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Sudan’s Turabi considered apostate

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April 23, 2006 (KHARTOUM) — A Sudanese Islamist leader who once protected Al Qaeda supremo Osama Bin Laden was branded an apostate by the country’s Muslim scholars on Sunday for taking a liberal stand on women’s rights.

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Hassan Al-Turabi

The clerics proposed trying Hassan al-Turabi for apostasy following recent declarations by the Popular Congress Party leader that women were equal to men, had the right to marry a Christian or a Jew and could even lead prayers.

"Turabi should declare repentance or face the Sharia Hadd for heresy," said the statement by the Muslim Scholars Committee, which has the support of the government and controls many of the country’s mosques.

Hadd is a word in Islamic law that applies to punishments inflicted for some of the most serious offenses. The traditional punishment for heresy or apostasy in Sharia law is the death penalty.

During a conference in Khartoum earlier this month, Turabi - the country’s most famous Muslim theologian - sparked an intense debate by expressing liberal views on Sudanese society and Islam.

The white-turbaned 74-year-old cleric described the Muslim teachings that a Muslim woman should not marry a Christian or a Jew as "backward" and that adherence to such principles was aimed at hampering women’s rights.

He sanctioned mixed prayers so long as men and women did not sit too close to each other, in order to avoid "arousing sexual feelings" that could distract worshippers from their praying.

Turabi, who spent several years aggressively promoting a hardline Islamist ideology, also said a woman’s testimony was worth a man’s and even more in cases when a woman commands superior expertise in a specific field.

Once the power behind President Omar al-Bashir’s throne, Turabi fell from grace in 2000 and was detained several times. He was last released in June 2005 and remains one of Sudan’s leading opposition figures.

It was on Turabi’s advice that former Sudanese president Jaafar Nimeiri ordered in 1985 the execution by hanging at age 75 of Mahmoud Mohamed Taha for refusing to recant his unorthodox views on Islam.

Taha, who founded the Republican Brothers organisation and held liberal views notably on the place of women in society, was then Turabi’s arch rival.

The Islamist leader now faces a taste of his own medicine but defiantly reiterated his views several times in recent interviews and lectures, sparking the ire of Muslim traditionalists worldwide.

He hit back at his critics on Saturday night during a gathering at the University of Khartoum, accusing them of defending "stale ideas". He justified his statement on marriage by explaining that Christians and Jews are "People of the Book" and therefore not infidels.

Turabi also advocated dialogue with the West in order to improve the image of Islam and stressed that jihad [holy struggle] should only be waged "in self-defence and not in aggression against others".

He deplored that the West had "a wrong idea and a bad image of Islam". "We seek to present a good model and I have even spoken with the Pope on this matter," he added.

It was Turabi, then the gray eminence of Bashir’s Islamist regime, who invited Bin Laden to Sudan in 1990 and provided him with a safe haven from 1991 to 1996, when the Al Qaeda chief was eventually expelled under mounting international pressure on Khartoum.

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The Sudan Tribune editorial team.

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