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Turabi's Law
It has been argued that Islamic radicalism may at least bring a form of peace to some of the world's most troubled nations. But the Islamic regime in Sudan has created a nightmare -- one that may portend the real future of the Islamic world

by William Langewiesche

KHARTOUM, the capital of Sudan, was built in splendor by the British at the confluence of the Blue and White Niles. It has changed since colonial times. I landed there in the heat and blackness of midnight, and shared the airport cab with an aging American who looked as if he had drifted too long. The cab was a listing Renault with a roof rack. The driver wore rags, and drove anxiously, leaning forward over the wheel. The nightly curfew was in effect, and armed soldiers loomed out of the darkness at the intersections to check our identities. No one spoke. I guessed that the American was in sales-- of what, I didn't ask. Sweat streamed down his face. We took him to the Hilton, near a bridge guarded by tanks. He argued with the driver over the fare, and then came up close to me and almost spat out his words. "You're gonna get ripped."

The cab carried me deeper into the city, through dark, deserted streets, past crumbling buildings and more soldiers. I noticed a boarded-over flophouse, a dormant gas station, a refrigerator lying open amid the rubble. The place might have suffered artillery strikes, but had not; war has not visited Khartoum itself for a century. Under cover of the curfew, I knew, the secret police were out and about, making arrests. I had already heard about the so-called ghost houses into which their victims disappear, sometimes forever. The victims are those said to be enemies of the Islamic revolution that swept over Sudan in 1989, and that promised to bring good government, in the form of God, to this godforsaken nation.
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Greater Khartoum is a dispersed conglomeration of about five million people. It sprawls for forty miles from desolate refugee camps on the southern outskirts, north past the airport and the city center, across the two Niles, and through the neighborhoods of Omdurman and North Khartoum. Diminished by its poverty, it never seems that large. Here and there office towers stand like rocks above the sea of crumbling concrete and adobe. The towers are designed for elevators and air conditioners in a city subject to daily power outages.

Oil-rich Arabs are to blame for the towers. The British are harder to judge. The Sudanese blame them for the civil war that has pitted the successive governments of Khartoum against rebels in the south. That war has been fought most years since shortly before the British pulled out, in 1956. And it is true that the national borders as drawn by the British seem to invite trouble. They enclose the largest country in Africa and the Middle East, and one of the most hopeless. With a territory nearly a third the size of the United States, Sudan has practically no industry and few natural resources beyond river water and some untapped oil reserves. Poverty, famine, and sickness are endemic. Moreover, although Sudan is strongly Muslim, it is not uniformly so: a quarter of the Sudanese, who in total number about 25 million, are Christians or animists, and they show no desire to convert to Islam. The Muslims themselves are not uniformly sectarian. Sudan is further riven by ethnic loyalties (the country encompasses some 500 ethnic groups) and loyalties to region and to tribe. This diversity lies behind the civil war, which in recent years has driven perhaps a million non-Muslim refugees from the southern war zone into the tattered camps in and around Khartoum, in the north. Their suffering is not new. War has been a fact of life in Sudan for centuries. The British were naive to believe they could impose standards of fair play on that troubled land.

But the British deserve credit for what they did achieve. Beyond Khartoum, they built the roads, railroads, and irrigation canals that continue magically to support the city. And at least their administration buildings were functional. Britain's neoclassical and stolid brick structures still house government ministries along the tree-lined banks of the Blue Nile.

TODAY those ministries are controlled by revolutionaries -- radical Muslims who have instituted a vigorous and ideological government based on the teachings of the Prophet Muhammad. They are of course part of the much larger revival sweeping the Muslim world. Scorned as "fundamentalists" by their opponents, the Sudanese leaders prefer a less loaded label -- they call themselves "Islamists." Since coming to power in 1989, they have turned their nation into the second radical Islamic state, after Iran. Their success in attaining power has had compelling effects on all of North Africa and much of the Middle East, where many countries teeter on the brink of their own Islamic revolutions. This has disturbed the West. The United States has been angered in particular by Sudan' s foreign policy -- by its encouragement of revolutionaries beyond its borders, its close friendship with Iran, and the help it gives to Islamic Jihad, Hamas, and other international terrorist groups, whose warriors are said to train on Sudanese soil. The U. S. government, which had already led a campaign to cut off financial assistance to Sudan, last year added the country to its list of terrorist nations.

