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From Khartoum to Tehran: Graveyard of Forlorn Hopes

From Khartoum to Tehran: Graveyard of Forlorn Hopes

Friday, 26 April, 2019 - 06:00
Amir Taheri
Amir Taheri was the executive editor-in-chief of the daily Kayhan in Iran from 1972 to 1979. He has worked at or written for innumerable publications, published eleven books, and has been a columnist for Asharq Al-Awsat since 1987

Last month, the Islamic Republic’s “Supreme Guide” Ali Khamenei published his manifesto for “building the new Islamic civilization over the next four decades”.

The manifesto is based on the assumption that the original Islamic civilization, which shone in its full glory in Medina and later in Kufa during Ali ibn Abi Talib's caliphate, has been all but destroyed by internal and external enemies and thus needs to be entirely rebuilt. Khamenei’s argument echoes the analysis presented by the late Sudanese Islamist Hassan al-Turabi in the first “Popular Arab and Islamic Congress” (PAIC) he presided over in Khartoum in April 1991.

It may be a coincidence that Khamenei’s manifesto is published almost exactly 28 years after the Khartoum gathering that attracted over 500 leading Islamist theoreticians and activists from all over the world. The men who gathered at PAIC had fixed a 30-year period for their dream of recasting the world according to their vision of Islam to be realized. That rather optimistic vision was meant to sweep away the deep pessimism that marked their view of Islamic history as nothing but centuries of retreat and decline.

PAIC’s program contained ambitious goals, including the elimination of Israel, the collapse of the United States following the disintegration of the Soviet Empire, and the establishment of “truly Islamic” regimes in all the 57 countries where Islam was a majority religion.

To be sure we still have two years before the 30-year deadline and thus cannot be sure that the kind of Islam that Turabi dreamed of won’t dominate the world in 2021. But what is certain is that, with a handful of exceptions, almost all the men who were supposed to build Turabi’s brave new world ended rather badly.

The 1991 PAIC, the first of three conferences to be concluded in 1995, elected a leadership committee to carry out the project.

Representing Sudan, Turabi himself chaired the committee. However, before the decade was out, Turabi had been knocked off his pedestal and sent to jail after shattering Sudan’s relative tranquility by unleashing the religious police against the Muslim majority and encouraging greater repression against the minority in the south.

The next prominent member of the committee was Abbasi Madani, leader of Algeria’s National Islamic Front (NIF) and a key player in the tragedy that claimed the lives of over 300,000 people in the bloodiest decade of that nation’s history. After briefly appearing as a possible leader of Algeria, Abbasi had to flee into exile in Germany, where he briefly flirted with a business career, and ended up settling in Qatar in 2011.

Another member was the businessman-cum-activist Osama bin Laden who had lost his Saudi citizenship and received shelter in Sudan where he gained prominence through investments and bribery. He was expelled from Sudan after the military led by General Omar al-Bashir tried to flirt with the West by also handing over to the French, Ilych Ramirez Sanchez, alias “The Jackal”, despite the fact that the Venezuelan terrorist had converted to Islam.

Bin Laden’s subsequent career until his execution in Pakistan by an American special squad is too well documented to need repeating here.

The committee’s Iranian member was Hojat al-Islam Mahdi Karrubi, then leader of the hardline faction in the Khomeinist establishment in Tehran. His career peaked with his two-term speakership of the Islamic Majlis (erstaz) parliament and he ended up under house arrest which he still suffers.

The warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar was the committee’s Afghan member. A founder of the Hizb Islami (Islamic Party) and, for years, the darling of the CIA in Afghanistan, managed to win his country’s premiership but was unable to enter Kabul to exercise power. He had to flee to Iran where he set up a trucking company and made some money before returning to Kabul to what seems a quiet life.

Another member, representing Egypt, was Ayman Rabi’ al-Zawahiri who made his name as Bin Laden’s sidekick in Al Qaeda. Going into hiding after the fall of the Taliban in Kabul, he is believed to have found shelter among Pushtun tribes in Pakistan’s Swat Valley.

Representing Lebanon was Imad al-Mughniyah, Hezbollah’s top security chief and one of Tehran’s key operatives in the region. He was assassinated in Damascus in 2005 either by the Israelis or by Bashar al-Assad’s secrets service.

One of the two members of the committee to avoid a bad end, was Rached al-Ghannouchi, founder of the Tunisian Islamic an-Nahda (Awakening) who seized the opportunity provided by the Jasmine Revolution to return home and claim a slice of the power left behind by Zeinalabedin Bin Ali.

Ghannouchi was wise enough to understand that Tunisians will not consent to replace a pseudo-secular despot with a religious tyrant. Some say, thanks to his daughters who had been brought up in exile in London, Ghannouchi abandoned conspiratorial shenanigans in favor of consensus politics.

Also escaping a bad end, at least so far, is Recep Tayyip Erdogan who built a political career over the following two decades, ending up as Turkey’s first elected President. His critics claim that he is now trying to impose on Turkey the system for the promotion of which he had been chosen in Khartoum.

The Khartoum "show" included the leaders of almost all Palestinian groups dedicated to armed struggle but none was included in the high committee. The five countries with the largest number of Muslims, India, Indonesia, Bangladesh, Pakistan and Nigeria, were also not represented in the committee.

Turabi’s big show had another interesting feature: it brought together enemies within the Islamic world, including senior officers from the Iranian security services alongside a brother of the Iraqi despot Saddam Hussein.

In an interview with a French journalist, later published as a book, Turabi boasted that he had triggered an avalanche that would bury the “corrupt world” of Zionists and Crusaders. Well, that didn’t happen. What was buried was the sheikh’s forlorn hope; the ghost of which is now haunting the ayatollah in Tehran. As Persian poet Zahir Faryabi said: history is a graveyard of forlorn hopes!

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