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<nettime> de Waal, Islamism and Its Enemies in the Horn of Africa
Soenke Zehle on Thu, 16 Dec 2004 17:11:54 +0100 (CET)

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<nettime> de Waal, Islamism and Its Enemies in the Horn of Africa

Plenty on Sudan on the net already, of course. But here's one that's
worth reading for all sorts of reasons, also see de Waal's piece in the
Boston Review, sz

Alex de Waal
Tragedy in Darfur:
On understanding and ending the horror

Alex de Waal (Book Launch Lecture Nov 2004)

Islamism and Its Enemies in the Horn of Africa

Why this book?

Political Islam is an issue of enormous interest. But it's curious that,
amidst all the writings on this subject in the last few years, that
there's been a near-total neglect of militant Islamism in north-east
Africa. This neglect is all the more surprising because in the 1990s,
the Horn of Africa and especially Sudan, were a laboratory for political
Islam. Hassan al Turabi, sheikh of the Sudanese Islamists, is arguably
the most influential Islamist thinker of the last twenty years. And in
Sudan he not only had the opportunity to try to realize his dreams on a
national scale, but to export them too. From 1991 until 1996, for
example, he hosted Usama bin Laden.

What this book seeks to do is to fill several gaps in the current
literature on Islamism and on north-east Africa. To start with, it
documents some of the important and poorly-documented aspects of the
Islamist experiment in the Horn, and its conflict with its enemies.
Those interested in this dimension will have particular interest in
chapter 6, which narrates how the Sudanese civil war became
internationalized, to the extent that a number of the major battles
involved non-Sudanese forces on one side or the other.

The book also tries to bridge the gap between writings on political
Islam - which are overwhelmingly in either a political journalism genre
- much of it very good, or a more Orientalist, philosophical genre,
either condemning Islamism or arguing that Islam is truly more liberal
than its militant advocates like to admit. What is scarce is an account
that brings together the insights of studying Islamism in its social and
political context, uniting it with analyses of the political economy of
conflict. I hope this book succeeds in doing that.

Turabi and the Nuba Jihad

Let me open with a vignette, which illustrates many of the issues. It
concerns Hassan al Turabi, leader of the Sudanese Islamists, at the time
of the most ideologically ambitious campaign mounted by the Sudanese
armed forces.

This event occurred on April 27, 1992, at the Royal Society of Arts in
London, when Hassan al Turabi gave a lecture on nationalism and Islam.
His academic hosts had not anticipated quite how controversial his
presence would be. Unfazed by the classical nudes decorating the walls
and ceiling of the Society's lecture hall, in all probability, reveling
in the apparent paradox of his setting, Dr Turabi eloquently presented
his liberal philosophy of Islamism, explaining how it avoided
'conservatism, conventionalism and stagnation.'

The text of his lecture is interesting. He is charting several
innovations in political Islam. Turabi is well-known of espousing - in
his writings, if not always his practice - liberal principles including
the emancipation of women, the embrace of democratic politics, modernity
in art.

Another principle that he embraced, which is of particular interest to
our concern here, is the inclusion of some heterodox forms of Islamism
such as Sufism.

But the key point about his lecture was that he was, almost uniquely
among leading Islamist thinkers, seeking to historicize political Islam.
He condemns those who seek to 'freeze religion in a particular past
context,' arguing that 'excessive fidelity to immutable principle may
lead to historical irrelevance and visionary abstraction from reality.'
Rather, he claimed, the 'historical test for Muslims has always been to
recover after every setback, seeking the revival of faith (iman), the
renewal of thought (ijtihad) and the resurgence of action (jihad).'

Interpreting Turabi is always difficult because of his use of language.
What he likes to do is to speak in a way that has Koranic echoes,
without actually quoting the Koran verbatim. It's a poetic style, that
appears to have both logic and argument from authority, but much
ambiguity lurks within.

But that didn't impress his audience.

