Tablighi Jamaat [Conveying Group] is a Muslim missionary and revival movement. Their activities are not limited to the Deobandi community.
Leaders of Tablighi Jamaat claim that the movement is strictly non-political in nature, with the main aim of the participants being to work at the grass roots level and reaching out to all Muslims of the world for spiritual development.
Tablighi Jamaat seeks to revitalize Muslims around the world. It is claimed that their ideology and practices are in strict accordance with Quran and Sunnah.
Despite their affiliation and influence of the prominent scholars of Deoband, they do not focus any particular sect or community. It gathers its members and aids in community activities such as mosque building and education.
Tabligh maintains an international headquarters, the Markaz, in Nizamuddin, Delhi and has several national headquarters to coordinate its activities in over 80 countries. Throughout its history it has sent its members to travel the world, preaching a message of peace and tolerance. It organizes preachers in groups [called Jamaats, meaning Assembly]. Each group, on average, consists of 10 to 12 Muslims who fund themselves in this preaching mission.
The second largest gathering of Muslims after the Hajj [the pilgrimage to Mecca] is known as Bishwa Ijtema, a non political gathering of Muslims from all over the world hosted by the leaders of “International Tabligh Jamaat”. It takes place in Tongi which is on the outskirts of Dhaka, Bangladesh.
The Tablighi Jamaat was founded in the late 1920s by the well known scholar Maulana Ilyas [Maulana Muhammad Ilyas Kandhelvi] in the Mewat province of India. The inspiration for devoting his life to Islam came to Ilyas during his second pilgrimage to the Hejaz in 1926. Maulana Ilyas put forward the slogan, ´Aye Musalmano! Musalman bano´ [Urdu] which translates ‘Come O Muslims! Be Muslims’ [in English]. This expressed the central focus of Tablighi Jamaat, which has been renewing Muslim society by renewing Muslim practice in those it feels have lost their desire to devote themselves to Allah and the Islamic prophet, Muhammad.
Maulana Ilyas was a prominent member of the movement and throughout Tabligh’s history there has been a degree of association between scholars of Deoband and Tablighi Jamaat. Tabligh was formed at a time in India when some Muslim leaders feared that Indian Muslims were losing their Muslim identity to the majority Hindu culture.
In 1978, construction of the Tablighi mosque in Dewsbury, England commenced. Subsequently, the mosque became the European headquarters of Tablighi Jamaat.
Ameer [Emir] or Zimmadar are titles of leadership in the movement. The first Ameer, also the founder, was Maulana Ilyas [1885-1944], second was his son Maulana Muhammad Yusuf Kandhalawi and the third was Maulana Inaam ul Hasan. Now there is a shura which includes two leaders: Maulana Zubair ul Hasan and Maulana Saad Kandhalawi. In Pakistan the duties of the Ameer are being served by Haji Abdulwahhab. Maulana Muhammad Zakariya al-Kandahlawi is also among the prestigious personalities of the Jamaat, as he compiled the famous book Fazail-e-Amal.
With the ascent of Maulana Yusuf, Ilyas´ son, as its second emir (leader), the group began to expand activities in 1946, and within two decades the group reached Southwest and Southeast Asia, Africa, Europe, and North America. Initially it expanded its reach to South Asian diaspora communities, first in Arab countries then in Southeast Asia. Once established, the Tablighi Jamaat began engaging local populations as well.
Although the movement first established itself in the United States, it established a large presence in Europe during the 1970s and 1980s. It was especially prominent in France during the 1980s. The members of Tablighi Jamat are also represented in the French Council of the Muslim Faith. Tabligh’s influence has grown, though, in the increasing Pakistani community in France, which has doubled in the decade before 2008 to 50,000-60,000.
However, Britain is the current focus of the movement in the West, primarily due to the large South Asian population that began to arrive there in the 1960s and 1970s. By 2007, Tabligh members were situated at 600 of Britain’s 1350 mosques.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the movement made inroads into Central Asia. As of 2007, it was estimated 10,000 Tablighi members could be found in Kyrgyzstan alone.
By 2008 it had a presence in nearly 80 countries and had become a leading revitalist movement. However, it maintains a presence in India, where at least 100 of its Jamaats go out from Markaz, the international headquarters, to different parts of India and overseas.
There are many celebrated personalities associated with this movement:
These include the former Presidents of Pakistan, Muhammad Rafiq Tarar and Farooq Leghari [Sardar Farooq Ahmed Khan Leghari], and former President of India, Dr. Zakir Hussain who was also associated with this movement. Major General Ziaur Rahman, former President and Chief of Army Staff of the Bangladesh Army, was a strong supporter and member of Tablighi Jamaat, and popularized it in Bangladesh.
Lieutenant General [R] Javed Nasir of the Pakistan Army and former head of Inter-Services Intelligence along with former Prime Minister of Pakistan, General Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq have also been linked with the movement.
Other well-known politicians such as Dr. Arbab Ghulam Rahim the former chief minister of Sindh, and Muhammad Ijaz-ul-Haq, former Pakistani Federal Minister for Religious Affairs have strong ties with the Tablighi activities.
Many well-recognized writers and scholars, such as Dr. Nadir Ali Khan [famous Indian writer] and others are deeply related with it.
Among Pakistani cricket professionals, Shahid Afridi, Saqlain Mushtaq, Inzamam-ul-Haq, Mushtaq Ahmed; and the former Pakistani cricketers Saeed Anwar, Saleem Malik are active members. It is also widely believed that Pakistani middle order batsman Mohammad Yousuf embraced Islam with the help of the Tablighi Jamaat. Others include South African batsman Hashim Amla.
This movement also includes eminent directors and producers including Naeem Butt.