But terrorism is not the important story in Khartoum. In fact, the issue of terrorism -- immediate though it seems -- may deflect one from the task of contemplating the character of the broader Islamic revolution. Fifteen years after the fall of the Shah the revolution has spread beyond the Shiites of Iran, transformed itself, and gathered force among the Sunnis, who constitute 90 percent of the world's Muslims. It holds out the hope, its apologists say, of establishing forms of authority based on a conception of life uniquely adapted to some of the most dissatisfied and ungovernable places in the world. The movement seems to be shaping up as one of the great political upheavals of our century, and maybe of the next.

The revolution is still young and disorganized. It includes a bewildering array of political strategies and religious beliefs. This is hardly surprising: there are nearly a billion Muslims in the world, and they are anything but homogeneous. Militant Islamists quarrel constantly over what constitutes the "true" Islam, an especially self-righteous debate that darkens their future with the possibility of internecine war. Nonetheless, their differences may be less important than they once were. A remarkable characteristic of this revolution is its continuing appeal throughout the Muslim world. Islamists share the confidence of battle. More important, they believe in a common destination -- a society under the just rule of God. And many of them believe they have a powerful tool to work with. It is the ancient system of Islamic law, greatly revitalized, called the shari'a.

In its widest definition "shari'a" means "the path to the watering place." In its narrower definition it means "Islamic jurisprudence," an accumulation of laws and procedures based on the Koran and on knowledge of Muhammad's ways, as interpreted by classical schools of legal thought. The two definitions -- the religious path and the law -- are in fact the same. Because Islam considers God to be everywhere, it does not separate religion from government. This means that the shari'a cannot distinguish between sin and civil infraction. But this legal philosophy is not as primitive as it sometimes looks. The shari'a recognizes that most sins are trivial. And although it includes harsh punishments such as flogging, amputation, and stoning to death, it also includes safeguards for the accused, at least in theory. In any event, the Islamists who came to power have tried to use the shari'a beyond crime and punishment, as a blueprint for a just and harmonious society.

Five years after the revolution in Sudan the Islamists have brought about almost the exact opposite of what, to judge from their prior writings, they intended. The civil war rages, the secret police operate without restriction, the press is censored, the military reigns, and political opponents of the Islamists and the military languish in ghost houses when they are not simply killed. It is true that life has never been easy in Sudan, and it would have been unrealistic to have expected any ideology to save the Sudanese from themselves. But by most measures -- and especially by the measure of political oppression -- Sudan is worse off as an Islamic state than it was before. That would be easier to understand if the Islamist leaders were -- like others within the revolution -- simple authoritarians, believing in the rule of the sword. That has been the way of strong Muslim rulers of the past. To some extent it is the way of Iran today. But the leaders of Sudan presented themselves as something new. Though fervent Muslims, they are not clerics. They think of themselves as progressives, which within the context of Islamic tradition they indeed are. Their idealism is, in a perverse way, what makes Sudan so interesting. Like so many would be reformers in other places and other times, the professors proposed enlightenment but delivered a nightmare. Sudan today offers a glimpse of what the future may hold for other Islamic countries that pursue a radical Muslim dream. It is a leading example of the capacity of Islamic revolution to thwart its own ambitions.

KHARTOUM University is the seat of Sudan's Islamist revolution. It was built by the British, and originally named Gordon Memorial College, after Charles "Chinese" Gordon, a general who was speared and decapitated by rebellious Sudanese shortly before dawn on January 26, 1885. For most of the nineteenth century Sudan had been subject to military rule by Egypt, which in turn was gradually becoming a British holding. Gordon was a famous troubleshooter who had once served on loan to Egypt as the governor of Sudan, and who was sent back to Khartoum to organize an orderly retreat in the face of overwhelming rebel forces. Instead he organized Khartoum's defense, which failed after about a year. The victorious Sudanese had risen under a Muslim messiah, the Mahdi, who now moved across the river and built a new Islamic capital, at Omdurman. The Mahdi died soon afterward, but his Islamic nation lived on for thirteen years, until British and Egyptian troops returned and defeated it bloodily in September of 1898.