The Sudanese community in London, both Islamists and dissident refugees,
packed the lecture hall and listened in polite silence. When Turabi had
finished, the English chairman asked for questions. A Sudanese man
dressed in traditional jellabiya and 'imma, sitting in the front row,
caught his eye. Abdel Bagi el Rayah stood up, a few feet from Turabi. He
asked to speak in Arabic: the Islamist cadres tried to shout him down,
knowing Abdel Bagi and fearful of what might happen next. The chair
agreed to an interpreter: exiled parliamentarian Mansur el Agab strode
to the front. Abdel Bagi began his story: he was arrested, tortured,
forced to lie in freezing water. His leg became gangrenous and had to be
amputated. At this point, Abdel Bagi took off his wooden leg, until then
concealed beneath his jellabiya, and thrust it in Turabi's face: 'What
does your Islam have to say about this?'

The room exploded with the dissidents, refugees and exiles shouting
'fascist!' at Dr Turabi while the Sudan-government-sponsored students,
embassy staff and sundry Islamists tried in turn to shout them down.
After the hubbub had subsided, the somewhat rattled chairman put the
question to Turabi again. He gave a high-pitched laugh and answered,
'Islam does not permit such things.'

Those of us present reveled in the challenge to Turabi's hypocrisy. What
none of us realized was one of the reasons why he had chosen to travel
abroad at that particular moment: on that exact day, in el Obeid,
capital of Kordofan State in western Sudan, a meeting of Muslim clerics
issued a now-notorious fatwa.

Kordofan is next-door to Darfur, and was facing an insurrection by
rebels of the Sudan People's Liberation Army. The government had failed
to contain the rebellion and was fearful that it would lead to a
conflagration that would bring much of Northern Sudan up in arms. In
January 1992, the Governor of Kordofan had announced a Jihad, and in
April, he organised a series of rallies at which President Bashir and
Vice President Zubeir Mohamed Saleh distributed titles such as amir al
jihad to Arab militia leaders in Kordofan, and sent them off to fight
the SPLA. This culminated on April 27 with a declaration by the clerics
that 'an insurgent who was previously a Muslim is now an apostate; and a
non-Muslim is a non-believer standing as a bulwark against the spread of
Islam, and Islam has granted the freedom of killing both of them
according to the following words of Allah' (The fatwa goes on to cite
various Koranic verses.)

This is a significant innovation: clerics withdrawing the status as
Muslims of people simply because they have rebelled against a
government. Yossef Bodansky, author of 'Bin Laden: the Man Who Declared
War on America' discusses it thus: 'This fatwa was clearly organized and
written as a universal Islamist legal document determining relations
between Muslims and their neighbors in mixed societies and states
without Muslim governments. The authors of this fatwa pointed to
Southern Sudan as the peculiar case that made them pass a sweeping
judgement applicable to all similar cases. The leadership in Khartoum
was not wrong, from their point of view, in selecting this fatwa as a
guideline for the Islamist jihad strategy in such places as Kashmir,
Palestine and Bosnia.'

This is nonsense, largely. Let's examine what actually happened. Once
the State Governor had declared Jihad, he realised he needed
authorisation from above. A group called the Arab and Islamic Bureau,
set up and chaired by Turabi, was the place. It approached a series of
senior Sudanese legal scholars and clerics to issue the fatwa: all of
them refused refused to do so, because perhaps half of the Nuba are
Muslims, and no theological justification could be found for declaring
them infidels (wars between Muslims being not unknown in history). Also,
even while Vice President Zubeir was personally commanding the
mujahidiin forces attacking the SPLA, he was simultaneously using his
influence to remove Kordofan's most zealous Islamist from his job as
Commissioner in which he was advocating totally depopulating the Nuba
Mountains by relocating its people elsewhere in Sudan. It was a
genocidal policy, which if successful, would have eradicated the Nuba as
a distinct social and cultural group.

But if failed, and the primary reason was that it could not command a
consensus within the government. The people who issued the el Obeid
fatwa were, in the description of Abdel Salam Hassan 'second rate
provincial ulama'. The most senior one was the Imam of the army mosque.
Not even the town's own chief ulama signed. Had it not been for Sudanese
exiles circulating the document, and the likes of Bodanski publicizing
it, the fatwa would have been completely overlooked.