Former renowned singer and pop star Junaid Jamshed has close links with Jamaat, and his departure from professional singing career is attributed as the result of his inclination towards this movement.
Many famed actors and models including Moin Akhter, Hammad Khan Jadoon and many others are strongly affiliated with the movement.
Several business men, industrialists, millionaires are actively serving in the movement.
Tabligh Jamaat terror connection
Policy analysts and Islamist scholars are fiercely divided in their assessments of Tablighi Jamaat, an Islamic revivalist organization that has spread from its origins in India in the 1920s to the broader Muslim world.
Policy communities, for their part, have depicted the Tablighi Jamaat as a “gateway to terrorism” and contend that the organization poses numerous, underestimated security risks. The group appeared peripherally in such high-profile cases as those of Jose Padilla, Richard Reid and John Walker Lindh, all of whom allegedly used the group as their stepping stone to radicalism. However, the Islamic studies community tends to depict Tablighi Jamaat, which roughly translates to “group to deliver the message of Islam,” as a revivalist organization that eschews politics in its quest to reform society. What accounts for these starkly different accounts, and how can one resolve some of the deeply perplexing questions surrounding this important and secretive organization?
In an attempt to better understand this movement and its social, political, and potential security implications, the Center for Conflict Analysis and Prevention at the U.S. Institute of Peace hosted Eva Borreguero, visiting Fulbright Scholar at Georgetown University’s Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding, to present some of the key findings of her ongoing research on the Tablighi Jamaat. This talk drew on Borreguero’s recent fieldwork in India and Pakistan, two important centers for the Tablighi Jamaat. This USIPeaceBrieing highlights Borreguero’s arguments, as well as some of the important issues that arose during the discussion that followed her presentation.
Tablighi Jamaat: Gateway to Terrorism
In Britain, France, and the United States, the Tablighi Jamaat has appeared on the fringes of several terrorism investigations, leading some to speculate that its apolitical stance simply masks “fertile ground for breeding terrorism.” While acknowledging the involvement of the movement’s individuals, Borreguero discounted the claims made against the organization itself.
Borreguero began her assessment by providing an historical overview of this complex movement. Maulana Muhammad Ilyas founded the Tablighi Jamaat in 1925, against the backdrop of the British Empire and a waning Muslim identity in South Asia. Believing that social, political, and economic hardships beset Muslims in India, Ilyas sought a return to a pristine form of Islam from the heterodox variants flourishing in South Asia. For nearly two decades, the Tablighi Jamaat operated mainly within South Asia. With the ascent of Maulana Yusuf, Ilyas´ son, as its second emir (leader), the group began to expand activities in 1946, and within two decades the group reached Southwest and Southeast Asia, Africa, Europe, and North America. Initially it expanded its reach to South Asian diaspora communities, first in Arab countries then in Southeast Asia. Once established, the Tablighi Jamaat began engaging local populations as well. Although the group first established itself in the United States, Britain is the current locus of the group in the West, primarily due to the large South Asian population that began to arrive there in the 1960s and 1970s.
Tablighi Jamaat: Structure, Composition, and Work
Despite its secretive nature, Borreguero offered some insights into the organizational structure of the Tablighi Jamaat. The general conception of the group is of a nebulous collection of loosely affiliated, itinerate jamaats. While this is one major component of the group, there is a fixed, hierarchical network of elders and mosques, and the two components do overlap. According to Borreguero, the core of the organization is comprised of “full-time” Tablighis who comprise the shura (council) and who are usually the elders of the mosques affiliated with the group.
In addition to this core, there are the traveling Tablighis who undertake proselytizing missions over varying durations. Formed into jamaats of approximately ten people, these Tablighis’ missions last three days, forty days [Chilla], four months, or one year. The jamaat’s destination and desired area of focus generally determines the length of these missions. Those who go for three days concentrate on a local city, while a Jamaat traveling for a month will do so throughout their country. The longer tours of four months to one year generally take the Tablighis abroad.
During these tours, the Jamaat—under the leadership of its emir—stays at a local mosque, which serves as its base for the duration. Four or five members of the group conduct daily ghast, during which they visit neighborhoods [or neighborhoods with large Muslim populations if in a non-Muslim country] and homes, asking the men of the household to attend mosque for Maghrib [sunset] prayers. Those who attend are offered the dawa [invitation] as the Tablighis outline their six principles and encourage attendees to form their own jamaat. Members voluntarily work for the organization and there is no registration process in the group. Participants are free to leave the movement at any time. Consequently, Tablighi Jamaat has a loose, informal recruitment process and attracts members of varying commitment. For example, some members only engage in group activities episodically, while others will do so annually. All of these factors contribute to the uncertainty regarding Tablighi Jamaat’s membership numbers.
Tablighis in India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh have competing claims as to which comprises the movement’s international headquarters. Those in India contend that Nizamuddin [India] is the base, since the movement grew out of the Deoband school of Islam and it is in Delhi that the group was founded. However, elders in Raiwind [Pakistan] and Tongi [Bangladesh] dispute Nizamuddin’s final authority, citing their countries´ majority Muslim populations and claiming that the organization can operate more openly.
South Asia is by far the most significant region for the group, with Mecca and Medina also serving as important geographical symbols. The organization is diverse and includes persons from nearly every sector of society across the countries of South Asia and beyond. Within South Asia, members of the lower-middle class and the business community have joined the group and some members even hold government posts. In the West, second and third generation Muslim diaspora make up the main pool of Tablighis. This demographic usually has little knowledge of Islam but are also not fully assimilated to culture in the West. According to Borreguero, the Tablighi Jamaat “is a source of re-Islamization that provides an alternative to religious institutions.” These individuals tend to be well-educated, multilingual, and have lived in both the West and a Muslim country. She noted that the Tablighi Jamaat also has some appeal to marginal members of society [petty criminals, drug abusers, and so on] who are looking for a renewed identity that submerges them in a community of piety.
