Sunday, October 07, 2007

Killing the Islamic Gandhi: The Death of Mahmoud Muhammed Taha

In May, via Pajamas Media, I came across a blogger called Varifrank who asked a simple yet telling question: where is the Islamic Gandhi?

His point was that there is a perceived lack of Muslim figures who argue for an Islam based on pluralism, tolerance and non-violence. Varifrank was wrong. There have been such individuals. One man, in particular, can plausibly be said to have been an "Islamic Gandhi". His name was Mahmoud Muhammed Taha. A scholar and religious figure, Taha had the moral and intellectual courage to confront the negative aspects of the Islamic tradition, and to advocate for a reformed Islam compatible with democracy and the 20th century. Sadly, he was to be eventually put to death for his efforts.

Mahmoud Muhammed Taha lived in the Sudan. Born about 1910, Taha was an engineer who in 1945 founded a political movement called the Republican Party. After two periods of imprisonment and spending three years in seclusion, by 1951 Taha had formulated his vision of Islam.

George Packer wrote a superb article about Taha in the September 11, 2006 New Yorker. He offers the following profile of Taha as a man and a teacher:

Taha’s reputation and importance far exceeded his actual following, which never amounted to more than a few thousand intensely devoted Sudanese: the stories of overwhelming personal transformation that I heard from Naim, Osman, and other Republican Brothers were apparently common among his adherents. (Taha adapted the name of his old political party for his new spiritual movement; he was wary of substituting Islamist slogans for critical thinking.) He received visitors at his house in Omdurman, northwest of Khartoum, at all hours, engaging in a kind of continuous seminar in which he was unmistakably the instructor—Republican Brothers still call him Ustazh, or “revered teacher”—but one who welcomed argument. “He would listen with utmost respect,” a follower named Omer el-Garrai told me. “I never saw him frustrated, I never saw him angry, I never heard him shout.” Naim recalled, “Taha could not transmit his religious enlightenment to us by talking about it. We would see the fruit of it by his personal life style, in his attitudes. His honesty, his intellectual vigor, his serenity, his charisma—those are the things that we can observe, and from them I understood that this is someone who had a transformative religious experience.” Taha lived simply, urging his followers to do the same, and even today Republican Brothers are known for their lack of show in dress and in wedding ceremonies. An aura of saintliness hangs over stories I heard about Taha in Sudan, and, as with Gandhi, to whom he is sometimes compared, there’s an unappealingly remote quality to his moral example. A man named Anour Hassan recalled that when Taha’s twelve-year-old son vanished in the Blue Nile, in 1954, Taha calmly told people who wanted to continue looking for the boy, “No, he’s gone to a kinder father than I am.”

At the same time as Taha and his Republican Brothers offered Sudanese Muslims an Islam of tolerance and pluralism, a somewhat different vision of Islam was in the ascendance. This was the totalitarian intolerance of Islamism, and its main advocate was the Sudanese branch of the Muslim Brotherhood. Founded in Egypt in 1928, the Brotherhood was the first truly Islamist movement, combining traditional forms of Islamic extremism with 20th century ideology and methods of political mobilization.

As was the case elsewhere in the Islamic world, condemning reformist interpretations of Islam as apostasy was central to the Sudanese Muslim Brotherhood's drive for power. Taha and his followers soon became a prime target of these efforts. In Packer's words: "Taha was condemned for apostasy by Sudanese and Egyptian clerics, his movement was under constant attack from the fundamentalist Muslim Brotherhood, and his public appearances were banned by the government."

The culmination of the struggle between Taha and the Islamists came in 1983. In that year, Sudanese dictator Jaafar al-Nimeiri, with the support of the Muslim Brotherhood, imposed Islamic Sharia law on the country. Floggings and amputations became common, and the Christian and animist southern parts of the country were further alienated from the regime.

