Turabi: Controversial figure who influenced Sudan
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”.