Amidst the national lockdown by the Central Government in the country’s fight against the ravaging Corona pandemic, the explosive Nizamuddin Markaz episode has turned the spotlight on a transnational Islamic group, Tablighi Jamaat. It emerged in the late 1920s in northern India, and it represents a revivalist puritanical movement in the Muslim world the underlying ideology of which largely draws on Islamic fundamentalism.
At the core of this ideology lies the belief that intrusion of Western materialism together with modern nationalism and cultural syncretism have led to a steady regression and decline of Muslims.
‘Return to Islam’, meaning re-Islamisation of the society, is the fundamentalist answer to the Muslim backslider. While the ultra-zealot puritans strive to accomplish Islamisation from above either through violent means or capture of state power, the so-called reformists like the Tablighi Jamaat concentrates on individual believers towards a progressive Islamisation from below.
The two distinct processes are not mutually contradictory; both have constantly co-existed. In other words, political activism and the process of moral transformation have complemented each other in facilitating the historic upsurge of radical Islamic fundamentalism in several Muslim majority countries, mostly in West Asia.
In the past few decades, it is the ideology of Islamic fundamentalism that has given the jihadi terror outfits a remarkable staying power by transforming the worldly struggles into scared battles and undermining theological defences against senseless acts of violence.
Given the fact that all Islamist factions pursue an identical goal regardless of their particular properties, the argument often put forward by apologists that nearly a century-old Tablighi Jamaat is a non-political religious movement because it relies on the peaceful method of preaching and reforming individuals seems theoretically untenable and empirically unsustainable.
For the differences over strategy or method do not guarantee that effects the movement manifests in the society would be less threatening or apolitical.
As Salwa Ismail, a School of Oriental and African Studies professor of Middle East politics has aptly put it, ‘their engagement in Islamisation is political; it is a central strategy of identity politics, which, like other forms of politics, is about claims and contestations.’ Thus, the strategy of Islmaisation from below that the Tablighi Jamaat has chosen entails as much risks in terms of radicalisation of the community it claims to represent and political mobilization by both nihilists as well as separatists on the basis of a frame of identity that it provides to the millions of its followers.
Indicative of this, a Pakistani scholar commenting on its achievements, writes, ‘The process of Islamization generated by the Tablighi movement thus became an important vehicle for the reassertion of Islamic orthodoxy.
This in turn strengthened the consciousness of a distinct Muslim identity, the basis for the two-nation theory and of Pakistan.’
No wonder, the movement saw an exponential growth in Pakistan in the decades following the Partition, with Raiwind near the city of Lahore emerging as a prominent Tablighi Centre attracting over a million followers from various parts of the world during its annual international congregation. What is more, its co-option into the Pakistani establishment in the wake of the state-sponsored Islamisation programme by the military dictator, General Zia-ul-Haq and the close association of high-ranking Pakistani officials and officers with the movement turned the Tablighi headquarters at Raiwind into a major centre for indoctrination and training of young Muslims to become holy warriors.
Majority of these Tablighi Jamaat products initially joined the Mujahideen resistance campaign in Afghanistan against Soviet occupation and later, made up the core constituent of the AlQaida-Taliban-led global Islamic Front for jihad. Topping them all, the Pakistani-based Tablighi faction had played an instrumental role in founding the dreaded terrorist outfit, Harakat ul-Mujahideen in 1980, which was involved in the December 1998 hijacking of the Air India passenger jet. In several European countries and the US, where the movement has established a strong presence since the 1970s, instances of involvement of individual Tablighis in acts of terrorism reveal the movement’s linkages to jihadi organizations such as Al-Qaida and Lashkar-i-Taiba.
It has provided cover, a conduit as well as a fertile recruiting ground for various Islamist terrorist outfits active since 2001, prompting counter-intelligence officials to describe Tablighi Jamaat as a nursery of global terrorism.
Likewise, Moroccan authorities have initiated persecution of members of a Tablighi offshoot in the country in connection with the May 2003 terrorist attack in Casablanca, whereas Saudi Arabia has reportedly banned the Tablighi activities in the Kingdom.
In Central Asia, Kazakhstan has recently expelled a number of Tablighi missionaries on the grounds of their extremist propaganda.
Organisationally, Tablighi Jamaat may not have morphed into a radical jihadi outfit but its programme of Islamisation centred on the most rigorous forms of Islam in the totality of its meaning acts as a magnet for those who believe in the theological imperatives of waging jihad to rid Muslim society from moral laxity and apostasy.
In other words, the method that the movement has adopted may be apolitical but the effect in the real world is unequivocally political.
What attracts scores of young Muslims from relatively marginal social strata to the movement is its bedrock fundamentalist theme of return to a pristine form of Islam. Reflective of this, the socalled peaceful Tablighi missionary movement exhorts its followers to discard all non-Islamic socio-cultural practices including syncretistic elements of Sufism, Western modernity and rituals before their conversion to Islam.
It is Islamic orthodoxy writ large, partly influenced by the Wahhabi legacy of literalist interpretation of Quran and in greater part, reformist zeal of the Deobandi seminary with which founder of the movement was formerly associated.
The popular Tablighi message, Ae Musalmano, Musalman bano (Oh, you Muslims, be good Muslims) may appear simple and benign but what underlay is an exclusivist interpretation of Islam, which rejects plurality of beliefs and practices both within the community (intra-religious) as well as among communities (inter-religious).
Despite its professed apolitical objectives, the Islamisation project of the Tablighi Jamaat is certain to create conditions conducive to the rise of religious extremism, posing an enduring challenge as much to the secular Indian state as the enlightened sections within the Muslim community.
Since their silence may be construed as approval of the Tablighi variant of Islamic orthodoxy, the onus lies with the latter to rise up to the occasion and reflect on ways to posit ‘Islamic pluralism’, which, based on contextual rather than textual approach, could become an effective counterpoise.
After all, pluralism does not refer to elimination of differences; it is an engagement with diversity based on respect for difference.
The writer is Chairperson, Centre for West Asian Studies (CWAS), School of International Studies, JNU, New Delhi.