Al-Ahram Weekly Online   11 - 17 May 2006
Issue No. 794
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Hassan Al-Turabi

Hassan Al-Turabi: Remaking history

Sheikh Hassan Al-Turabi is undoubtedly one of the most consequential Sudanese thinkers of our times. Born in the eastern Sudanese city of Kassala in 1932, he has held a string of ministerial portfolios under successive Sudanese governments, culminating with his position as speaker of the Sudanese Parliament. A legend in his own time, Turabi, or rather his views, have tended to attract rather more attention with him out of office; they are likely to do so even more this year. Turabi captured the Zeitgest of Sudan and much of Muslim Africa in the early 1990s with his radical Islamist posturing. In 1991, he founded the Popular Arab and Islamic Congress (PAIC), an annual event that grouped together militant Islamist leaders from around the world. As secretary-general of the PAIC, he played host to the likes of Saudi dissident Ossama bin Laden, the leader of Al-Qaeda, who was based in Sudan in 1990-96 -- a time when Turabi was at the pinnacle of his political career. Western-educated, fluent in both French and English, Turabi sees himself as a man with a mission. He earned his Masters at the University of London (1955-57) and PhD from the Sorbonne, Paris (1959-64). He married into perhaps the most important religious-political family in Sudan -- his wife Wisal is the sister of former Sudanese Prime Minister Sadig Al-Mahdi. However, his conjugal connections did not save him when he fell out with his once political ally Sudanese President Omar Hassan Al-Bashir. Hailing from a family steeped in Islamic jurisprudence, his father being a judge, Turabi has always prioritised Islam over racial, ethnic and tribal identity. Early on in his career and immediately after his graduation from Khartoum University, Faculty of Law, in 1973, Turabi joined the Islamic Charter Front (ICF), the Sudanese branch of the Muslim Brotherhood. Rising quickly in the ranks, the suave and articulate Turabi became the secretary-general of the ICF in 1964. From the inception of his political career, he stressed the liberal, progressive and open-minded nature of Islam. He championed women's rights -- authoring The Position of Women in Islam in 1973, a radical treatise in Islamist discourse at the time.
Interview by Gamal Nkrumah

"People are not stupid, nor lacking in civic responsibility," Sheikh Hassan Al-Turabi points out. His voice rises with excitement as he talks about the prospects for peace in Darfur. Choking on his words, he explains that the absence of democracy is the main reason behind conflict. "There is no notion of consensus ( shura ), as Islam enjoins, nor an imperative to democratise." But there is a lot more to Sudan's leading Islamic ideologue than cynicism. He has weathered the political storms that engulfed his country rather well. "Slogans are not a substitute to strategy," he argues. Turabi sees himself as an enlightened Islamist. But nothing seems to be as much fun to him as politics. Age has not dented his passion for it. Africa's foremost Islamist ideologue does not live in saintly retirement. "I am against the enforcement of Sharia law on non-Muslims. The Christian southerners must not forcibly succumb to Islamic Sharia law. "The Jews of Medina were not subjected to Sharia law during the days of Prophet Mohamed. Why should we Muslims, today, force Sharia law on Christian subjects?"

He reserves his harshest criticism for the military clique ruling Sudan. The curious thing is that they have not learnt from their mistakes, he says. "They insist on doing things their way -- which has more to do with totalitarianism and authoritarianism than Islam -- and so have got almost everything wrong." Religious though he may be, Turabi is irreverent.

Political Islam wrenched power in Sudan in 1989, in large measure due to Turabi's machinations. The victory was a Pyhrric one, and he is the first to concede defeat. "Political reform must begin with familial reform -- with reform of household politics," he explains. "Women's rights are paramount. Where women's rights are thwarted there can be no democracy. You cannot have democracy on the street, when there is no democracy at home." As far as Turabi's current political statements are concerned, he seems to reflect the need to sustain coherent plot-lines to explain what are in fact rather messy situations that his country's recent history have conjured up. He is, however, in no doubt as to whom to blame for the mess. "Military rule ruined the country. Democracy is the only viable answer to Sudan's numerous challenges." Turabi soon pulled off one of the most stunning surprises of his career -- he metamorphosed into a leading opposition figure from a typical government politician. His have detractors dismissed the statements he then made as just another populist gimmick. They decry what they see as his a sharp sense of opportunism. He does not fail to concede some of his inconsistencies.

