Turabi: Controversial figure who influenced Sudan

Friday 18/03/2016
With politics, Turabi\'s religious views were contro­versial

BEIRUT - Hassan al-Turabi, a Suda­nese politician and con­troversial Islamist with a proclivity to switching sides on any issue if it fit his purposes greatly influenced a nation that remains at war, entan­gled by poverty, inequality and un­derdevelopment.
His supporters saw Turabi, who died on March 5th at the age of 84, as a skilful and shrewd politician capable of rallying thousands to his cause. His detractors thought of him as a cunning and extremely ambitious person who resorted to conspiracies to achieve his aims.
Turabi was known for changing political sides and switching from extremism to moderation and back when doing so served his interests. The highlights of his career include taking part in the military coup led by Sudanese President Omar al-Ba­shir in 1989, co-founding the Mus­lim Brotherhood in the country and hosting al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden.
Holder of a doctorate from the Sorbonne in Paris, Turabi was con­sidered a sharp thinker who vehe­mently defended his intellectual and political reversals.
He urged Sudanese young people to join jihad against Sudan’s Chris­tian south, only to declare after be­ing ousted from power that those who died fighting in the south had perished for nothing.
“Up until his death, Turabi remained Sudan’s most controversial and ambiguous figure with his pivotal personality that caused concern for both supporters and foes,” says Hani Raslan, former head of the Sudan and Nile Basin Studies Department at Cairo’s Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies.
“Accounts and narratives about him thrived. While some were based on reality, others were largely fictional and imaginary. A legend­ary leader in the eyes of his follow­ers, he was labelled by his oppo­nents as a deceptive, devious and ambitious person who would not hesitate to crush others and adopt contradictory speeches to serve his interests,” Raslan said in published remarks.
Turabi often outshone other Su­danese politicians with his intellect but he was always an opportunist looking for self-serving moments, a pragmatist and Machiavellian for whom the ends justified the means.
After spending seven years in prison for opposing former Su­danese president Jaafar Numeiri, Turabi had no qualms in striking an alliance with the regime and be­coming its minister of justice.
Being an Islamist did not stop him from joining Numeiri’s Socialist Un­ion Party and he soon became the country’s attorney general and Nu­meiri’s personal adviser.
At the height of his power in the 1990s, Turabi arranged an interna­tional conference of Islamic move­ments he dubbed The Popular Arab and Islamic Congress, which was attended by Yemen’s Abdul Majeed al-Zindani; Yusuf al-Qaradawi, the spiritual father of the Muslim Broth­erhood; bin Laden and other Islam­ist figures who had been banished by their governments.
When the National Congress Party seized power and al-Bashir became president in 1989, Turabi assumed the self-appointed role of the only legitimate voice of Sudan.
Al-Bashir turned against Turabi in 1999, following a petition from the latter’s students, dubbed the Peti­tion of the Ten, demanding an end to Turabi’s “despotism” and limita­tion of his powers. He then formed the Popular Congress Party (PCP), taking on an opposition role that landed him in jail several times.
In 2008, Turabi was arrested in connection with an attack in Khar­toum by the Justice and Equal­ity Movement, believed to be the armed wing of his party.
Neither old age nor the harshness of his experience could keep Turabi away from politics. His ambitions continued to put him in direct con­frontation with leaders of Islamic movements, especially after he in­tentionally opted for an independ­ent path outside the Muslim Broth­erhood organisation in Egypt.
“In fact, he disputed most of the Brotherhood’s principles and ide­as. His thoughts caused shivers in the group’s doctrine and triggered many disputes between them,” said Ahmed Ban, expert on Islamic groups.
Turabi resorted to the “open door” policy at a time the United States and other Western nations “were feeling threatened by the armed jihadi groups”, according to Egyptian analyst Ahmed Saleh Fa­qih. Under such a policy, “any Mus­lim has the right to enter and reside in Sudan without a visa, making the country the Mecca to jihadists around the world,” he said.
In months preceding his death, Turabi mended fences with the Su­danese government and agreed to participate in a national dialogue boycotted by most opposition groups.
With politics, his religious views and interpretations were contro­versial. He issued many litigious religious edicts causing widespread polemics in Islamic circles. His most famous fatwa included his declara­tion that all forms of art conform to religion as long as they did not upset morality. He also took a stand against the legality of capital pun­ishment for the crime of apostasy. In his opinion, changing one’s reli­gion is part of the fundamental free­dom of thought.
Turabi also advocated full equal­ity between sexes. Under his lead­ership, women were allowed in the Islamic Front movement, making it the first Islamic group to allow fe­male members to mix with males.
Because of his views, he was ac­cused of being a mason of apostasy and immorality and of corrupting women.
Abdel Mahmoud Abo, the sec­retary-general of the Ansar Affairs Association, summarised Turabi’s legacy, saying he had built “a radi­cal policy that led to the isolation of Sudan regionally and internation­ally, which made it miss big oppor­tunities for development and for playing an effective regional and international role”.