It's second rate theology too, which Hassan al Turabi would never have
countenanced. Most likely, he saw the impasse over this policy. Turabi
could not back the militants, his own acolytes, for fear they would fail
miserably. He could not oppose them, because that would be to abandon
his project. So he decided to absent himself at the critical moment. He
was smart enough to know that even at the zenith of its ideological
ambition, the Islamists' project had its limits.

Theorizing Jihad

The meanings of jihad given by Turabi'resurgence of action'and by the
second rate provincial Ulama of el Obeid'war' are the subject of much
debate by Islamic scholars. Let's not get into the debate about what
'jihad' 'really' means.

So far, few have approached this question from a viewpoint informed by
the literature on complex humanitarian emergencies and the political
economy of protracted conflict. The basic message of this literature is
that war can have its uses, that sustaining wars can bring tangible
benefits to the protagonists other than victory, and that there can be
collusion between the two sides.

It's revealing to bring these insights to bear on the practice and
theory of jihad.

We should start, conventionally, with the exegesis of the meaning of
'jihad' within the writings of leading Islamist theoreticians, notably
Sayed Qutb. For him, jihad is not only to do with victory over one's
enemies, but also a relationship between the mujahid and Allah. Victory
is ultimately delivered by the piety of the mujahid, provoking the
direct intervention of the Almighty to secure the right outcome. The
more apparently hopeless the cause, the more outnumbered the mujahidiin,
the greater is the demonstration of their faith and piety, and the
greater the likelihood of Divine intervention.

The role of the Divinity in the concept of Jihad allows for a great deal
of creative interpretation about the meaning of 'victory'. And if we
apply insights from the study of contemporary wars, we can see that
there are several, overlapping and competing definitions of victory in

- There's the straightforward military definition. Like all
military-political creeds, jihadism has to contend with its adversaries,
and it must have a modicum of success if it is not to be wholly
extinguished. Territorial control and state sponsorship are still very
important to this—the U.S. policy of squeezing terrorism by targeting
its state sponsors has actually proved remarkably effective over the years.

- There's the transcendental definition; the coming of the Kingdom of
God. It hasn't occurred, but we should not underestimate the literalism
of many believers in jihad. They actually think that God is about to
intervene personally in history.

- There's what might be called the intermediate transcendental
definition: success is furthering the struggle, sustaining the faith and
demonstrating one's piety. This tends to be resorted to when God doesn't
show his face.

- And there's the instrumental definition: success is measured in the
political and economic gains of the mujahid. In the case of al Qa'ida,
for example, the success of September 11 was establishing its
international primacy in the Islamist movement, attracting status and
adherents, and provoking an angry and increasingly misdirected response
from its target. In the case of Algeria, superbly written up by Luis
Martinez, the jihad enabled mafia-like control of populations and
trading networks. In the case of the Sudan government, the jihadist
ideology mobilized tremendous social and political resources, and also
economic resources, particularly what was a formidable network of
international Islamist philanthropic organizations.

Islamist philanthropy and social planning

A major theme of this book is Islamism's social agenda. One component of
this is Islamist philanthropy, a phenomenon that has not received its
due attention in the literature on philanthropy and humanitarianism. The
book by Jonathan Benthall and Jerome Bellion-Jourdan is a welcome
addition to a too-small corpus.

Islamic philanthropy is an interesting phenomenon in that it collapses
many of the distinctions between what in the western tradition are
separate spheres, e.g. charitable versus commercial, civil versus
military, law versus ethics. The root of this is the principle of zakat,
the Islamic tithe, which is a religious, hence ethical and legal,
obligation on all Muslims. Donating and receiving Zakat is not a matter
of charity in the western sense, but of justice and rights. In
principle, because of its more holistic approach, Islamic philanthropy
has the potential to overcome a number of the problems that have beset
charities working in the various Judeo-Christian traditions.

