Judith Miller. Foreign Affairs. Volume 73, Issue 6. November/December 1994.
Around the 1980s an eruption of militant Islamic passion sent tremors through the Middle East: the 1979 installation in Shiite Muslim Iran of the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini; the occupation that same year of Mecca’s holiest shrine; the assassination of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat after the Camp David accords; Hezbollah’s car-bomb assault on the U. S. embassy in Beirut; the expulsion of the Soviets from Afghanistan by the Saudi-and American-armed mujahedeen; the growth of the Islamic Resistance Movement, or Hamas, in Israeli-occupied territories; the election victories in Algeria of the Islamic Salvation Front; and the military coup in Khartoum that brought Hassan al-Turabi’s Muslim Brotherhood to power and made Sudan the region’s first militant Sunni Arab state.
But that was the 1980s. The present decade has seen mostly setbacks for the militants. Sudan, always poor, is now bankrupt and still trapped in a savage, costly civil war after five years of Islamic rule. Economically isolated, Khartoum became a political pariah in 1993, when Washington added it to the short list of countries sponsoring or assisting international terrorism. In Iran, Islamic militants vie among themselves for power in the political vacuum left by Khomeini’s death. Afghanistan is locked in vicious civil strife among competing Islamic warlords. And Saddam Hussein’s invasion forced the once-wealthy militant Islamic movements to choose between their traditional patrons—Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states—and their mostly pro-Saddam constituents.
Moreover, America’s spectacular display of military power in the Persian Gulf War signaled Washington’s determination to protect its access to oil and other vital interests. The collapse of the Soviet Union and the U. S. victory in the gulf led to American-sponsored peace talks in Madrid in 1991, which culminated two years later in Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) signing a peace accord in Washington. Now Jordan has agreed to a formal peace, and Syria is not far behind. Islam’s defeats of the 1990s have been so widespread, so relentless, that French scholar Olivier Roy has written of “the failure of Islam,” and Fouad Ajami, an eminent American analyst of Lebanese origin who pronounced the death of Arab nationalism in this journal four years ago, has concluded that “the pan-Islamic millennium has run its course; the Islamic decade is over.”
Despite such predictions, it may be premature to proclaim the end of the militant Islamic moment. Given the enormous attraction slam holds for young Muslims, and the lack of any convincing, homegrown alternative, the militants’ failure may be only temporary. In Algeria, Islamic extremists may take partial or total control of the government. In Egypt, the government is undergoing economic and political strain. The country is debt-ridden, politically stagnant, and plagued with rising unemployment. Although the United States was able to twice mobilize an international force to confront Saddam Hussein—a secular dictator whose last-minute conversion to Islam fooled few people—it is not clear that America would have sufficient military power, moral authority, and national will to quell a popular Islamic uprising in, say, Cairo, or—still more daunting—an anti-Western coup by Islamic extremists in Saudi Arabia.
A Counselor and a Cleric
Two men are attempting to adapt to these challenges, each in a way that reveals much about the power and appeal of Islamic movements in the Arab states. Hassan Abdallah al-Turabi of Sudan and Sheikh Muhammed Hussein Fadlallah of Lebanon are the two most important leaders of Islamic literalist movements. Each leads a movement dedicated to the destruction of the social and political order in Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and other Middle Eastern countries with pro-Western regimes. For American and European officials charged with protecting Western interests abroad, their names evoke images of car bombs, murder, and young, bearded holy warriors bent on historic revenge. In Arab capitals, they represent the militant Islamic revival feared by conservative rulers and prayed for by the millions of unhappily ruled, the futureless young, the poor, the dispossessed—those the Muslims call “the disinherited.”
In the past decade, these men and their movements—committed to establishing Islamic regimes that combine development and Islamic justice—have become vastly more influential and hence, far more threatening than Western analysts ever imagined possible. Arab intellectuals of the 1940s and 1950s were inspired by the works of George Antonious—a Lebanese Christian whose book The Arab Awakening became the bible of Arab nationalism—and were hypnotized by former Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser’s aggressive promotion of secular pan-Arabism. Today’s Muslim generation is enthralled by Turabi, Fadlallah, and less prominent imitators.
