Post al-Turabi Islam: Don’t Kill the Message
I recall reading in the 1960s for a wise man who said we keep staging failed revolutions because of the bad books we keep reading about rebellions. On the near-20th anniversary of what Abdullahi Gallab calls the “Islamist Republic” (1989- ) (in its various phases) in Sudan, whose impatient enemies predicted its downfall melting under the rains of its first kharif (fall) in power, one is tempted to attribute its tenacity to the many bad books written about it. These books are in large part premature obituaries of a movement and state that refuse to die.
Gallab has written a different book about the doggedness of the Islamist state. It seeks to explain its dynamics rather than explaining it away. Yet, I liked the tools he brought to the telling of the story better than the extremely credible treatise he ended up writing. Unlike other researchers of this state, who treat it as an anomaly fit for condemnation not theory, Gallab tells its story as if Western theory matters in coming to grips with this pariah of an institution. He casts his net far and wide to find anchorage to it: Nandy’s “intimate enemies” (p. 35); Foucault’s “disciplinary institution” (p. 42); Lenin’s “self-conscious class” and “consciousness from without” (p. 49); Arendt’s/Gramsci’s/Berger’s “totalitarianism” (p. 99); Claude Lefort’s “bureaucracy” (p. 117); Robertson’s “invention of locality” (p. 20); Meillassoux’s “anthropology of slavery” (p. 22); Bourdieu’s “colonial accidents” (p. 23); John Downing’s “alternative public sphere” (p. 144); Dahrendorf’s continuum of the “two aggregates of authority positions” (p. 149); Gramsci’s “bureaucratic centralism” (p. 150). I wished he had thought some of these concepts through to better illuminate the dynamics of the Islamist State.
Gallab also tells the story of the Islamist state as if Communism in Sudan (admittedly the least studied reality in the second half of the last century) matters. The Islamic movement emerged in fierce competition for the hearts and minds of the Sudanese with a good, grass-rooted, robust Communist party. It could have dismissed the Marxist party based on its “foreign ideology” at its own peril. Gallab’s neat exposition of the 1964 Revolution reveals their contestation for power at a climax of the cultural politics of Sudan. Importantly, the Islamic movement’s drive for Islamization was tried first on the Communists in urban northern towns throughout the 1950s, the 1960s, and part of the 1970s. The process has been later hamshized (carried to the margins from the center). In other words, it has spilled over by default to the hamish. Al-Turabi, as usefully suggested by Gallab, was keenly watching the communists and adopting their modes of activism.
Furthermore, Gallab discusses the Islamist state as if the local discourse in Arabic about it matters. Writers who have been shaping views on the Islamist experiment occupy center stage in Gallab’s narrative: al-Tayyib Zein al-Abdin, Hidar Taha, Abdelwahab elAffendi, al-Tigani Abd al-Qadir, Amin Hasan Omer, Muhammad Sid al-Qadal, Mahmoud Qalandar, Hasan Mekki, Isam Morghani, Hayder Ibrahim, and Mohi el-Din Abd al-Rahim. His different story about the First Islamist State is due in large part to his “contrapuntal” reading, í la Edward Said, of it.
Gallab, for those who don’t know him, is a poet. His poetic resources came handy to cut the story of the Islamist State short. I like the way he pictures the activity of Islamic movement during the rule of President Nimairi (1978-1985) as comprising three hijras (migrations) to three Cs. The first C stand s for “camp,” that is, the Islamists’s sojourn with other opposition forces in Libya to confront the regime militarily as represented by the busted 1976 invasion of Sudan. The second C stands for “campus” by which university campuses became the motor of the movement. The third C is not a C at all; Gallab describes it as a migration to the land of plenty. I would have liked, for the sake of the rhythm, to have called this land a “corporation,” a term he eventually uses to denote the movement’s indulgence in capitalism (this is a C right there for you) through the sophisticated Islamic banking system it had established.
If there is anything this well-told story should have urged us to do is to reconsider the image of al-Turabi as a “a mafia-like leader.” The light Gallab sheds on the working of his state does not corroborate this image flaunted unrelentingly by his opponents. Al-Turabi emerges from the deft history of the professions (bureaucracy, army, and media) presented by Gallab as pathetically constrained in his bid to exclusive power.