Keys to the Success of the Tablighi Jamaat
Borreguero sees several salient features which explain the Tablighi Jamaat’s successful transformation from a local South Asian movement into a robust transnational phenomenon, including its simple message, its non-political character, the authority of its leadership, and its policy of secrecy.
Borreguero addressed the persistent question of how a group so devoted to proselytizing a pristine form of Islam and inner spiritual transformation can coexist with modern society, and specifically whether such a group warrants scrutiny because of its revivalist beliefs.
While recognizing the numerous reports that link Tablighi Jamaat to militancy in various forms, her fieldwork yielded little evidence to support the most sweeping of these claims. During her interviews with Tablighis, they tended not to opine on politics. However, she conceded that for some Tablighis—as individuals—this might not be enough. She claimed that there is no evidence thus far that the group as a whole is involved with militant groups, such as Jaish-e-Mohammed and Lashkar-e-Taiba in Pakistan, while acknowledging the potential role that individual Tablighis may have played in them. She claimed that the Tablighi Jamaat remains neutral on these groups, neither condemning nor supporting their actions.
To some analysts, this neutrality is enough to make them culpable. Borreguero admits that militant groups may try to infiltrate the Tablighi Jamaat in order to gain a cover for obtaining visas and traveling abroad. Also, individual members may come to find that the movement’s principles are too apolitical and neutral for their liking. Members of militant groups often attend the Tablighi Jamaat´s Ijtima [congregation] in Raiwind, where they hand out recruitment pamphlets. It is thus possible that a flame sparked and fueled by Tabligh could begin to burn out of control.
Borreguero, however, stressed that once this extreme position is taken, the individual relinquishes his or her membership to the Tablighi Jamaat. She also believes that any overt connection with these groups is not in the best interest of the Tablighi Jamaat. As stated above, the movement’s neutrality allows cordial relations with authorities, or at least keeps them from incurring official harassment. Any collusion with militant outfits would likely invite official proscription, especially in Western societies.
While much light was shed on the Tablighi Jamaat, many questions still remain. To some, its official secrecy and peripheral links to some nefarious individuals have nullified its choice to remain outside politics. But, as scholar Barbara Metcalf writes, “Islamic movements [like the Tablighi Jamaat] may have many goals and offer a range of social, moral, and spiritual satisfactions that are positive and not merely a reactionary rejection of modernity or ´the West.´ Quite simply, these movements may, in the end, have much less to do with ´us´ than is often thought.” Borreguero´s insights provided a gateway to better assess the group´s motives and machinations. It may well be that the study of the Tablighi Jamaat as an apolitical traditionalist movement gives an alternate lens through which security concerns over Islamist groups´ hostility toward the West can be viewed.
Every fall, over a million almost identically dressed, bearded Muslim men from around the world descend on the small Pakistani town of Raiwind for a three-day celebration of faith. Similar gatherings take place annually outside of Dhaka, Bangladesh, and Bhopal, India. These pilgrims are no ordinary Muslims, though; they belong to a movement called Tablighi Jamaat [“Proselytizing Group”]. They are trained missionaries who have dedicated much of their lives to spreading Islam across the globe. The largest group of religious proselytizers of any faith, they are part of the reason for the explosive growth of Islamic religious fervor and conversion.
Despite its size, worldwide presence, and tremendous importance, Tablighi Jamaat remains largely unknown outside the Muslim community, even to many scholars of Islam. This is no coincidence. Tablighi Jamaat officials work to remain outside of both media and governmental notice. Tablighi Jamaat neither has formal organizational structure nor does it publish details about the scope of its activities, its membership, or its finances. By eschewing open discussion of politics and portraying itself only as a pietistic movement, Tablighi Jamaat works to project a non-threatening image. Because of the movement’s secrecy, scholars often have no choice but to rely on explanations from Tablighi Jamaat acolytes.
As a result, academics tend to describe the group as an apolitical devotional movement stressing individual faith, introspection, and spiritual development. The austere and egalitarian lifestyle of Tablighi missionaries and their principled stands against social ills leads many outside observers to assume that the group has a positive influence on society. Graham Fuller, a former CIA official and expert on Islam, for example, characterized Tablighi Jamaat as a “peaceful and apolitical preaching-to-the-people movement.” Barbara Metcalf, a University of California scholar of South Asian Islam, called Tablighi Jamaat “an apolitical, quietist movement of internal grassroots missionary renewal” and compares its activities to the efforts to reshape individual lives by Alcoholics Anonymous. Olivier Roy, a prominent authority on Islam at Paris’s prestigious Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique, described Tablighi Jamaat as “completely apolitical and law abiding.” Governments normally intolerant of independent movements often make an exception for Tablighi Jamaat. The Bangladeshi prime minister and top political leadership, many of whom are Islamists, regularly attend their rallies, and Pakistani military officers, many of whom are sympathetic to militant Islam, even allow Tablighi missionaries to preach in the barracks.