Turabi, now 62, is a smooth, Western-trained ideologist of Sudan’s Islamic counterreformation. As leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, he is the power behind the Islamic regime, which has ruled Sudan since 1989, when a military coup destroyed Sudan’s inept democracy. In the past 30 years, Turabi has transformed the Muslim Brotherhood from a marginal group into a powerful political force, one that Sudan’s traditional parties were forced to include in their ruling coalition. When the Brotherhood’s agenda was blocked democratically, its followers used their posts in the government, army, and security services—which Turabi had encouraged them to join—to seize power.
Lebanon’s Sheikh Fadlallah, a 59-year-old descendant of the Prophet Muhammed, is a prolific poet, scholar, and influential Shiite cleric. While his group—Hezbollah, the Iranian-backed Party of God—stands little chance of ruling Lebanon in the short term, it is now a broad-based political and social movement that Lebanon’s government must take seriously. Hezbollah’s kidnappings, hijackings, and car-bomb attacks in the early 1980s helped drive America from Lebanon, and the Party of God remains the major opponent of Israel’s self-declared “security zone” in southern Lebanon. Under Fadlallah’s guidance, Hezbollah has not only captured the largest bloc of seats in Lebanon’s fractious parliament, it has developed a large and passionate following among young Shiite Muslims, now the largest religious group in what was once a predominantly Christian country.
On the surface, Fadlallah and Turabi would seem to have little in common. Fadlallah, a Shiite from once-wealthy Lebanon, received a classical Islamic education in the seminaries of Najaf, Iraq, the center of Arab Shiism, and speaks only Arabic. Turabi, a Sunni from impoverished Sudan, attended a secular university and studied law in London and Paris, and speaks idiomatic English and French. Turabi is tall, thin, and dark-skinned. Fadlallah is short, round, and wan. But both are cosmopolitan, well-traveled men of the world. Each has affected Middle Eastern politics far beyond his country’s own borders, and together they have influenced the ideas millions of young Arabs have about the West, their own troubled countries, and the peace that is now being arranged between Israel and its Arab neighbors. Though they have never met, each told me he respects the other. They have also begun to correspond, though neither. will say about what.
Interviewed in appropriately Spartan offices this past spring and summer, both men expressed absolute certainty that only Islam can fill the vacuum left by the failures of Western-inspired Arab nationalism and other imported ideologies; as Turabi often declares, in the spirit of Karl Marx, “Objectively, the future is ours.” Both are charismatic orators who use the mesmerizing rhythms and power of Arabic to great effect—Turabi at political rallies and lectures, Fadlallah in his famous Friday sermons at his Beirut mosque. Both are what Israeli scholar Martin Kramer calls “modern” Islamic leaders in that they defend and promote Islam in terms beyond the Koran and are fond of incorporating Western techniques and arguments in their criticisms of the West.
Both have, in Kramer’s phrase, “amazing discipline of discourse.” Although Turabi and Fadlallah can occasionally be provoked—and they were at times during these interviews—they usually stick close to a mental script, pursuing their goals without digressing. They resist being drawn into philosophical debates that might expose weaknesses in their Islamic framework or put them on uncertain intellectual ground. When convenient, both engage in sophisticated dissimulation. When they do not wish to answer a sensitive question, no amount of cajoling, humoring, incitement, or repetition can draw them out. Both relish the attention of journalists and appreciate our usefulness in spreading their ideology, especially to media-savvy young Arabs accustomed to satellite dishes and VCRs. In Khartoum, for example, Turabi told me that he always talked to journalists who visited Sudan, “even journalists who say awful things about me. When they meet me here, it looks like I haven’t read what they’ve written. But I have,” he said, smiling. “I just don’t react. And not because I want to win him over. I simply feel that one must continue to communicate with others.”
To some extent, both men think of themselves, as did Khomeini, in grandiose ways—as a symbol of his country’s revolution, or, as Turabi says, “a symbol of Islam.” Fadlallah, when asked how he prefers to be addressed, replied that, given his age and scholarly achievement, he could appropriately be called “ayatollah.” Asked whether the even higher Shiite designation of “marjah” was appropriate, Fadlallah smiled and noted, “Some people have talked about this and consider me as a reference and guide on Islamic issues, but I have not yet announced myself as a marjah.” The people, he added modestly, would have to decide whom they would trust with such exalted standing.
The place of each leader in his respective movement eludes precise definition. Both men have repeatedly denied having any formal title or post. Yet it is unlikely that the Muslim Brotherhood or Hezbollah would have evolved as they did without such inspiring, pragmatic leadership.
