Interview by Amal Habbani with Mohamed Salih El Dasooghi
The young man who raised the question of religious freedom in Sudan by applying to court to change his religion from “Muslim” to “Agnostic” on his official IDs seemed composed and eloquent when he spoke with me, as if he was not the same man who stirred all of the controversy which resulted in his detention for four days as he faced charges under article 126 of the Sudanese Criminal Code (Apostasy). At no point during our hour long interview did he show any signs of a psychological disorder, contrary to the report of a government psychiatrist who recommended that the charges against him be dropped on the basis of mental illness. Despite Mr. Dasooghi’s young age, he is aware of what he is doing and his rights.
Q: Who are you?
A: My name is Mohamed Salih El Dasooghi. I was born in the year 1993, went to school in al- Thawra and Umbadda, and was admitted at the Faculty of Economics, University of al-Ribat. Due to other circumstances I dropped out after the second year.
Q: Why did you go to court and request to change your religion status?
A: Before doing that I had raised the issue of religious belief and freedom in Sudan on Facebook and called for the abolition of article 126 of the Sudanese Criminal Code. I decided to challenge its implementation and practice.
Q: So at that point you decided to confront the authorities?
A: Yes, the regime has to answer to and justify the use of article 126 in the Criminal Code, which isn’t only unconstitutional, but also contradicts the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the African Declaration and every other declaration.
Q: In a strictly conservative society, we have seen how your idea has been rejected, even by some intellectuals. Why did you opt to carry on with this highly complicated issue?
A: I am addressing my inner self, and I represent a growing community of agnostics in Sudan. I am not thinking of atheism as a goal, but I see it as a result of a lifelong search that I am still examining for myself. Many people were atheists, then they found faith and wrote about it, like Mustafa Mahmoud, who wrote “My Journey from Doubt to Faith”. I didn’t intend to express my atheism as much as I wanted to challenge article 126.
Q: Some viewed your case as a move to boost your chances of gaining asylum in another country.
A: That’s not true! You are right about many considering this as a guaranteed case of asylum and that I have to leave the country, but I didn’t, and I never thought of that when I went to court. But I never envisaged the whole course of this matter.
Q: What did you foresee?
A: I thought I would be asked to repent, and I wouldn’t; then there would be a ruling and I would take the case to the Constitutional Court, which potentially and legally has the jurisdiction and capacity to abolish article 126.
Q: So you were planning to carry on?
A: Yes, and what happened took me by surprise. Even after meeting with the psychiatrist Ali Baldo and being returned to the police department, I never thought such a report would be written stating that the charges should be dropped due to mental illness.
A: Because the psychiatrist acted in a normal and collected manner and assured me that they cannot do anything to harm me and what I do is none of their business.
Q: Can you tell me what happened in jail?
A: I was taken into custody on Monday, and everybody there was astonished; still, all the officers at the holding cells treated me very well.
Q: Did you feel your rights were violated? Were you subjected to any kind of mistreatment?
A: Absolutely not. But the detention cells conditions are far from humane to anyone.
Q: We heard that the security services interrogated you?
A: They showed up in the first day and sat with me for about five minutes, but they were present during the interrogation by police and they were always around in the police department.
Q: In the fourth day, were you summoned by the attorney general?
A: Yes, two officers took me out and I asked them where we were heading. They told me that we were headed to see the attorney general. We went to the Ministry of Justice, to the 12th floor where I sat waiting for a little while. The psychiatrist was brought in and informed me that his name is Ali Baldo. He stayed with me for about half an hour.
Q: Do you remember the conversation?
A: He said let’s chat a little. He asked me if I was concerned about the situation in the country, and I responded that of course I was. Then he asked me about my relationships with others, including my family and about my way of life in general. He told me that nobody has the right to impose anything on me and that he will support me in court. Then I was taken back to the waiting room. The attorney general came in, looked me and went back without saying a word! I was taken back to the police department, and my older brother arrived. A police officer informed me that the charges were dropped due to mental illness.
Q: What is your family’s stance on this case?
A: They heard about the whole thing from others and they initially rejected my ideas and called them Kofr ( infidelity/blasphemy). I never committed any form of blasphemy. My mother came to see me in detention cells and she was terribly worried of what might happen to me, and my family now supports me.
Q: There are others who think that there are other priorities in a country plagued by war, poverty and diseases.