Yet, the Pakistani experience strips the patina from Tablighi Jamaat’s façade. Pakistani prime minister Nawaz Sharif [1990-93; 1997-99], whose father was a prominent Tablighi member and financier, helped Tablighi members take prominent positions. For example, in 1998, Muhammad Rafique Tarar took the ceremonial presidency while, in 1990, Javed Nasir assumed the powerful director-generalship of the Inter-Services Intelligence, Pakistan’s chief intelligence agency. When Benazir Bhutto, less sympathetic to Islamist causes, returned to the premiership in 1993, Tablighis conspired to overthrow her government. In 1995, the Pakistani army thwarted a coup attempt by several dozen high-ranking military officers and civilians, all of whom were members of the Tablighi Jamaat and some of whom also held membership in Harakat ul-Mujahideen, a U.S. State Department-defined terrorist organization. Some of the confusion over Tablighi Jamaat’s apolitical characterization derives from the fact that the movement does not consider individual states to be legitimate. They may not become actively involved in internal politics or disputes over local issues, but, from a philosophical and transnational perspective, the Tablighi Jamaat’s millenarian philosophy is very political indeed. According to the French Tablighi expert Marc Gaborieau, its ultimate objective is nothing short of a “planned conquest of the world” in the spirit of jihad.
Origins and Ideology of Tablighi Jamaat
The prominent Deobandi cleric and scholar Maulana Muhammad Ilyas Kandhalawi [1885-1944] launched Tablighi Jamaat in 1927 in Mewat, India, not far from Delhi. From its inception, the extremist attitudes that characterize Deobandism permeated Tablighi philosophy. Ilyas’s followers were intolerant of other Muslims and especially Shi´ites, let alone adherents of other faiths. Indeed, part of Ilyas’s impetus for founding Tablighi Jamaat was to counter the inroads being made by Hindu missionaries. They rejected modernity as antithetical to Islam, excluded women, and preached that Islam must subsume all other religions. The creed grew in importance after Pakistani military dictator Zia ul-Haq encouraged Deobandis to Islamize Pakistan.
The Tablighi Jamaat canon is bare-boned. Apart from the Qu’ran, the only literature Tablighis are required to read are the Tablighi Nisab, seven essays penned by a companion of Ilyas in the 1920s. Tablighi Jamaat is not a monolith: one subsection believes they should pursue jihad through conscience [jihad bin nafs] while a more radical wing advocates jihad through the sword [jihad bin saif]. But, in practice, all Tablighis preach a creed that is hardly distinguishable from the radical Wahhabi-Salafi jihadist ideology that so many terrorists share.
Part of the reason why the Tablighi Jamaat leadership can maintain such strict secrecy is its dynastic flavor. All Tablighi Jamaat leaders since Ilyas have been related to him by either blood or marriage. Upon Ilyas’ 1944 death, his son, Maulana Muhammad Yusuf [1917-65], assumed leadership of the movement, dramatically expanding its reach and influence.
Following the partition of India, Tablighi Jamaat spread rapidly in the new Muslim nation of Pakistan. Yusuf and his successor, Inamul Hassan [1965-95], transformed Tablighi Jamaat into a truly transnational movement with a renewed emphasis targeting conversion of non-Muslims, a mission the movement continues to the present day.
While few details are known about the group’s structure, at the top sits the emir who, according to some observers, presides over a shura [Council], which plays an advisory role. Further down are individual country organizations. By the late 1960s, Tablighi Jamaat had not only established itself in Western Europe and North America but even claimed adherents in countries like Japan, which has no significant Muslim population.
The movement’s rapid penetration into non-Muslim regions began in the 1970s and coincides with the establishment of a synergistic relationship between Saudi Wahhabis and South Asian Deobandis. While Wahhabis are dismissive of other Islamic schools, they single out Tablighi Jamaat for praise, even if they disagree with some of its practices, such as willingness to pray in mosques housing graves. The late Sheikh ´Abd al ´Aziz ibn Baz, perhaps the most influential Wahhabi cleric in the late twentieth century, recognized the Tablighis good work and encouraged his Wahhabi brethren to go on missions with them so that they can “guide and advise them.” A practical result of this cooperation has been large-scale Saudi financing of Tablighi Jamaat. While Tablighi Jamaat in theory requires its missionaries to cover their own expenses during their trips, in practice, Saudi money subsidizes transportation costs for thousands of poor missionaries. While Tablighi Jamaat’s financial activities are shrouded in secrecy, there is no doubt that some of the vast sums spent by Saudi organizations such as the World Muslim League on proselytism benefit Tablighi Jamaat. As early as 1978, the World Muslim League subsidized the building of the Tablighi mosque in Dewsbury, England, which has since become the headquarters of Tablighi Jamaat in all of Europe. Wahhabi sources have paid Tablighi missionaries in Africa salaries higher than the European Union pays teachers in Zanzibar. In both Western Europe and the United States, Tablighis operate interchangeably out of Deobandi and Wahhabi controlled mosques and Islamic centers.
Tablighi Jamaat: Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing
The West’s misreading of Tablighi Jamaat actions and motives has serious implications for the war on terrorism. Tablighi Jamaat has always adopted an extreme interpretation of Sunni Islam, but in the past two decades, it has radicalized to the point where it is now a driving force of Islamic extremism and a major recruiting agency for terrorist causes worldwide. For a majority of young Muslim extremists, joining Tablighi Jamaat is the first step on the road to extremism. Perhaps 80 percent of the Islamist extremists in France come from Tablighi ranks, prompting French intelligence officers to call Tablighi Jamaat the “antechamber of fundamentalism.” U.S. counterterrorism officials are increasingly adopting the same attitude. “We have a significant presence of Tablighi Jamaat in the United States,” the deputy chief of the FBI’s international terrorism section said in 2003, “and we have found that Al-Qaeda used them for recruiting now and in the past.”
Recruitment methods for young jihadists are almost identical. After joining Tablighi Jamaat groups at a local mosque or Islamic center and doing a few local dawa [proselytism] missions, Tablighi officials invite star recruits to the Tablighi center in Raiwind, Pakistan, for four months of additional missionary training. Representatives of terrorist organizations approach the students at the Raiwind center and invite them to undertake military training. Most agree to do so.
