Obituary: Hassan al-Turabi (1932-2016)

Hassan al-Turabi, who died this month, was the leading figure of Sudan’s modern Islamist movement. Before Turabi reshaped it, the movement was a small group of mostly student politicians, who toyed with “Islamic socialist” ideas and existed on the fringes of power. Many of them, like him, were the sons of small-town Sharia judges with family links to Sudan’s Sufi past.

Turabi joined the movement when it began in the 1950s, but then left for graduate studies in London and Paris. Soon after he returned in the 1960s, the Islamist movement shook and eventually seized the state. Turabi’s return coincided with the last days of Sudan’s first military dictatorship. Newly installed in Khartoum University’s law faculty, he outspokenly attacked the dictator in a speech that helped position him near the front of the intifada that restored parliamentary rule. A few years later, his movement worked its way into the center of a constitutional crisis about the legality of the Communist Party (its main rival for the educated vote) after a young Syrian communist allegedly insulted the Prophet in a speech.

In this period, Turabi acquired his reputation as a master tactician, someone who could link his relatively narrow demand for an Islamic constitution to broader social concerns. Some argued that he had perfected an Islamist adaptation of the united front tactic promoted by the Communist International after the Russian Revolution — a vanguard revolutionary party leading a diverse opposition down a path it did not necessarily want to go. But Turabi was operating in a much more civil environment. He was able to conjure up political crises from the law faculty, the parliament and the constitutional court without having to leave his congenial Khartoum social circle. At this time, he married Wisal al-Mahdi, great-granddaughter of the 19th century Mahdi and sister of Sadiq al-Mahdi, who may have felt that a marital alliance with Turabi could help his bid to become prime minister, which succeeded in 1966.

Turabi’s first experiments in power were important because they marked the moment when Sudanese Islamists came up with a tactical repertoire entirely independent from that of their earliest influencers, the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood. In Egypt at the time, Islamist social programs had exposed the movement to class politics, and military rule had brought its members into torture cells. Sudan did not work like that. In Khartoum, politics was civil. Politics in the northern hinterlands were managed by religious orders whose leaders were heavily invested in Khartoum’s commerce and bureaucracy, and politics in the South were managed by war. Racist ideology — genteel at the center, armed and vicious at the furthest margins — helped to maintain these differences between the center and its Muslim and non-Muslim peripheries.

Turabi began upending this system in the 1960s, and by the 1990s, he had succeeded. But not before other paths had tried and failed. In the 1970s, Gaafar Nimeiry led a modernizing military coup into government. He eventually ended over a decade of civil war in South Sudan and invested in its diverse, impoverished hinterlands. At first, Turabi and the Khartoum politicos were jailed and exiled. But by the late 1970s, a global financial crisis ended African development strategies and began a long period of debt and austerity. This was the moment when Turabi made his way back from exile to the cabinet.

In 1976, his movement backed an attack on Khartoum from rear bases in Libya and Darfur. The attack failed, but became the prelude to a national reconciliation between the government and the deposed parliamentary parties. Turabi led his movement into government.

Once again, opportunity favored Turabi. The oil price hikes of the 1970s bankrupted Sudan’s national development plan and greatly enriched the palace Islamists in the Gulf. Arabian princes now lent money to Islamic banks set up by Sudan’s Islamists. The Islamists controlled most of the liquid capital in the country and lent it out to their political supporters, who mainly traded in imports. Khartoum’s educated classes went to work in the schools and hospitals of the Gulf and the Islamists managed their remittances. The Islamists took over the army’s moral orientation department, and its officers reluctantly gave up their hard-drinking reputation.

Astutely or fortuitously, Turabi had positioned his movement perfectly for the new world economic order of international finance, labor migration and the security state. And at home, he outmatched all his opponents. The bankrupt military government abandoned its alliances in South Sudan, restarted the civil war and, in the shadow of Turabi’s influence, introduced a version of Sharia law. Drought and war brought thousands of migrants to Khartoum’s shanty towns, their hunger and misery unsettling what is still a remarkably peaceful city. They were disciplined by a harsh version of Islamic justice set out in an amended criminal code. Turabi used new provisions in the criminal code to see off some of his intellectual rivals — most notably, the Sufi reformer and civil rights activist Mahmoud Muhammad Taha, who was executed in 1985 on a charge sheet that included the new capital offence of apostasy.

