Hassan al-Turabi

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Not to be confused with Allama Hassan Turabi.
Hassan al-Turabi
حسن عبد الله الترابي
Secretary General of the Popular Congress Party
Assumed office
Speaker of the National Assembly
In office
President Omar al-Bashir
Foreign Minister of Sudan
In office
President Omar al-Bashir
Preceded by Hussein Suleiman Abu Saleh
Succeeded by Sid Ahmad al-Hussein
Attorney General of Sudan
In office
President Gaafar Nimeiry
Secretary General of the National Islamic Front
In office
October 1964 – 1999
Personal details
Born 1932 (age 82–83)
Kassala, Anglo-Egyptian Sudan
Political party Popular Congress Party
Other political
National Congress Party (1996–1999)
Sudanese Socialist Union (1977–1985)
Alma mater University of Khartoum
King's College London (Law)
Sorbonne (PHD)
Religion Sunni Islam

Hassan 'Abd Allah al-Turabi[1] (born c.1932 in Kassala) is a religious and Islamist political leader in Sudan. He has been called "one of the most influential figures in modern Sudanese politics",[2] and a "longtime hard-line ideological leader".[3] In particular he may have been instrumental in institutionalizing sharia Islamic law in the northern part of the country. He has been frequently imprisoned in Sudan, but these "periods of detention" have been "interspersed with periods of high political office".[4]

Al-Turabi was leader of what was called the National Islamic Front (NIF) (which changed its name to National Congress in the late 1990s[5]), a political movement that developed considerable political power in Sudan while never obtaining significant popularity among Sudanese voters. It embraced a "top down" approach to Islamisation of placing party members in high posts in the government and security services. Turabi and the NIF reached the peak of their power from 1989 following a military coup d'état, until 2001, as what observers have called "the power behind the throne",[6] head of the only Sunni Islamist movement to take state control of a state.[7]

Turabi oversaw highly controversial policies such as the creation of the "NIF police state" and associated NIF militias which consolidated Islamist power and prevented a popular uprising, but reportedly committed many human rights abuses, including "summary executions, torture, ill treatment, arbitrary detentions, denial of freedoms of speech, assembly, and religion, and violations of the rules of war, particularly in the south".[6]

Turabi was a leader of opposition to the American-Saudi "coalition forces" in the Gulf War, establishing in 1990-1 the Popular Arab and Islamic Congress (PAIC), a regional umbrella for political Islamist militants, headquartered in Khartoum.[6]

After 1996, al-Turabi and his party's "internationalist and ideological wing" saw a decline in influence in favor of more pragmatic leaders, brought on by the imposition of UN sanctions on Sudan in punishment for Sudan's assistance to Egyptian terrorists in their attempt to assassinate Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.

As of 2015 Turabi and the NIF's fortunes have waned. Sudan has lost at least a third of its land and nearly all its oil fields as a result of the cession of South Sudan,[8] and Turabi is out of power leading a splinter group of the National Congress known as the Popular (or People's) National Congress.[9] His most recent imprisonment was 17 January 2011 for nine days, following civil unrest across the Maghreb.[9][10]

Early life and education[edit]

Turabi was born in 1932 in Kassala, northern Sudan, to a Sufi Muslim sheikh and received an Islamic education,[11] before coming to Khartoum in 1951 to study law and joined the Muslim Brotherhood as a student.[12] He graduated from Khartoum University School of Law and also studied in London and at the Sorbonne in Paris, where he gained a PhD.[11] He became a leader of the Sudanese Muslim Brotherhood in the early 1960s.[6]

Religious and political beliefs[edit]

Turabi's writings, rhetoric, sermons, and public pronouncements have often been described as progressive, theologically liberal,[13] "moderate and thoughtful",[2] but his time in power was notable for harsh human rights violations.[13] This contradiction has been explained (by diplomat Andrew Natsios) by the different positions taken by Turabi for English and French-speaking interviewers (moderate) on the one hand, and in speeches to fellow Islamists (anti-democratic) on the other. [2]