Tablighi Jamaat has long been directly involved in the sponsorship of terrorist groups. Pakistani and Indian observers believe, for instance, that Tablighi Jamaat was instrumental in founding Harakat ul-Mujahideen. Founded at Raiwind in 1980, almost all of the Harakat ul-Mujahideen’s original members were Tablighis. Famous for the December 1998 hijacking of an Air India passenger jet and the May 8, 2002 murder of a busload of French engineers in Karachi, Harakat members make no secret of their ties. “The two organizations together make up a truly international network of genuine jihadi Muslims,” one senior Harakat ul-Mujahideen official said. More than 6,000 Tablighis have trained in Harakat ul-Mujahideen camps. Many fought in Afghanistan in the 1980s and readily joined Al-Qaeda after the Taliban defeated Afghanistan’s anti-Soviet mujahideen.
Another violent Tablighi Jamaat spin-off is the Harakat ul-Jihad-i Islami. Founded in the aftermath of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, this group has been active not only in the disputed Indian provinces of Jammu and Kashmir but also in the state of Gujarat, where Tablighi Jamaat extremists have taken over perhaps 80 percent of the mosques previously run by the moderate Barelvi Muslims. The Tablighi movement is also very active in northern Africa where it became one of the four groups that founded the Islamic Salvation Front in Algeria. Moroccan authorities are currently prosecuting sixty members of the Moroccan Tablighi offshoot Dawa wa Tabligh in connection with the May 16, 2003 terrorist attack on a Casablanca synagogue. Dutch police are investigating links between the Moroccan cells and the November 2, 2004 murder of Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh.
There are many other cases of individual Tablighis committing acts of terrorism. French Tablighi members, for example, have helped organize and execute attacks not only in Paris but also at the Hotel Asni in Marrakech in 1994. Kazakh authorities expelled a number of Tablighi missionaries because they had been organizing networks advancing “extremist propaganda and recruitment.” Indian investigators suspect influential Tablighi leader, Maulana Umarji, and a group of his followers in the February 27, 2002 fire bombing of a train carrying Hindu nationalists in Gujarat, India. The incident sparked a wave of pogroms victimizing both Muslims and Hindus. More recently, Moroccan authorities sentenced Yusef Fikri, a Tablighi member and leader of the Moroccan terrorist organization At-Takfir wal-Hijrah, to death for his role in masterminding the May 2003 Casablanca terrorist bombings that claimed more than forty lives.
Tablighi Jamaat has also facilitated other terrorists’ missions. The group has provided logistical support and helped procure travel documents. Many take advantage of Tablighi Jamaat’s benign reputation. Moroccan authorities say that leaflets circulated by the terrorist group Al-Salafiyah al-Jihadiyah urged their members to join Islamic organizations that operate openly, such as Tablighi Jamaat, in order “to hide their identity on the one hand and influence these groups and their policies on the other.” In a similar vein, a Pakistani jihadist website commented that Tablighi Jamaat organizational structures can be easily adopted to jihad activities. The Philippine government has accused Tablighi Jamaat, which has an 11,000-member presence in the country, of serving both as a conduit of Saudi money to the Islamic terrorists in the south and as a cover for Pakistani jihad volunteers.
There is also evidence that Tablighi Jamaat directly recruits for terrorist organizations. As early as the 1980s, the movement sponsored military training for 900 recruits annually in Pakistan and Algeria while, in 1999, Uzbek authorities accused Tablighi Jamaat of sending 400 Uzbeks to terrorist training camps. The West is not immune. British counterterrorism authorities estimate that at least 2,000 British nationals had gone to Pakistan for jihad training by 1998, and the French secret services report that between 80 and 100 French nationals fought for Al-Qaeda.
Tablighi Jamaat: A Trojan Horse for Terror in America
Within the United States, the cases of American Taliban John Lindh, the “Lackawanna Six,” and the Oregon cell that conspired to bomb a synagogue and sought to link up with Al-Qaeda, all involve Tablighi missionaries. Other indicted terrorists, such as “shoe bomber” Richard Reid, “dirty bomber” Jose Padilla, and Lyman Harris, who sought to bomb the Brooklyn Bridge, were all members of Tablighi Jamaat at one time or another. According to Robert Blitzer, head of the FBI’s first Islamic counterterrorism unit, between 1,000 and 2,000 Americans left to join the jihad in the 1990s alone. Pakistani intelligence sources report that 400 American Tablighi recruits received training in Pakistani or Afghan terrorist camps since 1989.
The Tablighi Jamaat has made inroads among two very different segments of the American Muslim population. Because many American Muslims are immigrants, and a large subsection of these are from South Asia, Deobandi influences have been able to penetrate deeply. Many Tablighi Jamaat missionaries speak Urdu as a first language and so can communicate easily with American Muslims of South Asian origin. The Tablighi headquarters in the United States for the past decade appears to be in the Al-Falah mosque in Queens, New York. Its missionaries—predominantly from South Asia—regularly visit Sunni mosques and Islamic centers across the country. The willingness of Saudi-controlled front organizations and charities, such as the World Muslim League, the World Assembly of Muslim Youth [WAMY], the Haramain Foundation, the International Islamic Relief Organization [IIRO] and others, to spend large amounts of money to co-opt the religious establishment has helped catalyze recruitment. As a result Wahhabi and Deobandi influence dominate American Islam.
