In the wake of recent reports about an alleged plot to blow up transatlantic planes in Britain, several newspapers have splashed stories about the possible involvement in this of the Tablighi Jamaat (TJ), the largest Islamic movement in the world, with its global headquarters in New Delhi. That, as numerous other sources are now claiming, the alleged plot may have actually been masterminded by government intelligence agencies, backed by their political masters, in Britain, America and Pakistan, is something that is completely missing in these reports. But what is even more appalling is how the alleged plot is being used to target the TJ by writers who have little or no understanding of the movement.
Having done my doctoral thesis on the TJ from the University of London in 1998 under the supervision of the well-known Islamic scholar Francis Robinson, and having published a book on the subject (‘The Origins and Development of the Tablighi Jama’at: A Cross-Country Comparative Study’, Hyderabad: Orient Longman, 2001), I feel impelled to intervene in the current debate about the TJ and its supposed links to ‘terrorism’. My basic argument is that the TJ, as a movement, is not involved in promoting ‘terrorism’ or militancy, although this does not rule out individuals using it for certain militant purposes in some isolated cases, probably without the knowledge of top TJ authorities. What this, therefore, means is that it would be grossly unfair, and also counterproductive, to target the TJ as such for the alleged misdeeds of some individuals who claim to be associated with it in some way or the other.
But before I go on to expand this argument, it is pertinent to see precisely how some of those who have been writing on the TJ’s alleged involvement in the supposed recent plot characterize the movement. Writing in the London-based Guardian (19 August 2006), the British commentator Paul Lewis terms the TJ as a ‘fundamentalist Islamic movement, believed by western intelligence agencies to be used as a fertile recruiting ground by extremists’. He describes it as being ‘influenced by a branch of Saudi Arabian Islam known as Wahhabism’. Likewise, Sandra Laville, writing in the same newspaper (August 18, 2006), quotes the French intelligence as labelling the TJ as the ‘antechamber of fundamentalism’. She mentions the deputy chief of the American FBI’s international terrorism section as claiming that the al-Qaida network has been recruiting among TJ activists. Common to these and other such reports is the assertion that the TJ has emerged as a major source of what is routinely described in the media as ‘Islamic terrorism’. It may well be that do some TJ activists, in some places, have indeed been involved in radical religio-political movements. However, but to claim, as these reports and the intelligence sources they rely on do, that this is the policy of TJ leaders or of the movement as such is probably erroneous. Being a loosely controlled mass movement, not a rigidly controlled organization, the TJ has no fixed membership and the leaders of the movement do not exercise a total control on its activists. Any Sunni Muslim can join in the work of the movement, spending between a day and several months at a stretch in its preaching work, and then can choose to continue with the movement or dissociate from it. TJ leaders do not provide their activists any instructions or guidance on political affairs, this being left entirely to the discretion of the individuals concerned. Given the extremely fluid structure of the movement, it is possible that some Muslims might associate with the TJ while at the same time or later be involved in radical movements or militant activities, and this probably without the knowledge or permission of TJ leaders.
However, the overwhelming majority of those associated with the TJ remain aloof from conventional politics, having nothing to do with any sort of militant activism. They believe that worldly woes are a divine means to test their faith and endurance and a punishment for their own sins and lack of adequate piety. Hence, they insist, rather than struggling for political power or even protesting against oppression by non-Muslims, Muslims must first devote themselves to becoming good, practicing Muslims in their own personal lives in order to win God’s pleasure. Only then might God be moved to grant them political power and also put an end to their woes. Denying any political ambitions, TJ activists often argue, ‘We talk only of the grave and the heavens above and not of the world’. This is quite the opposite of the radical Islamist approach, which aims at the capture of political power through force and violence in order to establish what is described as an ‘Islamic state’.