The British were conscientious administrators as well as good soldiers, and among the elites of Khartoum they gained admirers by their sincere efforts to improve the country. The pride of their colonial government was the founding of the brick college on the banks of the Blue Nile. After national independence, in 1956, the renamed college became a hotbed of Sudanese politics. On campus and in government the "graduate constituencies" argued earnestly. Their debates had an ineffectual quality that sympathetic outsiders regularly confused with gentleness.

That was the world of young Hassan al-Turabi. Today, at age sixty-one, he is the power behind Sudan's Islamist regime. A small man with a gray beard and a thin, boyish face, Turabi wears a turban and the whitest robes I have ever seen. His shoes are unstained by the streets -- no mean feat for anyone in Khartoum. The white Mercedes in which he gets around the city is equally spotless.

I have heard Turabi called the Madison Avenue ayatollah, because he has slick manners and obvious problems with credibility. At a 1992 discussion with scholars in Florida, he countered reports of torture in Sudan -- widely confirmed by human-rights groups -- by saying, among other things, that the Sudanese are by nature sensitive, and therefore prone to overreact to late-night interviews under the glare of strong lights. During two conversations I had with him Turabi spoke smoothly of Sudan's opposition to terrorism. He also denied that he played any role in government. His assertions were strangely transparent, as if he did not expect me to believe them, but needed somehow to reassure himself.

Nonetheless, Turabi is a person of substance. A legal scholar with advanced degrees from London and Paris, he has served as Sudan's Attorney General and as the dean of the law school at Khartoum University. He is a devoted revolutionary, but one who is more interested in the social effects of Islam than in its strictly spiritual aspects. In Islamist terms he is a believer in not being held to interpretations of Islamic law that are too literal-minded or old-fashioned.

A BIT of theory is necessary. Muhammad, who lived about 600 years after Jesus, was a reformer of law and faith. By discouraging clerical hierarchies, he founded a government and religion based on personal and direct devotion to God.

But rather than accepting his invitation to contemplation and flexibility, his followers retreated into dogma. This began to happen soon after his death, and was tied in to leadership struggles. It was formalized 300 years later, in the tenth century, when the Sunni Muslims and some Shiite Muslims declared the period of ijtihad to be closed. "Ijtihad" is an important word: it means the interpretation of the Prophet's laws to encompass issues not discussed directly in the traditional sources -- ranging from the most personal questions of faith to more public questions of government and law. Muhammad specifically encouraged ijtihad. When his followers declared it closed, they meant not only that the shari'a was complete but also that individuals should have no thoughts of their own. They condemned Muslims to a thousand years of literalness.

It is the issue of reopening ijtihad that has animated many modern Islamist intellectuals and clerics. It is no coincidence that an Islamic revolution first occurred in Iran, where ijtihad was a principle that had been kept alive by Shiites. It is a principle that Turabi, a Sunni Muslim, has long espoused. Whether in economics, education, or political thinking, Turabi argues, the need for change is obvious. In Muslim lands the Western model of secular government has produced some modern downtowns and highways, but otherwise mostly dictatorship and misery. The Sudanese couch their rhetoric in a wistful idealization of the past, because their tradition requires it. But what has actually seemed to inspire them is the chance to rework society along new lines. In theory, as expressed in Islamist writings, these new lines include modern egalitarian concepts of individual dignity and worth and human rights. Ijtihad is the tool that allows the Islamists to discover these principles within their own faith, rather than borrowing them from abroad.

Because of the importance of the Sudanese experiment in Islamic eyes, Turabi has become perhaps the most influential Islamist in the world. Visiting Islamists wait to see him in an enclosed veranda that leads to his office. There are no obvious security precautions. Turabi was once assaulted and nearly killed, but that was in Canada. In Khartoum an attacker would have nowhere to run.

People who have known Turabi since he was young, and who themselves have lived through the frustrations of the postcolonial period of Sudanese history, say they are not surprised by his rise. Turabi was the brilliant son of a religious leader from an eastern province. He came to Khartoum in 1951, as a young man, to study law.

