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"Let there arise out of you a band of people inviting to all that is good enjoining what is right and forbidding what is wrong; they are the ones to attain felicity".
(surah Al-Imran,ayat-104)
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Yoginder Sikand
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.
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