Thursday, August 31, 2006

On Tabligh Jamaat

The Guardian ran a front page article about Tabligh Jamaat couple of weeks ago. The article, titled ‘Inside a secretive Islamic group: the Guardian gains access to a fundamentalist Islamic movement being monitored by MI5 and the FBI’, caused this reaction by Amar:

The Guardian visits a Tabligh Jamaat meeting, and it is cause for a front page headline? Have I died and moved to a parallel universe? Since when did Tablighis become a secretive group? F…ing ignorant foreign pieces of s...t.

The Guardian was not the first foreign lot to identify Tabligh Jamaat as a Jihadi group. In his much overrated book on the Company, Robert Litell said some of the Afghan Mujahedin the CIA was paying to fight against the Soviets may have as extreme politically as Tablighis. But then, these days even Desi commentators seem to think that Tablighis ‘would have to remain under the scanner…’

Maybe things are different in Europe these days. But back in the seventies, things were different. Ziauddin Sardar begins his desperate journey in the summer of 1972 with a hilarious introduction to the lot, with their simplification of Islam into a basic six-point formula, with their knack for terminologies, and with their mind boggling travel itineraries.

Now, this accords well with my experience with this mob. I first had a close encounter with them at the Benapol border in January 2000. This was just after their Ijtema — the largest Islamic gathering after Hajj, I don’t know why it happens in the outskirts of Dhaka. A bunch of them were crossing the border into India. As was I. In a display of Indian secularism and anti-imperialism, the Indian immigration official let dozens of Tablighis, in their turban and kurta and pajama (carefully above the ankle), pass while poor clean-shaven me, in my cargo pants, had to wait for an hour. I got talking to some of the men. It seemed like a rather cheap way of traveling the world. You get free food and accommodation. You sleep in the mosques — much safer than any hostel. And what self-respecting Desi could refuse the food: usually meat curry and parratha/pulau/khichudi? All in return for bowing your head at designated times, which is good exercise anyway.

No. I did not join them. The food actually was a problem. You see, they eat from the same plate, which is fine if you’re eating fried meat, but doesn’t quite work with curry and rice. And, of course, not being a believer also mattered.

Anyway, Sardar escaped the Tablighis with Sister Sophia, a very pretty and blond convert to Islam — this is a very enjoyable book, and hopefully I will write about it some other time, but this post is about Tabligh Jamaat, not Sardar.

So back to Tablighis. Sardar found them completely stupid in 1972. Well suicide bombers are stupid too. There weren’t any of them around then, and there seem to be quite a few now. Are stupid Tablighis breeding stupid Jihadis? Gilles Kepel says that Tablighis peaked in Europe between the mid-1970s and mid-1980s, and were overtaken by radical Salafist groups by the early 1990s. Many of these Salafists were inspired by the Muslim Brotherhood and Jamaat-e-Islami. These organisations are very much political. The former has spawned Hamas. The latter is a major electoral factor in Pakistan and Bangladesh. Their organisational structure has been modelled on the Leninist party structure. And one can see how the more radical Salafi groups might splinter into the Jihad International that menaces us. But where do the Tablighis fit?

In Desh, Jamaat-e-Islami has traditionally rejected the Deoband School that inspired Tabligh Jamaat. Tablighis in turn has called Maolana Maududi, Jamaat-e-Islami’s founder, an apostate. According to Ahmed Rashid, this traditional animosity between Maududites and Deobandis apparently played a crucial role in the rise of the Taliban. Because Jamaat-e-Islami was an ally of the Zia regime and the ISI (Pakistani secret service), their allies under Gulbuddin Hikmatyar were favoured during the war against the Soviet. When the People’s Party came to power in 1993, it was reluctant to trust the ISI with the Afghan policy. Instead of making a deal with Ahmad Shah Massoud, Gen Nasrullah Babar, Ms Bhutto’s Interior Minister, decided to cultivate the Deobandis. Taliban was the result. The rest, as they say, is history.

Anyway, back to the question at hand. Do Tablighis breed violent Jihadis? Perhaps. But they are most definitely not ‘secretive’, as the Guardian suggests. And frankly, they ought to be ashamed of publishing such sensationalist s...e.