Sudanese Islamist leader Hassan al-Turabi died last Saturday, March 5 at the age of 84. While never head of state or government in Sudan, he held different government positions at different times. But Turabi’s greatest influence stemmed from his intellectual and organizational leadership, most significantly guiding the Islamist pivot of Sudan’s national government that began in the early 1980s. The consequences were momentous, for Sudan itself, as well as for the countries around Sudan and for the international community more generally.
In some ways he remained a mystery even to the end of his life. Commentators report that, in person, Turabi was lively, extremely intelligent, good humored, even urbane. All of this seems at odds with the cost his views of political Islam imposed on his fellow Sudanese, let alone on those outside the country.
Commentators differ whether Turabi changed his conception of political Islam during his lifetime, or whether most Western interpreters never quite grasped the special ways in which Turabi employed well-known terms and concepts.
On the one hand, Turabi wrote as late as 1983 that
Religion is based on sincere conviction and voluntary compliance . . . In circumstances where Islam is allowed free expression, social change takes place peacefully and gradually, and the Islamic movement develops programs of Islamization before it takes over the destiny of the state because Islamic thought—like all thought—only flourishes in a social environment of freedom and public consultation.
Did he mean this, or did he always speak with special meaning, for example, understanding “democracy” to refer only to Islamic majoritarianism, as opposed to liberal, Western-style majoritarianism, when he advocated the institution?
Whatever the answer, and for all his power, at least for a time, in Sudan, Turabi’s version of political Islam by all accounts never proved popular with the Sufi Muslims who predominate in Sudan, and who reflect a more individualistic and pietistic strand of the religion.
While holding government offices and educational posts in the decades preceding (as well as being exiled), Turabi’s influence in Sudan expanded significantly after the 1989 coup d’état in which Hassan Al-Bashar and a group of other military officers ousted the elected, coalition government of Sadiq al-Mahdi. While Turabi was briefly imprisoned after the coup, upon his release, “Bashir and the military leaders of the coup, who were grouped together in what they called the Revolutionary Command Council, all swore an oath of allegiance to Turabi,” according to the Economist’s African editor, Richard Cockett. The consensus of outside observers seems to be that Turabi had himself imprisoned at the start of the coup to maintain plausible deniability if it ultimately proved unsuccessful.
While the pivot to Islamization started in the early 1980s during the presidency of Jafar Nimeiry (who appointed Turabi his Minster of Justice in 1979 after his return from exile), with the coup Turabi’s vision of political Islam became firmly ensconced within Sudan’s government leadership.
Peace talks between al-Mahdi’s government and the rebels in the predominantly Christian south were imminent when the coup occurred. Indeed, the coup’s timing appears to have been intended to prevent a peace agreement between Khartoum and the south. Instead of a peace process, the new military leaders ramped up the conflict with the south, a conflict which subsequently spread to Nuba and other regions. As is well known today, the toll of continuing the Civil War in Sudan on civilians in these regions was devastating, with millions displaced, injured or killed (directly by violence or indirectly by disease or famine).
It was not simply the Christian south that bore the brunt of the renewed Islamist enthusiasm in Khartoum following the coup. The government created an Internal Security Bureau accused of widespread torture, imprisonment, and killings. Sudan’s small middle class, centered in Khartoum, had proved to be a focus of opposition to Nimeiry during his time in power. The Bashir and Turabi government decimated this class through the Internal Security Bureau, silencing them through violence, threats of violence, and forcing many into exile.
But Turabi’s influence was not limited to matters internal to Sudan. Under his influence the Popular Arab and Islamic Congress was created, meeting initially in Khartoum in 1991. Relatedly, Turabi facilitated the move of Osama bin Laden to Sudan, where he stayed until pressured to leave in 1996. During this time, the U.S. State Department identified Sudan as a state sponsor of international terrorism after the World Trade Center bombing in 1993. (Five of the fifteen bombers were Sudanese.) Turabi was also implicated in the attempted assassination of then-Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak during a visit to Ethiopia in 1995. The United Nations imposed sanctions on Sudan in response.
All this ultimately became too much for Bashir and the government, who ultimately turned against Turabi. While Turabi attempted to consolidate his own power against Bashir, the power of the military proved too much. Bashir ultimately shut down the National Assembly (where Turabi was the chair of the Leadership Authority of the National Congress Party) and declared a state of emergency. The government prohibited Turabi from engaging in any political authority, and ultimately arrested him for treason in 2001.
Turabi was in and out of prison for much of the time after 2001. Ironically, Bashir continues in power in Sudan today, despite having initially been inspired to implement Turabi’s vision of political Islam. Now, observers suggest, Bashir and the officials around him are content mainly to do what they need to do to keep the reins of Sudan’s national government firmly in their hands.Providing Osama bin Laden sanctuary and a base of operation in the critical mid-1990s, facilitating communication between extended Islamist groups more generally, creating a police state within Sudan, providing religious justification for the attempt to Islamize the predominately Christian Sudanese south, precipitating both the human tragedy of the conflict and the secession of South Sudan—Turabi cast a large shadow over Sudan, the region, and even the globe.
James R. Rogers is Associate Professor of Political Science at Texas A&M University.