Forget Osama bin Laden, forget the security fence between Gaza and Israel, forget—for a moment—the bomb-bound crazies in Iran. Sudan is the place to watch, probably the next combat zone in the ongoing clash of civilizations.
For decades the Christian and animist inhabitants of the southern half of Africa's largest state (two and a half million square kilometers—roughly one hundred times the size of New Hampshire) have sought liberation from the Muslim Arab dictators ruling from Khartoum. In the sporadic civil war they have waged, on and off, for the past fifty years one-to-two million people have died, overwhelmingly southerners, as the north's tanks and jets have shelled and bombed and depopulated their villages.
Now they want out, and on January 9, 2011, following the agreement signed in 2005, the southerners will go to the polls and vote in a referendum on Sudan's territorial integrity. All commentators agree that the vote, if it actually takes place and if fairly counted, will overwhelmingly favor secession.
How will the north react? To judge by the north's consistent behavior over the past half-century, and, most recently, by President Omar al-Bashir's behavior toward his Muslim, but black, fellow citizens in Darfur in western Sudan—very badly. The south contains Sudan's principal national treasure, oil reserves, and the north will not easily give them up, much as it was loath to give up the traditional source of its slaves. (White Americans have for decades berated themselves for their forefathers' importation, exploitation and abuse of black slaves from Africa: the Arab world, whose centuries'-long plunder of black Africa's human stock is calculated in many millions of slaves, scarcely gives that blot on its past a passing thought.)
In the months following the vote, the southerners, led by Salva Kiir's Sudan People's Liberation Movement, will try to set up a state. Presumably, American and European aid will arrive; maybe some Israeli help as well. But the state-in-the-making will suffer from severe birth pangs. The state will need a name (Azanya?), perhaps a national language to replace Arabic (Moru?). Almost immediately, a large number of refugees (a million?)—southerners who over the decades migrated to the more prosperous north, where they served as an underclass—will pour back into the liberated south. Setting up infrastructure—the northerners built almost no roads in the south—will require billions and many years. Rebuilding the areas ravaged during the civil war will pose a giant challenge.
But whether the North, ruled by a man indicted for genocide and crimes against humanity (in Darfur) by the International Criminal Court at the Hague, will allow an orderly transition from benighted province to statehood is the overriding question.
To judge on past performance, a great deal of blood will flow before southern Sudan emerges, if at all, as a free state. To be sure, the Arab and Muslim worlds, as is their wont, regardless of the moral arguments involved, will back whatever al-Bashir—the Muslim Arabs, the home team—decides to do.
The seam-lands between (Greek-Judeo-Christian) West and (Muslim) East—in the Philipines, Thailand, Kashmir, Iraq (which the Christian minority is right now being driven from), Nigeria, Israel\Palestine, and the streets and banlieus of Western Europe's cities (including, most recently, Stockholm)—are currently the sites of the global clash of civilizations. The borderlands between southern and northern Sudan, I fear, are likely to join (or re-join) them.