As a Sunni Islamist, Turabi's ideas differed in some ways from traditional Islamic ideas, such as in his lack of reverence for professional Islamic scholars. Rather than the ulama (class of Islamic scholars) being restricted to educated Islamic scholars, he stated that "because all knowledge is divine and religious, a chemist, an engineer, an economist or a jurist are all ulamas." In fact, in an Islamic democracy, which Turabi maintained he was working towards,

ideally there is no clerical ulama class, which prevents and elitist or theocratic government. Whether termed a religious, a theocratic, or even a secular theocracy, an Islamic state is not a government of the ulama.[14][15]

Al-Turabi originally espoused progressive Islamist ideas, such as the embrace of democracy, healing the breach and expanding the rights of women, where he noted:

The Prophet himself used to visit women, not men, for counseling and advice. They could lead prayer. Even in his battles, they are there! In the election between Othman and Ali to determine who will be the successor to the Prophet, they voted![16]

He told another interviewer, "I want women to work and become part of public life" because "the home doesn't require much work anymore, what with all the appliances". During an interview on al-Arabiya TV in 2006, al-Turabi describes the word hijab is not a face veil but it a cover or diaphragm put in room to separate between men and Prophet's wives, whereas niqab is just an old Arab habit, (the headscarf as part of a complete Islamic dress code for women) applies to all Muslim women. Hijab literally means "barrier" and he said it was "a curtain in the Prophet's room. Naturally, it was impossible for the Prophet's wife to sit there when people entered the room". The Prophet's wives sat behind it when talking to males because they were not allowed to show their faces.[17] He opposed the death penalty for apostasy from Islam and opposed Ayatollah Khomeini's death sentence fatwa against Salman Rushdie. He declared Islamist organizations "too focused on narrow historical debates and behavioral issues of what should be forbidden, at the expense of economic and social development".[18]

Al-Turabi also laid out his vision for a Sharia law that would be applied gradually instead of forcefully and would apply only to Muslims, who would share power with the Christians in a federal system.[citation needed]

In contrast Natsios writes that when in power,

one of the pieces of national legislation he pressed for was that apostasy be punished by the death penalty, a position he has since disavowed. When he talks about women's rights, he is referring exclusively to Muslim women, whose honor and virtue will be protected within the context of Sharia law, ... Christian or non-Muslim women may be treated as property without rights or protection.[19]

In 2006, out-of-power again, al-Turabi made international headlines issuing fatawa allowing Muslim women to marry non-Muslim men, and allowing alcohol consumption in certain situations, in contradiction to historical Sharia law.[20] [21][22][23] He also embraced human rights and democracy in “a hundred-and-eighty-degree turn” of his views.[24] (One critic of Turabi complained to an American journalist in Khartoum of Turabi's ideological reversal, saying, “it is said in the daily papers and in the discussion centers here in the university that Turabi killed Ustazh Mahmoud", (i.e. liberal Sudanese cleric Mahmoud Mohammed Taha, hanged in 1985), "and now he’s stealing his ideas.”[24]

Political career[edit]

After graduating, he returned to Sudan and became a member of the Islamic Charter Front, an offshoot of the Sudanese branch of the Muslim Brotherhood. Within a five-year period, the Islamic Charter Front became a large political group that identified al-Turabi as its Secretary general in 1964. Through the Islamic Charter Front, al-Turabi worked with two factions of the Sudanese Islamic movement, Ansar and Khatmiyyah, to draft an Islamic constitution. Members of Ansar define themselves as the followers of Mahdi Muhammad Ahmad, stemming from nineteenth century Sudan. Al-Turabi remained with the Islamic Charter Front until 1969, when Gaafar Nimeiry assumed power in a coup. The members of Islamic Charter Front were arrested, and al-Turabi spent six years in custody and three in exile in Libya.

