Tablighi Jamaat: Jihad’s Stealthy Legions
by Alex Alexiev
Middle East Quarterly
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
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.
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 jihadi 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.
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.
Alex Alexiev is vice president for research at the Center for Security Policy in Washington, D.C.
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