Turabi asks how difficult it really is to maintain universal notions of human rights. He argues that the inferior status of women in contemporary Muslim societies has nothing to do with Islam as revealed in the Qur'an and Sunna (the traditions of Prophet Mohamed). This acute sensitivity to the question of women in Islam and the weight he gives to women's rights sets Turabi apart from many Islamist ideologues in the Arab world. He is careful to distance himself from the Salafists -- the hard-line Islamist militants. That said, Turabi is not ambivalent about getting the nod from his admirers and supporters. "I was imprisoned because I spoke with the southerners -- the Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA) -- I spent 30 months in jail for doing so -- and I was also imprisoned, 15 months, for speaking with Darfur's armed opposition groups. Now, I have entered into discussions with the Easterners," he says nonchalantly.

At 73, he is as healthy and outspoken as ever. He doesn't see the world through the lens of victim-hood. He might not be a military man, but he is a fighter -- and so far a survivor. The sprightly septuagenarian was set free in June 2005 and his largely militant PCP received authorisation to resume its activities and re-open its Khartoum headquarters. Soon after his release, Turabi held a rally in Midan Al-Mouled in the Sudanese capital. He stressed that no political group, including his own, should be left out of the political equation. He claims that his party is the most popular in Sudan today. And his boast pins him down precisely as someone without qualms at all, just a gut sense for a good political move. Whatever else you may say about him, Turabi looks set to generate political waves in 2006. His tirades are something of a fugue.

Turabi is a stickler for democratic reform in the region. His critics and detractors -- and they are legion -- say that he has ridden roughshod over the Sudanese constitution, that he is a political opportunist and that he has been bad for Sudanese democracy. Turabi vehemently denies the charges. His grave mistake, which he bitterly regrets today, is that he trusted the "soldiers" and aligned himself with them. He believed that they could act as the Trojan horse that would secure his way to power -- and it worked, for a while. But he paid dearly for the miscalculation. Today, he is looking forward to the day when Sudan will emerge from the shadow of the barracks.

Turabi reminisces about how his ideas played out in the 1980s and 1990s. His world was one of high drama and much action. For Turabi it was a trail specifically blazed by followers. He had already issued controversial statements by the beginning of the year. On the 50th anniversary celebrations of Sudan's independence from Britain, he said that as long as there are foreign troops on Sudanese soil, the country for all intents and purposes remains a colony. He also said that the Islamist experiment in Sudan was a failure.

Turabi, after the fallout with Sudanese President Omar Hassan Al-Bashir, has a clear view of the main weakness of the regime: after the 1989 coup d'etat that brought the military to power and ousted a popularly-elected government, the regime did not highlight democracy as an essential element of Islam and Islamic governance. Yes, serious mistakes were made in the past, Turabi now concedes. But to assume, as Turabi- bashers implicitly do, that he and the party he leads are purposeless is self-delusion. Turabi, who was the chief ideologue of the political thinking of the National Islamic Front (NIF) that ruled the country with an iron fist from 1989 until the party split in two in the late 1990s, now insists on democracy. He stresses that Islam and democracy are not incompatible. Partly, though, it is the failure of the central thesis and the projects that sprang from it, the NIF experiment is viewed by many as having disastrous consequences for Sudan. And Turabi was an integral part of the disaster.

The better news is that the whole misguided experiment has bitten the dust. Turabi almost succeeded in rewriting the entire story of his country. He couldn't, but he is still trying. An attempt is made here to provide the Sudanese with a new way of understanding Islam. Turabi invokes the example and success of the early Muslim community during the day of the Prophet Mohamed in instituting social justice and freedom of expression when talking about his vision for the future of Sudan. Such is his general approach.

