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Have jihadis infiltrated Pakistan's party of preachers?

August 12, 2011 12:12 IST

The Tableeghi Jamaat is in the Pakistani media spotlight following Interior Minister Rehman Malik's statement on July 29, describing TJ's missionary centre in Lahore as the breeding ground of extremism and terrorism.

Amir Mir reports from Pakistan.

The Pakistan chapter of the Tableeghi Jamaat or the Party of Preachers, which declares it is an innocent group of practicing Muslims preaching Islam, and which claims to have never indulged in any militant or political activities as a matter of principle, seems to have been infiltrated by jihadi elements.

The Tableeghi Jamaat is once again in the Pakistani media spotlight following Interior Minister Rehman Malik's statement on July 29, describing TJ's missionary centre in the Raiwind area of Lahore, the capital of Pakistan's Punjab province, as the breeding ground of extremism and terrorism.

However, in the wake of widespread condemnation by the country's religious and political leaders, Malik had to eat his words the very next day by stating he had deep respect for the Raiwind Tableeghi centre.

He was harshly criticised by both factions of the right-wing Pakistan Muslim League led by two former prime ministers, Nawaz Sharif and Chaudhry Shujaat Hussain, followed by the decision of the National Assembly's parliamentary committee on national security to summon him to explain his words.

The Jamaat leadership claims it is a non-militant Islamic missionary movement which was founded in British India as a response to Christian evangelists working among poor and poorly-educated Muslims. The group primarily came into existence to spread the message of the Holy Quran with two main objectives: To ensure that Muslims strengthen their faith and to carry out humanitarian work.

Reputed to be the richest religious organisation in Pakistan, it was founded in British India in the late 1920s by a Deobandi cleric Maulana Muhammad Ilyas Kandhalawi (1885 to 1944) in the Mewat province of India. 'Tableegh' in Arabic means 'to deliver (the message)' and the Tableeghi Jamaat (or the proselytising group) pledged to deliver the message -- as a primary responsibility of Muslims.

The Jamaat grew out of the Deobandi School of Islamic thought which emerged under the British rule in the Delhi region of northern India. In pre-colonial India, Islamic scholars learned informally, by travelling with their teachers. But in the 19th century, inspired by European educational practices, Muslim clerics in India established deeni madrassas or religious seminaries with sequential curriculum, organised classes and paid faculty.

The Deobandi Muslims actually emerged from the madrassas. The Deobandis considered themselves reformists, proscribing adherence to a pristine text (Holy Quran) as a solution to worldly powerlessness.

They opposed various contemporary Islamic practices, including excessive rituals at tombs, elaborate lifestyle celebrations and Shia-influenced practices. Following British repression of Muslims during the Mutiny of 1857, the Deobandi leadership adopted an avowedly apolitical stance. But as the Indian nationalist movement gained momentum after World War I, the movement grew politically, supporting the Indian National Congress against the British.

Founder Kandhalawi intended the group to be an antidote to Hindu conversion efforts that actually targeted Muslim peasants. Tableeghi Jamaat members took the dissemination of Islamic teachings out of the religious schools, de-emphasising the importance of clerics and encouraging ordinary Muslims to carry out proselytising missions.

The Jamaat members also clung to the original Deobandi rejection of any explicit political programme and to remain apolitical.

After Kandhalawi died in 1944, his elder son, Maulana Muhammad Yusuf (1917 to 1995) took over TJ and expanded its reach. The movement grew after the Partition of India, regaining importance during the 11-year military rule of General Zia-ul Haq, who had ambitions of making Pakistan an Islamic state as prescribed by Shariah (Islamic Laws).

This encouraged Maulana Yusuf and his successor Maulana Inamul Hassan who began targeting non-Muslims as well. This coincided with the establishment of a synergistic relationship between Saudi Wahabis and South Asian Deobandis, which eventually led to the Saudi financing of TJ.

The Tableeghis are trained missionaries who have dedicated much of their lives to spread Islam across the globe. They are part of the reason for the explosive growth of Islamic religious fervour and conversion. The TJ movement has over one million members worldwide and its headquarters for South Asia are located in New Delhi, India.

The Jamaat has several national headquarters from where they coordinate the activities in over 100 countries. Despite its huge size, TJ remains largely unknown outside the Muslim community, even to many scholars of Islam.

This is no coincidence. The Jamaat officials avoid media and government notice. They usually limit their preaching and missionary activities to within the Muslim community -- its main aim is to bring spiritual awakening to the Muslims of the world.

Though the Tableeghi Jamaat presses its non-sectarian character, it is a fact that it propagates the Deobandi version of Islam.

The Jamaat's lack of a formal structure makes its growth hard to quantify. But in recent years, millions of adherents have congregated annually at the three-day TJ congregations in Raiwind, believed to be the second largest gathering of Muslims after Haj in Saudi Arabia.

Since Pakistani law treats the Tableeghi Jamaat as a humanitarian group and not as a religio-political party, there is no ban on government servants, members of the armed forces and the nuclear and missile scientific community joining the party as members.

As a result, many Pakistani government servants, military officers and scientists devote a part of their annual leave to voluntary work for the Tableeghi Jamaat.

Of late, however, concerns have been raised by Western intelligence agencies about how the Islamic missionary organisation has been infiltrated by jihadi elements which might be using the apparently non-violent TJ platform as a cover to promote their violent jihadi agenda across the globe.

The Western intelligence community has also expressed concern about TJ's direct or indirect linkage with terrorists groups, primarily because of the Jamaat's loose organisational structure which makes it quite easy for terror groups to penetrate for recruiting new members and hiding from the law enforcement agencies.

