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Hasan al-Turabi: Islamist Politics and Democracy in Sudan

  • Book Title:
 Hasan Al Turabi
  • Book Author:
W. J. Berridge
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  • Acknowledgements                                                                page viii
  • A Note on Transliteration and Terminology                 ix
  • Glossary of Key Arabic words                                           xi
  • List of Abbreviations                                                              xiv
  • Introduction: Conflicting Representations of al-Turabi     1
  • 1 Early Life and Education, 1932–1964                            25
  • 2 Charisma and Its Limitations, 1964–1989                  49
  • 3 Salvation Regime, 1989–1999: ‘One-Man Show’?    77
  • 4 Between Liberalism and Totalitarianism: Al-Turabi’s Western Influences            
  • 5 Reformer or Radical? Islamic and Islamist Influences   144
  • 6 Between Global and Defensive Jihad                           177
  • 7 The Islamic State: Sharia, Nationalism                      
  • and Non-Muslim Rights                                                       214
  • 8 Al-Turabi’s Islamist Democracy: A Valid Blueprint?       244
  • 9 Champion of the Marginalized?
  • The DecentralizationStrategy                                            269
  • 10 Legacy: Turabism, Post-Islamism                              
  • and Neo-Fundamentalism                                                  293
  • Conclusion                                                                                 313
  • Bibliography                                                                             324
  • Index                                                                                           341

Between Liberalism and Totalitarianism Al-Turabi’s Western Influences

Few commentators dispute the influence on al-Turabi’s scholarly reflexes and political outlook of his Western education in colonial Sudan and Europe. Nevertheless, over the specific character and extent of these influences, there is much disagreement.

 Each label applied to al-Turabi carries its own agendas. Western critics tend to label him, along with the regime with which he was associated, as fascist and more frequently Communist.1 Sudanese secularist critics of al-Turabi have also tended to label him as a ‘totalitarian’, although perhaps because of the historic role of the Sudan Communist Party as the pioneer of political secularism in Sudan he tends to be labelled as a fascist more than a Communist.

For more recent critics, identifying a symbiotic link between Islamism and the totalitarian ideologies of the twentieth century serves another purpose: it enables a confident prediction of Islamism’s imminent demise.

Gallab, having drawn on Hannah Arendt’s theories to label Islamist ideology ‘totalitarian’, informs us that it can now be considered, like fascism and Communism, an epochal phenomenon; that is, as ‘one of the “isms” that emerged, extinguished itself, and faded away during the last century’.2

 This is a problematic contention, not just because it ignores the fact that many ‘isms’, such as nationalism, liberalism, socialism, secularism and feminism have continued to thrive in the late twentieth and twenty-first centuries, but also because it is clear that Islamist parties have thrived in post-Cold War elections – for example in Turkey, Palestine, Tunisia and Egypt – whereas fascist and communist ones have not.

Nevertheless, such arguments highlight the political function that terms like ‘fascist’ and ‘Communist’ serve. Meanwhile, for al-Turabi, presenting himself to the global media as Ibn al-Thagafa al-Francia (the son of French culture)3 and speaking about his interest in the French Revolution, serves the alternative purpose of associating him with the historic events to which many trace the origins of the very Western democracy many accuse him of rejecting. It helps make his brand of Islamism marketable in an era in which non-Western nations are increasingly expected to conform to Western democratic norms.

There is much debate over whether it was the rise of Hobsbawm’s ‘age of extremes’ that helped to spawn Islamism, or whether Islamism merely represents a long established politico-religious tendency reasserting itself following the onslaught of colonial secularism4 – one which values existing ideological movements in accordance with their instrumental as opposed to intrinsic merits.

For a number of critics, Islamism is intellectually and conceptually dependent on Western ideologies, particularly fascism and Communism. It has been claimed that they shared a common intellectual genesis in the malaise caused by the decline in the early twentieth century of the great empires of the Eurasian world and consequent flight to a utopian alternative to modernity.5

Daniel Berman insists that Islamism emerged in the twentieth century as a ‘trend of the moment’, inspired by fascist utopianism and Nazi racial theory.6 Meanwhile, Olivier Roy has suggested that it was the brainchild of the modern university campus, where religiously orientated students ‘borrowed’ concepts from their Marxist colleagues and ‘injected [them] with Quranic terminology’;7 and a number of Sudanists have also stressed the movement’s intellectual genesis within a campus environment dominated by Marxist thinking.8