Watching his faith twisted into a tool of barbarous repression was too much for Taha. He was imprisoned for a year and a half just to prevent him from speaking out. Upon his release in late 1984, he refused to remain silent. Undoubtedly knowing what the consequences would be, Taha spoke out nonetheless:

Soon after Taha was released, he distributed a leaflet, on Christmas Day, 1984, titled “Either This or the Flood.” “It is futile for anyone to claim that a Christian person is not adversely affected by the implementation of sharia,” he wrote. “It is not enough for a citizen today merely to enjoy freedom of worship. He is entitled to the full rights of a citizen in total equality with all other citizens. The rights of southern citizens in their country are not provided for in sharia but rather in Islam at the level of fundamental Koranic revelation.”

The Nimeiri regime and Muslim Brotherhood decided to rid themselves of Taha and his unwelcome views once and for all. Taha was rearrested and charged with apostasy, a capital crime in Sudan and many other Muslim countries. After refusing to repudiate his ideas, Mahmoud Muhammed Taha was hanged on January 18, 1985. Packer's description of the execution includes this chilling line:

In the instant that the trapdoor opened and Taha’s body fell through, the crowd began to scream, “Allahu Akbar! Allahu Akbar! Islam huwa al-hall! ”—“God is great! Islam is the solution!”—the slogan of the Muslim Brotherhood.

After the hanging, a number of leading Republican Brothers were forced to publicly renounce his ideas, in a manner reminiscent of the Stalinist show trials of the 1930s. Taha's books were, according to Packer, "burned in public bonfires." Taha's Republican Brotherhood was effectively ended as a political and intellectual movement.

It is important not to romanticize Taha. For one thing, Taha was not a secularist; he was a committed Muslim who did not believe that faith and politics could or should be kept separate. There was also an eccentric quality to him and his followers that limited their appeal. Packer offers a fitting epitaph to Taha and his movement:

What’s truly remarkable about Taha is that he existed at all. In the midst of a gathering storm of Islamist extremism, he articulated a message of liberal reform that was rigorous, coherent, and courageous. His vision asked Muslims to abandon fourteen hundred years of accepted dogma in favor of a radical and demanding new methodology that would set them free from the burdens of traditional jurisprudence...Taha’s message requires of Muslims such an intellectual leap that those who actually made it—as opposed to those who merely admired Taha or were interested in him—took on the quality of cult members, with their white garments, street-corner sermons, and egalitarian marriage contracts. Small wonder that Taha failed to create a durable mass movement. In “Quest for Divinity,” a new and generally sympathetic study of Taha, to be published this fall, Professor Mohamed A. Mahmoud, of Tufts University, writes, “The outcome of this culture of guardianship and total intellectual dependency was a movement with impoverished inner intellectual and spiritual resources, intrinsically incapable of surviving Taha’s death.”

Packer then asks a logical and telling question:

Why did the Sudanese state, the religious establishment, and the Islamist hard-liners consider the leader of such a small movement worth killing? Perhaps because, as Khalid el-Haj, a retired school administrator in Rufaa, who first met Taha in the early sixties, told me, “They are afraid of the ideas, not the numbers. They know that the ideas are from inside Islam and they cannot face it.”

(Emphasis added-DD; Italics added 10-8-07)

As they did with Farag Foda and numerous other reformers and dissidents, the Islamists murdered Mahmoud Muhammed Taha because they had no answer for his ideas. As a totalitarian ideology, Islamism must silence its critics through murder or other means of repression because it simply cannot stand up to critical scrutiny. This is its ultimate weakness.

Throughout his essay, Packer compares Mahmoud Muhammed Taha to the famed Islamist ideologue Sayyid Qutb. Like Taha, Qutb was hanged by a repressive regime after refusing to renounce his ideas. However, unlike Taha, Qutb is known throughout the world. His 1964 book Milestones is considered the Communist Manifesto of Salafist-jihadism. Unlike Taha, who stood for pluralism and tolerance, Qutb demanded the worldwide imposition of Islamist totalitarianism by means of violent jihad. He was the ideological forefather of al Qaeda.

Whatever the flaws of Taha and his ideas, how much better would the world be if his vision of Islam was known worldwide, while Qutb's totalitarian vision lay buried in obscurity?


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