Not even bureaucracy, shaken to the roots by the regime, submitted easily. The successive purges it underwent proved that the power of the institutions “rests in their impartiality, professionalism, and group solidarity” (p. 111). Even the hand-picked Islamists bureaucrats surrendered “to the rationalization of the state bureaucracy … [distancing] themselves from the ill-conceived and antagonistic functions of the party” (p. 143). Al-Turabi lost to these Islamists tamed by the bureaucracy into pragmatism. The resilience of this bureaucracy was nourished by the robust unionization tradition of the institution. Political traditions of opposition to military rule (1964 and 1985), which Gallab calls “Sudanese civil religion (p. 143)”, cast its death spell on the Islamist regime however tenacious it has proved to be. Much of its oppressive span of the state though has been the gift of its impatient, “rogue” opposition.
The army also was averse to the dictates of al-Turabi. It survived his scheme to dissolve it in order to bridge the gap between civilians and the military (p.117). An outraged al-Turabi once lambasted the army for not crossing the border over into Eritrea and whip asses. The clerics, on the other hand, did not like him because he denied them the formation of a figh board by which they would control the religious debate. No wonder Ahmed Ali al-Imam, the President’s councilor on authentication, showed up as a signatory of the Memorandum of Ten (December 1999) that signaled the downfall of al-Turabi. The man did not even trust Bashir, his allegedly hand-picked president. Their relationship is described by Gallab as “power struggle” (p. 130) brewing over the years. Suffice to say that Bashir talked al-Turabi out of his desire to become the vice-president after the plane crash that killed his former deputy, al-Zubayr. The Sudanese were saddened when this story was revealed. They could not believe that a man of al-Turabi’s stature would stoop so low on the corridor of power.
Media, the area of Gallab’s long practice and scholarship, gave the Islamist a piece of its mind in disbelieving the wisdom of shaping minds (p. 144). Hence, Sudanese writers and readers have been ingenious in creating their “alternative media” (p. 144). Wedding ceremonies and wakes teemed with political discussion breaking the culture of fear. Furthermore, globalization came in handy and people switched to other outlets even for their entertainment. This turning of the page on state-controlled media derived from an old tradition of hearing it from the horse’s mouth: “Huna London” of the BBC.
Print media, described by Gallab as unyielding to the regime, survived the onslaught by either publishing outside the country or opening its pages to journalists who have been adept in using the margin of freedom, however narrow or interrupted, to the advantage of the cause of freedom. The pressure for independent print media succeeded and the regime allowed it in the late 1990s. A can of worms opened since these public scholars reestablished the national debate on the future of the country disrupted by the 1989 coup.
Gallab rightly concludes that the First Islamist State of al-Turabi not only failed to “shape the minds” of the people, but also unraveled and died a slow death thanks to these journalists who did not shy away from speaking truth to power on the pages of the restored independent press. The ideas and impetus of dissent within the Islamist movement itself were fostered on these recaptured outlets. Gallab raises his hat to the role of print media that deserves “more credit than most people have realized” (p. 147).
Gallab rightly recognizes that the post-Turabi state is “a Nimairi-like military state” (p. 131). This dictatorship undergirded the First Islamist State as well. It was only al-Turabi and his bashers who are disillusioned about the “military dictatorship as usual” nature of the First Islamist Republic. In removing al-Turabi from power, this state was merely shedding an ideology that had lost its political purchase: Islam. The military under Nimairi did it to socialism before. Just like what Robert Malley said about Algeria: if nations have armies, the Sudan army has a nation. A half century of doing politics by other means entrenched the military in power and the officers became statesmen better than warriors. They have been on a shopping spree for ideologies good for soldiers to die for since the bankruptcy of nationalism. But ideology is “sakrat al-Sulta” (power intoxication). If hard pressed, the military would choose power and discard intoxication.
I am in full sympathy with Gallab when he points to the predicament of Islam resulting from the sound and fury of the First Islamist Republic. Neither the imminent downfall of the Islamists in power in the First Islamists Republic nor the aspiration of their opposition to remove them, according to Gallab, “has inspired a thoughtful analysis of the role of Islam in the demise of the first republic.” Thoughtfulness has not been the hallmark of al-Turabi’s bashers. He left the building and left us with what I once called “the post-Turabi Islam.” None of us seems to have been prepared to wrestle with it.
Abdullahi Ali Ibrahim teaches Islam and Africa History at the History Department of the University of Missouri-Columbia. His Manichaean Delirium: The Decolonization of the Judiciary and Islamic Renewal in the Sudan 1898-1985, is published by Brill and will be out this summer.