-Bashir to undertake measures that would separate religious and ethnic identity in Sudan from equality of citizenship.
At a meeting this week organized by the Council on Foreign Relations, as part of its Religion and Foreign Policy Initiative, five leaders of the Christian churches in Sudan, on a tocsin tour of the United States, reflected on where things have come as a result. "Effectively it means I am not a citizen in my own country," Archbishop Daniel Deng Bul Yak, leader of Sudan's Episcopal Church, wearily reflected. "Rights in Sudan are conferred by religious status."
So for five long years, the people of Southern Sudan -- disenfranchised, destitute and desperate -- have looked forward to the day when they could create their own civil order, one in which their demand for freedom of conscience did not relegate them to second-class citizenship, or worse.
The bloody gyre that Sudan has become blends into a single festering stew nearly every indigestible ingredient of failed states. It lives on the historic fault line between Islam's religious, cultural and ethnic expansion, Africa's indigenous religious and tribal traditions and the more recent efforts of Christian missionaries.
It is the seventh most populous nation in Africa, yet ethnically and religiously one of the most diverse. It is home to a burgeoning business in human trafficking that monetizes virtually every form of human misery, especially slave labor and sexual exploitation.
And it has a single source of economic wealth -- oil resources -- concentrated in the area controlled by the minority populations in the South. This effectively makes them not citizens but targets.
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If you've ever tried to be "helpful" to friends going through a divorce, you know that there isn't a lot anyone on the outside can do to avert an inevitable outcome. That's pretty much our position with respect to Sudan. We want to think of ourselves as honest brokers, but simply by adopting that position we favor one side: a side that has been systematically taking rights, property and life away from its minority population for years.
But adopting a different approach -- simply deciding to take sides -- poses a great many risks, too. And more than a few of them are right here at home.
It's tempting to dismiss our recent season of debate and dissension over Islam's place in the American religious mosaic as nothing more than the "Silly Summer of 2010." But the underlying tensions revealed in our own civil society about Islam and its relationship to democratic rights and processes make especially precarious any strong position by this administration against a regime in Khartoum long devoted to a project of Islamization.
If the administration now adopts a hard-line stance toward the al-Bashir government, it will risk seeming to endorse views at home that Islam is an inherently dangerous and anti-democratic faith. Further, it will seem to undermine the hope of "mutual interest and mutual respect" between the United States and the Muslim world spoken of in President Obama's Cairo speech.
It's possible, theoretically, that the Obama administration could differentiate between its unflinching defense of the rights of Muslims to freedom of conscience in this country, and a new tone of warning to the al-Bashir regime to honor its commitments and observe the rights of its non-Muslim minority. But there is almost no chance that distinction would make a whisper of difference in the Islamic world, where such a stance would almost certainly be seen as yet another example of "America's war on Islam."
There are hard limits on the effectiveness of what the administration can do. And looming on the horizon is the possibility of renewed violence in Sudan on a scale unimaginable even by past experience. At this moment 2.5 million Southern Sudanese are effectively hostages in the North, and already the government in Khartoum has threatened their safety if leaders in the South will not bend to its wishes.
What options do we have?
A major intensification of public focus on the Sudan powerkeg is probably the most effective option open to the administration. The efforts of celebrity charities may attract glamour-tinged attention to a crisis that otherwise would hardly register in public awareness. But in the end there is no substitute for the voices of governments, and especially the U.S. government, calling for the protection of basic human rights -- life, conscience, expression -- as Sudan sorts out its own future.
The US can also work within the UN framework to strengthen the terms of the mandate under which peacekeepers of the United Nations Mission in Sudan (UNMIS) are currently selected and deployed. To date, the Khartoum government has insisted that nations contributing peacekeeping forces be largely sympathetic to its cause.
Of the more than 9,000 troops on the ground, a large percentage are from Islamic states. Not surprisingly, one result of this is a lack of trust on the part of the Southern Sudanese in the "protection" provided by these forces. That must change.
The current mandate of UNMIS troops will expire at the end of next April. But those terms are completely insufficient to the challenge that is coming after the January referendum, regardless of its outcome. The United States should press now for a redrawing of that mandate, with a view to creating a blue-helmeted buffer zone of troops both equipped for the task of keeping warring parties separated and not beholden to either party in the conflict.
Third, exactly because the coming conflict in Sudan may bring a new flashpoint in interfaith relations at home, it provides the administration with a unique opportunity. Working through the interfaith community, the administration should reach out to America's Muslims in advance of the January referendum to make clear the immense scale of the potential disaster and engage their voices among those calling on the al-Bashir regime to respect its commitments, assure a fair referendum and abide by its consequences.
If we are to avoid the possibility that the Sudan divorce will deepen the tensions in our religiously pluralistic neighborhood, we need to act now. We can't save the marriage, but we can do a great deal more for its children.
Mark Edington, an Episcopal priest, is executive director of the Harvard Decision Science Laboratory.