The Islamist Behind Sudan’s Throne

Hassan al-Turabi remade his once cosmopolitan country into a strict Islamic state. But, for him, the revolution never stopped.

A mourner holds a banner bearing a portrait of Veteran Sudan Islamist opposition leader Hassan al-Turabi during his funeral on March 6, 2016 in the capital Khartoum.
Turabi, one of the fiercest critics of President Omar al-Bashir's government, died of a heart attack on March 5 aged 84, officials said. / AFP / ASHRAF SHAZLY        (Photo credit should read ASHRAF SHAZLY/AFP/Getty Images)
A mourner holds a banner bearing a portrait of Veteran Sudan Islamist opposition leader Hassan al-Turabi during his funeral on March 6, 2016 in the capital Khartoum. Turabi, one of the fiercest critics of President Omar al-Bashir's government, died of a heart attack on March 5 aged 84, officials said. / AFP / ASHRAF SHAZLY (Photo credit should read ASHRAF SHAZLY/AFP/Getty Images)

LONDON — Hassan al-Turabi died last Saturday as he had lived: agitating in his native Sudan, and elsewhere in the Arab world, to put Islam at the center of political life and himself at the center of both.

Presidents, prime ministers, and military generals came and went in Sudan over the past 40 years, but Turabi remained, either lurking in the corridors of government or agitating from the ranks of the opposition — and occasionally from the inside of a jail cell. If he was not in power in some guise, he was plotting and maneuvering his way back into it. This was true right up until his death on March 5, when, at the age of 84, he was leading a rearguard political insurgency against the president he helped install more than a quarter century ago.

Turabi pursued his great cause in life — Islamic governance — with deep fervor, but also with a remarkable degree of pragmatism. There was no potential collaborator with whom the professed ideologue would not forge an alliance if it meant ascending the political ranks. His Islamic jurisprudence seesawed from a virulent brand of militant Islam that led him to host Osama bin Laden in Khartoum and send a generation of Sudanese to wage “jihad” against rebels in Southern Sudan to a more moderate doctrine that saw him oppose the death penalty for apostasy later in life. Expediency was the only unifying thread.

But what many mistook for enlightened reform was actually a lack of conviction. It is a great irony that the man who did more to advance the cause of political Islam than any other Sudanese ended up perverting it for his own ends. Even bin Laden thought Turabi was a fraud and a “Machiavelli” who ”doesn’t care what methods he uses,” Lawrence Wright notes in his book The Looming Tower. Power, more than piety, was Turabi’s ultimate goal — and in the end he achieved neither.

In his four decades in public life, however, Turabi left a deep imprint on the politics of Sudan and on the broader Arab world. The son of a devout Sufi jurist, he joined the student wing of the Islamic Charter Front, a party inspired by the Muslim Brotherhood, while he was a law student at the University of Khartoum. He later received a doctorate from the Sorbonne in Paris and pursued a brief academic career in Sudan, which he quickly jettisoned in favor of his real passion: politics. As attorney general under President Gaafar Nimeiry, a stalwart U.S. ally during the Cold War, he led the charge to implement sharia law through the infamous September Laws beginning in 1983. Nimeiry (and along with him, Turabi) was overthrown in a popular uprising in 1985, one inspired in part by the harshness of those laws. Then in 1989, Turabi masterminded a coup that brought a little-known colonel named Omar al-Bashir to power.

For the next decade, Turabi set about remaking his once cosmopolitan country into a strict Islamic state. He preferred to operate from the shadows — during the coup, he actually had himself imprisoned in order to obscure the fact that he was in charge — but his fingerprints were evident on everything from strict dress codes for women to gatherings of Islamic terrorist groups, including Hamas, Hezbollah, and Palestinian Islamic Jihad, that took place periodically in Sudan in the early 1990s. He eventually took up an official post as foreign minister and later in the National Assembly, where he served as speaker until 1999.