Enemies and Friends
Turabi and Fadlallah share several mutual hatreds. Communism is one of them. Turabi’s most tenacious foe throughout his life has been Sudan’s Communist Party, once the largest communist party in Africa. Similarly, after Iraq became ostensibly independent in 1932 and then again after the fall of the Iraqi monarchy in 1958, believers such as Fadlallah were forced to confront Baathist communists and other secularists who threatened both the clerics’ standing and Islam’s grip on Shiite Muslims throughout the region. Fadlallah’s belief in the need to update Islam emerged in part from those early battles with atheist groups.
Turabi and Fadlallah also detest Saudi Arabia, a less obvious competitor and an early patron of their charitable and political works. While they dismissed Saddam Hussein as a fraud, an Islamic pretender, during the buildup to the Persian Gulf War, both were even more hostile to the American-led forces that drove Iraq’s troops from Kuwait. Saudi Arabia, understandably, viewed their opinions as betrayals. Turabi describes the Gulf War and what he regards as Saudi Arabia’s temporary salvation through American military might as a “blessing in disguise” that “turned the Islamic phenomenon into a mass movement.” In Cairo and Riyadh, he told me, soon after the Gulf War, that “the traditional religious and political establishments are trembling.” King Fahd of Saudi Arabia was “in quite a mess,” he gloated. The Saudi rulers were neither Muslim fundamentalists, nor Muslims. “The Saudis, with their monarchy and secular laws and secular elites, had propagated a very conservative Islam throughout the Middle East for years. But the Gulf War has shattered the dynasty’s legitimacy. Now, even the Saudis face a full-fledged Islamic movement that will no longer be bought off.”
Turabi is undoubtedly angry that the Saudis have cut off financial aid to Sudan and, more recently, expelled Osama bin Laden, a fanatical young member of a wealthy Saudi family known for his support of the Afghan rebels and Islamic militants. Bin Laden now lives in Khartoum and carries a Sudanese passport.
Fadlallah, too, has little affection for the Saudi regime, despite the fact that it bans alcohol, strictly segregates the sexes, and has made saria, or Islamic law, the law of the land—all ostensible goals of most radical Islamic movements, including Hezbollah. But as Fadlallah argued, the implementation of Islamic law does not automatically guarantee the creation of an Islamic society. “They claim to derive their rules from Islamic teachings,” Fadlallah said, his disdain for the Saudis evident on his face. “But their implementation is different from what they claim.” He dismisses as cosmetic Riyadh’s recent well-publicized rapprochement with its substantial Shiite population. The agreement, he complained, “solved only one one-thousandth of the problem. The Shiite minority of Saudi Arabia are citizens of the tenth degree.”
At the same time, however, both Turabi and Fadlallah have distanced themselves in recent years from another beloved patron and champion of absolutist Islam—the Islamic Republic of Iran. While Turabi credits Iran with having “Islamized revolution,” he also argues that Iran’s misfortune was that Islam came to power through revolution, a violent process that invariably leaves a deep stain. Khomeini, he said, was not really a politician. He was “too abstract” and “sometimes wrong.” “The revolution needed a symbol, something to hate—the shah. Suddenly the shah was gone, but they didn’t know what to do. So they charged against the [U.S.] embassy…just to bring something down.” In other words, the Iranian militants’ main problem, according to Turabi, was that, unlike his Muslim Brotherhood, they lacked a clear agenda for political and social change.
Turabi, who has long denied Western charges that Iranian Revolutionary Guards operate training camps in his country, also denies that Sudan harbors members of Hezbollah, Hamas, and other Islamic “liberation” groups, though I interviewed such people during my stay in Khartoum. According to Turabi, Washington added Sudan to its terrorist list in 1993 because the United States is “anti-Islamic.” Western diplomats, citing what they call overwhelming evidence of Sudan’s aid to terrorists, scoff at his denials.
Some analysts believe that the recent cooling of relations between Khartoum and Tehran has less to do with philosophical disagreements than with Iran’s paltry support for Sudan’s regime. Sudanese officials deride what they now call the “challenge highway,” a road to Port Sudan that Iran had promised to construct but that was still unfinished last summer. Moreover, Sudan is obviously displeased that Iran has forced the bankrupt regime to buy its oil at world market prices.