Evidence pertaining to the Jamaat's terror links has been found in the United States, the United Kingdom, the Philippines, Indonesia, Yemen and Morocco when members of several terrorist organisations travelled for operational and training purposes under the cover of the Jamaat.

Serious suspicions about the Tableeghi Jamaat were first raised when two 'American Taliban' John Walker Lindh and Omer Padilla came to limelight. They were reportedly affiliated with TJ.

According to the Centre for Policing Terrorism, a US research organisation, people associated with TJ in the United States are estimated to be around 50,000.

TJ's influence has exponentially grown in France as well which reportedly has more than 100,000 followers.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the movement made inroads into Central Asia. Till 2007, it was estimated that 10,000 TJ members were in Kyrgyzstan alone.

Tableeghi presence has already been reported by the international media in 600 of Britain's 1,350 mosques.

Following the July 2005 London suicide bombings, international media reported that Shehzad Tanweer, one of the human bombs -- a British national of Pakistani origin, used to attend Tableeghi Jamaat meetings at a number of London mosques.

Two months before the London terror attacks, a research report prepared by Daniel Friedman of the Centre for Policing Terrorism, noted: While the Tableeghi Jamaat is non-violent, the zealotry of its recruits has proven easy for violent groups to manipulate.

The report titled Tableeghi Jamaat Dossier and published in May 2005, stated: 'The TJ stresses traditional Islamic practices linked to worship, dress and behaviour as a path to personal improvement. Thus, it easily attracts troubled, vulnerable young men and instills them with extreme religious conviction. While the Jamaat claims to be non-violent, the zealotry of its recruits might be proving easy for violent jihadi groups to manipulate. Its missionary work, moreover, demands the TJ members to travel throughout the world, including Pakistan and Western countries. Thus, there is every chance of some militant groups using it as a cover to travel.'

The research report further stated: 'The Tableeghi Jamaat assembles radical recruits and deposits them in places where they can be gathered by terrorist groups. Some of these recruits have taken part in Afghan jihad; others have returned to the US with violent intentions.'

'The Tableeghi Jamaat does not just aid terrorists by preparing recruits ideologically. Terrorist organisations and their members can't move at will in Western countries, particularly since 9/11. They are, to a degree, stuck in place.'

'By physically assembling groups of radicalised Muslim men and depositing them in Pakistan, the Jamaat performs a valuable logistical service for jihadi groups, facilitating these groups' recruiting process.'

'The defeat of the Taliban and destruction of Al Qaeda training camps in Afghanistan, have also eliminated a major source of terrorist training, but with TJ still sending recruits to Pakistan, where violent groups await to recruit them, they remain likely to create ripe, susceptible young men for terrorist jihadi organisations.'

'Western intelligence agencies even believe that the TJ has radicalised to the point where it has emerged as a driving force of Islamic extremism and a major recruiting agency for the jihadi causes worldwide.'

'Many terrorists seem to view the Tableeghi Jamaat's lack of transparency, peaceful reputation, and international network as an ideal vehicle for moving innocuously around the world. For example, Lyman Faris and members of the 'Lackawana Six' (a group of alleged terrorists, raised in a Yemeni community outside Buffalo, New York) pretended to be TJ members in order to facilitate trips to meet with terrorists.'

'Indeed, Islamic terrorists have infiltrated the group. Without an effort by the TJ leadership to stop them, it is probable that terrorist groups will continue to exploit TJ in one way or the other,' the report added.

The research report noted that in 1995, Tableeghi Jamaat members were accused of plotting a coup against the relatively secular Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto. 'Whether members of the Taxila group represent a sub-section or a breakaway faction of Tableeghi Jamaat is disputable. But in either case, they demonstrate the potential of the Jamaat members to embrace overtly political or violent means. The coup plot against Bhutto was supported by members of Harkatul Mujahideen, a Pakistani militant group whose founding members are former members of Tableeghi Jamaat.'

In her posthumous book, Reconciliation: Islam, Democracy, and the West, which Bhutto had penned down just days before being killed, she had named a founding member of Harkatul Mujahideen, Qari Saifullah Akhtar, as a key suspect in the October 18, 2007 attempt to kill her in Karachi where her home coming rally was targeted by two suicide bombers, killing 170 PPP supporters.

Saifullah, now the amir of the Pakistan chapter of the Harkatul Jehadul Islami, had been arrested by Pakistan's military intelligence way back in 1995 and charged with plotting a coup attempt against Bhutto's second term in power with the help of several senior Pakistan army officers affiliated with the Tableeghi Jamaat.

However, in an unprecedented move on April 29, 2009, the top Tableeghi Jamaat leaders, groaning under suspicions being expressed by Western intelligence agencies about the possible involvement of TJ in terror activities, denounced the enforcement of Shariah at gunpoint, religious extremism, militancy and terrorism.

Leaders of the Jamaat, who scrupulously avoid speaking on controversial issues, also called for promoting inter-faith harmony, tolerance, human rights, social justice and peace.

Speaking at the concluding session of a three-day annual congregation in Islamabad, Haji Abdul Wahab, the amir of TJ's Pakistan chapter, said: 'Shariah cannot be enforced at gunpoint. Had that been the case, Allah Almighty would have sent fierce angels to protect prophets and enforce their faiths.'

The 90-year-old scholar, who left his job as a sessions judge in pre-Partition India and joined the TJ, then cited the example of Prophet Mohammad, saying, 'The Prophet never used force. Instead he spread the word of God only by peaceful means.'

Amir Mir in Islamabad