The suggestion made by the commentators referred to above that the Tablighis are al-Qaeda style Islamists is also misleading. Islamists believe that acquiring political power, in order to establish an ‘Islamic state’, is the principal task for Muslims, and here they differ radically from the Tablighis. In fact, numerous Islamist groups are known to be stiffly opposed to the TJ for its presumed apoliticalness, accusing it of depoliticizing Muslims and thereby allegedly playing into the hands of what are described as the ‘enemies of Islam’. Not surprisingly, then, Islamists and the TJ have rarely enjoyed a cozy relationship. Thus, for instance, it is well-known that in the 1960s in Pakistan, President Ayub Khan deliberately sought to court the Tablighis to counteract the influence of the Islamist Jama’at-i Islami. The leading ideologue of the TJ, Maulana Zakariya Kandhwalvi, penned a tract (at the behest of Ayub Khan, some critics allege) bearing the revealing title of ‘ Finta-i Maududiyat’ (‘The Strife that is Maududism’), alleging that the Islamist vision as spelled out by the founder of the Jama’at-i Islami, Sayed Abul Ala Maududi, was anathema and not ‘Islamic’ at all! Likewise, it is known that in Israel the TJ has been allowed to freely function, while Islamist groups protesting against the Zionist occupation have been fiercely suppressed. In India, the radical Hindu chauvinist group Shiv Sena actually went out of its way in order to arrange for a massive TJ gathering in Mumbai some years ago. A book that I came across recently quoted a spokesperson of the Lashkar-e Tayyeba, a Pakistan based Islamist militant outfit, as denouncing the TJ as a tool in the hands of Jews and Hindus for allegedly denying the need for physical jihad, insisting instead that the divine rewards for that task could be had by simply participating in Tablighi preaching tours.
The argument that the TJ is influenced by or associated with Saudi-style ‘Wahhabism’ is also erroneous. In fact, TJ missionary groups are actually prohibited from preaching in Saudi Arabia, presumably because the Saudi ‘Wahhabis’ do not believe that the TJ is really ‘Islamic’ enough. In fact, Saudi opposition to TJ ideology is so extreme that Tablighi books are not allowed to be imported into the country.
A fatwa issued some years ago by the late Shaikh Bin Baz, chief official Saudi mufti (available online on the ‘Wahhabi’ website http://www.fatwa-online.com), bearing the revealing title ‘The Final Fatwa of Shaykh Abdul Azeez ibn Baaz Warning Against the Jamaah at-Tableegh’, clearly denounces the Tablighis as a ‘deviant’ group. Bin Baz warns his ‘Wahhabi followers, that ‘[I]t is not permissible to go with them, except for a person who has knowledge and goes with them to disapprove of what they are upon’. This is because, he argues, the Tablighis are characterized by ‘deviations, mistakes and lack of knowledge’. They represent ‘falsehood’ and are do not follow the Sunni path.
In other words, as this fatwa indicates, Bin Baz clearly regarded the TJ propagating ‘un-Islamic’ beliefs and seems not to have even regarded them as fellow Sunnis, and hence not as proper Muslims, because for the ‘Wahhabis’ only Sunnis are Muslims. In an even more strongly worded fatwa hosted on the same site, Bin Baz went far as to denounce the Tablighis as being destined to perdition in Hell, alleging that they were ‘opposed’ to the Sunni path, and, hence, for all purposes, not Muslims at all.
It is, of course, undeniable that some Muslim youth who join the ranks of militant Islamist groups may be associated at present or in the past with the TJ. Such may be the case with the men accused of being associated with the alleged plot to blow up the transatlantic planes, if at all that story is true and not a concoction of Western and Pakistani governments and intelligence agencies. In fact, it is likely that the powerful emotional appeal for total commitment to the faith articulated by the TJ might well enthuse some TJ activists, who see Muslims as oppressed by hostile non-Muslims, as in Iraq, Palestine and Afghanistan, to graduate on to more assertive Islamist organizations or even engage in militant activities as a means of protest or resistance, often because they find the Tablighi approach too mild and docile and politically un-involved. The point, however, is that this is probably not a result of a conscious decision or official policy of the TJ. In any case, such individuals are only a fringe minority and do not represent the movement as such.
Media discourses about Islam, as in the case of the articles in the Guardian mentioned here, typically see acts of terror committed by some Muslims in a vacuum, ignoring the root causes of such terrorism. Such acts cannot be condoned but they must be seen, at least in part, as a response to the oppression that Muslims in many parts of the world today face, and as a protest against continuing Western imperialism and state terrorism. Adopting a purely law-and-order approach to the problem without addressing its root causes is, it must be realized, no solution at all. And targeting the TJ, the world’s largest Islamic movement, as a ‘font of terrorism’ on the basis of the alleged activities of a few individuals in some way associated with it is bound to make matters more complicated, further exacerbating the resentment and sense of persecution that many Muslims today in large parts of the world feel