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Political Islam in Sudan: pragmatism or principle?

The Sudanese Islamic Movement (SIM) has lost much legitimacy with the Sudanese people and its own party officials. How has this come to be and can an Islamic spiritual movement be both political and partisan?

Elfadil Ibrahim
26 January 2013

In the aftermath of the eighth General Conference of the Sudanese Islamic Movement (SIM), an affair costing over $200 million which gathered prominent Islamists from all corners of the Islamic world, reflections on how necessary the ostentatious display was become unavoidable in a nation with the world's worst economic performance in 2012. 

Two recent events illustrate how the movement is falling out of favour. Firstly, the 'Thousand Brothers Memo' which was signed by a large group of both civilians and military personnel. It pointed to major failings, declaring that recent developments in Sudan were a 'deviation from the right course.' This was soon followed by an attempted plot led by a few powerful but dissatisfied cadres who were not best pleased with the rebuke they received from President Omar Al-Bashir for offering their advice in this way.

Insult was added to injury when the SIM lost what little autonomy it had as a bona fide movement owing sovereignty to God and Islam alone, when it was decided at the General Conference that those in charge of the movement must be the same individuals who belong to the ruling echelon. It was further subordinated to the wishes of those in power with the creation of the office of 'Supreme Leadership,' all elected by the Shura council where the President of the Republic and current cabinet members preside, making it clear that the movement would be under the control of a few at the top.

In its infancy, the movement was torn between two the conflicting strategies of mass action on the one hand and individual reformation on the other. The Islamic Liberation Movement (later named the Muslim Brotherhood) was founded in 1949 by a group of students at the University of Khartoum, and any observer would have been quick to note that these Islamists were neither isolated, nor prone to reject mainstream society as some of their ideological counterparts had been. In fact, they were highly educated, western in dress and education, and to a remarkable extent, flexible and adaptable, initially leaning  towards the reform of individual members with little regard for anything beyond this modest goal. The movement's sense of pragmatism combined with the rise of Hassan Al-Turabi, however, soon led to a partisan politics for the sake of securing functional relevance.

The rest is history. Turabi would find himself pushed aside when the 'Memo of the Ten' was signed by individuals who are  part of the ruling clique, when they saw Turabi's capacity for surpassing the charismatic authority traditional Islamist parties in Sudan have exhibited. 

Firstly, how genuine are the movement's motives and to what extent were its failures inevitable? The movement as mentioned is characterised by a high degree of flexibility, assuming many forms throughout its development from the days of the Islamic Liberation Movement to the Islamic Charter Front, to the National Islamic Front, to the National Congress Party to the current Islamic Movement created in 2005 to parallel the NCP. Its means are unrestricted and its 'by any means necessary' approach necessitates a resort to questionable methods that go beyond the ballot box. Alarm bells ring when Turabi notes non-nonchalantly in his book on the Islamic movement that 'the way to reform need not be exclusively, wholly or always democratic'. Power often comes at the expense of legitimacy, and as the unprecedented levels of corruption, poverty, and isolation currently facing Sudan are exacerbated, reality becomes a hard pill to swallow, even within the ranks of the SIM.

The dissatisfaction of some Islamists has become apparent. At the sixth General Conference, former presidential advisor Ghazi Salah Aldin faced strong competition from the current Vice President Ali Othman on the platform of uniting all Islamists (including those in Turabi's People's Congress Party) under one umbrella. This struck a nerve among the powers that be, pressure was applied to voters and alleged vote rigging swayed the vote in favour of Bashir's right hand man, demonstrating the moral impoverishment that has increasingly characterised the movement as its grip on power tightened.

There is also the case of the 'Mujahideen,' the group of Islamists largely tied to the security apparatus who were required to sacrifice life and limb in line with the jihadist stance the NCP took prior to the more calculated diplomacy of the period since the millennium. The elite peace signed between North and South at Naivasha, followed by the succession of South Sudan, threw all of their hard work out the window and revealed that perhaps the few that crafted policy were guided by the impulse of self-preservation as opposed to any genuine religious sentiment. The more recent plot was backed by two such figures, Salah Gosh, former head of National Intelligence and Mohammad Ibrahim Abdeljaleel, who was not only instrumental to bringing Bashir into power in the 1989 coup, but also a former soldier on the front line in South Sudan.

The legitimacy deficit became even more evident following the secession of South Sudan. Missionary activity was a key tenet of SIM's strategy in the multi-ethnic, multi-religious state. Following the independence of South Sudan, however, the Sudan People's Liberation Movement-North demonstrated a vitality that gave it a clear advantage in the battle for hearts and minds. The SIM may have had an impact, but it certainly had no comparable influence.

All in all, the state monopoly of religion has not made a good impression on the many who decided to disassociate themselves from the SIM completely. While the NCP and Turabi's PCP remain engaged in a bitter fight for leadership over universal political Islam in Sudan, those spiritually motivated, uninterested in the Sufi or traditional Islamist parties, and jaded by the Islamist experiment, are left little choice but to radicalise.This is evidenced by several events. Firstly, the Salamah incident of 2007 when explosives were found in possession of the group often dubbed as 'Jihadist Salafis'. Secondly, the assassination of American diplomat John Granville in 2008, and more recently, clashes between radicals and state forces in Sennar state, where training was being undertaken in preparation for operations in Mali, and according to some sources, against state officials.

In assessing the movement's achievements, it must be conceded that its ascent to the apex of a nation so vast and rich with religious and ethnic diversity remains a remarkable example of the Machiavellian method in practise. However, since taking the leap into mass action and remodelling the theoretical basis away from the individual and towards transforming their material conditions, the party has been obliged to resort to methods that negate key principles of the Islamic message as understood by the average Muslim. This has created a crisis of legitimacy that has isolated the SIM on all sides, and has frustrated moderates, radicals and rank and file members alike. The Sudanese experience then leads us full circle back to the million dollar question that is at the heart of Islam's 'human paradox': How can Islamist movements engage in partisan politics without compromising their spiritual legitimacy?

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