Turabi probably did not intend to impose flogging, amputation, stoning and crucifixion so precipitately on a starving country. But the new criminal code, dreamed up in a panicked presidential palace, worked in his favor. Sudanese politics became transfixed by a competition between Nimeiry and Turabi over who advanced the most uncompromising version of Sharia. Turabi played along with this competition, which he was certain to win.

But Sharia had many meanings in Sudan. When Turabi’s father was a Sharia judge, Sharia jurisdiction had been limited to personal status, and Sharia judges dealt mainly with unhappy marriages. “Qadi al-niswan” (womens’ judge) was a snickering epithet for them. When Turabi became attorney general, that all changed. He personally observed a Sharia amputation and reportedly fainted during the process. The Sudanese understanding of Sharia was queasily transformed from a cultural and religious ideal to a grisly state practice.

Khartoum’s aghast cosmopolitans were forced to watch these theatrical punishments until Nimeiry’s last days, and almost to the end, Turabi remained one of Nimeiry’s closest collaborators. He was also his most powerful rival, and Nimeiry jailed Turabi in the last chaotic weeks of his rule. When Nimeiry fell in 1985, Turabi repackaged himself as a Nimeiry victim. Agile, restless and with a ferocious will to power, he kept his movement at the center of everything.

Sudan’s old parties, headed by religious patricians like Sadig al-Mahdi, led the parliamentary regime that followed. But on 17 percent of the parliamentary vote, Turabi’s Islamist movement outperformed them. Turabi argued that Islam was the solution for Sudan’s debts, droughts and wars — that the many contradictions Sudan had inherited from the colonial powers that invented it would be resolved by the top-down imposition of a unified Islamic identity on a turbulent and diverse society.

Turabi got his chance to prove his case in 1989. The parliamentary regime was beleaguered by creditors, and by the rebel Sudan People’s Liberation Army, which was sweeping across the South. Inspired by Turabi, current President Omar al-Bashir led a coalition of Islamists, military officers and Gulf-backed financiers in a military coup. The coup abolished Sudan’s civil institutions on its first day, ending for good the civil, congenial, genteel-racist Khartoum politics that had given Turabi his political start in life. For the next 10 years Turabi was the backroom leader of the state, but his fortunes were now permanently tied to the army’s.

The many different accounts of Turabi’s decade in power are testimony to his complexity and contradictions. For most of its history, Sudan had been a Cold War ally of the West, and Turabi decisively repositioned Sudan as part of the Middle Eastern resistance to Western power in the Muslim world, setting up the Popular Arab and Islamic Congress (PAIC), which attempted to unify secular and Islamist resistance across the Muslim world. Turabi set up new security forces and new provincial universities — both of which opened up government and commercial careers to groups of people that would never have had a chance in the old system. Women who went along with the system also benefited — women could put on headscarves and tell their patriarchs that they were now pious enough to be trusted in the public sphere. Female educational enrollment and political participation expanded, and in 2006, the first national household survey showing a decrease in female circumcision appeared.

The vindication of some rights of some women was not the only unexpected outcome of Turabi’s new system. A new criminal code with Islamic “hudud” punishments was adopted — but those punishments were seldom executed. The unified Islamic identity he tried to impose on the country attracted some groups from the northern Muslim peripheries, particularly in places like Darfur, where the Islamist movement had developed a following. But more often than not, Muslim and non-Muslim Sudanese resisted coercive Islamism while deepening their religious identities. Under Turabi’s Islamic revolution, most of South Sudan was baptized.

Turabi’s achievements were costly. At the start of the Islamic revolution, security forces dragged people out of Khartoum salons and into its torture centers (hitherto, torture and killing were weapons reserved for state adversaries at the bottom of the state’s racist hierarchies). PAIC brought Osama bin Laden to Khartoum, alienating many of Sudan’s allies in the region and across the world. Turabi declared jihad against both Muslims and non-Muslims who rejected his new Muslim citizenship. The jihad increasingly centered on South Sudanese oilfields. And although Sudan’s military was able to clear the population of the oil areas, it was not able to defeat the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA), the army of the Republic of South Sudan.

