The Insecure Rendezvous between Islam and Totalitarianism: The Failure of the Islamist State in the Sudan

By Gallab, Abdullahi A. | Arab Studies Quarterly (ASQ), Spring 2001 | Go to article overview

The Insecure Rendezvous between Islam and Totalitarianism: The Failure of the Islamist State in the Sudan


Gallab, Abdullahi A., Arab Studies Quarterly (ASQ)


THE EFFORT TO UNDERSTAND the rise, disintegration and eventually fall of the current regime in the Sudan, which might be obvious to some observers for a variety of reasons, is among the most complicated. This puzzle is reflected in a number of situations and forms for the last eleven years. This article begins by exploring the engagement between totalitarianism and the state the Sudanese Islamists have established. They have been in power from June 1989, when the military coup instated them in power, till the late 1990s, when Hassan al-Turabi, the leader of and ideologue behind the movement and the regime, was expelled from power by President Umar Ahmed al-Bashir on 12 December 1999. From June 1989 to December 1999 real power in the Sudan rested with Dr. Sheikh Hassan al-Turabi [1] who became the political and religious reference for the regime, the Speaker of the National Assembly in 1996, and the Secretary General of the National Congress the ruling party in 1998. On 12 December 1999 al-Bashir declared a t hree-month state of emergency, dismissed al-Turabi, and disbanded the National Assembly. On 6 May 2000 al-Bashir expelled al-Turabi from the ruling National Conference party. Since 20 February 2001 al-Turabi has been arrested and kept in detention for "conspiring with the rebels [the SPLA] to topple the government," according to his former disciple and the current government spokesman Ghazi Salah el-Din. (AP 2001)

Under the uncontested leadership of al-Turabi, the Islamists in the Sudan have tried their very best to keep the totalitarian regime intact since they assumed power. The demise of Hassan al-Turabi does not mean the end of the totalitarian state in the Sudan, though it demarcates the first decade of the Islamists' project and provides one instance from which one can investigate and appraise the practice, disposition, and consequences of the regime. However, for reasons to do with the complications of welding Islam and totalitarianism and for other factors that will be addressed in details in this article, the regime started to retreat leaving behind clear signs of disintegration. In many ways, the dismissal of al-Turabi represents a significant retreat as it has swept aside the religious and political references to "the Leader", the Sheikh, and his loyalists. Gradually, as the influence of the totalitarian system began to decline, the need for the leadership of al-Turabi as the political and religious referen ce -- the Sheikh -- of the regime also dwindled in importance. During the period between 1989-1999 the theory of the regime's protagonists and approach to governance was addressed to a single paradigm: al-hal al-Islami, the Islamic solution, in which they systemically and methodically pursued different types of coercive measures and totalitarian designs. The ideology and strategies of this one-dimensional conception of state power has been most closely affiliated with al-Turabi and his brand of Islamism. This essay addresses al-Turabi's concept of the state and considers how it relates to totalitarianism.

It is important, however, to begin the discussion of these transformations in relation to al-Turabi's theory of state by the following general comments:

First: It is important to address the term 'state' with care, understanding its historical and existential underpinnings, and with a high degree of awareness to its different definitions. For this study the state means an institution more than a government. It is the overarching apparatus that includes the ideological, administrative, bureaucratic, legal, and security systems that act in certain degree of coherence to structure and administer relations within different levels of a particular territory. The way the state deploys and restrains its different patterns of authority, power, communicative capacities, and other means of domination determines its character. On the other hand, relations between the state's spheres of power and control and society's provinces of activity differentiate between governing systems. …

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