In 1977, the regime and the two factions of the Islamic movement in Sudan attempt to reach a "national reconciliation", where opposition leaders were freed and/or allowed back from exile, including al-Turabi. "Turabi and his people now begin to play a major role, infiltrating the top echelons of the government where their education, frequently acquired in the West, made them indispensable" and "Islamizing society from the top down".[25] Al-Turabi became a leader of the Sudanese Socialist Union, and was promoted to Minister of Justice in 1979.

Sharia law[edit]

The Nimeiry administration declared the imposition of a harsh brand of Sharia law in 1983. Popular opposition against political actions such as the dissolution of the Sudanese parliament and legally-inflicted punishments such as amputations and hangings, resulted in a coup against Nimeiry in 1985.

His frequent close relationships with Sudanese governments resulted in the famous association against him in the 1986 votes, where all political parties decided to withdraw their nominees and keep only one nominee against al-Turabi, which led to the loss of al-Turabi being part of the only democratic government in Sudan during the last four decades.

National Islamic Front rule[edit]

On 30 June 1989, a coup d'état by General Omar Hassan al-Bashir began a process of severe repression, including purges and executions in the upper ranks of the army, the banning of associations, political parties, and independent newspapers and the imprisonment of leading political figures and journalists.[26] From 1989 until 2001, Turabi served as what observers have called the "intellectual architect",[27] or "the power behind the throne",[6] sometimes officially as leader of the NIF and sometimes as speaker of the parliamentary assembly.[6]

1989 coup[edit]

While there is a "pervasive belief" in Sudan that Turabi and the NIF actively collaborated with the coup-makers who called themselves the "Revolutionary Command Council for National Salvation", in fact the RCC-NS banned all political parties following the 1989 coup and arrested Turabi, as well as the leaders of other political parties, and held him in solitary confinement for several months.[28] Before long however, NIF influence within the government was evident in its policies and in the presence of several NIF members in the cabinet.[28]

Alleged abuses[edit]

Alleged human rights abuses by the NIF regime included war crimes, ethnic cleansing, a revival of slavery, torture of opponents, and an unprecedented number of refugees fleeing into Uganda, Kenya, Eritrea, Egypt, Europe and North America.[29]

In 1994 a report issued by Human Rights Watch/Africa, conducted by Gáspár Bíró, a Hungarian law professor and the United Nations' special envoy to Sudan in 1993 found the Sudanese government to be practicing "widespread and systematic torture" of political detainees.

Once uncommon in the Sudan, torture was now widespread, especially in the south. Non-Muslim women were raped, their children taken from them; paper bags filled with chili powder were placed over men's heads, and some were tied to anthills; testicles were crushed and burned by cigarettes and electric current, according to a 1994 report by Human Rights Watch/Africa.[30]

Karate attack on al-Turabi in Ottawa[edit]

A Sudanese Karate Black belt master, Hashim Bedreddin Mohammed, attacked al-Turabi by using two knifehand strikes to knock him unconscious into a coma, while al-Turabi was at an Ottawa airport in Canada in 26 May 1992. Hashim was a Sufi in exile and an opponent of the National Islamic Front Islamist regime in Sudan and had won a karate world championship in 1983. He attacked al-Turabi in a rage when he saw him.[31] Al-Turabi was hospitalized for 4 weeks with constant black outs.[32] After al-Turabi was knocked out, Hashim assumed he was dead and departed. Al-Turabi suffered from severe injuries, the use of his right arm was lost for a while, he had slurred speech and he required the use of a cane.[33] Hashim was supported by exiled Sudanese in Canada who launched the "Friends of Hashim Campaign" to support his attack on al-Turabi. One said "most Sudanese would appreciate what Hashim did". They called for an end to Islamist policies and a return to secularism.[34]

Links to militant groups[edit]

Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden moved his base of operations to Sudan from Saudi Arabia around 1991 reportedly at the personal invitation of Al-Turabi, and stayed until 1996 when he moved to Afghanistan. Bin Laden moved from to Sudan after conflict with the Saudi government over their granting of permission to the United States to station troops in Saudi Arabia during the Persian Gulf War against Saddam Hussein. Bin Laden believed he should lead the fight against Saddam using Afghan Arab forces. Al-Turabi granted bin Laden a safe place from which to conduct jihadist activities; in return, bin Laden agreed to help the Sudanese government in roadbuilding and to fight animist and Christian separatists in Southern Sudan. While in Sudan, bin Laden is reported to have married one of al-Turabi's nieces.[35]

Other violent groups al-Turabi invited and allowed to operate freely included Abu Nidal Organization, (which reportedly had killed more than 900 people in 20 different countries); and Hezbollah, and Ilich Ramirez Sanchez (Venezuelan), aka “Carlos the Jackal”, now posing as a French arms dealer at the time. Carlos had converted from Marxism to radical Islam.[36] (Sudanese sanctuary was not unconditional as it later allowed French intelligence to kidnap Carlos the Jackal while he was undergoing an operation on his right testicle."[37])

Al-Turabi founded the Popular Arab and Islamic Congress in 1990-1991. Meeting here were several Islamic groups from around the world, including representatives from the Palestine Liberation Organization, Hamas, Egyptian Islamic Jihad, Algerian Islamic Jihad, and Hezbollah.

'Turabi sought to persuade Shiites and Sunnis to put aside their divisions and join against the common enemy. In late 1991 or 1992, discussions in Sudan between Al-Qaeda and Iranian operatives led to an informal agreement to cooperate in providing support - even if only training - for actions carried out primarily against Israel and the United States. Not long afterward, senior al Qaeda operatives and trainers traveled to Iran to receive training in explosives.[38][unreliable source?]

In August 1993, Sudan was placed on the United States' list of "state sponsor of terrorism against other state" following the first World Trade Center bombing in February. The U.S. State Department notes that "five of 15 suspects arrested" following the bombing were Sudanese.[39]

Mubarak assassination attempt[edit]

Two years later an assassination attempt was made on former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak by Egyptian Islamic Jihad organization, many of whose members were living in exile in Sudan.[40] Evidence from the Egyptian and Ethiopian governments implicated the Sudanese government[40][41][42]

The debacle led to a unanimous vote in the United Nations to impose stiff economic sanctions on Sudan. The Sudanese representative denied the charges, but the Sudanese delegation was already in disfavor, having been implicated only two years earlier in a plot to blow up UN headquarters.[42]

Rather than disassociate himself from the plot, al-Turabi praised the attempted killing and called Mubarak stupid:

The sons of the Prophet Moses, the Muslims, rose up against him confounded his plans, and sent him back to his country...I found the man to be very far below my level of thinking and my view, and too stupid to understand my pronouncements.[43]

Decline of influence[edit]

International sanctions took effect in April 1996 and were accompanied by a "general withdrawal of the diplomatic community" from Khartoum. At the same time Sudan worked to appease America and other international critics by expelling members of the Egyptian Islamic Jihad and encouraging bin Laden to leave.[44]

In March 1996, national elections were held for the first time since the coup,[45] and al-Turabi was elected to a seat in the National Assembly, where he served as speaker during the 1990s.[3] This was his first instance of holding a political position with some consistency.[citation needed] During the "last few years of the 1990s", his influence and that of his party's "'internationalist' and ideological wing" waned "in favor of the 'nationalist' or more pragmatic leaders who focus on trying to recover from Sudan's disastrous international isolation and economic damage that resulted from ideological adventurism".[46]

Imprisonment and later years[edit]

After a political falling out with President Omar al-Bashir in 1999,[47] Al-Turabi was imprisoned based on allegations of conspiracy before being released in October 2003.[48] Arrested again in 2004 for allegedly being part of a plot to overthrow the government.[49] He was released on 28 June 2005.