Turabi’s most lasting achievement was hardly noticed. Under Turabi, Sudan broke off relations with the World Bank and International Monetary Fund, and simultaneously imposed their neoliberal economic policies on the country — liberalizing trade and currency, divesting from state health and education services and promoting Islamic charities instead, and selling off public assets to government allies. His jihad may not have succeeded in unifying Sudan’s diverse peoples around an Islamic identity, but it intensified the process of extracting natural resources from South Sudan. In the first years of the 21st century, South Sudan’s oil transformed Sudan’s economy. But it was a restructured, neoliberal economy, which entrenched historical inequalities, spread Sudan’s wars and drew Sudan’s expanding economy deeper into the global economic order.

Turabi told TV audiences that Sudan’s economic policies were modeled on the Prophet’s. But as far as economic liberalization and social control are concerned, Turabi’s Sudan was in many respects part of a Middle Eastern and African mainstream: Sudan ended the 20th century as an export-oriented security state. But Turabi’s flirtations with Middle Eastern radicals suggest that he felt uncomfortable with aspects of this mainstream. (“Oh Turabi, he’s the pope noir du terrorisme,” he told a hostile New Yorker journalist in a memorable giggling flourish). These flirtations were to be his undoing. In 1995, his name was linked to an assassination attempt on Egypt’s former President Hosni Mubarak. It was the beginning of the end for his authority.

Turabi remained at the center of power in the late 1990s, when the Islamist movement felt sure enough of its hegemony to write a constitution, organize elections and set up a mass party (the ruling National Congress Party, or NCP). But Turabi’s radical associations in the Middle East were obstacles to Sudan’s path to globalization, and his autocratic manner alienated many of his most brilliant and powerful protegés. In 1999, when he tried to use the new parliament to strip the president of some of his powers, Bashir deposed him.

Turabi’s appetite for politics did not diminish when he returned to the opposition. He set up the Popular Congress Party. He recast himself as a more democratic, inclusive Islamist. He made alliances with his erstwhile enemies in the SPLA. Some of his Darfurian followers published anonymous reports that accused the government of discrimination against Sudanese regions remote from the capital. Turabi’s project of a unified Islamic Sudan had been substituted with a kind of pious neoliberalism that routinely favored Sudan’s wealthy center over its diverse peripheries, unsettling Darfur in the process. As instability in Darfur turned to armed conflict, these Darfurian propagandists set up Darfur’s most capable militia, the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM). The role of privatized militias for insurgency and counterinsurgency may be another of Turabi’s neoliberal innovations — JEM is now franchised out to wars in South Kordofan and South Sudan.

Turabi’s links with JEM were obscure, but they gave him political relevance when the Khartoum government signed a peace treaty with the SPLA. The jihads he had started for the separation of South Sudan from Sudan, and the neoliberal security state he had founded, could not deal with the contradictions that southern secession exposed in places like Darfur.

For most of Turabi’s political life, he adopted maximalist positions expressed in defiant Islamic terms. He used Islamism to expose the contradictions that the colonial state had brought to Sudan’s community of Muslims. He used Islamism to force Sudan’s establishments into competitions over doctrinal purity that they could not win. He used it to fast-track his movement into the army, and into the center of the state.

There are plenty of Western journalists who call Islamists like Turabi “medieval.” But he was a flexible exponent of Islamic tradition, an intellectual who used religion to seize the state, and to help people interpret and participate in Sudan’s polarized, unequal modernity. During his last long period in opposition, he became even more flexible. He denounced the jihad in the South, to the consternation of the families of its martyrs. He sought alliances with secularists and democrats. He was part of a wider move in Sudan to downplay the radicalism of the Islamic revolution. The CIA was given bin Laden’s files, and Sudan audaciously repackaged itself as a bulwark against Islamic extremism in the Horn of Africa. In Turabi’s final years, when the Middle East and the Horn of Africa was convulsed by religious fanaticism, Sudan — the Arab League’s first Islamic state — was mostly travelling the other way. This important Turabi legacy calls for historical consideration.

Turabi remained in very good health until the end of his 84 years. He took ill suddenly and was rushed to intensive care, in the dark veneer and leather opulence of Khartoum’s Royal Care International Hospital — a symbol of Sudan’s new inequalities. He had had little contact with President Bashir since his sacking in 1999, but the president — 72 years old, and with some cancer scares behind him — came to visit Turabi’s deathbed, and reportedly was visibly moved. The old guard is changing.

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Edward Thomas