Fadlallah’s coolness toward Iran also reflects policy differences, rivalries, and Tehran’s disdain for the sheikh’s tiresome independence. Fadlallah argues that Khomeini came to power under “harsh circumstances,” particularly the “imposed” war with Iraq, which forced the young revolution to focus on survival rather than its Islamic program. “The failure to implement some Islamic thought does not reflect the failure of Islamic thought,” Fadlallah told me. “Islamic systems do not exist in a vacuum.” Echoing Turabi, he agreed that it would have been better if Islam had not come to Iran through revolution.
Fadlallah, like Turabi, is quick to criticize Iran. He did not, for example, deny assertions by fellow militants that Khomeini refused to meet with him for three years after he rejected Iran’s demands that Hezbollah call for an Islamic state in Lebanon. Fadlallah adroitly portrayed the boycott as his decision, and then downplayed the ayatollah’s refusal to meet with him, blaming logistics and not a “negative attitude” toward Khomeini or the Islamic republic. “I have my own Islamic personality,” Fadlallah told me. “I had it before and after the Iranian Revolution.” Other Islamists were not expected to adopt “all ideas and notions used in the Islamic republic or promoted by them.”
Nor did Turabi and Fadlallah specifically endorse Khomeini’s 1989 fatwa against the Indian-born British writer Salman Rushdie. The ayatollah’s decision argued that Rushdie’s book, The Satanic Verses, had insulted the prophet and hence made Rushdie an apostate whose life was forfeit. While Fadlallah defended the fatwa, he did not call for Rushdie’s death. What mattered to him was that many stores had been persuaded not to carry the book and that non-Muslims had been reminded of the danger in offending the world’s one billion Muslims. Muslims, he argued, had to prevent the West from using the Rushdie affair “to infiltrate its ideas of human rights into the Islamic world.”
Five years later, Fadlallah had not changed his mind. Refusing to say the death warrant should now be canceled, Fadlallah argued only that the Rushdie affair should not be interpreted as proof that Islamists do not believe in “freedom of expression.” “We have no problem criticizing Islam in a constructive and scientific way,” Fadlallah insisted. But Rushdie was mocking the prophet with “insulting expressions.” “This was about politics, not freedom of thought,” he said. “If Rushdie had written a similar book about Jews, would Bill Clinton still have welcomed him at the White House? Clinton does not respect the feelings of Muslims as he does Christians and Jews. The official West is not neutral in this matter.”
Turabi, a student of law by training, used procedural arguments to avoid criticizing the substance of the fatwa. First, he asserted that Rushdie would not be subject to the death penalty for apostasy in Islamic Sudan because he had not violated Sudanese law, which requires that a Muslim take “active steps” to undermine an Islamic state’s constitutional order to be convicted of apostasy. Second, Rushdie did not commit a crime on Sudanese soil, and Islam “accepts territory as the basis of jurisdiction.” Although Turabi, like Fadlallah, was obviously aware of the damage the death warrant had inflicted on the Islamic cause, he resisted being questioned about it in any detail. The Rushdie affair was not worthy of scrutiny, he declared, dismissing further inquiries about the fatwa as “silly questions.”
Fadlallah makes a point of distancing his movement from Tehran on other issues. If anything, he told me, the Iranians have adopted many of his ideas, not the other way around. Tehran, for instance, eventually accepted his argument that “political issues must be confronted in a nonemotional way,” that “overly broad and hollow rhetoric was counterproductive to the Islamic cause, and that one had to distinguish between Western systems and Western people. “Our Islamic speech should reflect reality,” he said. “We want to be enemies of the official West, not its people.”
Turabi also endorses this Islamic Talmudism. Underlying the distinction both men make between Western governments and their people is an implicit assertion that Western governments are not truly democratic; they do not represent the hopes and beliefs of the people who freely elect them.
Islam vs. America
Turabi’s and Fadlallah’s belief in Islam’s ultimate triumph is accompanied by their certainty of America’s decline. Fadlallah’s view might spring in part from having witnessed the flight of American, French, and Israeli soldiers from Lebanon following his people’s “rebellion against fear” in 1983. Turabi shares this conviction because, as he told me, “I know America well,” referring to a summer he passed in the United States as part of an American government-sponsored tour for student leaders in 1961. America, he concluded “sadly,” is “racist.” By Islamic standards, Sudan’s human rights record—assailed by the United Nations, Western governments, and virtually all independent human rights organizations—was better than America’s, he declared. His society was less violent and far safer. “There are millions of people in America—45 million people at least,” he said, apparently alluding to the nation’s black population, “who don’t believe that your system represents them.” The Clinton administration, Turabi said, is “young and energetic, but aimless,” and its secretary of state, Warren Christopher, “hasn’t got a clue.”
