Sudan's legendary Islamist takes a moderate view

Hassan al-Turabi invited Osama bin Laden to stay in Sudan in the 1990s. Now he pushes for reform.

Imagine if a conservative American religious leader – say, the Rev. Pat Robertson or the late Rev. Jerry Falwell – suddenly started promoting feminism, became a champion of affirmative action, or started hanging out with Snoop Dogg.

Now, imagine the shock many Sudanese felt when the nation's top Islamic scholar, Hassan al-Turabi, publicly stated in 2006 that Muslim women didn't need to cover their hair with a veil. Or when he advocated the use of traditional music and dance for Islamic worship. Or when he encouraged the people of Darfur to oppose the government of President Omar al-Bashir.

All this from the man who invited Osama bin Laden to reside in Sudan in the 1990s, inspired a coup by Islamist officers, and imposed Islamic law.

Does Mr. Turabi have a keen sense of the modern Sudanese mind-set, or is he off on his own tangent?

"[Turabi's] one of the most influential men in Sudan today," says Khalid al-Tijani, editor of the independent Khartoum weekly newspaper, Elaff. "He is also a religious leader, with so many ideas about the role of women, about democracy, and so he has influence outside Sudan as well. He's one of the great thinkers of Islam today."

Keeping Islam current?

In an interview, Mr. Turabi himself says he is just helping keep Islam current with the times.

"The gates of ijtihad [interpretation] in Islam are always open," says Turabi, in the parlor of his large home in Sudan's capital, Khartoum.

"In Islam, the government is based on consultation and consent," he says. "We don't have a church. We don't have angels who come down to govern. When we imposed Islamic law [in 1991], we wanted to introduce religion so that it could supplement law, to mobilize religion in every citizen, because God is close to you and can guide your actions. To uproot corruption, people want to be democratic, they want to be equal under the law."

It's an argument that Turabi now uses against the military rule of Mr. Bashir – a regime he once backed – one that he argues has betrayed that vision of Islamic government. "It is just a dictatorship. The Darfur conflict is just a fight against a state that denied justice. That is all there is to it."

From hard-liner to reformer

The journey of an Islamist hard-liner – a man whom the 9/11 Commission Report says orchestrated a truce between Al Qaeda and the Shiite Islamic regime in Iran to "fight against a common enemy," Israel and the US – into a democratic reformer is one of the most dramatic in Sudanese history.

Some Sudanese question whether Turabi is merely a populist with a Karl Rove-like eye on the public mood, able to change his views in whatever way keeps him politically relevant.

Others see his recent statements as an attempt to overthrow the government of Bashir, a one-time ally who later jailed Turabi for his meetings with Southern Sudanese rebels and opposition leaders in Darfur.

Turabi himself argues that his mixture of orthodox and modern beliefs hasn't changed at all. He recalls arguments with Osama bin Laden in the early 1990s over the role of women in an Islamic society. In his eyes, Sudanese society is simply changing with the times, and moving in his direction.

A changing society

At night, like modern Middle Eastern cities such as Dubai, Cairo, and Beirut, Khartoum comes alive when the sun goes down and the searing heat of the day loses strength. The tree-lined promenade along the banks of the White Nile River, and the restaurant-lined sidewalks of Afriqiya Street – where older men suck on bubble pipes and unmarried young women and men file past one another and flirt – show a vibrant nightlife that was absent five years ago, when police would beat citizens thought to be behaving in an un-Islamic way.

Across much of the Islamic world, religious leaders tend to argue in favor of a benevolent dictatorship, reflecting the control of one God, Allah, over all things. For many Sudanese, Turabi's backing of pluralism, federal devolution of power, and democratic reform has the faint sulfuric whiff of the infidel to it.

"When Turabi split from the president's party, he wanted to use the Darfur troubles to bring down the government," says Abdul Rahim Ibrahim, a pro-government analyst. "The Darfur people are very religious, and he had a number of supporters in Darfur. He told his supporters to join the political opposition in Darfur, but he always denied that he told them to take up arms, but that he supported their cause."

Intentional or not, after Turabi's open support of the Darfur cause, armed conflict broke out. The Bashir government responded by arming and training nomadic Arab tribes, and according to the International Criminal Court in the Hague, directed those Arab militias to attack the undefended villages sympathetic to the rebel movement. UN humanitarian agencies estimate that some 200,000 civilians have been killed, and another 2 million or more have been forced from their homes.

A solution must come from within

While much of the West is pressing for a large peacekeeping force – from the UN and the African Union – to bring the Darfur matter to a close, Turabi believes the solution can come only from within Sudanese society itself. The first step is to give greater self-governance to the neglected regions of Darfur, to South Sudan, and to Turabi's own birthplace in the East of Sudan.

"Darfur is not a small region; it is almost a continent, and its people are militant by temperament," says Turabi. "The southern problem," Sudan's 19-year civil war between the Muslim north and the Christian and animist south, "was only solved by force, and this was an important lesson for the Darfuris.

"In this country, you cannot solve a problem unless you use force.

"The government cannot beat the Darfur people with the gun," says Turabi. "If the government does not change its policies soon enough, if they don't opt for an equilibrium, based on consultation and consent, tomorrow the country may disintegrate."

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Hassan al-Turabi: a timeline


1932: Born in Kassala, northern Sudan, to a father who was an Islamic judge and legal expert.

1950s: Received an Islamic education before studying in Khartoum, London, and finally the Sorbonne in Paris, where he gained a PhD.

1964: Joined Sudan's Muslim Brotherhood and rose to prominence during the popular uprising against President Ibrahim Abbud.

1964-69: Served as secretary-general of the Islamic Charter Front, a political arm of the Muslim Brotherhood that advocated an Islamic Constitution and opposed communism.

1970-79: Following a coup that brought General Jafar al-Numayri to power in 1969, he spent six years in custody before escaping to exile in Libya for three years.

1988: Appointed minister of justice and attorney general in May, and minister of foreign affairs in December.

1989: Imprisoned with other political figures following the 1989 coup that brought to power current President Omar al-Bashir.

1990-96: Protected Osama bin Laden when the Al Qaeda leader based his operations in Sudan at Mr. Turabi's invitation.

1996: Elected speaker of the National Assembly.

1999: Became the secretary-general of Mr. Bashir's National Congress Party.

2000: Suspended from this post after calling for a boycott of the president's re-election campaign.

2004: Imprisoned by Bashir in March for an alleged coup plot.

2005: Released from prison in June.

2006: An advocate of women's rights, Turabi created controversy when he said women do not need to cover their head, can lead prayers, and can marry non-Muslim men.

Sources: BBC, Encyclopedia Britannica, Sudan Tribune, and Al-Ahram Weekly

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