"I know for a fact that Abdullahi has a following among young Muslims in places like Malaysia and Indonesia," says John Esposito, head of the Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. "These people are often marginalized in their societies, but over time, these positions can become mainstream."
Naim's view is not just a theory picked up in the United States, but the result of painful personal experience. "As a Muslim from Sudan whose people have suffered tremendously from confusion over this issue, my mission is to clarify it so other Muslim societies don't go down the same road to come to the same dead end," he says in a phone interview. He has watched Sudan's institutions virtually collapse under fundamentalist Islamic rule and seen the disillusionment firsthand.
While a law student at the University of Khartoum in 1967, Naim heard a talk by a Sufi Muslim thinker, Mahmoud Mohamed Taha. "That lecture turned my life around," he says, and he joined Taha's Islamic reform movement.
But when Sudanese strongman Jaafar al-Nimeiri was about to introduce sharia by decree in 1983, he jailed Taha, Naim, and others for 18 months. Taha was put on trial and executed.