Today's date:
Fall 2009/Winter 2010

The Islamic Awakening’s Second Wave

Hassan al-Turabi, often referred to as the most significant Muslim cleric since Ayatollah Khomeini,  had a central influence during the 1990s on the rise of Sunni Islamist movements across the Middle East and North Africa. He was a mentor of Ayman al-Zawahiri and had a close personal relationship with Osama bin Laden, sponsoring his presence in Sudan before the Al Qaeda leader fled to Afghanistan. Al-Turabi was the ideological force behind the coup led by Omar al-Bashir, with whom he has since fallen out, that brought Islamists to power in Sudan in 1989. As an opposition leader al-Turabi has been in and out of jail for years, most recently over the issue of Darfur.

The soft-spoken philosopher of Islam sat down with me for a lengthy and candid discussion in the summer of 1992. We met in a dilapidated townhouse near DuPont Circle in Washington, where he had come, as it turned out without success, to repair relations with the United States.

Nathan Gardels | As the fervor of the Iranian revolution fades, you are said by many in the West to be the “new Khomeini,” the new bearer of the flame of Islamic fundamentalism. What do you think of that perception?

Hassan al-Turabi | Well, people in the West are fond of personalizing the Islamic revival. No doubt, they will ultimately reduce it to a conspiracy to export Islamic revolution, of which I am the leading villain. But there is nothing of the sort.

I merely represent a new, mature wave of the Islamic awakening  taking place today from Algeria and Jordan to Khartoum and Kuala Lumpur. As first evidenced in the Iranian revolution, this awakening is comprehensive—it is not just about individual piety; it is not just intellectual and cultural, nor is it just political. It is all of these, a comprehensive reconstruction of society from top to bottom.This widespread Islamic revival has been given impetus by the vacuum left by a bankrupt nationalism, especially Arab nationalism, and African socialism. The post-colonial nationalist regimes had no agenda but to throw out the imperialists. Once they achieved their goal, they had nothing to offer the people. Then they turned to socialism as an alternative to the imperial West. Now, like everyone else, the Islamic world is disillusioned with socialism.The Islamic awakening began to build in South Asia and the Arab world, as well as in Iran, in the 1950s—participating in some governments in the 1970s. Perhaps due to the limitations of language and access to the sources of Islamic law, the expansion of Islamic consciousness came somewhat late to North Africa and then south of the Sahara. The Gulf War, which brought foreigners into the vicinity of our sacred religious centers in Saudi Arabia, gave an enormous boost to the movement in North Africa, not only among the general population but also among the elites.The new and critical aspect of the recent Islamic awakening is that the elites in the army and government—the so-called “modern” sector—are themselves becoming Islamicized. This has already happened in the Sudan and is in the process of happening in Algeria. In 1985, the Sudanese army intervened to stop Islamization. But this effort led to an uprising by junior officers who supported Islamization. I have no doubt the same thing will happen in Algeria. The Islamization of the modern sector is the prevalent trend throughout the region.

Gardels | You include Malaysia in your web of Islamic awakening. But one has a very different impression of the Islamic current there than, for example, in Iran. Islam in Malaysia is much more open, liberal and tolerant, whereas in Iran there is a totalitarian effort to impose Shari’a, the Islamic code governing all aspects of life.

al-Turabi | Although these two countries have experienced the Islamic awakening, each has taken a different form. Much  has depended on the nature of the challenge from the West. In Iran, the challenge was very sharp, so the Islamic movement became obsessed with the West. The United States identified so closely with the Shah’s effort to introduce the post-Christian-West lifestyle—materialist, sexually licentious, highly emancipated in terms of drinking alcohol—that Ayatollah Khomeini and his followers became fixated on confronting “the Great Satan.”

In Malaysia, to take one contrasting example, decolonization came about rather gently. So the people there focused less on the common enemy than on the common ideals. The awakening there has thus been more constructive than Iran’s revolutionary reaction. Awakened Islam today provides people with a sense of identity and a direction in life, something shattered in Africa since colonialism. In the African context in particular, it offers a sense of common allegiance.

Gardels | What does Islam offer Sudan that neither nationalism nor socialism did?

al-Turabi | Like all religions, of course, it provides people with a sense of identity and a direction in life, something shattered in Africa since colonialism. In the African context in particular, it offers a sense of common allegiance.

Islam provides a focus for unity and a minimum consensus in the face of the regionalism and tribalism which have been so devastatingly rampant in Africa. The idea of the “nation” has offered nothing in this regard. Everyone knows that African nations are only the legacy of colonialist cartographers. Moreover, the Islamic code of Shari’a provides the people with higher laws and values, which they obey out of belief and not because they are enforced by government. In the wake of the collapse of materialist totalitarianism in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, the West has talked endlessly about the rebirth of “civil society,” that sphere of activity beyond the reach of government. But only when Muslims lost the Shari’a as their binding law under colonialism did they suffer the bitter experience of absolutist government.

Under Shari’a, no ruler could suppress his own people. So the individual was protected and society was autonomous. People felt that the norms that governed the society were their norms because they were God’s laws.The colonialists did away with that, introducing a sense of alienation between people and government with their secular laws divorced from indigenous values and internal norms. That alienation remained as the legacy of colonial rule. Even if there were formal elections, people just elected their tribal relatives or voted for those who would give them money. There was no representation.

In the absence of Shari’a in poor, largely illiterate societies such as Sudan, corruption ruled because there was also no accountability or moral checks on government. The public sector squandered its resources and brought the people nothing. Only when all subscribe to the moral code of Islam in public affairs can corruption be eliminated.

