Full Name: Hassan ’Abd Allah al-Turabi
Current Position: Leader of Popular Congress Party (PCP).
Date of Birth: 1932
Born: Kassala, Kassala State, Sudan.
Education: University of Khartoum; Law MA, University of London; PhD, Sorbonne, France.
Career: Sudanese Foreign Minister, 1989; Speaker of Sudan National Assembly, 1996-1999.
EARLY LIFE & EDUCATION
Regarded as the grandfather of modern political Islam in Sudan, Hassan al-Turabi hails from a famous lineage steeped in Islamic scholarship and the practise of Qadiri Sufism. He was born the son of a qadi, or religious judge, in Kassala in 1932.
Nevertheless, his own politics are far from being purely the result of his traditional background. Al-Turabi’s slogan of ‘Islamizing modernity’ stems from both his individualistic personality and the attempts that he has made to synthesise his Islamic background with his experience of life in the west.
Interestingly, al-Turabi did not join the Islamic Liberation Movement (at that time the main party to be associated with the Muslim Brotherhood) during his period of secondary education at Hantoub, considering it unsuitable for a man like himself who had already benefited from substantial home schooling in Islamic law and science under his father. Nevertheless, he would go on to become the leader of the ILM during his period at Khartoum University.
However, it was after this period that Turabi’s postgraduate studies in the west began, beginning first with a Law MA at the university of London and then a PhD at the Sorbonne. Turabi claims that during his period in France he astonished other members of the Muslim community with his eagerness to read about French history and culture, and it is to this period that most commentators on al-Turabi attribute the birth of his fascination with the west.
EARLY CAREER 1964-1989
In September 1964, two months after his return from Paris, al-Turabi burst into the political limelight with a speech on the crisis in southern Sudan given at the examination hall of Khartoum University, insisting that the problem of the south could be resolved only by bringing political freedom to the north and removing Ibrahim Abboud’s military regime. Al-Turabi subsequently went on to become a leading figure in the ‘October Revolution’ in the following month, and used the political kudos he gained from his role in Abboud’s downfall to position himself at the head of the Islamic Movement, founding the Islamic Charter Front (ICF).
Turabi’s ICF, alongside with other parties representing the religious right such as the Umma Party and Democratic Unionist Party, campaigned during Sudan’s second democratic period for an Islamic constitution. However, this campaign was cut short in 1969 by Jafa’ar Nimeiri’s military coup, which was initially supported by leftist and secularists. Al-Turabi’s ICF’s quickly joined the ‘National Front’ opposed to Nimeiri’s regime, although he would reconcile with Nimeiri in 1977 following the failure of the National Front’s attempt to oust the dictator in 1976.
The 1977 reconciliation marked the first time that al-Turabi employed his controversial political strategy of using an alliance with a military dictator as a means of implementing his political programme. As a reward for the ICF’s support, Nimeiri appointed al-Turabi as attorney-general in 1979 and charged him with heading a commission tasked with revising Sudan’s laws so as to make them conform with shari’a.
Al-Turabi’s work on this commission ultimately lead to the promulgation of the controversial ‘September Laws’ of 1983, although Nimeiri actually dismissed al-Turabi from his post four months before the newly ‘Islamized’ laws were issued and he had no role in the production of the final drafts. ‘Nimeiri didn’t want credit for sharia to go to me’, recalls Turabi.
In the period following 1977 al-Turabi was able to expand ICF membership considerably, pursuing a policy of incorporating rural migrants and students from the peripheral regions of Sudan, in particular western Sudan. De Waal and Flint refer to this as al-Turabi’s ‘Western strategy’. At the same time, al-Turabi pursued a conscious strategy of modernizing the Islamic Movement, sending its members to study for PhDs in the West.
In spite of Nimeiri’s distrust of Turabi, the alliance between the ICF and Sudan’s dictator persisted until a month before Nimeiri’s overthrow, when Nimeiri turned on al-Turabi and his cohorts and had his security agents arrest them. This was somewhat fortuitous for al-Turabi, since it meant that when the April intifada of 1985 removed Nimeiri the following month, he was treated as a political prisoner and released, rather than being interned for the role he had played in the dictatorial regime.
