Brief Review of W. J. Berridge’s Hassan al-Turabi: Islamist Politics and Democracy in Sudan

Musab Khoughali

Berridge attempts to look at al-Turabi’s history, his upbringing and education and political stances and thoughts in this book and the effect he had on Sudanese society through the decades. The book has details on many of the events that took place in al-Turabi’s life and around it though, some lack context.
While there is a visible effort by the author to look at al-Turabi objectively, crediting him where due and critiquing where necessary, there are a few assumptions that are prevalent in circles that see al-Turabi in an all negative light that find their way into the book. Some of these assumptions include the purported support of Nimeiri’s September laws in 1983. While he was consulted by Nimeiri on the concept, al-Turabi was far removed from the process itself by the former president who had shifted his political and spiritual ideology towards a more Islamic and less communists/socialist one. The support by al-Turabi was in relation the shift in Nimeiri’s attitude but he condemned the laws and hudud then and continued to do so until he departed.
On the idea of his control of a “Super-Tanzim”, nominal or otherwise, this is questionable for many reasons. The first is that al-Turabi’s concept of Shura Council meant that there was always a decision-making process that included others and they were heard. Second, during his imprisonment after the 1989 coup, the persons who controlled communication between him, the party and the government where the same individuals responsible for the unsanctioned and failed attempt on Hosni Mubarak in 1995. It was their opportunity to establish a role for themselves by slowly aligning with al-Bashir. This was very evident in 1996 and 1997 when the general assembly of the National Congress Party voted in the first session to suspend the same members who would later sign the Memorandum of Ten.
The al-Shura wa’l-Dimuqratiyya concept by al-Turabi may appear to be a no-party system of politics on its face. However, delving into his arguments of electing leaders as Muslims would elect their imam to prayer, this concept is much closer to a system of direct democracy where the political involvement is not a party or regional level. Rather, it advocates the inclusion of individual members of society, its prominent figures in the fields of arts, economics, business and culture. It seeks to melt the constructs of traditional ideological divides in politics into the vox populi. This goes hand in hand with his belief that the nation is to capture the state and not the opposite and this is further evidenced by his work in which he states that he can only describe the characteristics of an Islamic State, one which he had been working to realise. The concept he illustrates in his work and through his actions convey his reliance on having a national voice where debate is free for all and for any topics and that the direct democracy will bring in whatever the people wanted, be it an Islamic society with its values or not. A collective ijtihad and through periodic elections, tajdid. The final manifestation of this is his final piece of work, al-Nizam al-Khalif.
Al-Turabi’s political career from 1964 until 2016 is very colourful and while it may seem that he at times aligned himself with dictators like Nimeiri for political gain, he was looking to experience the politics of a statemen in preparation for his project to reach, as a political and societal force, the highest office in the land. While he had no personal ambitions to become president or prime minister, as evidenced by numerous proposals in 1991 and 1995 for him to head the government, he wanted members of his political circle to be acquainted with the workings of life in government. Another form of personal ijtihad as politicians were targeted by business and banking to make concessions and deals in return for monetary rewards. Most of his then students had never been in a position of minister and some were from modest backgrounds. The opportunities he was offered by Nimeiri and al-Mahdi allowed him and his party to engage in real governance and prepare themselves for the possibility of life within the state. His students soon found themselves being courted by big banking and big business and failed to uphold the values they had preached. A prime example is taking a loan the bore interest for the lender and while al-Bashir was never an Islamist during his youth or military career pre-1989, him and the circle mentioned earlier did not stop this from happening. This was the first of many minute failures that exacerbated the schism between the values al-Turabi held and the attractions of power and politics.
In essence, al-Turabi, like many influential figures in history, will be seen be some as a reformer, a thinker, a politician whose ideas were ground breaking and ahead of their time. Others will see him as less than that, a political opportunist who changed his ideas and beliefs over time to suit his environment. It is unfair to attribute all greatness or evil to one person and it is certainly unwise to assume that he was alone in his ventures. Al-Turabi’s greatest strength was his brotherhood and sense of community. The book provides very detailed accounts of many events that illustrate this. From his relationship with Al-Zindani to meeting the Pope and others.
Finally, the author has made a valiant effort to be objective in much of the writing and has articulated various arguments well. However, it would be an omission to not state that there are various “legends” that his detractors use that are present in the writing which take away from the objective effort of Berridge.

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