Today, as leader of Sudan's opposition Popular Congress Party (PCP) he appears to be totally on the button. He speaks out against the Sudanese government and he is coordinating activities with the other opposition parties. He avoided any direct response to my question about his political and spiritual influence among some armed opposition groups in Darfur. It is an open secret that many of the leaders of the Justice and Equality Movement, one of two armed Darfur opposition groups that declined to sign a peace agreement with the Sudanese government, were former members of the PCP or close associates of Turabi. Islamist activists from Darfur were staunch supporters of the NIF regime in the past. Some observers would go so far as to claim that JEM is, in effect, the armed wing of the PCP. Only a very brave man or a fool would openly concede such a connection. Turabi's true hallmark, however, is his political acumen. And he insists that his moral courage will save the day, eventually; a day will come when Sudan is a truly democratic political entity. Turabi achieved eminence in three careers -- jurisprudence, theology and statesmanship. As Speaker of the Sudanese Parliament he made ample use of his political skill and natural aptitude for diplomacy. He was the brain behind the NIF's strategy of maintaining a stranglehold over the professional associations of Sudan. Turabi has also completed a book, Politics and Government, recounting the history and political significance of the rise to power and 12-year rule of the NIF. He now speaks out against the "failed NIF experiment". It might have been a brave and stimulating effort, he says, but it ended in disaster because it was based on false assumptions; and it relied too heavily on the "soldiers" as Turabi derogatorily dismisses the regime of Sudanese President Omar Hassan Al-Bashir. He paid dearly for his challenge to the rule of President Al-Bashir. He accuses the Sudanese government of many atrocities and gross human rights violations. He says, for example, that it now transpires that the Sudanese security apparatus was behind the assassination attempt on his life in Canada in 1992. Ironically, he was part of the regime at that point.

Turabi's was a brave failure.

Still, it was a failure -- not in any dramatic, insistent manner, but rather in the fact that the whole notion of Islamic government was a fallacy based on far too many inaccuracies. Not only was the NIF experiment myopic, but in retrospect, it was replete with blind spots. The trouble is, it did not lead to anywhere beyond itself. There is in Sudan today an overwhelming feeling that the old way of running the country has become obsolete. But, that is not to say that the people who ran the country are on their way out. The same political characters who have figured so prominently in Sudanese politics in the past three or four decades will continue to do so. They are indispensable because they operate in a place where the rules are a little blurred. Some say this must change -- and changes are already underway. Disillusionment with Turabi's record notwithstanding, prison was a chastening experience as far as Turabi is concerned. He has been a thorn in the flesh of the Sudanese government ever since his release.

Not only does Turabi preach democratisation, albeit Islamist-style, he is allegedly supporting insurrectionist groups in the war-torn province of Darfur, western Sudan. "We have advocated a federal system of government for a long time now. Since the 1960s, in fact." One is stimulated by widespread nervousness about his powers and popularity. Turabi is used to winning popularity contests, and his influence both in Sudan and beyond is tremendous. Daunting as the task may be, he is unperturbed. "Democracy is the only way forward."

First of all, he elaborates, it is almost inevitable -- it is going to happen. The future of Africa and the Arab world is democratic. He knows that his relentless criticism of his government is key to his success. The Sudanese may be incapable of ever reaching a consensus among themselves, but there are unmistakable signs that the country is fast changing.

The collective imperative is for peace, popular participation and democracy. Quite where Turabi fits into this new Sudan is difficult to gauge out.

Right now he is but a leading opposition figure. Turabi was the standard-bearer of African Islamists. Can he still play that role? The NIF experience was a watershed for African Islamists. Holding it together was the radical Islamist ideology of Turabi. And to this day he is at the cutting edge of cool when it comes to explaining the mistakes of the past.

All political careers end in failure, the saying goes. Rather than evoking a specific history, he has set himself an agenda for the future. A future, with no congratulatory chest-beating on progress made. To his critics, the facts about Turabi are well known. He crushed much of Sudan's trade unions and professional associations and gave militant Islamists free reign. If ever there was a travesty of leadership by example, that was it. "To really describe things the way they were, not the way I thought they should be, or the way I wished they were," he counters.

"That was really hard because I was unable to impose my ideas on things," he excuses his record. The "soldiers" had him cornered. He had little leverage. So what of the future? So little time, so many stages for the one Sudanese player who still fascinates the Arab media with his intelligent, irreverent and occasionally outrageous outbursts.

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