On Tabligh Jamaat

Posted in society by jrahman on August 31, 2006

The Guardian ran a front page artilce 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’, led to this reaction by my brother:

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 CIA, Robert Litell said some of the Afghan Mujahedin the CIA was paying to fight against the Soviets may have been 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 have changed, but back in the seventies, Tablighis were a lot harmless.  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.

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 South Asia, Jamaat-e-Islami has traditionally rejected the Deoband School that inspired Tabligh Jamaat. Tablighis in turn have 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, their brethren 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.

(Originally posted in A-A-A).

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5 Responses

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  1. Fariha said, on June 19, 2008 at 12:32 am

    “Their organisational structure has been modelled on the Leninist party structure.”

    Thank you for your affirmation. I was looking for someone no only believes this but can aslo substantiate it.

    Do you think that like commies,these guys would rather penetrate our institutions and spread their realm of power? In Peshawar, we were warned not to disparage the term ‘taliban’ because in NWFP, the sentiments are inclined towards the other end of the border.

    Do you think that JI in BD is also following a leninist structure of indoctrination as opposed to winning the popularity contest with showy stunts?

  2. jrahman said, on June 20, 2008 at 11:01 am

    Fariha, Jamaat-e-Islami is Leninist party in the following sense.

    Revolution: an Islamic state cannot be achieved without a revolution. The revolution need not be violent (see below), but an Islamic state cannot be achieved through western style democracy.

    Vanguard of revolution: the revolution cannot be achieved without a vanguard party (Jamaat), because the ordinary people, while being religious, lack the appropriate consciousness. This means that the party has to be cadre-based – only trained cadres can have the appropriate consciousness.

    Democratic centralism: all party decisions are taken through consultation and participation of members (hence, democratic), and once a decision is takens, members strictly adhere to the party line without dissent (centralism).

    And it’s not only Jamaat. Muslim Brotherhood and its off shoots also have similar structure. The literature on this is quite extensive.

    In terms of how Jamaat seeks to achieve power, its own literature (available to anyone who asks nicely and with sincerity) suggests the following.

    – It cannot win power through guerilla war or other similarly violent means. This was tried in 1971 and didn’t work. Political geography of being surrounded by India means that it has no sanctuary or foreign supplier.
    – India will try to quash an Islamic revolution in Bangladesh. To prevent this, border cities need to be fortified. This is why Shibir is so much stronger in Chittagong or Rajshahi than say Jahangirnagar.
    – It cannot win a majority vote in a democratic election because of its role in 1971. (How the party moves ‘beyond 1971’ is a major unresolved issue in the party and its literature is quite interesting on this).
    – The party seek to become a ‘king maker’ so that it can infiltrate key sectors. In 1996, the idea was to go alone and emerge as the 3rd party, but this didn’t work. Joining BNP in 4-party alliance, however, did.
    – The key sectors are, financial, health, relief, civil administration, education, and of course army. As of 2005, it made ‘satisfactory progress’ in the first two sectors – most private hospitals and clinics in the country have Jamaat connections, and there is a large ‘Islamic finance’ industry that operated outside the remit of the Bangladesh Bank until recently. But it claimed that the army was much harder to infiltrate.
    – Obviously when enough sectors have been infiltrated, at an appropriate time and circumstance, the revolution will take place.

  3. Fariha said, on June 21, 2008 at 2:50 pm

    and would be the nature of the revolution? ala taliban in Afghanistan or Ayatollah in Iran? Are they going to call existing systems of social organizations dysfunctional and just take over? Will their infiltration of key sectors help them get the popular support by then?

  4. jrahman said, on June 22, 2008 at 8:13 am

    Neither. Taleban emerged from the specific circumstances of the Afghan wars – see Ahmed Rashid’s book (Taleban) for detail. The Ayatollahs are an integral part of Shia Islam, whereas Jamaat (and most Bengali Muslims) are Hanafi Sunnis.

    Jamaat’s ideology is based on Maududi’s interpretation of Islam. It is also influenced by political lessons from the Muslim Brotherhood and its offshoots. As for whether their inflitration will give them popular support, I don’t think they particularly care. Did Lenin care about popular support? Being in the vanguard allows you to ignore things like popular support – people don’t know the truth, they are ignorant, it’s the revolutionaries’ duty to be cruel to be kind, blah blah blah ….

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