Magazine article Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

Goodwill Visit by Sudanese Islamist Culminates in Violence in Canada

Magazine article Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

Goodwill Visit by Sudanese Islamist Culminates in Violence in Canada

Article excerpt

Goodwill Visit by Sudanese Islamist Culminates in Violence in Canada

Hassan Abdullah Al Turabi, a small, frail Sudanese legal scholar, has a reputation that belies his physical size. For some he is the foremost Islamic scholar of his time, an intellectual involved in the practical application of ideas. For others he is one of the most dangerous men in the Middle East, an ideologue bent on the imposition of an Islamic state in the Sudan at any cost. Turabi's recent goodwill visit to Britain and North America was designed to ease tensions and explain his ideas and motivations. Instead, it culminated in an attack that left him hospitalized in Canada, and the two sides in the debate as polarized as ever.

Hassan Al Turabi was born in the Sudan in 1932. He received a traditional Islamic education from his father and went on to take degrees from the University of Khartoum, the University of London and the Sorbonne, where he received his doctorate in 1964. Afterwards he became dean of the law faculty at the University of Khartoum and was a leader in Sudanese Islamist politics.

He was jailed in 1969 by the regime of Jaafar Nimeiri and spent the next seven years in prison. Released in 1976, he joined Nimeiri's government, which at the time was trying to introduce the shariah (Islamic law) into the Sudanese legal system. Turabi lost favor with Nimeiri, and when the latter fell Turabi joined the government of his successor, Sadiq Al Mahdi.

In 1986 Turabi formed the National Islamic Front (NIF), which quickly grew into one of the Sudan's most important and best organized political parties. In June 1989, Al Mahdi was toppled by a military coup led by Lt. Gen. Omar Al Bashir, who initially imprisoned Turabi for several months.

Upon his release, Turabi reassumed the leadership of the NIF, which by then had become a linchpin in the Bashir government. Although he holds no official position, Turabi wields tremendous influence in the government, the army and the security forces, and is said by many to be the power behind the throne in the Sudan.

Turabi is also an important player on the international Islamist scene in his role as scholar, organizer and spokesperson. He has written extensively on Islamic and comparative law, advocating a flexible and progressive interpretation of the shariah and its contemporary application. He is one of the founders and leaders of the Popular Arab Islamic Conference, an Islamist group formed during the Gulf war as a counterweight to the more traditional and conservative Organization of the Islamic Conference. Fluent in Arabic, English, French and German, Turabi is also an articulate voice for the Islamist movement.

Turabi's critics, however, cite increases in human fights violations under the NIF-supported Sudanese regime. Despite Bashir government denials, Amnesty International, Africa Watch and other groups have documented numerous cases of torture, illegal detention and arrests without due process of law. The Bashir government has continued to prosecute the civil war in southern Sudan, and in the past has blocked humanitarian food shipments into the war zone.

Many observers view Sudan's current orientation as a potential source of instability in the Arab and Muslim worlds. They point to the Bashir government's links with Iran and its alleged support for radical Islamist groups as proof of the Sudan's intention to export its ideology throughout the region. Turabi's critics say that given his influence over the current Sudanese regime, Turabi must bear some responsibility for the government's crimes.

In an effort to improve Sudanese-Western relations and present the Islamist case to an international audience, Turabi recently undertook a goodwill visit to Britain, the U.S. and Canada. Though he was meeting with government officials between his public presentations, Turabi stressed that he was only a private citizen, and that his was not an official visit.

Although some of Turabi's presentations were given to sympathetic audiences, at other venues he faced stiff and sometimes hostile questioning from journalists, scholars and Sudanese exiles. …

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