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Out There News

Beguiling zealot preaches Islamic revolution from Sudan

By Paul Eedle

KHARTOUM, May 7, Reuter - Hassan Tourabi is a brilliant zealot who is intent on spreading militant Islam throughout Africa and the Middle East. 

A slight, bearded figure in traditional Sudanese white robe and loose turban, he has manoeuvered his way to effective power in Sudan since a coup in 1989. Tourabi holds no official post but diplomats say he wields enormous power through a network of followers who control an all-pervasive security service and hold sensitive posts throughout the armed forces and government. 

He preaches his theories with beguiling modesty and gentle logic, speaking softly and chuckling frequently at his own arguments. Beneath the charm, however, his message is quite plain: "If force is used against Islam to stop it, then Moslems, if they are well organised...are entitled to use force against force," he said. "So a revolution is quite legitimate." 

The rise of Tourabi, a lawyer who was already an Islamic activist as a Khartoum University student in the 1950s, has further alarmed Western governments. They already accuse Sudan of giving safe haven to violent groups such as Abu Nidal's Palestinian mercenaries and worry about its friendship with Iran. But, talking in the living room of his villa on the edge of Khartoum, Tourabi denied Sudan would offer military facilities to anti-Western groups and said Islam opposed individual acts of violence. 

Asked about U.S. accusations on Abu Nidal, he replied: "That is just their obsession, I think. I mean they are haunted by him and they see him in the dark. Abu Nidal has never set foot in the Sudan." Tourabi did confirm that Abu Nidal's group had asked Sudan several times for permission to enter the country but said the requests had been refused. 

He was quite open, however, about his ambitions to encourage Islamic militants throughout the world. "I concentrate now on ideology, thought generally, and international aspects of Islam rather than on government and day-to-day politics," he said. Tourabi said Sudan "has developed relations with all Islamic movements in the world and it is now becoming one of the leading models because it is a complete movement with political, economic, social, cultural dimensions, very well-organised." 

He showed little concern at the prospect of tension with countries such as Saudi Arabia where conservative governments might feel threatened by his brand of Islamic militancy. "Islam is a new phenomenon and new phenomena are always subversive of the old order, I mean this is how they are seen by the old order. All processes of social change, of course, do entail some tension between old and new." 

On actual policies, Tourabi showed considerable flexibility. The Sharia, traditional Islamic law, supplies some fixed points, such as the prohibition on banks charging interest, but large areas of law are to be worked out by elected bodies. "The difference between a democracy and an Islamic state would only be that there is a higher system of law on top of all institutions of government, which is the Sharia," he said. 

Commitment to small government and free-market economics are the clearest features of his philosophy. "The economy is essentially the affair of society. It is supposed to be private, with a strong emphasis on social justice. The state is the guardian of social justice, rather than the proprietor of the economy," he explained. "Islamic society as a whole is very autonomous in providing social services -- education, health services. They are supposed to be free and private but the government can always either correct or supplement the private efforts." 

Tourabi's theory of Islamic revolution is based on good organisation and timing. "Private groups which aspire for the establishment of Islam are advised to hold their hands, be patient, until they are organised as a credible alternative to the order," he said. 

Tourabi has practised what he preached, spending 30 years nurturing a movement distinguished by decisiveness and administrative efficiency, rare qualities in a hot, dusty country stricken with poverty. As dean of Khartoum University law faculty in the 1960s, Tourabi helped to lead the "Islamic Charter Front". Under the military government of Jaafar Nimeiri, Tourabi spent a total of seven years in jail in the 1970s. But when Nimeiri turned to Islamic militants to shore up his rule, Tourabi was waiting and he became attorney-general in 1979. 

A popular revolution overthrew Nimeiri in 1985 and restored multi-party politics. Tourabi established the National Islamic Front (NIF) and built it into the third biggest political party. As democracy spiralled into chaos, the NIF cultivated the army. In June 1989, a group of colonels mounted the inevitable coup, toppling the civilian government of Sadeq al-Mahdi and installing a junta headed by General Omar Hassan al-Bashir. It meant that Tourabi was finally positioned for real power.