But what we actually see, in the cases studied in this book, is a
shortcoming that echoes that of jihadism, namely the lack of a political
sociology, or even a theory of politics. It fails to grapple with a
social or political agenda beyond exhortation to personal virtue. It is
remarkably effective at mobilizing energy at a local level and snatching
  local remedies to local problems, but consistently ineffective when it
seeks to move beyond that to a wider level, for example a nation. A
particularly interesting and vibrant strain of Islamist philanthropy
began in Sudan in the 1970s, driven in part by the Islamists'
'discovery' of neglected Muslim populations in sub-Saharan Africa (e.g.
in Uganda and Zaire), partly through adapting Islamic microfinance
models from Bangladesh, and partly through emulating the activities of
western NGOs. By the 1990s, a number of very large transnational
Islamist NGOs had moved in and begun to control much of the activity.
Among them, Da'wa al Islamiya, Islamic Relief Agency, and Muwafaq al
Khairiya. They are still something of a black hole for scholarship,
partly because they are secretive, a secrecy which arises in part
because of the Islamic tradition of anonymous donorship, as well as
their involvement in commerce and jihad. In the case of Muwafaq, the
absence of writing is also explained by the fact that its principal
backer, Sheikh Khalid bin Mahfouz, retains the services of Peter
Carter-Ruck, allegedly London's most expensive and aggressive libel lawyer.

In Sudan in the early 1990s, the Islamist agencies became an integral
part of what was called the Da'awa al Shamla, the comprehensive call to
God. It was a fusion of social engineering, economic development,
proselytization and counter-insurgency. It was probably the most
thorough and sustained attempt at revolutionary Islamist mobilization
for social change, anywhere in the world. In the words of its
progenitors, it was aimed at creating a new Sudanese persona. It was
much more than bringing Islam to non-Muslims in the South and other
insurgent areas, it also aimed at creating a new Islamist orthodoxy
among Sudan's Muslims. Also citing the words of one of its architects,
it 'changed the face of the landscape'.

This is the significance of the picture reproduced on the cover. It
shows a mosque, belonging to the followers of a heterodox Sufi called
Ali Betai in Eastern Sudan, deliberately destroyed by the Sudan
government. Most of the writing on political Islam in the social sphere,
both by its adherents and critics, focuses on issues such as Islamic
law, the treatment of women, and the overlap between social mobilization
and political opposition in countries such as Egypt. Turabi's
Comprehensive Call, on the periphery of the Arab-Muslim world, hasn't
been studied. And above all, it hasn't been studied in an
anthropological way, from the perspective of the rural communities that
were its front line. The material we draw upon for this book was
collected both from those communities, by me, and from the agencies' own
literature and by comparison with their activities in neighbouring
countries, by Mohamed Salih.

The Comprehensive Call failed. By the late 1990s the Da'wa al Shamla was
abandoned. It failed because of its internal mismanagement and financial
corruption (not unrelated to the way in which the agencies had
commercial and military roles as well as social and religious ones),
because one of its main financial sponsors was Usama bin Laden, who was
forced to leave Sudan in 1996, but above all because it was so unsuited
to the complexities of life in Sudan. The idea of Islam as a route to
common citizenship and emancipation was attractive in theory but could
not be realized in practice. Immediately the local authorities began
applying the concepts, they ran into problems inherent in its lack of a
social theory. And they found themselves prey to local disputes,
manipulated by one party or another. In Blue Nile, for example, the
Commissioner found that the west African communities were the most
enthusiastic proponents of the Da'wa al Shamla, but this was basically
in pursuit of their own chieftanship. In other places, the 'orthodox'
Islam demanded was at variance with local practice, and generated

This is the tension, always incipient, between the orthodox Arab
Islamism of the Nile Valley and the heterodox Islamism of the west of
Sudan. When the Sudanese Islamist movement split in 1999, this was one
of its faultlines, and the conflict between these two visions of Islam
is in part what underlies the current war in Darfur. The Darfur crisis
is in an important respect the violent ending of Sudan's Islamist project.

The Da'wa al Shamla project was the Sudanese Islamists' most ambitious
programme. And it was simply too ambitious, and because of its close
association with the war in the South, it was often carried out with a
level of ruthlessness and cynicism that defeated any higher goals. In
the Nuba Mountains, for example, the plan was the complete relocation of
the entire Nuba population away from their homeland to what were called,
in Orwellian language, 'peace camps.' They were in fact forced labour
camps and often rape camps as well. Not only the internees were
brutalized, but also the mujahidiin who were supposed to be the vanguard
of social and moral renewal.

