What you didn’t know about Hassan al-Tourabi

13Mar 2016
Miki Tasseni
Guardian On Sunday
What you didn’t know about Hassan al-Tourabi

SUDANESE political leader and Africa’s foremost militant, Dr Hassan al-Tourabi who recently died at the age of 84, was representing the only militant movement ever to take power in the Arab world, that is, in the Middle East or in North Africa.

Hassan al-Tourabi

His National Islamic Front that later became the National Congress moved into high level roles in Sudanese politics without being substantially popular at the grassroots level by adopting methods used early by secret societies, seeking associations and fellowships in the bureaucracy, state security and the military. A 1989 military coup sealed its rise to power, for 10 years.

The 1989 coup was basically directed against the socialist policies of ex-President Jaafar el-Nimeiry, in favour of a national conservative regime that sought its ideological premises in the National Islamic Front, where nationalism merges with religious identity to foster militancy.

This situation also favors the promulgation of certain policies, forms of taxes, removal of specific freedoms, favouring particular forms of ownership and commerce, and the promotion of certain categories of the population, like religious leaders, into influential roles. The state also becomes accountable to the priesthood, as tradition wants.

With time, as Sudanese society evolved in a more secular direction and institutions as well as political organs which started in alliance with the priesthood started to feel more constrained by this alliance and wished to get rid of it.

The reason was that the sentiment of need for national salvation on account of a crisis owing to an inefficient socialist system (as was the case in Tanzania) and thus relying on additional legitimacy from the priesthood was no longer at issue. While retaining strong Islamist roots, the newly fangled bourgeoisie wanted to be free and selective about commerce, thus not dictated by the priests.

It is during this period that Dr al-Tourabi went into formal opposition, against a regime that earlier more or less took its ethos from himself as leader of the NIF. Chroniclers say Turabi was born on 1 February 1932 in Kassala, northern Sudan, to a Sufi Muslim sheikh, and received an Islamic education, before coming to Khartoum in 1951 to study law and joined the Muslim Brotherhood as a student.

He graduated from Khartoum University School of Law and also studied in London and at the Sorbonne in Paris, where he gained a PhD. He became a leader of the Sudanese Muslim Brotherhood in the early 1960s. At the age of 84, he was one of Africa’s most senior active political leaders, never retiring at all.

The Islamist phase of the Arab nationalist regime that has been taking Sudan to limited modernisation since 1989 under Gen. Omar al-Bashir ended in 1999, a period of ten years of formal ideological subservience of the military to the priesthood.

After that only the values engendered during this phase remained, for instance the use of religious violence in the process of accumulation, that is, where northern Sudanese land grabbers come down in horseback raids against farmers and livestock keepers in South Sudan (mostly Christian) or Darfur. They would be taking land and cattle from the ‘unbelievers.’

It can be said that Dr al-Tourabi was a successful strategist when it came to fostering Islamic ideology in state institutions as a dimension of its nationalism, such that it was able to take over power to replace secular socialism that was gasping for breath, in Sudan as elsewhere.

The point of failure was the idea that this form of ideology, once it has been fostered upon the state and being able to take over power, would remain stable and thus Sudanese institutions and society be tailored on that basis subsequently.

The point of fallout was within the state mechanism, where the ruling generals and Western trained technocrats no longer needed to take inspiration from the priesthood; the rest of society followed later.

What Dr al-Tourabi would not have known during his lifetime, despite his learning both at the Sorbonne and in his Islamic scholarship, is that he was among the seven companions of the Mahdi in the last days, in this case the military Mahdi, Osama bin Laden.

The point only cleared following his death as usually reflecting upon the life of an individual after death is more fruitful than at any point in that person’s lifetime.

He takes that position by replacing his Egyptian namesake and role model, Hassan al-Banna, the founder of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood in 1928, a few years before al-Tourabi was born, as his pupil.

The reason for replacing al-Banna is that Dr al-Tourabi succeeded in taking over the state whereas al-Banna and his successors, with the possible exception of Dr Mohammed Mursi failed, and further, Dr al-Tourabi was an inspiration for Osama, who spent years in Sudan after the anti-Soviet campaign in Afghanistan, and before September 11.

He thus becomes more important as an inspiration than the classical figure, while the other companions (profound influences on Osama) remain the same. Their lives spanned the last century well into the current one, and one of them is still alive, as a militant.

The proper list of seven companions of the Mahdi (the military Mahdi, to wit, who isn’t from Fatima, the daughter of the prophet as that role belongs to HH The Aga Khan) are Seyyid Qutb, a close collaborator of al-Banna and founder of Muslim Brotherhood ideology and Abu ala Maududi of Pakistan, their proper teacher.

There is also Margaret Curtis alias Maryam Jameelah, a Jewish scholar who converted to Islam and shifted to Pakistan to join ala Maududi, and responded in depth to Orientalist theses on Islam point by point to keep the ideology of the brotherhood safe from Western criticism.

Two close companions to Osama were Dr Abdullah Azam, a Palestinian militant who became his host in Pakistan who recruited internationalist fighters against the Soviet presence, along with Dr Ayman al-Zawahiri, an Egyptian who subsequently became his deputy in al Qaeda, and is still alive.

The last apart from Dr Al-Tourabi is Sheikh Ahmed Deedat of South Africa, a public speaker and pamphleteer who wrote numerous video cassette recordings seeking to prove that ‘Jesus wasn’t the son of God,’ winning millions of Western adherents.