Finally, and fundamentally, neither nationalism nor socialism could mobilize our societies to develop. Religion can be the most powerful impetus for development in social situations where profit and salary incentives are insufficient. In societies that lack opportunity, people have no motivation to go to school or to seek knowledge. Islam provides that motivation because it mobilizes people to pursue divine ends. The appeal of God reaches their heart. The pursuit of knowledge becomes an act of worship.When people are taught that agriculture is their jihad, their holy struggle, they will go for it in earnest. Be good to God and develop agriculture. That is the slogan that is transforming Sudan from near-famine to self-sufficiency in food.

To the rich West that may sound strange. But what role did Puritanism play in carving America out of the wilderness? What role did the Protestant ethic play in the development of the European economies? Religion is a motor of development.

Gardels | The Islamic awakening clashes at several points with the West: the rights of women, the rights of non-Muslims, the penal code under Shari’a and the case of Salman Rushdie.

al-Turabi | Let me respond. First, on women. It is true that a very powerful tradition developed in some Islamic countries that segregated women from men and deprived them of their rights of sharing equally and fairly in society.

With the new revival of Islam, women are gaining their rights because no one can challenge the Koran in the name of local custom or convention. In Sudan in particular, the Islamic movement campaigned for giving women their political rights. Now, women not only have equal educational chances but also are playing substantial roles in public life—some have gone to parliament. Women returned to the mosque as well.

As a way to protect women, since they might constitute a temptation to men, there was a time when convention had it that they should stay home. But that is not what religion taught. Of course, accordingly, women must dress modestly, covering their heads and bodies in public. Men also have to dress decently. Both must act properly toward each other. Forcible female circumcision, another customary practice in parts of the Sudan that often led to the death of women, has faded away due to the Islamic awakening. To the extent it is practiced at all today, it is practiced symbolically. Many in the West have identified this cruel custom with Islam. But it has nothing to do with Islam. It was, in fact, called “Pharaonic circumcision.”

On the rights of minorities, under Shari’a there is a guarantee for non-Muslims of freedom of religion and cult. Private life, including education and family, is immune from interference by Islamic state law. Under Shari’a, if they happen to live together in one area, a minority is entitled to a large measure of administrative autonomy. Its relationship to the Muslim majority can be organized according to a covenant that spells out and regulates reciprocal duties and obligations, defining what is common and what is private.

Under such covenants in Islamic history, for example, alcohol was free to be consumed in Jewish or Christian quarters while prohibited in Muslim quarters. The Shari’a itself is not one standard code observed worldwide in a monolithic way. It is applied in a decentralized way according to varying local conditions. Different Muslim communities have different schools of law. These Islamic principles of governance are being invoked to settle the war with the non-Muslims of southern Sudan.

Shari’a will be applied in the north, where the Muslims dominate, but in the south, where Christians and pagans make up the majority, the criminal provisions of Shari’a will not apply. On the penal code, when Maj. Gen. Gaafar Mohammed al-Numeiry applied the Shari’a penal code in a makeshift manner back in the 1980s as a political gesture to demonstrate his Islamic commitment, it brought worldwide condemnation of cruelty and abuse of human rights. As a result, many in the West think that, under the rule of Shari’a, every act of theft will result in such punishments as the severing of hands or even execution.

That is not true. Over the past two years or so there have been only two such sentences because, under properly administered Islamic law, the degree of proof required is very high. And there are other considerations—the value of the stolen property, the absence of any extenuating circumstances such as dire need, or repentance and restoration of property.

The whole idea is to associate severe punishment with major theft as a deterrent in order to morally educate the people. Petty theft is punished no more severely than in most of the world. In spite of the severity of punishment under Islam, the crime scene in the US, with all its violence, is a worse alternative.

Homicide law is even more flexible under Shari’a than under the English law, which was formerly enforced in Sudan. For example, even when the charge is intentional homicide, if there is conciliation between the parties or compensation paid, the perpetrator may actually be pardoned and go free. Shari’a also de-emphasizes prison sentences because such punishment is subversive of character and extends beyond the culprit to the innocent family members.

In Sudan, Salman Rushdie could not have been convicted of apostasy. Although Islam is very universal in its implications, it does accept territory as the basis of jurisdiction. Thus, the jurisdiction of an Islamic state does not extend beyond that state. Those living abroad are not subject to Islamic law but to international treaty obligations between states.Within Muslim states, it has been a traditional view that public apostasy is punishable by death, subject to trying to persuade the perpetrator to change his mind and recant. But, from the early days of Islam, apostasy completely coincided with treason because warring societies were based on religion, and someone who publicly abused his religion would objectively join the other party as a combatant.Today in the Sudan such intellectual apostasy as Rushdie’s is not punishable by death. It must involve active subversion of the constitutional order.

Gardels | The West charges that Sudan is today a haven for terrorists and an exporter of Islamic revolution. What is your response?

al-Turabi | Sudan itself cannot export revolution. No doubt, because of the African and Arab aspect of Sudan as well as our well-articulated programs and theories, the Sudanese example does radiate. But we have no money to finance revolution abroad or spread it by military conquest. The Sudan is not engaged in subverting other nations.

As for harboring terrorists, let me say this: We have no interest in terrorism. The Koran is very explicit against individual acts of terrorism. It says that the Islamic cause must build patiently, even in the face of persecution, until acquiring statehood. Then the Islamic state is entitled to defend itself.

Most of the terrorist movements in the Middle East were far closer to European leftism and nationalism than to the tradition of Islam. They were inspired by groups in France, Germany and Ireland. As far as I am concerned, Islam can have nothing to do with terrorism.The Islamic awakening has reached a new stage. It is no longer interested in confronting the West, in fighting with the West. The West is not our preoccupation. We are concerned with the constructive regeneration of our societies by mobilizing our souls and our minds, not fighting “Great Satans.” Except when a policy is directed against Islam, the West is not the enemy for us.