Is Sudan a “Post Islamist” State? III
This last few days, this blog has launched a discussion on political Islam in Sudan, focusing on the recent book The First Islamist Republic: Development and Disintegration of Islamism in the Sudan, by Abdullahi Gallab. It began with an essay by Abdullahi. Mine is the first commentary””others will follow over the next month.
The Sudanese Islamists have been vigorously criticized by their adversaries and by human rights activists such as myself, especially during the years of attempted totalitarianism and terror in Sudan, approximately 1989-94. Our concern here is the subsequent internal debate among Sudanese Islamists as to why their project has run into crisis””or outright failed, according to many. Even Hassan al Turabi has admitted failure. The diverse and fragmented nature of the Sudanese Islamist movement is reflected in the fact that some of these critics are outside the country (for example Abdel Wahab al Effendi), some in domestic opposition (Amin Banani), some in military opposition (Khalil Ibrahim), and some in government itself (Ghazi Salah al Din al Attabani). Very little of this debate has been reflected in English language publications. Abdullahi Gallab’s book is the occasion for bringing this debate to an English language audience.
Let me suggest five reasons why Sudan’s Islamist project may be said to have failed. I agree with Gallab and others, that the Islamists’ moment of victory””the June 1989 National Salvation Revolution””was also the moment at which their project took a fatal wrong turning (though the seeds of that historic error had been sown in the 1970s).
Reason one: the Islamists’ security organ became a master, not a servant, of the political cause. The Egyptian founder of the Muslim Brothers, Hassan al Banna, made the mistake of creating a “˜special branch'””a secret security organization, within his organization in the 1930s. The special branch ended up in control of the organization and led it on a path to disaster, including the death of its founder. His Sudanese brethren repeated the error half a century later. In this case, the Islamist securitate seized power and protected themselves, but the reign of terror they unleashed and the brutal compromises they made in order to stay in office so polluted the Islamist project that it could not recover its integrity. Organized violence was the sorcerer’s apprentice of revolutionary Islamism. We are familiar with revolutions that consume their own children. As Gallab remarks (quoting John Garang), this one ultimately consumed its father.
Reason two: the Islamists’ financial strategy became a master, not a servant, of the political cause. When the Islamists began to build up their own independent economic base in the 1970s, they anticipated that the financial clout they obtained would allow them to rule Sudan. So it transpired””they invested in the country just as the sectarian and secular businessmen were taking their capital abroad, and having bought the commanding heights of the economy, considered that they owned the state as well. But money, like power, corrupts. After a few years in power, Sudanese Islamism became a tool of a financial structure–dubbed ‘the Corporation’ by Gallab–that increasingly paid only lip service to Islamic principle.
Reason three: the Islamists failed to escape from the most deep-rooted political disease in Sudan, namely racism. Under Hassan al Turabi, the Islamist movement sought to emulate the example of the Mahdi and mobilize a mass following in western Sudan, forging an alliance from certain sections of the riverine elite and thereby storming the center of state power. They certainly succeeded in taking the center of power””but the westerners never felt fully enfranchised within the commanding structures of the movement, especially security and finance. Islamism always remained paired with Arabism and was therefore literally only skin deep. This split erupted most famously with the publication in 2000 of the Black Book and the subsequent JEM rebellion.
Reason four: political Islam itself lacks the theoretical tools to tackle the challenges of governing a complex society, especially one that is socially, racially and religiously diverse. Having seized power and faced with the diversity of Sudan, the Islamists had no strategy for accommodating pluralism. Rather, they played divide and rule at a tactical level, supporting those groups that professed loyalty to their cause against those that didn’t, and seeking to impose a new socio-cultural identity by force. Thus the “˜civilization project’ became an imperial project and while urban dissent was suppressed by terror and ghost houses, rural resistance was the subject of devastating counter-insurgency under the rubric of jihad. And of course, totalitarian rule simply failed, so that today the same rulers stay in power by abandoning their ideological project and running the country as a never-ending political auction in which they buy loyalty on a day-to-day basis.
Reason five: the character of Hassan al Turabi himself. After examining a vast archive of his writings and speeches, my co-author Abdel Salam Hassan came to the conclusion that Turabi’s definition of an Islamic state is a state ruled by Hassan al Turabi. (See our jointly-authored chapter in Islamism and Its Enemies in the Horn of Africa.) Through his opportunism, lust for power, and readiness to throw aside or humiliate even his most senior colleagues, Turabi ultimately destroyed the movement that he himself had done more than anyone to create. Yet such his dominance over Islamism in Sudan that it is almost impossible to conceive of a Sudanese Islamic movement without Turabi””his former colleagues and protégés cannot escape his shadow. The act of political parricide carried out on 12 December 1999 haunts its perpetrators, much as they know that it was necessary for Sudan’s survival. Such is Turabi’s enduring personality cult that even those Islamists who have repudiated their mentor may subconsciously believe that only when Turabi rules will Sudan become a truly Islamic state.
Gallab provocatively calls his book, The First Islamist Republic. His title challenges us to ask, has today’s republican order, ostensibly still ruled by Islamists, reverted to Sudan’s traditional governance by military-commercial partnership in which Islam is no more than a garb of convenience?