Abdullahi Ahmed An-Naim
Professor of Law, Emory University School of Law

To honor William Alford, my “friend for life!”

By this title I mean to say that Professor William (Bill) Alford is not only my life-long friend, but one who helped me shape my life into one worth living. For context, let me begin with a brief narrative of my personal experiences, starting with when I first met William/Bill Alford in Cambridge, England, in August 1971 during my studies for the LLB (graduate degree at the time) in public law.  I am from Sudan, where I graduated in law from the University of Khartoum in 1970. I was then sent to the University of Cambridge on a scholarship from the University of Khartoum for graduate studies. That program was part of the policy of the University of Khartoum to replace British instructors with native Sudanese lawyers. During my academic stay in the UK, I earned an LLB and Diploma in Criminology in 1973 from the University of Cambridge, England; and PhD in comparative criminal law and procedure from the University of Edinburgh, Scotland, in 1976. As I now understand, I was a typical post-colonial subject and English Common Law lawyer. My “mission,” as I recall, was to make the Sudanese legal system as close to resembling the English Common Law system as possible, including the “dissident” Scottish European impulse, though Sudan was never a member of the British Commonwealth because we were colonized jointly by Britain and Egypt.

When I returned to Sudan with my family in October 1976, I assumed it was our final return from extended residence abroad. I was appointed lecturer in the Faculty of Law of the University of Khartoum. I also started teaching human rights and criminology at the Sudan Police Academy for several years, and a couple of times at the Sudan College of Prison Officers. I intended those extra-curricular teaching activities to promote the cultural transformation of the institutions of police and prison officers to instill values protecting human rights, out of personal and professional conviction. I am still pursuing this goal in all of my teaching and public advocacy activities out of respect for human rights at large. The mantra of integrating academic and sociological purpose and method for human rights to be protected within the family at home, in order to internalize these values with early socialization of children and become my “second nature” of embedded conviction.

We stand by the universality of human rights

This cultural approach to the promotion of the everyday practice of human rights evolved for me during conversations I used to have with Bill Alford since my earliest days in Cambridge. That vision was integrated with my personal values and professional discipline through what I initially called “internal discourse and cross-cultural dialogue.” As I continued to focus on the academic field of human rights throughout my teaching and researching career, I kept researching and publishing on concepts and strategies I associated with Bill from our student days. It is instructive that despite our apparent differences in racial/ethnic terms and religious affiliations, we shared our commitment to human rights and their universal practice in everyday life.

I am also grateful for conversations I had with Bill in 1972. Those conversations generated the theoretical framework for the origins of other theories that we debated as possible sources of the weakness or strength of human rights doctrine and process. Our concern for the universality of human rights became focal conversations and activities, personally and professionally. We managed to meet several times in subsequent years, such as when I was a fellow in human rights at Center for the Study of Human Rights at Columbia University in NYC, in 1981-82. I also visited Bill in Los Angeles in 1982 when he was teaching at UCLA. Bill’s contributions to my professional development include his presentation of a paper that yielded a chapter in a book I edited with the title: Human Rights in Cross-cultural Perspectives: Quest for Consensus, first published in 1992. The most recent visit by Bill was during his participation in a professional event at the Carter Center in 2017. Our grandchildren, who lived with their parents in Atlanta, fondly remember Bill’s visit for the fabulous children’s book he brought for them.

In an earlier significant visit, Bill came all the way from Los Angeles to Atlanta, when I was still in political detention in Sudan, to ask former President Carter to intercede on my behalf with President Numeri to secure my release as an academic. As Bill told me the story several years later, he thought of asking President Carter because he got to know him personally during the work that Bill did for President Carter’s relief and peace-making efforts in China. Bill respectfully explained that he came to request President Carter to write a letter to President Numeri asking for my release. As Bill told the president about my story, President Carter immediately pulled a sheet of letter-head paper and started writing in his own longhand, to paraphrase: Dear President Numeri, I am sure you are not aware of what your subordinate are doing without your knowledge. The young man I am writing about is a lecturer at the University of Khartoum, and does not mean to undermine your regime, etc…  Knowing how things worked in Sudan at the time, I am sure that President Carter’s letter was delivered to and read by Numeri but he would have been angry with me for using international contacts to embarrass him (Numeri). I am guessing that this was the scenario because in another situation when an American friend of mine asked a friend of his to ask Numeri to release me, Numeri got extremely angry and screamed at the man who asked him, telling him “how dare you intercede on behalf of traitors who are my enemies.” He also said that my American friends were my means for committing treason to undermine his (Numeri’s) regime.