At the same time, Turabi and Fadlallah have been careful to express respect and affection for the American people. Though Americans are, in Turabi’s words, “very ignorant of the world,” they are also very “open” to it. Their quarrel, they stress, is with the government and its wrong-headed policies, not with the people. This reassuring message reflects Fadlallah’s conclusion that “if the Islamic movement showed a friendly face, this would bolster those in the West who favor the appeasement of its political demands.” This strategy, given the number of Western analysts who yearn for reconciliation with Iran and a dialogue with radical Islamic groups, has not been without success.
Both Turabi and Fadlallah, however, have placed firm limits on their rhetorical confrontation with “official” America. While Fadlallah once defended the suicide bombings against the American embassy and military targets, as well as the young “martyrs” who carried them out, he began to distance himself from airplane hijackings, hostage-taking, and other terrorist acts as early as 1985.
Both men, for example, have condemned the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center in New York City and related plots to blow up New York bridges, tunnels, and public buildings. “There is no justification for such actions in a country where Muslims have freedom to practice their faith,” Fadlallah told me last spring. Muslims living in such lands had an obligation to “respect the rules and laws of the state” and “not to act against the national security of such countries…. The people in the World Trade Center had no link to politics; we had no right to hurt them. We condemn all similar murders of innocent people in public places.”
Nevertheless, Fadlallah added, while he had never met Sheikh Abdel Rahman, the Egyptian cleric accused of sanctioning the bombings, he doubted that Rahman would have done such a thing, since he had come to the United States seeking political refuge.
Turabi also maintained that neither he nor his government condoned or had any role in the plots. Distancing Sudan from terrorism was more difficult for Turabi, however, since Sheikh Rahman was given his visa to the United States in Khartoum and, according to American investigators, had spent several weeks in Sudan as Turabi’s guest, hospitality that Turabi denies. Moreover, five of the 15 men indicted in connection with the bombing conspiracy are Sudanese nationals, some of whom, according to American officials, had extensive contact with two Sudanese diplomats at the United Nations before the bombings. Turabi accused an “Egyptian agent” working for the U. S. Justice Department of trying to frame the five suspects, none of whom he said he knew personally. Sudan was placed on the State Department’s terrorist list several months after the Sudanese nationals were formally charged, though the World Trade Center episode was not mentioned in the agency’s official explanation.
Their hostility to America and the West has undoubtedly been reinforced by their conviction that the United States, often with Western and Arab help, has tried to kill them. Fadlallah said he has been the target of five such plots “the most serious being the American attempt,” he said with a tight smile, referring to a 1985 car bomb that exploded in front of his house moments before his scheduled arrival. Eighty civilians were killed in the blast and more than 250 were wounded. Subsequent press reports attributed the attack to Saudi and American intelligence agents. Although the United States formally denied involvement, Bob Woodward wrote in Veil: The Secret Wars of the CIA that CIA Director William Casey and the Saudi ambassador had authorized the assassination attempt. A year after the blast, Fadlallah announced that Hezbollah had secretly arrested, tried, convicted, and executed 11 Lebanese who he said had participated in the raid.
Turabi, too, blames the CIA for a Sudanese karate champion that nearly killed him in May 1992 at Ottawa Airport. “The CIA misbehaved,” Turabi said, citing information from several “knowledgeable” Western friends. But the Sudanese dissident who pummeled Turabi at the airport, temporarily paralyzing him, said that he had acted alone and out of conviction that Turabi was responsible for his country’s misery. Nevertheless, Turabi insists that the United States and its allies remain intent on destroying both him and Sudan’s Islamic regime, not an unreasonable assumption given previous American conduct.
There is little doubt that such botched attacks have enhanced Turabi’s and Fadlallah’s standing among their believers. Their followers, and even the men themselves, attribute their survival to baraka, an inherited luck and grace that makes one both righteous and invincible.