Turabi’s glory days were some of the worst years for Sudan. He and the small coterie of leaders around Bashir imprisoned, executed, and tortured opponents with unprecedented brutality. Turabi was careful never to be the actual perpetrator, never to have blood on his hands or be caught at the scene of the crime. But his political allies were more than willing to purge enemies in the name of Islam on his behalf. The brew of Islamist bile they concocted poisoned Sudan’s political culture for years and still bubbles up in the form of random lashings and apostasy trials. They also sent thousands of young men to their deaths in a struggle against rebels from then-southern Sudan, a conflict they sought to rebrand as a holy war. When the bodies came back, they were buried in grotesque funeral-weddings that celebrated the martyrs’ marriages to virgins in the afterlife.

During this period, Turabi extended Sudan’s hospitality to a range of Sunni extremist groups, convening what has been called a “parliament for terrorism” in the country and even issuing passports to terrorist operatives in an effort to expand his sphere of influence. This alienated Sudan from its Arab neighbors and transformed it into an international pariah, implicated in everything from the 1995 assassination attempt on Hosni Mubarak to the attack on a U.S. military installation in Saudi Arabia that same year. Eventually, it was too much for Bashir, who lost patience with Turabi’s constant power plays, as well as his provocation of strategic allies in the Arab world.

In 1999, Turabi was ejected from government and imprisoned. He was eventually released in 2003, but was regularly hauled back to jail on charges of conspiracy to overthrow the government or placed under house arrest.

After his fall from grace, Turabi became associated with the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM), an Islamist rebel group from Darfur that in 2008 mounted a daring attack on Omdurman, one of the three cities that make up greater Khartoum. But, as always, the ever-shrewd legal scholar was careful to avoid being directly implicated in JEM’s activities. Rather, he used the suspected link — and the regime’s fear that Turabi might use his base of popular support in Darfur to challenge Bashir — to promote the conflict in the western Sudanese region as an existential threat to the regime. In this, he gained relatively little traction, however, and he gradually receded into the role of a mainstream opposition politician, jostling for airtime just like any other rebel leader, dissident, or head of a sectarian party.

Clever, garrulous, and a gifted orator, Turabi can only be eulogized as a great thinker if the word is shorn of its moral dimension. What did set him apart from the stable of high-profile religious scholars in the Arab world was that he was a bona fide nonconformist who did not pander to the religious masses or espouse the conventional wisdom or sensibilities of the Sudanese people. In fact, he was an inveterate elitist who scorned democratic ideas, even those that could be reconciled with Islam.

In an interview with a French TV channel in 1993, in response to a question about the qualifications of his party to rule, Turabi replied, “Because we are the crème de la crème of Sudanese society.” It was a revealing statement so lacking in self-awareness that even the interviewer observed that it came across as elitist. This conceit was ultimately his undoing, as his ambition far outstripped his reach and influence. The reckless adventurism and provocation of the outside world culminated in the attempt on Mubarak’s life — an escapade of stunning hubris that hastened Sudan’s descent into international isolation.

Toward the end, as Turabi became more and more isolated, what had seemed to be the idiosyncrasies of genius — the nervous laugh, the rambling meandering speeches, the wild gesticulation and unnerving spasms — began to look like the unraveling of a man thwarted. In the end, he failed in both his declared and undeclared ambitions: the happy marriage of religion and state — with him at the helm. Sudan’s experiment with political Islam is in tatters, clumsily and randomly resuscitated under a tired regime that defaulted to military dictatorship redux. The holy war with the south was lost — South Sudan declared independence in 2011 — and Islamist politics, at least in the near term, were successfully hijacked by the hoi polloi of the Islamic State and similar groups, who have no time for the highfalutin academic interpretations of men like Turabi.

But true to form, the aging Islamist scholar was still looking for a way back into the halls of power in the last year of his life. Turabi’s last hurrah involved using a planned national dialogue as a cudgel to bludgeon Bashir into a transitional government, which would presumably include his Popular Congress Party. His call to a so-called “successor regime” included some vintage Turabi, with his extravagant prose and slick religious rhetoric. But in the end, it was a weak, last-ditch effort to make himself — and the Sudanese political Islamic movement — relevant again.

In the final tally, Turabi spent more time in prison and at the margins than he ever spent in power. He left a deep imprint on Sudan and the Arab world, but ultimately unable to bend either to his will, he fell a martyr to his ego.

Image credit: ASHRAF SHAZLY/AFP/Getty Images

Nesrine Malik is a Sudanese columnist and features writer based in London. Twitter: @NesrineMalik

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