While his fellow students espoused Western solutions to Sudan's problems -- Marxism, socialism, liberal democracy -- Turabi joined a small and powerless group called the Muslim Brotherhood. After graduating from law school he spent the better part of a decade studying in Europe, and upon his return he took control of the Muslim Brotherhood movement. Sudan was by then eight years into independence, and already terribly troubled. Though plaintive, the explanation of Abdelwahab El-Affendi, a Sudanese Islamist, is succinct: "The alternatives being peddled to the Islamic world view . . . were no more than second-hand second-rate misunderstandings of ideologies that were in themselves flawed." The same might be argued about the Islamist ideology today, but by the time of the 1989 military coup that brought Turabi and the Islamists to power, the Sudanese were torn inside and too tired to argue.

The details bear some sorting out. Islamic law in a modern politicized form actually came to Sudan in September of 1983, before the Islamist coup, when the long-standing dictator Jaafar Nimeiri introduced a new shari'a-based penal code. Nimeiri wanted to hang on to power and stamp out crime. At first the citizens of Khartoum turned out by the thousands to enjoy the spectacle of Islamic discipline. The shari'a sharply reduced crime, but then metamorphosed into political terror. To enforce the code, Nimeiri established summary courts that held ten-minute trials and dispensed thousands of punishments, including floggings, amputations, and executions. Amputees from those years are a common sight on the streets of Khartoum.

This was hardly justice as the Islamists envisioned it, but they were willing to compromise. To his discredit, Turabi supported the new laws, and openly turned against the abuse only at the very end, after Nimeiri ordered his arrest. Nimeiri was overthrown in 1985, and after a short period of military rule Sudan passed through a few years of real but ineffective democracy. Islamic punishments were suspended, though Nimeiri's "September Laws" remained on the books, because by then it would have been politically impossible to get rid of them. Khartoum was caught in the larger currents of the Middle East, and by popular sentiment was becoming more devout.

The army officers who seized control in 1989 were themselves radicalized Muslims. They were headed by Lieutenant General Omar Hassan al-Bashir, who, as the head of a junta called the Revolutionary Command Council, remains formally in charge today. Soon after the coup the junta quietly handed power to Turabi and his Islamist brethren in the National Islamic Front, a political group that had grown out of the Muslim Brotherhood. This was done by turning to Turabi for guidance, and inviting his operatives to infiltrate the civil bureaucracy and the military creating, in effect, a shadow government. Early in 1991 the government of Sudan instituted a new criminal code that revitalized the shari'a. Turabi himself, despite his obvious authority, remains in what might be called the foreground of the background.

This state of affairs has led to ambiguity about who is really in charge -- the military strongmen, who are increasingly reviled for their bloody ways, or their brainier friends outside the army, the Islamist intellectuals led by Turabi. The situation is often as unclear to the players as it is to the spectators. Factions shift within factions, and each requires the others to define itself. The disarray is useful to Turabi. It allows him to duck responsibility and claim credit as needed.

THAT Turabi can sometimes duck responsibility is no doubt a tactical convenience. That he often needs to, however, points up a profound problem within the Islamist regime itself. It is simply this: there is no imaginable scheme by which the new and enlightened shari'a can function as a universal and stabilizing legal system in a country as fragmented as Sudan.

This is so whether or not one accepts Turabi and the Islamists at face value -- accepts them, that is, as sincere idealists. To accept them at face value, one must understand that those, like Turabi, who would return to the path of Muhammad by reopening ijtihad seek also to conform to the Islamic ideal in another matter: its tolerance. Islam intends to be respectful of certain other beliefs. This tolerance means that in an Islamic nation that takes itself seriously as such, each tolerated religious community must be allowed to live by its own laws. In a nation like Sudan, where God appears to people in widely different ways, this raises insurmountable obstacles to the universal applicability of Islamic law.

Even if this were not the case, the fact is that there are many who resent and bitterly oppose Turabi's shari'a -- not only among the Christians and animists in the south or in the growing refugee camps around Khartoum but also in the Muslim sects and among the large number of faithful Muslims who would prefer to see Sudan become a secular state. Whether because it is self-limiting in theory or because it is divisive in practice, the shari'a is hardly a system of legal authority that can unite a heterogeneous and quarrelsome nation. And whether for the one reason or the other, a large portion of Sudan is effectively exempted from, or resistant to, the shari'a.

