Hassan Al Turabi is not dead. The Sudanese opposition leader and Islamist made that clear when he emerged to greet a crowd of three thousand supporters in Khartoum last week. To his supporters, the 79-year old Turabi is one of the most important Islamist figures of the modern era. To his enemies, he is an elderly opposition figure who won’t go away.
Al Turabi is a prominent theoretician and a spiritual leader of Islamism in Sudan whose shadow is surpassed only by that of Ayatollah Khomeini.
Yet unlike other Islamists, Al Turabi has always been comfortable in the West. He studied in London before earning his doctorate degree frim the Sorbonne University in Paris. Since the 1960s, he has been active in politics and Islamic thought. Over the course of his career, he has cast himself as Muslim Brotherhood foot soldier, revolutionary leader and vocal politician. As opposition leader in Sudan, he has become somewhat of a wind gauge for the sentiments amongst Islamist movements elsewhere.
It is no surprise that Al Turabi has used the Arab Spring to strengthen his credentials as a democratic opposition figure. Banned from Egypt since 1995 (when he was linked to an assassination attempts against Mubarak), he caused a bit of a stir when he returned to Tahrir Square this summer. There, he counseled Egyptian Islamists against forming alliances with military groups: “The French revolution led to Napoleon Bonaparte, who was worse than King Louis XVI", he argued. “Arabs must not make the same mistake.” He could also have drawn on his own biography: In the aftermath of Sudan’s 1989 military coup, Al Turabi rose to prominence, only to be cast aside by military strongman Omar Al Bashir. For the next ten years, Al Turabi and Al Bashir ruled in tandem, the former lending an air of legitimacy to the new government.
Al Turabi’s policies during that time raise many questions. In 1991, he called for a “global action plan to challenge and defy the tyrannical West” and attempted to strengthen ties between Iranian and Iraqi intelligence services and Al Qaeda. Both Carlos the Jackal and Osama Bin Laden eventually relocated to Sudan.
Yes as soon as he was removed from power in yet another coup in 1999, his politics changed. Al Turabi has frequently been imprisoned by the Bashir regime, and has called his Jihadist years a “mistaken misadventure”. When Osama Bin Laden was killed earlier this year, Al Turabi could only muster mild criticism for his quick burial at sea.
Al Turabi’s transformation is exemplary for larger trends within the Islamist movement Rather than pursuing revolution, many Islamists now believe that they can achieve their goals at the ballot box. Al Turabi admitted as much during his visit to Cairo, when he declared that revolutions must be driven by the people.
To be clear: The sort of democracy advocated by many Islamists is not the Jeffersonian variety. Islamist groups now favor the creation of what the American journalist Fareed Zakaria would refer to as “illiberal democracy”. Hassan Al Turabi’s politics are indicative of this trend within global Islamist politics. While the West often perceives movements like the Salafists as static and reactionary, Islamists have displayed a surprising aptness for change over time. The belief of traditional Islamists like Sayid Qutb was that a vanguard party would lead the masses toward the inevitable Islamist revolution. When vanguard politics failed, terrorism filled the gap. For many years, Islamist strategy borrowed heavily from Marxist revolutionary thought. That time appears to be over. If the success of Hamas, Hezbollah and – more recently – the Muslim Brotherhood is any indication, a tactical transition is under way. The sword has been replaced by the ballot box.