A: Yes, some might see my case as liberal or intellectual projection, but as I have said, rights are indivisible, and this included within freedom of religion and belief. All of these rights are related. Needless to say I pick my own causes and priorities and won’t let others decide for me. Everybody works in the field they are most knowledgeable about and have great interest in. And all this combined effort serves the causes of freedoms and human rights.
Q: People in our society are not used to others announcing their agnosticism, it even shocked intellectuals and people on the left. Why would a young man like you choose to abandon religion?
A: I was not entirely convinced by Islam ,though I am still researching its tenets. However, I can’t say I hold any religious beliefs!
Q: Were you religious before?
A: I was religious in the common Sudanese way, if I must say.
Q: At the time, had the question of religion been a concern to you?
A: I led a normal life, then I came across many websites discussing religion, and I went further and read many books. Still, I couldn’t find a satisfying set of values and beliefs provided by religion that could answer my inquiries on existence and the world, as well as relate to my way of envisaging my existence in this world. Different elements of religiosity failed to persuade me and the provisions of religion themselves are not convincing
Q: What do you think about Sharia laws?
A: Sharia laws are not suitable for our time and historical context. They come from an era before the dawn of human rights, particularly women rights. Sharia undermines women’s rights by degrading their bodies and their rights in inheritance for instance. Women are humans being and they deserve full rights.
Q: Some people think that the emergence of atheism among youth is a reaction to the Islamic views adopted by the governing regime, meaning that youth reject Islamists and Islam itself; what do you think?
A: I don’t think so, as there are people living under different situations within free and un-Islamic societies that also came to the same conclusion of rebuffing religion.
Q: But rejecting religion in our society has never been done in such a blatant manner as you did.
A: For me rejecting religion is personal; it is a mean, not an end in itself. I never intended to offend anyone, and if I did, I sincerely apologize.
Q: Do you mean part of your concerns with political Islam regimes stem from your issues with Islam itself?
A: Yes, I am driven by the notion that Islam in Sudan is used to conceal corruption and the theft of public funds, and serves as a distraction from “figh al-tahlool” (extricating oneself from stealing public funds) or the concept of Sutra (to disclose or publicly uncover the faults of another Muslim) and oppression against political opponents to accomplish that. Christians in Sudan, for instance, have experienced deep discrimination. Just a day before I was charged authorities, demolished a number of churches!
Q: Are a member of an organized body of agnostics?
A: No, I currently speak for and represent only myself.
Q: Religion has been an integral component in the construction of the Sudanese society. Do you think people should renounce religion in an effort to face and solve their problems?
A: I don’t have a problem with the society being religious, I am only calling for this to be address and discussed openly and in a modern way, not in a way that discriminates against the other and violates her/his rights. Agnosticism is a personal choice and it isn’t my central issue; my cause is religious freedom. Atheism is a soul-searching phase for me and in a year or two if I discover that Islam is the righteous faith for me I will embrace it as I don’t have a problem with it. But I do think it needs reform to complement historical developments.
Q: But when someone renounces the religion and moves from Islam to agnosticism, doesn’t this indicate a preconceived notion that religion will not solve our issues?
A: I have my own personal opinions, and I don’t want to discuss them publicly. The common cause between me and others is freedom. Everybody has the right to adhere and to choose his/her beliefs without fearing any repercussions because of that particular choice. That’s the essential point.
Q: What about changing your religious status on your official IDs?
A: Yes, it’s my right to choose what to believe, and it should be stated on my official IDs.
Q: You think everyone should be registered as “Muslim” in their papers?
A: I don’t think such a status should appear on official papers, because it indicates discrimination among citizens as not everyone is Muslim. It appears openly on the birth certificate and in the internal procedures forms to obtain the national identity number and passport.
Q: State officials could argue that such information could be a useful statistical tool for surveying demographics of the population.
A: If that is the case, they should allow anybody to register their respective religion status, and a Muslim could write Muslim and the agnostic could do the same. It is well known that there are various communities adhering to African traditional religions in the country. only Christianity and Islam are sanctioned and so if this is about statistics then it should encompass all forms of religion in Sudan.
Q: Do you have a last word?
A: I did what I did with no intention to disrespect other people’s religious beliefs. That’s not my concern. However, I am against authorities using religion as a cover and justification for all the abuses, violations and corruption in the country. The government uses tax money from Muslims, Christians and agnostic for their own interests, and none of us benefit.
Finally, I am really grateful for all those who supported me in my case.