At the end of the day, the basic theory: personal virtue is sufficient
for social transformation, was inadequate to the challenge, especially
when the project is carried out with extreme, even genocidal, violence.
The Rise and Fall of Islamist Internationalism in North-East Africa
Let's return to the Arab-Islamic Bureau, this somewhat shadowy group
that planned the assault on the Nuba. Earlier, I mocked Yossef
Bodansky's inflation of the importance of the el Obeid fatwa authorizing
the Nuba Jihad. But there was an element of truth in his claim, although
he missed his specific mark. The Sudanese Islamists did have wider

This is another untold story, which has far-reaching implications
because it was in Sudan that al Qa'ida was incubated. The Arab-Islamic
Bureau was the intelligence operations arm of the Popular Arab and
Islamic Conference. This was established by Hassan al Turabi in 1990.
Let me go back to the coup of 1989, briefly. The soldiers who seized
power, did so as part of a deception. They knew only too well that if
the Islamists showed their true colours, they would win the immediate
opposition of Egypt, and the coup would most likely fail. So the
Generals went to the palace, and Turabi went to prison, albeit briefly.
On his release, he and Ali Osman Taha were the key power brokers, but
ran the country from their personal residences, while the Revolutionary
Command Council met publicly to issue decrees.

After Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait, and the Arab League and the
Organization of the Islamic Conference all came out in support of Kuwait
and the Coalition. Immediately after the invasion, Sudan's president
Omer al Bashir sided with his two key regional allies, Egypt and Saudi
Arabia, and denounced the invasion. And then Turabi, who had been
committed to remaining in the shadows, emerged and reversed the policy.
He denounced the Arab League and the Islamic Conference and set up his
own competing organization, the Popular Arab and Islamic Conference.

Essentially, he bet on the fact that Saddam would win, and there would
be an outburst of revolutionary Islamism across the Arab world, and that
he, Turabi, was the only Arab leader with sufficient vision and courage
to grasp the tide of history. He opened Sudan's doors to all militant
Islamist groups including Usama bin Laden. He tried to bring together
Arab nationalists (George Habbash of the PFLP) and Islamists, Sunni and
Shia, Baathists and their Islamist enemies. The PAIC meetings in
Khartoum were the one location in which we know for sure that al Qa'ida
leaders were under the same roof as Iraqi Baathists.

Turabi embraced a huge revolutionary project that he could not control.
He was the rear base for the Islamist insurrection in Egypt, the
destabilization of Saudi Arabia, and the Islamists in Yemen. But there
was also a regional war in north-east Africa, which is the concern of
this book. It's a fascinating story which has remained largely untold.
Let me emphasise just a few points.

First, throughout the 1990s, the Sudanese civil war was in fact an
undeclared international war. In several of the key battles on Sudanese
territory, the key forces on one side, sometimes on both sides, were not
Sudanese at all. In January 1990, for example, the then-government of
Ethiopia tried to overthrow the Sudan government through invading and
threatening to occupy the Blue Nile dam at Roseires, but was defeated by
an Eritrean force specially deployed within Sudan. And at that time
there were more than 10,000 Ugandan soldiers fighting alongside the SPLA.

The internationalization of the war continued, and escalated, with
Sudan's destabilization of each of the surrounding countries. A pivotal
moment was July 1995, when a terrorist cell backed by Sudan tried to
assassinate the Egyptian President, Husni Mubarak, in Addis Ababa.
Already, there was a tacit alliance between Eritrea, Ethiopia and Uganda
to contain Sudan; this now moved up a gear with extremely active support
for the Sudanese opposition. With the then-alliance between the
post-genocide government in Rwanda and Uganda, and the counter-alliance
between Khartoum, Kinshasa, the Rwandese Interahamwe in exile in Zaire,
and a range of insurgents, mostly but not all Islamist, this
confrontation took on the character of a continental war.