And so one faces a situation where governance, such as it is in Sudan, exists on two planes. There is the public plane: The Islamists have established shari'a courts and staffed them with ideologues who stick to the letter and spirit of the law. Shari'a courts duly handle certain classes of infractions, and those who come under their jurisdiction find themselves living in a fundamentalist Muslim state. I have heard of cases in which, true to the ideal of tolerance, Christians who have landed in shari'a court for violations of Islamic strictures have found themselves exonerated.

And then there is the not-so-public plane, which consists of the military, and the secret police forces, and other groups acting with or without the direct knowledge of Turabi or the military leaders, who fill the vacuum left by the inadequacy of civil government with a regime of continual terror. Opponents of the military do not find their way into shari'a courts. They are taken out and shot.

How do the two planes coexist? There is, I believe, a deep psychological process at work in Sudan, in which the state-directed terror is not acknowledged philosophically by many of the Islamist intellectuals -- not to the outside world, and perhaps not in any fundamental sense to themselves. As noted, there hangs about Turabi himself an atmosphere of reflexive denial. Rather than overtly plotting the political terror, the Islamists turn their backs on it, and let it happen as a matter of distasteful necessity in revolutionary times.

Not all the Sudanese Islamists, of course, bother to pay even lip service to tolerance. Hard-liners within the National Islamic Front tell Turabi that compromise with non-Muslims must be for outside consumption only, that he must win the war in the south and then impose Islamic standards -- if not Islam itself -- on everyone. Turabi surely understands their argument. If he does not impose the shari'a on everyone, the Islamic revolution will flounder. But if he does impose the shari'a on everyone, the Sudanese revolution will lose whatever it has of a soul. So Turabi wavers, and dreams beyond the nation -- dreams the old dream, of a pan-lslamic movement that might someday sweep the world.

THE enemies of the revolution should take no pleasure in the shari'a's inherent weakness. As they applaud the concessions made to certain non-Muslims and summon international pressure to limit the more corporal of the Islamic punishments, they must also face the other half of the equation--that outside the realm of the shari'a system, extralegal punishments have proliferated. The secret police pervade Khartoum.

As Turabi admits, prisoners of the secret police have been interviewed under strong lights. They have also been whipped, sliced, burned, clubbed, shackled and hung by their wrists or ankles, mutilated, blinded, shocked, and starved. They have been deprived of light, space, water, medicine, and sleep. They have been lowered into deep wells poisoned with animal carcasses. They have been subjected to mock executions. The horrors are reported to be more common in the provincial cities, some of which I visited, where zealous authorities can operate out of the view of anyone in the capital who might be inclined to scold them. In the western mountains and in the south, where the shari'a does not pretend to apply, there is effectively no law but war. The victims in the battle zones are rebel soldiers and spies, and their families, and people who are known to them or who might be.

In Khartoum the victims are all criminals and rabble-rousers, real and imagined. It is probably inevitable that the university has been a special target for the government's anger. When students marched in 1992 against the rising cost of education, soldiers moved onto the campus, shot several demonstrators, arrested others, and closed the school for the rest of the year. Department heads have been purged, Islamist stalwarts promoted, and professors intimidated. At the department of political science, when I asked one academic about opposition to the regime, he looked frightened and would give no answer except "We teach the curriculum."

In another office an important Islamist was only too glad to talk. He was young, slight, and so soft-spoken that at times I could not hear him. I was interested because he was once known as a moderate, and probably still thought of himself as one. We discussed restaurants in Princeton, New Jersey, where he had been in school. Mostly, though, I listened to him talk politics. His subject was the Foreign Ministry, but it could as well have been the university, or Khartoum, or the nation at large. He said, "The Islamists discovered that taking power and placing a few people is not enough. The diplomats at the ministry were brought up in the Western way, and they do not always defend Sudan as they should. As an Islamist, you have a different view of national interests. You would love to win over the diplomats, and re-educate them without losing their expertise. You would love to inject them with your own views, but this is very difficult."

And so you apply a little force.