The first time I met Bill Alford was at a reception presented by the Law School of Cambridge University. There were little prospects of hospitality in a party without a host, where all of the other guests were left “fending for themselves” in the company of their friends who were also doing the same. As I was waiting for an opportunity to sneak out and escape to my room, I was generously rescued by a human being with superior humanity who empathized with my besieged humanity. I often wondered about the connection between the snow of Boston, Bill’s hometown, and the snow I saw the evening of my first meeting with him. It was also the first night I ever saw and felt snow. Bill was my only refuge, with his touch of humanity and warmth during the duration of my first year and his second and, sadly, last year at Cambridge University.

From teaching rights to suffering loss of rights:

When I returned to Sudan in 1976 to teach at the University of Khartoum, I also continued my active membership of the Islamic reform movement of Ustadh (revered spiritual Teacher) Mahmoud Mohamed Taha, by participating in the movement’s public lectures and seminars, distributing hand-written pamphlets and publishing opinion pieces in the major newspapers of Khartoum. The most urgent focus of the movement was, as it had continued from beginning to end, to reform Sharia from within the Islamic tradition in order to base the current interpretation of Sharia within the present contextual position of Muslims around the world, to respond to their material and political as well as spiritual and sociological needs. Ustadh Mahmoud was advocating his view since the early 1950s and was highly respected in Sudan for his intellectual integrity and masterful command of Islamic discourse. The nature of the movement and its activities, however, tended to keep its membership small and informal, so generations of political leaders dismissed Ustadh Mahmoud’s movement as insignificant. Yet, he kept documenting and developing his advocacy of such principles as equality for women and non-Muslims and promoted democratic governance, all in a contextual reinterpretation of the Scriptural sources of Islam.

As President Numeri was planning to impose traditional Sharia rule by presidential decree in 1983, he moved to arrest Ustadh Mahmoud and his active followers by detaining them without charge or trial while he was trying to transform the legal and political system of Sudan to perpetuate his absolute control over the country. The rationale of Numeri’s juridical coup d’état was apparently based on the assumption that Muslims will not dare oppose Sharia rule, except Ustadh Mahmoud and his followers with their “heretical” discourse. Numeri’s preemptive strike was to detain Ustadh Mahmoud and his active followers to silence their voice before imposing Sharia rule. Most of the arrests were made in May of 1983. In my case, I was arrested 17 May 1983, at the Law School inside the University of Khartoum campus, as if to publicize repression of dissent. The point was painfully stressed to me as the detention of our group dragged on to eighteen months, while more targeted political dissidents were kept in detention without trial for many years. That and other experiences of lawlessness over the next weeks and months were instructive for me about how fragile the rule of law is and how alien the talk about inalienable rights is.

Yet, immediately upon the release of our group on 19 December 1984, after 18 months of detention, Ustadh Mahmoud issued a statement on a single sheet of paper, condemning the enactment of Sharia by Decree and resumption of the civil war in South Sudan. On the basis of that single sheet of paper, Ustadh Mahmoud was convicted by a “Special Court” consisting of a single judge on charges of treason and conspiracy to overthrow the Constitution and sentenced to death. In his final confirmation of the death penalty, Numeri added the charge of apostasy which did not exist as a crime in the Sudan Penal Code at the time. Every member of the movement was required to sign a statement denouncing Ustadh Mahmoud as a heretic and undertake to refraining from advocating his ideas. As an academic, I was able to leave Sudan to go to the Human Rights Center of Columbia University in New York for the summer of 1985. While at Columbia, Bill arranged for me to be invited as a visiting professor at UCLA Law School, initially for one year extended to a second year.