Hassan Abdullah al-Turabi

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Hassan Abdullah al-Turabi

The major leader of the Sudan's Islamic fundamentalist movement, Hassan Abdullah al-Turabi (born 1932), served the Sudan in various capacities.

Born in 1932 in the town of Wad al-Turabi, Hassan al-Turabi led the Islamic fundamentalist movement, the National Islamic Front (NIF), which was influential in moving the Sudan toward being an Islamic state based on Islamic law. Turabi, the son of an Islamic legal judge, first attended the University of Khartoum, where he earned a law degree. Turabi elected to continue his studies in Europe. He first took a Master of Laws degree from the University of London, then a Doctorate in Laws from the prestigious University of Paris. With these solid academic credentials, Hassan al-Turabi returned to the Sudan, where he became known as one of his nation's leading experts on the Sharia, or Islamic law.

At the core of Turabi's thought was the belief that an Islamic state cannot exist unless it is rooted in the Sharia. Islam as a way of life permeates every aspect of a state or a citizen's being. Consequently, it would be impossible to have a Muslim state without the primacy of the Sharia. If the state has a sizable non-Muslim minority (as is the case with the Sudan), the need of the Islamic majority to exist under the Sharia is paramount. The devout Muslim must be in opposition to the secular state, but Turabi's considerable foreign education and travel convinced him that, to have influence, cooperation was possible.

The Sudan is slightly under one million square miles, with a population of about 14 million. The northern provinces are predominately Arab in culture and Islamic in faith. The southern provinces, which contain a minority of the population, are African in culture and traditional African or Christian in belief. Thus the Sudan is a blend of the Middle East and Africa and is diverse in belief and culture.

On January 1, 1956, the Sudan became independent but was unable to establish a parliamentary democracy. In 1963 violence flared in the south, where it was believed that power and wealth was firmly in the hands of Muslims in the capital, Khartoum. The situation in the Sudan led to a revolt, which broke out on October 21, 1964, resulting in an overthrow of the military government and promises of reforms that would affect all of the Sudan. Turabi, fresh from his studies in Europe, participated in the October Revolution and emerged as the leader of the Muslim Brotherhood. Known officially as the Islamic Charter, the Brotherhood came under Turabi's leadership as he changed it from an Islamic study group to a viable and well financed organization, the NIF.

Turabi's influence in Sudanese affairs continued to grow, and by the time Colonel Gafaar Numeiri seized power in the coup, al-Turabi was a force to be reckoned with. After the Numeiri coup of 1969 Turabi was the leading opposition figure, and he was jailed a number of times for his outspoken criticism of the regime. To Turabi, Numeiri's government was secular, unconcerned with Islamic issues; this, of course, was Turabi's main concern.

In 1964 Turabi had named himself secretary general of the National Islamic Front, and his prestige as a noted legal scholar and as a spokesman for the Islamic state had spread throughout the Muslim world. Numeiri had to be careful in dealing with a man of Turabi's stature, and in 1977 Numeiri offered to his opponents a national reconciliation. Much to the surprise of some hard-line members of the NIF, Turabi accepted the offer and was released from jail. Turabi began a campaign to move the Sudan's legal system toward an acceptance of the Sharia. He headed a commission that proposed a number of critical changes in the system, and in 1979 he accepted the post of attorney general of the Sudan, which he held until 1983.

To quiet his Muslim opponents, Turabi, as a pragmatist, pointed out that the fundamentalist NIF could not want a better position for one of their own. By the end of Turabi's tenure as attorney general the Sudan was moving toward an Islamization of their legal system, bringing it in line with the Sharia. The Numeiri government had promised to follow a "socialist and democratic course, " but with the changes in the legal system it was becoming obvious that the move was toward Islamic and Koranic religious principles.

During the last months of the discredited Numeiri regime, Turabi was again imprisoned. This spared him criticism, since he had served as attorney general (1979-1983) and as adviser on foreign affairs (1983-1985). Released from prison after the fall of Numeiri, Turabi increased his pressure on the new government to move the Sudan toward a totally Islamic state. In 1986 Turabi led the NIF to a strong third-place finish in free elections. Between 1986 and 1988 Turabi led the opposition to Prime Minister Sadiq al-Mahdi's government, but in 1988 he entered the government as attorney general. His assumption of the position continued Islamization, but it also exacerbated relations between the north and the disaffected south. For two months in 1989 Turabi served as foreign minister.

Turabi was ousted from the government for his unyielding opposition to any compromise with the south, especially with the Sudanese People's Liberation Army. After leaving the government, Turabi traveled frequently throughout the Islamic world, Europe, and the United States. Given his stature as a spokesman for the primacy of the Sharia in the Muslim state, he was much in demand as a speaker. In 1992 he was attacked by an opponent while on a visit to Canada, suffering a brain contusion. After that time Turabi had a restricted schedule. But he still stood as a visible, articulate spokesman for the Islamic state and remained a major figure in Sudanese political and religious life.

Turabi functioned as the architect and actual power behind the scene of the government of President Omar Hassan al-Bashir, who seized power in 1989 in a military coup which overthrew the elected Mahdi government. Turabi and the Bashir regime faced U.S. criticism for supporting terrorism, for banning political parties, and for human rights violations and torture against political prisoners, trade unionists, and academics. The government efficiently continued pursuit of the long, devastating civil war against divided and under equipped Christian and non-Muslim African rebels in the south.

In the presidential and legislative elections held in 1996, the Bashir government won convincingly. Opponents protested that they were impeded by the ban on political parties and by incomplete voter registration lists. Turabi himself stood for and won a seat from his home district in the capital, a position that belies his predominant role in the regime. Shortly after his election, Bashir pledged to rule by "Islamic law and dignity" and to retain the ban on party political activity during his new five-year term.

Further Reading

Hassan al-Turabi has not been the subject of a full biography. Much information about him and the Islamic fundamentalist movement can be found in John O. Voll (ed.), Sudan: State and Society in Crisis (1991). Much can be gleaned about Turabi, the regime, the civil war, and the evolution of the Islamist state in the periodical literature, especially Bill Berkeley, "The longest war in the world: Sudan has been fighting for 30 of the last 40 years 13 of the past 17 decades. Strife is the country's business, and warlords are its tycoons, " The New York Times Magazine (March 3, 1996); William Langewiesche, "Turabi's Law, " The Atlantic Monthly (August 1994); Judith Miller, "Faces of fundamentalism: Hassan al-Turabi and Muhammed Fadlallah, " Foreign Affairs (November-December 1994); Milton Viorst, "Sudan's Islamic Experiment, " Foreign Affairs (May-June 1995); and "The Muslim who shapes the state: Sudan, " The Economist (April 29, 1995). □

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Hassan Abdullah al-Turabi

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