During my stay I spoke often to dissident students, singly and in groups. They sought me out on the campus and found me at the cafeterias that serve soft drinks by the Blue Nile, and in the courtyards, and on the open pathways where they could see others who approached. They complained about discrimination, intimidation, censorship, and hypocritical government. They complained about their poverty and their future. Some were Catholics or Copts, but most were sincere Muslims. And yet, rather than rejecting the Islamist creed, many had plunged deeper into it. And why not? Trapped like prisoners from birth, they sought solace and meaning in their faith. They reminded me of a man I had seen sitting on the street by the Ministry of Justice. He was emaciated and obviously very ill. As I passed, he looked up and said, "Hello, I'm fine." He wore Muslim dress, and held a small Koran in his hands. His only solace was that his faith was still strong.

CRIPPLED no less by their apparent capacity for self-deception than by the shari'a, those in power who can be described as idealists are still trying to build an Islamic democracy. Their attempts at devising a system of public participation amid the prevailing horror of oppression are as ambitious as they are unremittingly pathetic.

The officer charged with designing a new Sudanese governmental structure -- one that might somehow accommodate the country's fractious elements -- is Brigadier General Hassan Hamadain, a heavy man in a green uniform with stars on his shoulders. He had a furrowed brow, and an uncertain manner that I found endearing. We talked in his uncluttered pine-paneled office, which he wanted me to see. With no apparent irony he said, "In Sudan we are very sensitive to dictatorships, and we try to avoid them."

He later said, "All political systems known to the world have been implemented in Sudan, and they have all failed to provide stability." By this he meant multi-party and one-party systems. The solution, to be contained within a federal structure, will allow no parties at all. It will consist of an ornate arrangement of "cascading congresses," through which power will flow upward from neighborhood and village committees, through state and national assemblies, to, finally, the presidency itself.

Having assured me that this scheme will answer Islam's twin requirements of consultation and consensus, the general launched into the details, reading haltingly from notes that he seemed to have stayed up late preparing. He had a telescoping pointer with which he occasionally directed my attention to a colored flow chart on the wall. Here in Khartoum, where the real power structure is intentionally ill-defined, his chart seemed outlandish. But I think he had convinced himself. He had the willingness of a student assigned the project of dreaming up a government.

Afterward I asked, "How do you keep your utopia from turning into a nightmare? In Libya the neighborhood committees have been turned around and used for control."

He looked wounded. "We are trying to give people a free hand to build social institutions in all areas."

"How can you do that and ban parties simultaneously?"

He searched through his notes. "Parties are vehicles of modern institutions. Sudan is a traditional society."

"Even so, by banning parties you don't solve the problem of the tribes and religious sects."

"You're right. We need time to eliminate this problem."

I asked him how that would be done, and how much time. He did not know. I remembered the Attorney General, a sinister man who, when asked about the consequences of the shari'a's not being applied to some non-Muslims, answered, "Yes, I'm thinking about setting up a committee to look into it."

THE importance of Sudan is not Sudan. Before giving his life there a century ago, Charles Gordon wrote, "What a useless possession is this land!" Hassan al-Turabi may find it so as well. Gone already are the fond days of abstraction. Sudanese Islamists now scramble to distance themselves from the increasingly unpopular military junta that gave them power. But even if they survive its eventual downfall, their movement will take turns they can neither predict nor follow. Islamic revolution is not the monolithic thing of the popular imagination. Its glory will pass on -- to Algeria, perhaps, or Egypt -- leaving Sudan to poverty and division. Turabi is an observant man and a student of history. As a Muslim, he has to accept the frustrations of his fate: to have been born ambitious and idealistic -- and Sudanese. Perhaps in his most private thoughts he knows already that he will die disillusioned. There will be no reforming of distant lands, let alone his own.

This much is clear: the Islamic revolution is caught in a dilemma. If it is to deliver genuine solutions, it will have somehow to abandon the cynical pursuit of power that has characterized Muslim politics for centuries. But if, instead, in the pursuit of ijtihad and modern forms of justice, the revolution returns to purer principles of Islam, it may find impossible standards there. That is the lesson of Sudan. No one has yet shown that the modern Islamist creed is an ideology suited to governing.

Foreign Islamists still travel to Khartoum for inspiration, but as they ponder their struggles at home, the sight of what has happened in Sudan must occasion in them a feeling of dread. As they, and we, watch the green flag of Islam spread across the map, one thought should be uppermost: It is one thing to win power, and quite another to wield it.

Copyright © 1994 by William Langewiesche. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; August 1994; Turabi's Law; Volume 274, No. 2; pages 26-33.

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