Today's date:
Winter 2002


America Will Not Tolerate Islamic Movements, Even if They Are Peaceful

Hassan Al-Turabi, the Islamic spiritual leader of Sudan who hosted Osama bin Laden before he left for Afghanistan and who was acclaimed as "the second Khomeini of the Islamic awakening," has been under house arrest outside Khartoum since 2000 when the Sudanese government of Omer Hassan Al-Bashir decided to improve relations with the West. He has just completed the manuscript of his new book, Jihad and Public Life: The Meaning of Jihad and Its Guidelines. In this exclusive interview conducted for NPQ by Imam M. Imam, editor of Asharq Al Awsat, Hassan Al-Turabi speaks out for the first time since September 11.

NPQ | How do you see the events of Sept. 11 in America? How will they impact the Islamist movements?

HASSAN AL-TURABI | I have long contemplated the relationship of the West with the new movements of the Islamic awakening.
When these movements were still in their infancy, and due to their combative role against communism during the bipolar confrontation between the West and the Soviet Union, Western powers were jubilant and hailed their appearance on the world stage despite premeditated, negative attitudes against Islam as a receptacle of backwardness.

Then-prompted by the Islamic revolution in Iran, the subsequent events at the United States embassy, the demise of the Soviet Union as an enemy, the emergence of Islamic resistance to Israel and the rise of the Osama bin Laden phenomenon in the Arab world that targeted America (as distinct from the anti-American Arab nationalist movement)-the West, led by the US, started to brand the Islamic movements as "fundamentalist" comparable to the Christian reactionary movements known in the US.

These attitudes in the West were also encouraged by the excesses of violent jihad and the aberration of the Afghan phenomenon.

In my view, the contemporary awakening of Islam was labeled "fundamentalist" by the West in order to avoid a direct confrontation that would have mobilized the forces of Islam from the far Asian East to the western parts of Africa.

The obvious fact now is that all the Islamist movements-especially in Afghanistan, Palestine and the active Muslim movements in the North (Europe and America)-are targeted by the West (and some Asian countries with vibrant Muslim minorities in their midst) as associated with terrorism.

Progress and response to challenge are the nature of history. History doesn't ossify. The emergence of new challenges leads to new responses, which generate a new spirit, a new revival and resurrection. This appears to be the destiny of the Islamic awakening.

Those who are frightened by the emergence of the Islamic movement try to contain, suffocate or muzzle it. It responds with anger, with violence that sometimes exceeds the limits of taqwa (fear of God and devotion to justice) and fails to deal with others according to the just and humane dictates of Islam.

The reality is that most Islamic movements are wise, rational and fair. They call for a version of democracy similar to the Western model; they believe in human rights, electoral systems, free transference of power, political pluralism and peaceful and just international relations.

It is also true that, despite the reaction against "fundamentalism" and the preemptive strikes that are meant to intimidate and terrorize others, certain sectors in the West are keen to engage Islam in fruitful dialogue. Now they are even more serious about that dialogue, trying to identify what they call "moderate" as opposed to extremist movements steeped in violence and jihad.

The doors are still open for dialogue between Islamic movements and the West if that dialogue is not aimed at containment of Islam but open to developing new horizons.

I don't think that the policies inspired by the readiness to appease America, practiced by dictatorial regimes intent on repulsing Islam in the name of fighting terrorism, will be of any use in subjugating the Islamic movements. This attitude can only provoke resistance.

The real problem is that America will not tolerate Islamic movements even if they embrace democracy and peaceful activism.

NPQ | How do you describe your relationship with Osama bin Laden, especially during his stay in Sudan?

AL-TURABI | I met Bin Laden only occasionally while he was here in Sudan. My contacts with him were in the context of his activities in construction and agriculture, which were related to some government agencies. He belonged to a cultural environment that was different from the pattern of the Sudanese Islamic movement. Around him were old comrades in arms from Afghanistan working in his businesses. Their stand vis a vis our movement was tantamount to denunciation.

Although the activities of Bin Laden in Sudan were monitored by the Sudanese security authorities, he was not particularly interested in the issues that were then central to Islamic movements. He was not building on a deep organizational experience or engaged in sophisticated activist planning. Although he had his connections with comrades all over the Arab world, especially his intimate relations with southern Arabia and Somalia, he lacked an international organizational network.

When he left Sudan, however, he abandoned economic activity once and for all and engaged in violent jihad activities. He was provided in Afghanistan with organizational expertise, planning capabilities and seasoned personnel.

Had it not been for his leaving Sudan in a state of rage, had it not been for his isolation and denial of contact in Afghanistan, I don't think that he would have reached the levels of confrontation he did.