Others have emphasized less the conceptual borrowing than Islamism’s tendency to cannibalize the techniques of fascism and Communism, particularly in the realm of propaganda, organization, mobilization and indoctrination.9 This tends to be the approach of the Sudanese Islamists themselves, although they are usually more willing to acknowledge their adoption of Marxist-Leninist than fascist methods in pursuit of Islamic goals.10

This chapter will accept that al-Turabi negotiated with, and borrowed from, the Marxist-Leninist corpus; but to regard his ideas as a mere reformulation of communist ideology would be far too Eurocentric.

As will be seen, the specifically colonial and postcolonial character of his intellectual upbringing determined the manner in which he ideologized Islam.

Al-Turabi’s revolutionary Islamic state, the failure of which was discussed in the Chapter 3, did possess some of the features of the classic totalitarian system as identified by Arendt. The most notable of these was the establishment of a parallel government that drew its power from its clandestine nature.11

But other prominent features of totalitarianism were lacking, among them a cult of personality: as already demonstrated, the extent to which this system was dependent on al-Turabi’s cult of personality has been exaggerated.

In light of Arendt’s pertinent observations on the conditions for the success of totalitarianism, none of this should prompt surprise. Even movements with totalitarian aspirations, she points out, often failed to establish totalitarian regimes when they seized power because they lacked the resources to do so. This was particularly the case where they took over sizeable territories but lacked a sufficiently large population to with-stand the destruction that a totalitarian system would inevitably unleash.12

Given that economically impoverished Sudan in the 1990s was the largest country in Africa and had one of the lowest population densities in the world, it would have been very surprising indeed had it developed into one of the genuinely totalitarian regimes like Stalinist Russia.

 Thus, while al-Turabi spoke of a ‘continuous liberation’ akin to Trotsky’s ‘permanent revolution’,13 it will be seen here – and in Chapters 5 and 7 – that he frequently compromised with existing intellectual, social and legal structures rather than attempt to sweep them aside.14

In that it frequently evoked the legacy of an idealized past in order to call for a comprehensive break with the existing socio-political order, al-Turabi’s discourse was not dissimilar from that of the fascist ideo-logues. However, while the latter sought to sweep away the liberal democracies of the post-Enlightenment world, the system from which al-Turabi claimed to be liberating Sudan was that imposed by another totalizing project, Western colonialism. It is true that he often expressed totalitarian aspirations when articulating his desire for a decisive break with the colonial past.

 However, to label al-Turabi a totalitarian would be to underestimate his intellectual flexibility and willingness to adjust his rhetoric in order to prosper in the diverse range of political environments he encountered in postcolonial Sudan.

This chapter will show that where it served his purposes, he was willing to instrumentalize the ideologies and epistemologies with which he became familiar during his colonial education, just as much as he was disposed to use the language of anti-colonialism. At the same time, his willingness to cannibalize Marxist-Leninist discourse and strategy was often dictated by political context.

Al-Turabi, the Anti-colonial Mimic

While a number of scholars have focused on the global context in which Islamism emerged as one of a number of twentieth-century mass ideologies, it is also important to consider the specific colonial context in which both the regional ideology and its Sudanese variant appeared.

 For Abdullahi Ali Ibrahim, Hasan al-Turabi’s Islamism was an outright rejection of the invading Manichaean structures imposed upon Sudanese society, structures which had inflicted a ‘moral injury’ on Muslims by marginalizing their religion. Indeed, al-Turabi proudly evoked the campaigns against both nineteenth-century Turco-Egyptian colonialism and late nineteenth- and twentieth-century British colonialism, claiming that these struggles made Sudan the first nation to fight colonialism and the first to gain independence from it.15

However, he knew that Sudan’s formal independence in 1956 did not remove the entrenched legacies of colonialism. For him, the most pernicious was that ‘the imperialist education policy bred a new class of elites who, unlike the traditional scholars (ulama) who remained close to the values, interests and social milieus of the masses, were a distinct social superstructure, standing aloof from traditional society, evoking secular, national values and oblivious, if not neglectful, of both religion and umma’.16

This new secular elite also helped to enforce colonial laws that were, likewise, alien to Muslim society and the Muslim religion.17 We have already seen (Chapter 1)

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