Perhaps it is not surprising, in the wake of America’s military display in the Gulf War, that Fadlallah and Turabi—while continuing in speeches and sermons to insist on the inevitability of America’s fall and Islam’s ultimate triumph—should choose to conciliate Washington and try to charm the American people. Both men are shrewd and seasoned enough to appreciate the risk of openly challenging the United States, a nation slow to anger, but dangerous once aroused.
Vox Populi, Vox Allah
Both Turabi and Fadlallah have long insisted that Islamic regimes can best come to power through democratic means rather than revolution. So both men differ from militant Islamic predecessors such as the late Sayyd Qutb, an influential Egyptian militant who urged Islamists in the 1960s to break with jahaliya, or pre-Islamic regimes masquerading as Muslim governments.
Fadlallah boasts that it was he who persuaded Tehran that the Islamic cause would best be served by encouraging Hezbollah to run for parliament in 1992. The Party of God’s campaign then exceeded even Fadlallah’s expectations. “Ten years ago, I argued in a book that change does not happen only through revolution,” he said, “that it could be achieved by penetrating democratic institutions to promote Islamic ideas. Recently, Iran agreed.”
Nevertheless, Fadlallah refuses to condemn Islamic regimes that come to power through undemocratic means. “If some reached power, as in the case of Sudan, through a coup d’etat,” he recently told one interviewer, “remember most regimes in the Third World come to power through the same means, and then were transformed into civil ones.” The Egyptian regime, he added, had come to power that way.
Turabi, too, infuriated hard-liners within his own Muslim Brotherhood by consistently seeking coalitions with Islamic groups that some militants viewed as insufficiently pure or tough-minded, and by joining any government, civilian or military, that advanced his Islamic agenda. Thus, Turabi blasted an anti-Islamic military regime in 1965 as undemocratic, but enthusiastically joined Jafar Muhammed Numayri’s equally undemocratic military regime as attorney general in the early 1980s, after Numayri espoused his commitment to an Islamic state. In 1985—the year of Sudan’s last free elections—Turabi’s group won less than 20 percent of the vote, not enough to rule, but enough to force his group’s inclusion in the governing coalition. But when then-Prime Minister Sadiq al-Mahdi expelled Turabi’s Muslim Brotherhood because it opposed his decision to abrogate the Islamic legal code, which was preventing an end to the war with the south, fundamentalist military officers seized power to block the move. Advancing the Islamic cause, not democracy, seems always to have been Turabi’s priority.
Turabi insists that his country is democratic, but his notion of democracy bears little resemblance to democracy as commonly understood in the West. Turabi told me that democracy does not require multiple parties, the right of any individual to stand for office or spend money campaigning for it, or the right to advocate a view that contradicts the Koran. For both Turabi and Fadlallah, the Western notion of democracy is alien: to Islam, rule is a prerogative not of the people, but of God, who appointed the prophet, who, in turn, prescribed the general precepts of governance in God’s own words, the Koran. For both men, no parliamentary majority, however large, can nullify God’s law as codified in Islamic law.
Fadlallah’s view that Hezbollah should participate in Lebanon’s secular, multi-sectarian government reflects the significant presence of Christians and other minority groups in Lebanon; demanding that Lebanon become an Islamic state now would be counterproductive. Lebanon’s diversity of sects,” its traditional political system—a reference to confessional government, in which each minority is assigned a share of power—and its borders with both Israel and Syria, which has more or less occupied Lebanon, were political constraints that made the goal of an Islamic state “unrealistic,” Fadlallah told me. Perhaps in the future, he said, without mentioning Shiite Muslims’ growing population, the Lebanese themselves “might choose to be Arabic and Middle Eastern.” Lebanon’s traditional system was “not holy,” he said, pleased with his pun. “The heavens won’t fall if the Lebanese choose to change it.” But for the moment, believers should concentrate on ‘using Lebanon’s freedoms of speech and political action” to promote Islam, for “Islam can best be conveyed to the West and to the region through Lebanon,” he asserted.