Economic activity was his forte, and had he stayed in Sudan he could have stuck to that. He found in Sudan a reserved government that was mindful of diplomatic considerations and obligations-and an Islamic movement with no zeal for Jihad.

NPQ | Did the Sudanese government offer to extradite Bin Laden both to Saudi Arabia and America prior to his leaving Sudan?

AL-TURABI | I was subjected to international demands for the extradition of Bin Laden. I used to tell those seeking his extradition that I was more sensitive than they to the interests of Saudi Arabia (home of Bin Laden before the withdrawal of his citizenship) and keen on good relations between Saudi Arabia and Sudan.

Although Osama had his differences with his country, he was less vocal on that subject when he was here in Sudan. His activities, statements, brochures, press releases, even his personal letters attested to that. In Sudan, Bin Laden himself was not in the habit of public appearances and was not exposed to the media.

At a later stage, the government made some special contacts with Saudi Arabia and the US concerning Osama bin Laden. When we realized that all these parties were not interested in taking Bin Laden in whatever capacity-as citizen or refugee or suspect-we put together a government plan allowing Bin Laden, with due apologies, to leave Sudan. The government took him to Afghanistan and was still sorting out the financial obligations it owed to him till quite recently.

Due to the differences that emerged between the government in Sudan and our Islamic movement, the government began to shed any Islamic trappings in its foreign policy, even banning the Popular Arab Islamic Congress-the international organization used to bring together Islamic movements, Arab nationalist movements, ruling Islamic movements and others not in power. It was attended by Islamic and non-Islamic intellectuals. The congress was a meeting place for people from all over the world and was a venue for dialogue, peace, making acquaintances and the forging of intimate relations.

Under secret pressures from abroad, the government expelled all the Muslim refugees and maintained total silence about all the issues facing Muslims all over the world.

NPQ | How do you see the repercussions of the events in Afghanistan on the Islamic world both at the regional and international levels?

AL-TURABI | Although Sudan recognized the first Afghan government after liberation, it also received a high level delegation from the Taliban to discuss Islamic issues like the status of women, Islamic education, Islamic banking and the constitutional set-up in the context of the Sudanese example. Similar contacts continued, with the Sudan sending comrades to all the parts of Afghanistan.

Now, a government has been imposed on Afghanistan through unashamed Western intervention, a government bereft of popular support, sustained by nothing else than foreign forces. It is a government that makes use of Western cunning to turn its back on Islam, denying the sacrifices of a million martyrs. It has been seduced by the promises of material reconstruction and the return to something akin to the ancient regime of the king.

It is extremely difficult to have a stable regime in Kabul without taking into consideration tribalism and adopting a decentralized system of governance. I say this based on my long acquaintance with the mujahedeen leaders and the consecutive liberation governments in Afghanistan, and with the mass organizations as well-Shiite and Sunni as well as Sufi and tribal.

The situation might now deteriorate into an utter state of chaos, anarchy and civil war. Some quarters will be pleased to reach such a state of affairs. Then, they would have no Arab mujahedeen to blame, and the fights that flare up would not be held in check by the fraternity and compassion of a just religion. If the neighbors of Afghanistan seek to buy their security at the expense of inviting destruction on Afghanistan, they stand to gain nothing but similar destruction.

NPQ | How, in your view, could the issue of the Afghan Arabs be resolved? Is it at all possible for them to leave Afghanistan in the aftermath of the American Afghan conflict?

AL-TURABI | The Arabs in Afghanistan, as they used to be in all foreign lands, were like apostles-holy men spreading the original message of religion, teachers of a new language and sources of finance and support. But the ruling circles in Afghanistan that were pressured by the international coalition are now branding these Arabs as terrorists. They are mobilizing the tribes against them as foreigners, oblivious to the religious fraternity that dictates otherwise.

Arab peoples and Arab governments are silent today. They are utterly afraid to show any trace of sympathy with the Taliban or even with the people who came from the North (Europe and America). They are indifferent to the atrocities and the blood bath against the devout mujahedeen who fought to the bitter end in the mountains. They show no sympathy with those taken prisoner by America.

I don't want a different destiny for the Arab Afghans than their brethren in Palestine-that is, to be killed in the cause of religion and go back to their God, blessed and happy.

When will Muslims all over the world learn their lessons from countries like Afghanistan and the Sudan? The banners of Islam are raised aloft, and calls for support are sent to all the corners of the Earth, but when these calls are responded to in earnest, there appear those who roll down the banners and turn against the supporters of Islam.