KHARTOUM, SUDAN — MEN in thick ivory turbans, many with notebooks at the ready, crowd shoulder-to-shoulder under a gusty, starlit sky. The multitude has turned out in gritty, central Khartoum to hear a Sudanese man described as the most authoritative voice in the country: Hassan al-Turabi.
''There are many Muslims all over the world, and there's a renaissance all over the world now, and it is going to express itself at the level of public life,'' a smiling, wide-eyed Dr. Turabi told the Monitor. ''I don't think history can be stopped.''
Sudanese leaders like Turabi say they're sparking a rediscovery of Islam's global role. The ''renaissance'' they speak of may focus on redefining what it is to be Muslim in a ''model'' Islamic state.
Or it may center on solidifying and enlarging the current regime's power.
Turabi is more than just a charismatic speaker. He's the Sudanese government's spiritual leader and the intellectual force behind changes swaying Africa's largest nation.
Although he has no official position in government, the movement he heads, the National Islamic Front, occupies key slots in the regime and has wrestled control of much of Sudan's economy.
Rise of Islamic state
Gen. Omar Bashir, the current president and a Turabi associate, took power in 1989 in a military coup that overthrew an elected government. Sudan soon declared itself an Islamic state, following in the footsteps of Iran's Islamic republic.
Today, many Sudanese accuse the government of employing Islam to justify an illegitimate claim to power. Officials like Ghazi Salahuddin Atabani, a former student of Turabi and current deputy minister of state for foreign affairs, disagree.
''We are using Islam to motivate our own people - we are not using it as an international force against anyone,'' Dr. Ghazi says.
''Islam can be a very important mobilizing force. We tried it a few times in the last few centuries and it worked,'' he adds.
Critics of the regime
But many Sudanese say they're not Turabi disciples.
Mohamed Hassim Awad, an economist and Islamic scholar, sits in a modest bungalow overflowing with books. He explains why he's unimpressed with how the regime portrays itself to the world.
''We have exaggerated ideas about ourselves here in the Sudan,'' Professor Awad says.
''People hear about us, thanks or no thanks to the indictment of terrorism imposed on this country. But to claim that we are changing the Muslim world, or leading the Muslim world, I think that this is bogus, quite honestly,'' he adds.
Turabi's ''model'' Islamic state is routinely accused of less-than-exemplary behavior. Human rights groups like Amnesty International blame Sudan for blatantly violating the human rights of its citizens, torturing political opponents, and mistreating millions of southern Sudanese displaced by the country's 12-year-old war with Christian and animist rebels in the south.
Washington has long argued that Sudan serves as a haven and training ground for Islamic extremists bent on destabilizing nearby countries.
Sudan has featured prominently on the US State Department's list of terrorist or terrorist-supporting countries for the past two years, in the company of Iran, Iraq, and Libya.
The American ambassador to Sudan, Donald Petterson, works behind the fortified walls of his embassy in Khartoum - a structure Sudanese officials call the Americans' ''iron cage.''
Ambassador Petterson says he's seen a compelling body of evidence indicting Sudan on terrorist charges, but can't divulge the full range of proof because of its ''sensitive nature.''
But he's especially critical of Sudan's willingness to harbor certain Islamic groups, like the Gaza-based group Hamas. ''It's bad enough that any and every terrorist organization can come here; in addition, they have offices here,'' Petterson says. ''We are aware there is a relationship between members of government and these organizations.''
On the dusty outskirts of Khartoum, around the corner from a trash-strewn lot, a simple two-story building is easy to find. Inside is the office of Hamas - a group the American ambassador says trains terrorists in Sudan.
The chief Hamas representative is a briefcase-toting Palestinian named Munier Said. He has a heavy, dark beard and a quick smile. Mr. Said doesn't share the ambassador's definition of terrorism.
He says Palestinians aren't in Sudan to train fighters. ''We make sure that we have no camps in Sudan or any other Arabic countries for training; all our training is done inside Palestine,'' Said says.
''If we want, we can go to Jordan, we can go to Lebanon,'' he says. ''Sudan is too far, and it's very expensive.''
Influenced by Sudan
While Said says Hamas doesn't train fighters in Sudan, he admits that he's deeply influenced by his host country's view of Islam.
''Of course we are an Islamic movement, and we have an Islamic project in Palestine. And for this we are brothers with Sudan, with the government and the people,'' Said says.
Whether Sudan's links to groups like Hamas are based on assistance in training or a spiritual bond, Khartoum seems to relish playing ''David'' to an American ''Goliath.'' Turabi describes his defiance in the face of Western criticism as all part of the march of Islam.
''Without challenges, history cannot move. If we are challenged economically, we will develop our own country. We are very rich. If we are challenged culturally, we will develop our own culture. If we are challenged militarily, unfortunately we will have to fight back,'' Turabi says. ''Even if we are like the Vietnamese, we will assert our own independence. Or like the Somalis.''
Sudan Revels in Role as Militant Muslim Society