This trend is apparent in the activities of Tanzeem-e Islami. Founded by long-term Tablighi member and passionate Taliban supporter, Israr Ahmed, Tanzeem-e Islami flooded American Muslim organizations with communications accusing Israel of complicity in the 9/11 terror attacks. A frequent featured speaker at Islamic conferences and events in the United States, Ahmed engages in incendiary rhetoric urging his audiences to prepare for “the final showdown between the Muslim world and the non-Muslim world, which has been captured by the Jews.” Unfortunately, his conspiracy theories have begun to take hold among growing segments of the American Muslim community. For example, Siraj Wahhaj, among the best known African-American Muslim converts and the first Muslim cleric to lead prayers in the U.S. Congress, is also on record accusing the FBI and the CIA of being the “real terrorists.” He has expressed his support for the convicted mastermind of the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, Sheik Omar Abdel Rahman, and advocating the demise of American democracy.
Tablighi Jamaat has appealed to African American Muslims for other reasons. Founded by Elijah Mohammed in the early 1930s, the Nation of Islam was essentially a charismatic African American separatist organization which had little to do with normative Islam. Many Nation of Islam members found attractive both the Tablighi Jamaat’s anti-state separatist message and its description of American society as racist, decadent, and oppressive. Seeing such fertile ground, Tablighi and Wahhabi missionaries targeted the African American community with great success. One Tablighi sympathizer explained, The umma [Muslim community] must remember that winning over the black Muslims is not only a religious obligation but also a selfish necessity. The votes of the black Muslims can give the immigrant Muslims the political clout they need at every stage to protect their vital interests. Likewise, outside Muslim states like Saudi Arabia, Malaysia, and Pakistan need to mobilize their effort, money, and missionary skills to expand and consolidate the black Muslim community in the USA, not only for religious reasons, but also as a farsighted investment in the black Muslims’ immense potential as a credible lobby for Muslim causes, such as Palestine, Bosnia, or Kashmir—offsetting, at least partially, the venal influence of the powerful India-Israel lobby.
Not only foreign Tablighis but also the movement’s sympathizers within the United States enunciate this goal. The president of the Islamic Research Foundation in Louisville, Kentucky, a strong advocate of Tablighi missionary work, for instance, insists that “if all the Afro-American brothers and sisters become Muslims, we can change the political landscape of America” and “make U.S. foreign policy pro-Islamic and Muslim friendly.” As a result of Tablighi and Wahhabi proselytizing, African Americans comprise between 30 and 40 percent of the American Muslim community, and perhaps 85 percent of all American Muslim converts. Much of this success is due to a successful proselytizing drive in the penitentiary system. Prison officials say that by the mid-1990s, between 10 and 20 percent of the nation’s 1.5 million inmates identified themselves as Muslims. Some 30,000 African Americans convert to Islam in prison every year.
The American political system tolerates all views so long as they adhere to the rule of law. Unfortunately, Tablighi Jamaat missionaries may be encouraging African American recruits to break the law. Harkat ul-Mujahideen has boasted of training dozens of African American Jihadists in its military camps. There is evidence that African American Jihadists have died in both Afghanistan and Kashmir.
Tablighi Jamaat: The Future of American Islam
Tablighi Jamaat has made unprecedented strides in recent decades. It increasingly relies on local missionaries rather than South Asian Tablighis to recruit in Western countries and often sets up groups which apparently model themselves after Tablighi Jamaat but do not acknowledge links to it.
In the United States, such a role is apparently played by the Islamic Circle of North America [ICNA]. Founded in 1968 as an offshoot of the fiercely Islamist Muslim Student Association, ICNA is the only major American Muslim organization that has paid open homage to Tablighi founder Ilyas. The monthly ICNA publication, The Message, has praised Ilyas as one of the four greatest Islamic leaders of the last 100 years. While the relationship between ICNA and Tablighi Jamaat is not clear, the two organizations share a number of similarities. They both embrace the extreme Deobandi and Wahhabi interpretations of Islam. ICNA demonstrates disdain for Western democratic values and opposes virtually all counterterrorism legislation, such as the Patriot Act, while providing moral and financial support to all Muslims implicated in terrorist activities. An editorial in the ICNA organ, The Message International, in September 1989 bemoaned the “uncounted number of Muslims lost to Western values” which was a “major cause for concern.” In 2003 and 2004, ICNA has collected money to assist detainees suspected of terrorist activities, participated in pro-terrorist rallies, and mounted campaigns on behalf of indicted Hamas functionary Sami al-Arian. Like Tablighi Jamaat, ICNA initially drew its membership disproportionately from South Asians. As with Tablighi Jamaat, ICNA demands total dedication to missionary work from its members. Because many ICNA members spend at least thirty hours per week on their mission, their ability to independently support themselves is unclear. Many cannot hold full-time jobs. ICNA’s recruitment efforts have borne fruit, though. All ICNA members are organized in small study groups of no more than eight people, called NeighborNets. As in a cult, these cells provide support and reinforcement for new recruits, who may have sought to fill a void in their lives. Its yearly convocations, patterned on the annual Tablighi Jamaat meetings in South Asia, now attract some 15,000 people.
The estimated 15,000 Tablighi missionaries reportedly active in the United States present a serious national security problem. At best, they and their proxy groups form a powerful proselytizing movement that preaches extremism and disdain for religious tolerance, democracy, and separation of church and state. At worst, they represent an Islamist fifth column that aids and abets terrorism. Contrary to their benign treatment by scholars and academics, Tablighi Jamaat has more to do with political sedition than with religion.
U.S. officials should focus on reality rather than rhetoric. Pakistani and Saudi support for Tablighi Jamaat is incompatible with their claims to be key allies in the war on terror. While law enforcement focuses attention on Osama bin Laden, the war on terrorism cannot be won unless al-Qaeda terrorists are understood to be the products of Islamist ideology preached by groups like Tablighi Jamaat. If the West chooses to turn a blind eye to the problem, Tablighi involvement in future terrorist activities at home and abroad is not a matter of conjecture; it is a certainty.