It reached a reach a peak in 1997. In Sudan, the major fighting was not
between the Sudanese army and the SPLA at all, but between them and
Ethiopian forces deployed inside Sudan. And one of the major battles,
the capture of Yei, was undertaken by an Ethiopian commander, with
Ugandan troops, in order to cut off a Sudanese incursion into Zaire to
support Mobutu and the Rwandese interahamwe against the Rwandese
government. These details are important because they reveal a dimension
to the Sudanese war that is widely neglected, and they show just how
high the stakes were.

Second, the U.S. was never the major player. Throughout the period, the
U.S. was supporting the axis of states, Asmara, Addis Ababa, Kampala,
that was opposing Khartoum. But its support was largely rhetorical. The
actual decisions were made in the region, and the commitment of forces
and resources was regional.

Ironically, by the time the U.S. administration actually agreed on a
policy, the beginning of 1998, the regional forces driving that policy
were falling apart. With the outbreak of the Ethio-Eritrean war in May
1998, the military powers in the region that had their sights on
Khartoum were out of the picture. The U.S. had decided on a policy of
regime change, but no longer had the means to do it. It began
substantially backing the Ugandans and the SPLA, but neither of these
had the capability or the organization to actually implement the policy.
And the U.S. policy became quite dogmatic and ideological, while also
incapable of achieving its goal. It took a Republican administration for
it to revert to a more realistic policy.

Those who call for regime change today would do well to remember that
when conditions were far more propitious some years ago, when Eritrea
and Ethiopia were committing thousands of troops and Sudan had no
international allies at all, they couldn't achieve that goal.


By 1999, political Islam in north-east Africa was exhausted. The
militant Islamists weren't quite defeated, which is probably a better
outcome, because they tend to find reserves of bitter energy in defeat.

And their enemies were exhausted too. The most formidable of those
enemies was other Muslims who are opposed to ideological violence, the
second most formidable was the regional states. In retrospect its
interesting to see that the project of revolutionary Islamism in the
Horn of Africa rose, peaked and fell in almost exact synchrony with the
rival and bitterly opposed project of leftist revolutionary militarism,
as exemplified by the Eritreans, Ethiopians and Ugandans.

But let me conclude by recalling Turabi's speech at the Royal Society of
Arts, in which he spoke of the ability to 'recover after every setback.'
What shape is the new Islamism taking? In the last chapter of 'Islamism
and Its Enemies' we discuss some of the changes since September 11,
though not since the invasion of Iraq or the outbreak of the Darfur
conflict. It looked, momentarily, as though the Global War on Terror
would lead to a reinvention of Islamism as a global resistance. That may
still happen. Some of the clumsy missteps of counter-terrorism have
fuelled Islamist anger and solidarity.

The Global War on Terror was, and perhaps still is, defined as a
perpetual war on evil. Speaking at Washington's National Cathedral on 14
September 2001, President Bush said, 'This conflict was begun on the
timing and terms of others. It will end in a way, at an hour, of our
choosing.' We may recall Usama bin Laden's statement after President
Clinton's cruise missiles failed to kill him in Afghanistan in 1998:
'God is the real superpower, so there is no need to be afraid of the
U.S. We will die at the will of God, not at the will of the U.S.' The
conditions are set for a protracted conflict, should the U.S. choose to
take this route.

But we don't see much of this in north-east Africa'at present. But let's
be cautious. One meaning of 'al Qa'ida' is 'the constituency' or 'the
popular base.' Ironically, while most militant Islamist groups are based
in a local or nationalist agenda, al Qa'ida wasn't: it tried to
construct its constituency from scratch. And what we see today is that
it didn't succeed in north-east Africa: that constituency doesn't exist.
But, there is a combination of factors that we need to watch. We need to
be alert to the use of militant Islam as a means of mobilizing support
for local, nationalist struggles, for example in the Ethiopian Ogaden.
And we need to be alert to the way in which the clumsiness of the
American 'Global War on Terror' and the invasion of Iraq are giving new
fuel to militancy, disconnected from any positive project of building a
real political alternative, but given meaning and purpose simply by
opposing U.S. power. Islamism in the Horn was vanquished by its local
and regional enemies, but it is reborn and still vibrant, in part
because of its international enemies.

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