Turabi has reacted differently to the large and troublesome non-Muslim minority in his country. Ever since 1955, when civil war erupted between the mostly Arab Muslim north and the largely Christian and pagan south, Sudanese governments have struggled to reconcile the north’s insistence on an Islamic framework of government with the south’s demands that citizens of all religions be equal under law. Peter Kok, a Christian from the south and a former law professor at the University of Khartoum, argues that Turabi’s attitude toward southerners, among other stances, is opportunistic. When the south was winning the war, Turabi’s Brotherhood supported efforts to weaken the south or separate it from the rest of Sudan; when the north was strong and able to pursue its goal of Islamizing southerners, Turabi favored unity. Today Turabi argues that the Islamic regime is offering southern rebels a generous deal—exemption from the north’s Islamic legal code (which would not, however, apply to the one to two million non-Muslim southerners living in the north), regional autonomy, and federation. But southerners do not trust Turabi or his government. According to Kok, when Turabi served in Nimeiri’s government, he applauded the imposition of an Islamic legal code that denied them equal legal standing and helped reignite the civil war. So the conflict rages on, embarrassing Turabi and bankrupting his regime.
Fadlallah and Turabi also hold very different views on wilayat-i-faqih, the notion endorsed by Khomeini that the most learned and senior of clerics should be an Islamic nation’s supreme political and spiritual ruler. Fadlallah, schooled in Islam’s classical Shiite tradition, called this, self-servingly, “a true theory.” Turabi, a lawyer and a Sunni Muslim with no religious avocation or credentials, disdained the concept. Shiite Islam’s emphasis on structure stems from the fact that Shiite Muslims, like the early Christians, were a minority who had developed a hierarchy to protect them from persecution. “When you are a minority,” he said, “your leadership and private organizations become the most important thing.” But Turabi opposed such “barriers” between an individual and God, reflecting his Sunni tradition. In the future, he hoped that “all the titles of the Shiite church—the ayatollahs, or marjahs, or hajatollahs, or whatever—will disappear from their society.” Fadlallah would undoubtedly find this view obnoxious and heretical. So while Fadlallah and Turabi attempt to belittle the differences between Shiite and Sunni Muslims, they are clearly unable to eliminate the vast gap in outlook, intellectual tradition, and dogma that springs from their religious origins. This is yet another indication that in the house of Islamic militancy, there are many mansions, and undoubtedly many potential conflicts.
A Future with Israel
Turabi told me there is nothing inherently anti-Islamic in peace between a Jewish state and Muslims. “The first Islamic state itself had a constitutional document between the prophet and the Jews of Medina,” Turabi noted. “He made a constitutional document with them to establish the state. They were constituent members of the state, with their own federal independence. So there is nothing [against it] in principle.” But two months later he told a French journalist that no Arab could accept Israel: “I do not question the existence of Jews—but of Israel, yes.”
Fadlallah agrees with what Turabi told the French journalist. Israel, he has argued, is inherently illegitimate because it is “a conglomeration of people who came from all parts of the world to live in Palestine on the ruins of another people.” Because Israel rested on “dispossession and usurpation,” nothing—neither the United Nations nor the PLO—could confer legitimacy on the state. Moreover, Israel was not only inherently expansionist, it was also a tool of American imperialism. Yet both Turabi and Fadlallah have adopted coldly pragmatic responses to what now seems virtually inevitable—peace between Israel and most Arab states.
Turabi, whose role is clearly more peripheral to the peace process than that of Fadlallah, has tried to advise PLO chairman Yasir Arafat on ways to improve his deal with Israel, to lobby fellow Arab leaders to back the Palestinian claim on Jerusalem, and to broker a truce between Arafat—whom he has known since the PLO chief was an Islamic student leader—and the young Hamas militants, who refuse to accept Israel’s existence. After his efforts to mediate a truce between Palestinian factions failed, Turabi astonished and infuriated many Islamic militants at a meeting in late 1993 by blocking a resolution that would have condemned Arafat and the PLO for their peace with Israel. “Such splits have only damaged the Islamic cause,” Turabi explained. His opposition to the Oslo accords, he stressed, was not one of principle. “Americans, after all, displaced the red Indians,” he told me. “People go from one place to another and take things over. History changes.” But Arafat had gotten a “bad deal” for the Palestinians, a deal Turabi would have rejected. And there could be no compromise on Jerusalem, Turabi stressed. “Not a single Muslim all over the world would say: well, let us be pragmatic on that.” In any event, true peace between Israelis and Arabs was remote, he added, because it would require American dominance in the region. Israel could not count on that forever.