Tablighi Jamaat’s Role in the Global Jihadism
However, there are indeed some links between Tablighis and the world of jihadism. First, there is evidence of indirect connections between the group and the wider radical/extremist Deobandi nexus composed of anti-Shiite sectarian groups, Kashmiri militants and the Taliban. This link provides a medium through which Tablighis who are disgruntled with the group´s apolitical program could break orbit and join militant organizations.
One apparent manifestation of this nexus was a purported militant offshoot of TJ, Jihad bi al-Saif [Jihad through the Sword], which was established in Taxila, Pakistan. Members of this group were accused of plotting a coup against former Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto in 1995. Yet, because of the organization´s extreme secrecy, little is known about it other than that it is believed to have developed in reaction to the TJ´s apolitical, peaceful stance.
The TJ organization also serves as a de facto conduit for Islamist extremists and for groups such as al Qaeda to recruit new members. Significantly, the Tablighi recruits do intersect with the world of radical Islamism when they travel to Pakistan to receive their initial training. We have received reports that once the recruits are in Pakistan, representatives of various radical Islamist groups, such as Harkat-ul-Mujahideen, the Taliban and al Qaeda, are said to woo them actively — to the point of offering them military training. And some of them accept the offer. For example, John Walker Lindh — an American who is serving a prison sentence for aiding the Taliban in Afghanistan — traveled with Tablighi preachers to Pakistan in 1998 to further his Islamic studies before joining the Taliban.
Because of the piety and strict belief system of the Tablighis and their focus on calling wayward Muslims back to an austere and orthodox Muslim faith, the movement has offered a place where jihadist spotters can look for potential recruits. These facilitators often offer enthusiastic new or rededicated Muslims a more active way to live and develop their faith. Although the TJ promotes a benign message, the same conservative Islamic values espoused by the Tablighis also are part of jihadist ideology, and so some Muslims attracted to the Tablighi movement are enticed into becoming involved with jihadists.
Additionally, because of its apolitical belief system, TJ seems to leave a gap in the ideological indoctrination of the individual Tablighi because it essentially asks the novice to shun politics and public affairs. The problem in taking this belief system from theory to practice, however, is that some people find they cannot ignore what is happening in the world around them, especially when that world includes wars. This is when some Tablighis become disillusioned with TJ and start turning to jihadist groups that offer religiously sanctioned prescriptions as to how “good Muslims” should deal with life´s injustices.
Once a facilitator identifies such candidates, he often will segregate them from the main congregation in the mosque or community center and put them into small prayer circles or study groups where they can be more easily exposed to jihadist ideology. [Of course, it also has been shown that a person with friends or relatives who ascribe to radical ideology can more easily be radical].
Examples of people making the jump from TJ to radical Islam are the two leading members of the cell responsible for the July 7, 2005, London bombings — Mohammed Siddique Khan and Shahzad Tanweer. Both had life-changing experiences through their exposure to TJ, though by 2001 the men had left the Tablighi mosque they had been attending in the British city of Beeston, because they found it to be too apolitical. They apparently were frustrated by the mosque’s elders, who forbid the discussion of politics in the mosque.
After Khan and Tanweer left the Tablighi mosque, they began attending the smaller Iqra Learning Center bookstore in Beeston, where they reportedly were exposed to frequent political discussions about places such as Iraq, Kashmir and Chechnya. The store’s proprietors reportedly even produced jihad videos depicting crimes by the West against the Muslim world. Exposed to this environment, the two men eventually became radicalized to the point of traveling to Pakistan to attend a terrorist training camp and then returning to the United Kingdom to plan and execute a suicide attack that resulted in the death of them both.
TJ also is used by jihadists as cover both for recruiting activities, as discussed above, and for travel. Like Khan and Tanweer, many jihadists desire to travel to Pakistan for training, while others want to get to Afghanistan, Kashmir or other places to fight jihad. However, the travel environment is far different today than it was in the early 1980s, when 747 jetliners packed with jihadists from Saudi Arabia and other places flew into Pakistan en route to fight the Soviets in Afghanistan.
Foreigners traveling to Pakistan today cannot enter the country without a visa, and Pakistani authorities are no longer inclined to issue visas to jihadists, as Jeffrey Battle and the other members of the Portland Seven had to learn the hard way. Shortly after the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, the friends traveled to China with the intention of entering Afghanistan by way of Pakistan. Once at the Chinese-Pakistani border, however, they found they could not enter Pakistan without a visa. After spending a frustrating month trying to obtain visas from the Pakistani Embassy in Beijing, the seven aspiring jihadists decided to go their separate ways.
Battle, who reportedly once served as a bodyguard for Black Panther leader Quanell X, later attempted to obtain a visa to Pakistan by saying he was affiliated with TJ. The Pakistanis, probably recognizing him from his prior [and apparently somewhat vocal] visa attempts, denied him again, though he was able to get a visa to travel to Bangladesh using the feigned connection to TJ. Unable to make his way from Bangladesh to Pakistan or Afghanistan, however, Battle returned to the United States, where he was later arrested. He was sentenced to 18 years in prison after pleading guilty to charges of seditious conspiracy and waging war against the United States.
Similarly, in the spring of 2001 the members of the so-called Lackawanna Six cell traveled to Pakistan under the pretext of studying the Islamic religion and culture at the TJ training center. In reality, the men traveled through Pakistan to Afghanistan, where they attended training at the al-Farooq camp, a training site being run by al Qaeda. Again, the men used TJ as cover for travel, though there is no indication that TJ played any real part in their alleged plot.