In 2004 he was reported to have been associated with the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM), an Islamist armed rebel group involved in the Darfur conflict, whose leader (Khalil Ibrahim) used to be one of Mr Turabi's followers.[50] Al-Turabi himself has denied any association. Turabi spent 16 months in prison in 2004-05, during which time he spent several weeks on hunger strike.[50]

After the JEM attacked Khartoum and Omdurman[51] on 10 May 2008,[52] Al-Turabi was arrested on the morning of 12 May 2008, along with other members of his Popular Congress Party (PCP). He said that he had expected the arrest, which occurred while he was returning to Khartoum from a PCP gathering in Sennar.[48] He was questioned and released without charge[53] later in the day, after about 12 hours in detention.[54]

Presidential advisor Mustaf Osman Ismail said that al-Turabi's name had been found on JEM documents,[54] but he denied that al-Turabi had been arrested, asserting that he had merely been "summoned" for questioning. Al-Turabi, however, said that it was an arrest and that he had been held at Kober.[48] According to al-Turabi, he was questioned regarding the relationship between the PCP and JEM, but he did not answer this question,[51] although he denied that there was a relationship after his release;[48] he also said that he was asked why he did not condemn the rebel attack.[54] He said that the security officers questioning him had "terrified" him[51] and that, although they claimed to have proof against him, they did not show him this proof when he asked to see it.[48]

Salva Kiir Mayardit, the First Vice-President of Sudan and President of the Government of Southern Sudan, said that there had been no discussion about arresting al-Turabi at a presidency meeting on the previous day and that there was no security report implicating him. He alleged that al-Turabi was being used as a scapegoat.[52]

In an interview on 17 May 2008, al-Turabi described the JEM's attack on Khartoum as "positive" and said that there was "so much misery in Darfur, genocidal measures actually". He also said that the JEM attack could spark more unrest.[47]

On 12 January 2009, al-Turabi called on Bashir to surrender himself to the International Criminal Court for the sake of the country, while holding Bashir politically responsible for war crimes in Darfur.[55] (He later changed his position and opposes Bashir turning himself in.[56]) He was then arrested on 14 January[55][57] and held in prison for two months (until 8 March) [58] at the Kober prison before being moved to Port Sudan prison.[59] During this time members of his family expressed concern about his health (he is 75) and his being held in solitary confinement at least some of the time.[57] Amnesty International also released a statement about al-Turabi's arrest on 16 January, describing it as "arbitrary" and politically motivated. Noting al-Turabi's advanced age and his need for medication and a special diet.[55] The Sudanese Media Centre reported on 19 January that al-Turabi would be put on trial for his alleged assistance to the JEM.[60]

On 8 March, he was released only days after the International Criminal Court issued an arrest warrant against Omar al-Bashir.[61] On 11 April 2009, the PCP called for the creation of a transitional government to lead Sudan to the planned 2010 election, and al-Turabi suggested that he would not stand as a candidate due to his advanced age; he emphasized the importance of leadership coming from younger generations and said that he did not have enough energy to run.[62] In April al-Turabi was stopped at Khartoum airport and prevented from travelling to Paris for medical tests despite having obtained permission to travel from the interior ministry.[58]

Al-Turabi announced on 2 January 2010 that the PCP had designated his deputy, Abdallah Deng Nhial, as its candidate for the 2010 presidential election.[63] Al-Turabi was again arrested in mid May 2010, but was released on 1 July 2010.[64]

On 18 January 2011, security forces arrested Hassan al-Turabi from Khartoum, presumably at the wake of the recent instability in Sudan’s politics. Al-Turabi commented on the recent price rises in Sudan stating it could result at a "popular uprising" if the unrealistic rises were not reversed. He added that the governments including that of Sudan should take lessons from the recent events in Tunisia.[65]


  1. ^ الدكتور حسن عبد الله الترابي ad-Duktūr Ḥasan 'Abd Allāh at-Turābī in Arabic), commonly called Hassan al-Turabi (sometimes transliterated Hassan al-Tourabi) (حسن الترابي).
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Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]