Fadlallah has also staked out a shrewd new stance, one aimed at enabling him to remain popular with Lebanon’s Shiite Muslims while making real peace less likely, or at least more costly for Israel and less so for him and his movement. Though Islamists could probably not prevent Arab states from making peace with Israel, Fadlallah said, “states are one thing; people are something else.” Fatwas had already been issued that barred good Muslims from having “any trade or contact with the Jews of Palestine.” He himself had issued such a fatwa in 1983. “If more are needed, they will be issued,” he told me.
Kramer calls Fadlallah’s recent shift of emphasis “astute.” For even if Hezbollah is disarmed by Syria, the Party of God can make normalization between Israel and Lebanon extremely difficult. And given Hezbollah’s presence in parliament, it will be even harder for democratic proponents of peace in Lebanon to silence them.
At the same time, Fadlallah who has ministered to the Shiite victims of Israeli attacks on villages in the south, knows that Lebanon has no response to Israel’s air force, that it would be counterproductive for him to provoke Israel to the point that southern Lebanon remains a battleground. Dependent on money and support from the Shia’s ever-growing bourgeoisie who favor peace with Israel and renewed prosperity, and eager to rebuild Lebanon as a Shiite alternative to Iran, Fadlallah is unlikely to foul his nest. A deeply political man who speaks to the issues of his day, Fadlallah is likely to do whatever is necessary to assure his political survival and that of his movement.
Is the Future Theirs?
Turabi and Fadlallah, like most other Islamic absolutists, are clearly surprised and disheartened by the recent setbacks they have faced. And while their movements have already succeeded, in Turabi’s brave words, “more than I ever dreamed possible,” both men are now struggling to adapt to a far less auspicious political environment. Turabi faces growing international criticism for defending Sudan’s autocratic regime and its continuing human rights abuses. He is also trying to escape his country’s geographic and economic marginality by attempting to mediate among the Islamic world’s fractious players—the quarreling Afghan groups, Algeria’s more and less militant factions, and Hamas and Fatah. Meanwhile, Fadlallah knows that his movement will be disarmed by Syria if Damascus makes peace with the Jewish state and that his group’s popularity may wane if peace restores Lebanon’s prosperity.
Many analysts see Hezbollah’s entry into Lebanon’s parliament, Turabi’s reluctance to condemn those who make peace with Israel, and their respective efforts to soothe and reassure Western audiences as signs of moderation. But such actions can best be understood as evidence of the tenacity, pragmatism, and shrewdness of these two intelligent, determined men. Turabi and Fadlallah have proven amazingly adept at having things all ways—ever certain of their ultimate aim, if not of a straight path to deliverance.
The influence of Turabi, Fadlallah, and their generation of Islamic literalists may have peaked temporarily, but their words and ideology have profoundly impressed a new generation of politically despairing Arabs. Far from being ended, the Islamic era they advocate may just be dawning. Neither the West nor many of the Arabs who rule can offer ever-growing numbers of young people the hope that Nasser offered their grandfathers, the prosperity that Sadat promised their fathers but failed to deliver, or the self-reliance and dignity for which all people yearn. With expectations outpacing the creation of jobs, social services, and housing in most of the Middle East, only militant Islamists seem to offer the self-esteem these restless young people crave.
The human rights abuses, economic mismanagement, and rampant corruption of Iran have not lessened radical Islam’s appeal to young Arabs. Iran is not an Arab country, they say; a militantly Islamic Sunni Arab state would do better. Nor has Turabi’s repressive Sudan served as a warning. The United Nations and Western human rights groups that have criticized Khartoum so harshly are merely “anti-Islamic,” apologists maintain, echoing Turabi, who, unlike Fadlallah, denies the existence of abuses that many have seen firsthand. Those who no longer deny the truth rationalize the failure: Sudan was always poor and isolated anyway, they say. Also ignored is the Afghan experience, which suggests that once in power, militant Islamic groups tend to split and feud among themselves.
No, the failures of radical Islam have not deterred young Arabs who seek political salvation through God. They see only “successes”—the vast network of clinics, schools, and banks that help those the Egyptian government has effectively abandoned; Hamas’ role in offering services and organizing the intifada against Israeli occupation in Gaza and the West Bank; the election victory denied the Islamic coalition of Algeria by a decrepit regime that will not relinquish power.
All other modern “isms”—nationalism, socialism, communism, capitalism—have failed. All that has not been tried in modern times is Islamic absolutism and the politicians who promote it. The West should not take much comfort in Fadlallah’s and Turabi’s current problems. Even if they fail, there will be others.