Although the TJ organization unintentionally serves as a front for, or conduit to, militant organizations such as al Qaeda, there is no evidence that the Tablighis act willingly as a global unified jihadist recruiting arm. Rather, such activities appear to occur without the knowledge or consent of TJ leaders. Additionally, because of the very size of the organization and it activities in Muslim communities in the West, a great many Muslims have had some sort of contact with the group. TJ itself, however, is not an intentional propagator of terrorism.
Investigation on Terror Connection of Tabligh Jamaat in Pakistan
Prominent amongst the Wahabi-Deobandi organisations active in the CARs, Chechnya and Dagestan are the Harkat-ul-Mujahideen [HUM–formerly known as the Harkat-ul-Ansar], the Markaz Dawa Al Irshad and its militant wing, the Lashkar-e-Toiba.A detailed paper on the HUM was disseminated on March 20,1999,and on the Markaz and its Lashkar on July 26,1998.
This paper deals with the Tablighi Jamaat [TJ], which is the mother of all the Pakistan-based jehadi organisations active not only in the CARs, Chechnya and Dagestan, but also in other parts of the world.
In an investigative report carried by the “News” [February 13, 1995], Mr. Kamran Khan, the well-known Pakistani journalist, brought to light for the first time the nexus between the TJ and the HUM and their role in supporting Islamic extremist movements in different countries.
He quoted unidentified office-bearers of the HUM as saying as follows: “Ours is basically a Sunni organisation close to the Deobandi school of thought. Our people are mostly impressed by the TJ. Most of our workers do come from the TJ. We regularly go to its annual meeting at Raiwind. Ours is a truly international network of genuine jihadist Muslims. We believe frontiers can never divide Muslims. They are one nation. They will remain a single entity.
“We try to go wherever our Muslim brothers are terrorised, without any monetary consideration. Our colleagues went and fought against oppressors in Bosnia, Chechnya, Tajikistan, Burma, the Philippines and, of course, India.
“Although Pakistani members are not participating directly in anti-Government armed resistance in Egypt, Algeria, Tunisia and Jordan, many of the fighters in those Arab States had remained our colleagues during the Afghan war and we know one another very well. We are doing whatever we can to help them install Islamic governments in those States.”
The report also quoted the office-bearers as claiming that among foreign volunteers trained by them in their training camps in Pakistan and Afghanistan were 16 African-American Muslims from various cities of the US and that funds for their activities mostly came from Muslim businessmen of Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the UK.
The February 1998, issue of the “Newsline”, a monthly of Pakistan, quoted workers of the TJ as saying that the TJ had many offices in the US, Russia, the Central Asian Republics, South Africa, Australia and France and that many members of the Chechen Cabinet, including the Deputy Prime Minister of Chechnya, were workers of the TJ and participated in its proselytising activities. . One of them, merely identified as Khalil, said: ” It is possible that France may become a Muslim state within my lifetime, due to the great momentum of Tablighi activity there. ”
According to the “Newsline”, the TJ was started in the 1880s to revive and spread Islam. Its annual convention held at Raiwind in Pakistani Punjab in November every year is attended by over one million Muslims from all over the world. This is described by the “Newsline” as the second largest gathering of the Muslims anywhere in the world after the Haj in Saudi Arabia.
Dr.Jassim Taqui, an Islamic scholar, wrote in the “Frontier Post” of Peshawar of January 15,1999, as follows:
The TJ has been able to establish contacts and centres throughout the Muslim world. [Comment: By “Muslim world” he does not only mean Islamic countries, but all countries where there is a sizable Muslim community].
It has thousands of dedicated and disciplined workers who never question any order from the high-ups. What has helped the TJ to expand [without creating alarm in the security agencies] is its policy of a deliberate black-out of its activities. It does not interact with the media and does not issue any statements or communiqués. It believes in human communication through word of mouth. [Comment: It does not bring out any journals or other propaganda organs to explain its policies and objectives. All explanations to its workers and potential recruits are given orally].
During its training classes, it claims to have frustrated the efforts of the US Central Intelligence Agency [CIA] to penetrate it and succeeded in converting the CIA agents to Islam.
The TJ claims that it never accepts money from anybody and that all its workers who volunteer to go on preaching mission have to spend their own money.
Even though the TJ claims to be apolitical and disinterested in political or administrative influence, many of its active members have come to occupy important positions. Examples are Lt. Gen. [Retired] Javed Nasir, who was the DG of the ISI during Nawaz Sharif’s first tenure as the Prime Minister, and Mohammad Rafique Tarar, the President of Pakistan, who has been an active worker of the TJ for many years.
“Those who are close to the inner circles believe that the Tablighis were the brain who bailed out Nawaz Sharif from the constitutional crisis. Tarar is believed to be the brain behind the Shariah Bill [which could not be passed by the Senate] and the concept of speedy justice through military courts [the military courts were declared unconstitutional by the Pakistan Supreme Court]. However, the contacts of the Tablighis had always been with Mohammad Sharif [father of former Pakistani Prime Minister Mian Nawaz Sharif] and not with the son. Mr. Nawaz is well aware of the “tariquah” [the path advocated by the TJ]. He has been with the Tabligh for a fairly long time. He takes part in their meetings on a regular basis. He donates money to their welfare projects. As usual, the Tablighis never publicise the donors or the projects or the beneficiaries. All are committed to remain silent.”
Writing in the “Frontier Post” of January 27, 1999, Dr. Mumtaz Ahmed, another Islamic scholar, said: “Despite its enormous significance as a mass-based religious movement that has influenced Asian, African, Arab and Western Muslims alike, the Tablighi Jamaat has received scant attention in the literature on modern Islam. Maulana Ilyas, the founder of the Tablighi Jamaat, was of the view that the Tablighi movement and politically-oriented Islamic groups, although operating in two different spheres, were complementing each other’s work. Hence, there should be no competition and rivalry between them.”
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