Nevertheless, when Turabi returned to politics in the third parliamentary period in charge of a refashioned National Islamic Front (NIF), the legacy of his support of Nimeiri earnt him the rancour of Sudan’s other political parties, including his former allies on the religious right, the Umma and DUP. When Turabi ran for parliament during the 1986 elections, each of the other political forces in Khartoum agreed to pool their resources and field a single candidate who prevented Turabi obtaining a seat.
ALLIANCE WITH BASHIR
It was perhaps this chastening experience which nurtured al-Turabi’s cynical attitude towards democracy sufficiently enough for him to form another alliance with the military, specifically Omar Hassan al-Bashir who overturned Sudan’s fragile democracy in 1989. Al-Turabi would not admit that he sanctioned the coup until ten years had passed after the event, and even agreed to go to prison for a year following the takeover to disguise the role the NIF had played in it.
Access to state power gave al-Turabi the opportunity to internationalise his vision of radical Islam. In 1991, he established the Popular Arab and Islamic Conference (PAIC), which represented an attempt to combine the resources of radical Islamic movements from all over the Islamic world and challenge the status of the Muslim Brotherhood as the sole international voice of political Islam.
Turabi invited jihadists from all over the world to Khartoum, including Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri. Turabi, who is now in the process of attempting to recast himself as a democrat and a moderate, claims that Bin Laden came to Sudan ‘only as a businessman’. However, it seems likely that the agricultural projects in which Bin Laden invested doubled as al-Qa’eda training camps.
Al-Turabi had tended to rely on his prestige as the secretary-general of the NIF and the grand sheikh of the Islamic Movement in Sudan to dominate the political arena in the 1990s, but eventually he eventually decided to take a formal political position in 1996 as a speaker for the parliament that was formed following the 1996 elections. He attempted to use this position to begin stripping al-Bashir of a number of his presidential powers, but was caught off guard by a putsch launched against him by members of his own movement.
At a meeting of the Shura Council in 1998, a group of Islamists distributed the so-called ‘Memorandum of the Ten’, which criticised the experience of the Islamic movement since 1989 and suggested conferring a number of al-Turabi’s powers as secretary-general of the ‘Congress party’ to al-Bashir. A year later al-Bashir dissolved the parliament, thus depriving Turabi of his position, and declared a state of emergency.
The subsequent conflict between al-Bashir and al-Turabi split the Islamic movement into two separate camps, as supporters of al-Bashir formed the National Congress Party (NCP), and followers of al-Turabi established the Popular Congress Party (PCP). Many of al-Turabi’s former protégés left him to side with al-Bashir. Al-Turabi is reported to have remarked bitterly ‘we have heard of the revolution that eats its children, but not of the revolution that eats its father’.
Since the break with his former allies in the military and the Islamic Movement, al-Turabi has sought to re-invent himself as a champion of democratic principles and of Sudan’s marginalised peripheries. His ‘memorandum of understanding’ with SPLA leader John Garang in 2001 infuriated a number of his previous colleagues. The PCP is said to rely heavily on recruiting amongst the displaced populations of western Sudanese in Khartoum’s shanty-towns.
Al-Turabi’s criticisms of al-Bashir have very much been in line with this policy. He has accused Sudan’s president of maligning Darfur’s rape victims, and even declared at a public address that al-Bashir should surrender himself to the International Criminal Court for his role in the Darfur conflict. Unsurprisingly, these declarations led the government to imprison al-Turabi on a number of occasions. Al-Turabi has also been linked to the Justice and Equality Movement, one of the rebel groups in Darfur, but denies this.
He has, however, talked a great deal about of leading another popular movement against al-Bashir but has lost credit particularly due to his alliance with not one but two military dictators, and his continuing reputation for self-aggrandisement. Any journalist, academic or diplomat meeting al-Turabi should beware of his habit of deliberately talking over interviewers and providing seemingly endless monologues.
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